(Before I jump into this post, just a quick reminder that my chapbook, Breach, is now available for pre-order! Clicky the linky for the details, if you missed my earlier post. Many, many thanks to those who've already ordered it, or plan to.)
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So, a few thoughts on last week's manuscript-wrangling retreat -- which was a huge learning experience, and overall a good one, and really I'm inclined to say it was more of an advance than a retreat, hehe.
I had taken along a big pile of books, my iPod, and some DVDs (the box set of "Planet Earth") -- anticipating that with entire days stretching before me, I'd have some significant downtime to fill (nobody can wrangle poems for 12 hours a day). I also kind of thought I'd catch up on email (there are a couple of listservs I haven't even looked at for weeks, sigh). Uh ... no. I did read 4 books of poetry and Ordering the Storm, and I watched a little bit of tennis, but I got behind on blog-reading and even MORE behind on email and I didn't touch "Planet Earth" even once. Apparently, a little reading and some poem-wrangling and some journal-writing and some tromping in the woods pretty much fills up the entire day without even blinking. I wasn't bored for a moment. I did find myself at loose ends the first evening, but remembered that is pretty normal for me when I'm away from home -- even in Provincetown, where I am happy and comfortable, it takes me the first few hours to settle in -- once I made allowances for that, I was fine. I have always suspected that if I ever won the lottery and found myself in a position to quit my job and just be a full-time writer I would be happy as a clam, and my retreat certainly did nothing to disabuse me of that notion. (Sigh.)
Ordering the Storm was moderately helpful. One of the essays in it suggested that the first two poems are what establish the contract with the reader, and so you want to use them to establish the pattern of the book -- but loosely, so that you leave yourself room to maneuver. (I'm totally paraphrasing here based on my understanding of the essay, and am too lazy to get up and find the book to quote from it.) In other words, you don't want both of your first two poems to be sonnets unless the whole book is sonnets, because that sets up an expectation which you will then fail to fulfill. You want to outline both the pattern and the range of the book, I guess you'd say, so you don't want the first couple of poems to be too alike, but you certainly want them to make sense together.
That made sense to me. But what was even more helpful was that I'm currently reading a rather good biography of Bruce Springsteen, which focuses on his music & songwriting more than on his personal life -- sort of a critical biography, I guess you'd call it. Just before my retreat I'd read the chapter about Born to Run, an album which is a masterpiece of structure & sequencing, and (as you know if you've seen the documentary Wings for Wheels) Bruce really agonized over putting it together -- what songs to include, what songs to leave out, what order to put them in, what story he was telling with the album. He's said that "Thunder Road," the first song, is meant to serve as an invitation to the listener, drawing you into the album. And when you think about it, "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," the second song, really does establish that "contract with the audience" that the Ordering the Storm essay talks about; it's the quintessential E Street Band song, defining the mythos and the sound and really setting forth what the music is all about. The whole album takes you on such a perfect journey that by the time you get done listening to "Jungleland" you feel like you've been somewhere and learned something. So I listened to Born to Run a couple of times during the week, and it really helped things click into place as I arranged the first section of the book. (I'm going to start calling it a book, not a manuscript. Easier to type and, hey, if I believe in it as a book then maybe it will become one someday.)
I also read the chapter about the making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, which is another freaking brilliant album. As I read this chapter I was realizing that I had way, way, WAY too many poems and was going to have to start being fairly ruthless about leaving stuff out, even published poems, even poems I like. And you know what, Bruce recorded so many songs for Darkness that he probably could have made a triple album ... but he didn't, he pared it down to one brilliant, mesmerizing piece of work. And I realized hey, if Bruce could leave "The Promise" off of Darkness, I can leave [poem I really like] out of [manuscript] and the world won't end. (And then when my book becomes a huge best-seller I can put out a Special Deluxe Edition with Special Deluxe Bonus Material, and put some of the stuff back in that I took out the first time around, and people will have to buy themselves a second copy of the book just so they can get the Special Deluxe Bonus Material. Right? Because that happens to poets, right? *grin*)
I also listened to Tunnel of Love, which (if you can get past the Totally 80's Production Values) is, in my opinion, another structurally brilliant and strongly focused album. So, listening those 3 albums actually helped a whole lot -- more, in some ways, than reading over books of poetry whose structure I really like. Thanks, Bruce! ;)
Then I read through all the poems that I'd brought (a huge stack of the things -- well, I have poems I still believe in that date back to my late twenties, and I'm 47 now, so that's basically 20 years worth of poetry to sift through) and made notes on them about season, time, and location. I thought those might be good organizing principles to start with, as many of my poems rely heavily on seasonal imagery, and I have a lot of poems that are set specifically in Indiana or Provincetown or Maui, and a lot of my poems could be classified as "day poems" or "evening poems" or "night poems." I ended up not really using that information, but it helped me get a little distance from them as I read them, so it was a good way to start. I also started jotting down some notes about recurrent themes, images, and words. That part did end up being helpful.
Then I started pulling out the poems that felt like they belonged in the first section. I'd had a first section and a last section loosely in my mind for quite a while, but amusingly enough, what I'd been envisioning as the last section kind of turned out to be the first one, and vice-versa. As I sifted and sorted and pulled different poems up to the top, I kept asking myself, Which one is my "Thunder Road"? And I kept hearing that piano intro in my head, the invitation of it. And you know what, that did the trick.
It took me the first three days to get the poems sorted out into sections, and although I'd originally envisioned three or at most four sections, it turned out to be five. I've tried forcing them into fewer, but it really seems to want to be five right now. Hmph.
Once I had the sections laid out, I went through and got even more ruthless and took out quite a few poems, and tinkered with the order a little bit. There were several poems I felt kind of sad about taking out, like I was rejecting them. But here's the nice thing about blogging: if they don't fit in this book, and they don't fit in the next one (I think a few of them are my first steps into the next one), and they don't get picked up by journals (or maybe even if they do), I can always post them here on the blog. So I don't have to feel like oh, poor little poems, never to see the light of day. Heck, the truth is that even though this blog doesn't have an enormous readership as blogs go, a poem posted here will probably get read by as many people as a poem published in a dinky little print journal. Realizing that made it a little easier to do the necessary weeding & pruning.
Finally, on the last night, I printed out a clean copy of the whole thing, with section dividers and a table of contents and everything (and I even typed up an acknowledgements page, because that's just fun to do). And I put it all in a magical springback binder, and I read through it, and reading the poems one after another & hearing the ways in which they echoed one another was really, really cool. All of a sudden it felt like a whole thing, not just a pile of poems. It's a thing that I will probably keep tinkering with and working on, even while I start sending it out. It's not a perfect thing. But it is, I think, a thing that is ready to go out into the world a bit.
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Today I was thinking about my five sections (it's a longish manuscript, about 78 pages in its present incarnation, but even so, five sections seems like kind of a lot). I read through the manuscript on my lunch break today, and made some notes towards possible changes. There's an arc to the whole thing, for sure; the sections are in the order they're in for a reason. But each section also has its own character and could probably stand on its own as a chapbook. There's such a trend towards books that are very unified, very monothematic -- and this is not one of those. But thinking about it, I realized that what I have is kind of like a collection of linked short stories rather than like a novel. And when I thought of it that way, it made sense and it seemed okay.
So now I just have to get the thing sent out (and because there's a line item in the grant for submission fees, I have to send it out to a number of places before June 30th -- no pressure, huh). That will be this weekend's task.
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A few other retreat thoughts: Staying in a state park was actually a really, really, really good idea. I had a lot of solitude, but there were people nearby in case I needed them, and that felt kind of good too. I only had one real conversation all week: with a naturalist at the nature center in the park (who was very interested to hear that I was working on a book, and who said he'd really love to see more arts-related activities happening in the state park system). When my head got too full of words, I went out for a run or a walk in the woods, and that was perfect. I saw some cool wildlife: turkey vultures, immature red-tailed hawks, pileated woodpeckers, cardinals, crows, a Baltimore oriole, robins, and other birds; a GINORMOUS wild turkey (I know that should go in the bird part of the list, but it was so huge it almost wasn't like a bird at all); several deer; a couple of marauding raccoons swiping birdseed outside the nature center; a couple of box turtles; a small pond that had about a gatrillion tadpoles in it; and lots of squirrels and rabbits, including a bitty little baby bunny that was just redonkulously cute.
I could have gone into town (Madison, Indiana) if I'd felt the need, but staying within the confines of the park worked really well for me. There was one gift shop and one restaurant at the inn, and I was grateful for the gift shop because they sold mosquito-bite remedy (oh yeah, I should have included mosquitoes in the wildlife list), and I ate at the restaurant a couple of times but mostly I prepared my own meals with the mini-fridge and microwave and coffee maker in my room. If I'd been in a town, I would have been distracted by shops and restaurants and people. As it was, I had solitude without isolation, and I had relief from pounding on the poems without having excessive distraction, so it was perfect.
And all the while I knew that I would have to blog about the whole thing, because I put that in as part of my grant. One of the requirements is that there has to be some "public benefit" from your project, and while it seems a little hubristic to imagine that lots of people will benefit from these thoughts about my manuscript-wrangling experience, there are lots of poets struggling to put together their first books and there is not a whole heck of a lot out there that's been written about the process ... so maybe, in some small way, this really will help someone. I do know that paying attention to my process and knowing that I would have to be accountable for it in some way was helpful for me. I had to approach it with a certain level of mindfulness, and not just throw poems together in an instinctive way but try to articulate to myself what it was I was doing & why, and that has been a good exercise for me.
We'll see what, ultimately, comes of this. But it's been worthwhile, to say the least. Well worthwhile.