Sequences and Consequences
I'm fascinated by stories about books and how they come together. I wanted to share my own experience; maybe it might help other writers articulate their own process. My main goal at the beginning of a new book is to not be controlling, but to let individual poems emerge and then stack them for later review. I share them with a few friends to get feedback, revise, and return them to the stack.
Nine months into this process, I took out my notebook and looked for poems that were related by image or theme and arranged them into a sequence or set as if I were going to present them at a reading or performance. This chapbook size (chapbooks are about 20-30 pages) sequence is the building block of a full size manuscript (a poetry manuscript is about 60-100 pages in length).
There are some guides available about assembling a poetry manuscript. Ordering the Storm by Susan Grimm offers several essays from various writers about their methods. Of course, what works for one writer will not work for another. The best guide for the form of your book is careful examination of the poems inside -- you must listen to the work.
After developing a sequence of poems, I notice repeated words and images. Revising begins. I consider poems' relation to each other. I find a good opening poem. Like the first sentence or paragraph of any book, the opening should be interesting and have a hook. It introduces the reader to your themes or preoccupations. The last poem should be satisfying. In between, if it's a narrative, a rising and falling arc. The work needs an overall title.
While in this stage of the process, I maintain the daily writing practice. In addition to the journal, I start writing about the process of assembling the new manuscript. Writing is not merely a process of recording thoughts; it is a path of discovery. New things will occur to you while writing that would not occur otherwise.
In addition, I collect my current favorite poems and poets, fiction, nonfiction, visual art, music, and objects. If I find a book I love, I keep it. I read and reread it, examining how it is assembled: as if it were a garment, I consider the fabric, the cut, the seams, the finishing. I will do this with individual poems. I will read the poems aloud often and hand copy them in order to run them through my hand, in order to personally experience the words, the line breaks, the stanzas, everything.
These collected works form a constellation of influences over my own new work. I look for patterns and stories in the constellation. This is the time when I write ekphrastic poems (poems in response to visual art). My book Echo and Lightning was somewhat influenced by a painting by Emily Carr that hung in my studio. I work on poems that respond to the other works, that create a dialogue, pay homage or explore a form or an image. This might be called research and development.
One of the ways I further develop a manuscript is to explore memory, myth, and music. Memory both personal and communal, historical. This is a consideration of roots. By writing in this direction, I deepen the work and find ways to connect it to family and historical events. Next, I consider cultural or mythic stories to find resonating patterns. This is the opposite of roots. It's a reaching outward. Religious stories and archetypal patterns are powerful forms; if you connect to them, your work will extend farther. Christianity, Greek myth, Nordic myth, the Kalevala (epic poem of Finland), and archetypes explored by Carl Jung and others might be part of your consciousness. I consider runes, the I-Ching, and Tarot cards for their archetypal images. Often times I write poems that connect with these larger patterns.
The work I do in this process might end up in the manuscript or it might not. There can never be any expectations of new work; it must find its own direction and form. My job is keep experimenting, playing, feeding the work, enriching the ground and the environment.
Preoccupations arrive. For instance, during the making of the last book, Cloud Birds, bears began to visit. In one summer, I encountered no less than seven bears. Because of a childhood terror of bears, I was faced with managing my anxiety. In order to overcome my fear, I decided to write twenty one love poems to bears (I was inspired by Pablo Neruda's Twenty Love Poems and One Poem of Despair). As it turned out, the bears helped me identify that one of the themes of Cloud Birds was fear. It's important to pay attention to your life and what is going on; it feeds the creative work. Be receptive.
"Whatever gets in the way of your work becomes your work," said Carolyn Forche to me years ago at a poetry workshop. This meant that things you might think of as distractions, interferences, or obstacles might very well be the heart of your book. Write about it. Pay attention!
Music is a very important element of poetry and revision. The sound and rhythm of the sequence is a point of consideration. Are these breathless or fast-paced? Are these contemplative? What are the textures? How do the individual lines and stanzas best convey the rhythm and sound?
Other considerations in revision: point and counterpoint. Good art has interesting contrast. This is true of a book of poetry. Design principles used in visual art or architecture are useful. Consider your unique mark, perspective, composition, imagery. Is it collage or painterly? If it were a physical space, what would be its entrances, exits, transitional spaces?
I am interested in creating a world. Some writers might focus primarily on the story. But there are story telling techniques or narrative strategies that can enhance or emphasize certain aspects. For example, the rule of 3 occurs in fairy tales, the character gets 3 wishes. There is the "onion," or "once in a blue moon," or "journey" template. Consider the techniques used by the earliest narratives: Chaucer's Tales, Beowulf, stories of Camelot. It's wise to trust your instinct, and then in revision understand how the choice works for the manuscript.
A book takes a lot of writing and a lot of time. After I have sixty or so poems, I began to consider the overall shape of the manuscript. Everything needs to be deliberate, even if serendipity and accident put it together initially.
I make decisions about sections, as in, how many sections (if there are sections)? what is each section about? what order do I put the sections in? The first sequence I have in Echo and Lightning is about migration and ascension; the middle section is about descent. In the Kalevala, the beginning creation story is about a women swimming in the ocean. There was yet no land, she swims and swims. It seemed logical, and it was the shape of a wave, which made sense for the overall form, a collection of poems strongly connected to water and sky.
Also very valuable: good readers. If you have good readers to give you feedback, you will be a better writer. If you hear the same suggestion from two or more friends, pay attention. These are my thoughts about my process; your process might be different. I suggest you write about it.