Okay, so, today I’m cheating a bit. If you’re a student of mine out there in the world, and you’re reading this blog today, you will have heard much of what will follow. Or, possibly, you weren’t listening to me the day I talked about sequencing the manuscript, and what follows will be new and fresh to you.
In an earlier blog, I talked about the importance of reading full collections of poems, in sequence, cover to cover. Most people will tell you that it’s just good for you to read a lot of poetry; indeed, they’re right. As I said earlier this week, I would only add that it’s good to read with an annotating mind. Part of that annotating mind should pay attention to how the book of poems is sequenced, and you should ask why: Why does this poem open the collection? Why does this poem close the collection? Why does this poem open or close this section of the collection? Those poems usually tell us something about the arc—emotionally, psychologically, even structurally--of the book.
When most people read novels that have been recommended by friends, even if they’re 700-page tomes, the reader will take her time going from page 1 to page 700, in order. If I hand a collection of poems to a friend and say, Check out this great collection of poems!, they will invariably flip through the book, find a title that intrigues them, and they’ll begin reading—possibly on page 37 of a slim 50-page collection. Why is that?
Well, first of all, (not to answer my question), there’s nothing inherently wrong with this behavior. I just find it curious. I find it particularly curious when I’m talking to an MFA student working on her thesis and she reads a collection in this way and then tells me she’s having a hard time sequencing her own manuscript. Again, there’s no law against this, and no one will slap the back of your hand with a ruler for doing it. It’s just strange, particularly if the goal is to learn how to sequence a book. Most people don’t read poetry collections. I’m sorry to report this to you, dear American poet, but it’s true. Sadly, more people are watching reality TV than reading our books. As a result, unlike ballerinas or filmmakers or cellists or sculptors, most of our audience is made of practitioners of our craft. We may be the only artists who suffer this level of insularity. (If you can think of others, let me know. I think we should form an encounter group or something.)
Our narrative IQ’s are higher than our lyric IQ’s because we read and watch a lot of narrative arcs in our lives. It’s pretty hard to escape. Whether we’re watching good cable TV, taking in a good drama on stage, reading a page-turner of a novel, reading a brilliant comic book, or watching the NBA finals, we’re locked into a sequenced narrative. As a result, we get it in our muscle memory. We have to work to get the sequence of a collection of poems into our muscle memory, too.
The tough part is that there’s no one-way to sequence a book of poems. Period. Every book is a few books; it depends on the sequence of the same selection of poems. That is to say, if I take any published collection of poems and change the sequence, it will be a new book. Why? Changing the sequence changes the experience of reading the book. We sequence the poems, hoping to manage “the experience of the read” as much as we can.
Sequencing the Manuscript:
The first rule of assembling poems for a sequence or a manuscript is that there are no rules. When people ask me about this process, my answers are usually somewhere between Zen and flippant: If you know what the order is before you start writing, something is wrong.
In general, most people are simply looking for direction, a rudder of some sort, even a GPS. The bad news is that there is no direction or map for the process; the good news is also that there is no map with a single route. Instead, however, there are options.
The one element I hope for at the outset of making a manuscript is a thematic purpose. That is to say, what I long for the most is a goal to write toward. I want to know what I want to say to the world in these poems. This may sound like a lofty goal, but it’s also a pragmatic one. When I say goal, what I mean is an idea that I can explore and with which I can wrestle. Once I know what idea I’m writing toward, I can at least begin the journey; I just won’t know the route before hand.
The dynamic of equifinality takes over at this point: Having multiple routes to the same destination. So, at the beginning, I’ll know where I want to go, but I won’t know how I’ll get there. In a strange way, this offers me some comfort. I don’t feel as lost. At this point, I’ll attempt to articulate what I want to say in a succinct sentence or two. In film, this is called a logline: a brief description of the film (poetry collection) that also sums up what its goal is. A logline for the Best Picture Academy Award Winner The Hurt Locker might read as follows: A US bomb-squad soldier stationed in Iraq wrestles with his commitment to serve in the war and his acclimation back home to the family he loves. When we’re dealing with a film, it’s fairly safe to allow a logline to sum up the plot. If we’re talking about a collection of poems, this becomes a bit trickier; I’d even say that it’s not only not possible, but it’s also not a good approach. What we’re really trying to encapsulate is the feeling or sentiment we hope to achieve when the reader finishes the collection and turns the last page: What will the reader say she learned by the time she turns that final page? This is what I ask, at least, as I head to my destination. This could be something like: These elegies illuminate the struggle one experiences while trying to find balance after being derailed by a familial tragedy. One I wrote for myself a logline of sorts that was more specific for what became my second book, M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A: A woman’s life serves as an example of how fragile developmental years are in our lives, once she faces her first moment of racism at the age of 13. These “poetic loglines” are not set up to sell the book, per se, but they do provide an idea of what you might hope to achieve. Upon the journey, of course, this may change—which will usually be a good thing. I have yet to change a logline for something I’m writing to find that it was a mistake. Once I have a sense of the destination, I then set out to discover what route will organically emerge from the process. And I do believe this should be an organic process; I simply keep my eyes peeled for what appears to be the structure.
In my mind, I have a few structures—and many variations on these structures, I want to underscore, as well—for which I look. I keep an eye out to see what emerges from the chaotic storm in front of me simply to see which route offers the most satisfying end point. Keep in mind, there are always, at least, two to three books possible in every assemblage of poems. That is to say, once you come up with one structure--one route, if you will—there are always other routes to take. I, at this point, go back to my initial question: What do I want to leave the reader with? As I explore ways of answering this question, I look for certain patterns and variations of patterns:
1. Linear Route: The poems could have a fairly linear sequence of events, directional locations, sequential time elements (seasons, chronology, etc), or even a linear reversal that moves in reverse chronological order. I look for some linear thread that can be held with fidelity or shifted out of experimentation.
2. Collage/Montage: I use both terms because I think they both operate similarly, but they offer different experiences. In collage, the movement is more of a movement of oppositional action—finding foils of themes like life and death, for example—or oppositional shapes—like toggling between long-sequential poems to shorter aphoristic ones. This can also be a combination of both. You can move between themes and between sizes or styles, toward an accumulation of feeling. In Montage, the actions still maintain a linearity as the opposition of poems come together. In both cases, the energy of the collection is built upon the collision of themes and styles.
3. Mimetic: The structure of the collection could mimic in theme and style mapping, the gathering of news reports, an archive of historical documents, film, musical notation (jazz, hip hop, operatic, etc), dance choreography.
4. Epic: If you have the chops for it, you can try to write in one structure and tell a story in the verse. Walcott’s Omeros comes to mind, and, of course, so does The Odyssey and Paradise Lost, for that matter. I think of this as a book-length poem that tracks one figure on a journey that tells us a good deal about the psychology of the world in which she or he inhabits.
5. Combinations of the Above: many of these can be combined to create other organic, experimental structures. And, of course, there are others that can be discovered.
These are just options as approaches, but this doesn’t create a complete blueprint for how the poems will be placed. One can’t say that because the poems are moving like a montage, I know that this long poem will fall in the center of the book. This may ultimately happen, but it won’t be simply because you think the poems are emerging in some sort of montage; it will happen because this is the journey on which you choose to lead the reader toward the final moment in the collection. No matter what, this has to be the guiding principle.
Some Practical Advice:
That being said, we also have no control over what experience the reader will have with your book; we can only approximate it. Once we offer one image or one theme, we are at a point of stasis in the manuscript. That is, if you sequence eight poems together about how a father abused and molested a child, we will be anesthetized to this by the tenth poem or so. Unfair, yes, but true. But once you offer lighter moments in between, other examples, possibly, of how the child trusted the father, vied for acceptance from the father, how the father suffered from a chemical imbalance and didn’t realize what he was doing--the conflict of these two ideas creates a new tension, a new dynamic in the sequence. We’re constantly looking for these new dynamics to emerge. If you’re okay with that, you’re probably close to the answer of what the sequence should be. The reason the process becomes organic is because we’re often looking for ways in which we can disturb an emerging emotion or theme.
In film, this is achieved with the combination of sound, lighting, set design, composition of the shot, etc. There are so many ways to set up oppositions and create tension that the combinations become bottomless. Well, I believe we have as many options as a filmmaker; we simply don’t utilize them enough. We can play with the poems on a sonic level of meter and even rhyme, lineation, imagery and metaphor, composition of the field, form, etc.
Keep in mind that the sequence of poems has no right answer. For this reason, I’d suggest not asking more than two people for their opinion on what works. Really, you just need a reader, someone who will tell you what their experience was while reading the manuscript: When they didn’t understand something, when they didn’t like something, when they were intrigued, etc. I believe you should ask one smart person whom you trust, and see what he or she says. I don’t believe this person has to be a poet, either. In fact, it might even be better if they are not.