January 5, 2015

Metamorphosis: How to Make Individual Poems into a Book

How do you develop a poetry manuscript? A book of poems is at least 50 pages, and chapbooks are about 25-30 pages.  Every project has its own unique rules. Each poet finds a path unique to his or her writing voice; this path is key is the decisions in assembling a book.  This will be the topic of  a workshop I'll be leading in February. In order to meet the challenge, the poet must use larger metaphors.

It's helpful to consider advice from other poets. Susan Grimm has a book Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems, a collection of essays by several poets that illuminates the individual method.  It's useful as a way to starting thinking about your own set of poems. When I read the essays, I was struck by how idiosyncratic was the process.

Order and Arrangements

Jeffrey Levine of Tupelo Press has published an essay, "On Making the Poetry Manuscript," encouraging poets to approach the poetry manuscript as a work of art.  In these questions, he formulate the artistic concept:
Where do you see common images developing? In what directions do your various threads lead? What seem to be your concerns as a poet during this period of creativity, and how do they seem to want to group. What sorts of discoveries are your poems making? The process of inclusion and ordering is organic, calculated, thoughtful, instinctual, unconscious, and a somewhat Zen. You need time to permit all of those matters and anti-matters to work upon you, and upon your poems.
Levine's suggestions are useful.  Because these are questions, the answers still emerge from the individual poet, which will ensure the writer's voice prevails.

On her blog, Lynn Pedersen writes:
For me, one of the most subtle aspects in this process is the arranging of poems so that they speak to one another. Like poems can be placed together or spread throughout the manuscript. Finding a way to maximize the energy and impact is key. I’ll finish with a summary from one of my writing professors, Nancy Eimers. “First or second or third person point of view, lyric or narrative, linear or nonlinear, autobiographical or historical, or a mingling of these within poems—these are things you can arrange so that they become not a cacophony but a conversation.”
Her focus on creating a conversation might be useful for writers. Dialogue is an open form, and it invites the reader. Alberto Riós suggests several organizational techniques, including a "last line / first line dialogue."  The poet can link the end of a poem with the beginning of the next.

April Ossman proposes a method of consideration she likens to the "helicopter" or three-dimensional perspective. One must see the poems individually and as a whole.  Seeing from a distance, or the three-dimensional, allows one to make decisions about the book as a whole.  In "Thinking Like an Editor: How to Order Your Manuscript" writes:
Ordering strategies I’ve used include creating a narrative line or arc (regardless of whether the poetry is narrative) and grouping or interweaving themes to create a sense of evolution or growth, proceeding toward a conclusion—not resolution. Another strategy is a lyric ordering, in which each poem is linked to the previous one, repeating a word, image, subject, or theme. This sometimes provides a continuation, sometimes a contrast or argument. Other times I follow one or several emotionally charged poems with one that provides comic or other relief; sometimes I work to vary (or interweave) the poetic styles, individual poem length, pace, tone, or emotion. Some orders build toward a narrative, emotional, or evolutionary climax or conclusion (a “Western ending”) and some end deliberately unresolved or ambiguous (an “Eastern ending”). Different poetic styles can benefit from different ordering considerations. A manuscript composed of poems that function in a deliberately nonnarrative fashion might best be ordered according to a strategy of collage, surprise, or juxtaposition—or by creating a faux narrative arc.
Other ordering considerations include whether to heighten or downplay the poet’s repetition of particular imagery, words, or subjects. If there are too many repetitions of a word or image, I generally recommend making some substitutions, and placing those poems at strategic intervals in the manuscript. This can create a subtle sense of obsession rather than a numbing one. I also alternate strong and less strong poems, and try to avoid having too many poems in a row on the same subject or theme, except where they indicate growth, contrast, or argument. I may order to heighten the importance and relevance of the manuscript’s title or leitmotif, or to create a greater sense of thematic unity. Generally my suggested order juggles most of these concerns at once, which is where that clear three-dimensional or helicopter view is most critical.
Overall, the suggestions here are similar and even overwhelming. Too much information? The main task at hand is to find a way to get some distance.

Change Roles

One must shift from being a maker of individual poems to being a composer for an orchestra of poetry.  Think orchestrate: sections, movements, instrumentation, timing.  To use another analogy, one must stop making widgets (parts) and start assembling the machine (the car).    

In order to get distance, I've used visual art, performance, teaching, and writing in other genres. I make drawings. In performances, I audition various poems and create a narrative. I research other works to gain insight into various poets' methods. I like to assemble favorite works into a constellation that influences my project.  I write about these influences in the effort to explore connections and make discoveries. I do "process writing" about the manuscript in process. I look for the question behind the work.  I dream. I walk. Once the shift in roles is made, then the artistic process continues at another level.

Apply More Metaphor

Muriel Rukeyser once referred to "the theater of a poem." I'm inclined to apply this concept to a book. Therefore, one can consider the backdrop, the drama, and the overarching motif or effect.  This will likely lead to revision and more development of certain parts.  Instead of the script writer, one shifts to become the director.

To use other analogies, one might consider one poem, a bird; the manuscript, a flock. One poem is a tree, and the manuscript is a forest.  One poem a house; the manuscript, a city.  One poem a church, the manuscript, a religion. Use the concept that works.

The word "meta" is very important. One must be considering "the form" more than at any other time during the writing process, the form as it relates to the content.  It's about the container.  One size does not fit all.  The container or shape must grow out of the needs of the contents and must fit the individual poet's voice.  Once one finds this concept, the individual poems undergo a metamorphosis.

More links:

If you are interested in the workshop, here's the workshop description:
Metamorphosis!  Feb 5, 12, 19, 27 at Lake Superior Writers conference room @ Marshall School in Duluth. 6:30 - 8:30 pm.  Workshop fee $65.  In this workshop, poet Sheila Packa will help participants explore ways to build chapbooks or manuscripts in a structured and encouraging environment.  If you have some poems or short stories, then this is the place to do something with them! Over four weeks, participants will do guided writing exercises to create sequences, strengthen the individual writing voice, find ways to arrange poems or stories, and discover the "meta-" force of your own writing.    
Experienced workshop leader Sheila Packa has four books of poems, edited an anthology of Lake Superior writers, and created narrative performances.  She has received Loft McKnight Fellowships (in poetry and prose), a Loft Mentor Award, and ARAC Fellowships. In 2013, she participated in the Creative Community Leadership Institute through Intermedia Arts.   For more detail, see www.sheilapacka.com and http://lakesuperiorwriters.org/

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