Throughout this year, I've continued to revise what I hope is my first book of poetry. This journey has led me to places I didn't expect and makes me believe all over again: our own writing is our best teacher.
As my manuscript has taken shape, I've been working with anywhere from 30 to 60ish poems at a time. Early on, I was listening for what belonged and what didn't. I was listening for which poems were ready, which needed more work, and how they might relate to each other.
For a long time, the poems were leading me. I followed their thread and received whatever they offered. But this summer, it was as if they turned around and said, "Ok. Your turn. Based on what we've revealed so far, where do you want to go next?"
The journey changed after that. It may sound hyperbolic, but the truth is, I think the poems were checking whether I had any vision for the body of work. Whether I had been noticing the whole while following the parts.
In this midst of this, I laid the poems on the floor in the newest order I was "orchestrating" at that moment. And I found myself back at the perennial question: Is this whole?
All year I’ve been trying to answer such subjective and nebulous questions by finding or creating an actual practice. The smaller, simpler, and more hands-on the better. So as I looked at the pages spread out and held the question of wholeness, the intuitive reply was to read the manuscript in its own conversation, as a kind of call-and-response. To observe not only patterns or repetition throughout the poems, but also listen for the echoes and answers, points of tension and points of resolution.
I imagined the manuscript as an accordion folding in toward itself and followed that. I held the first poem and the last poem and read them as a kind of diptych. They seemed to hinge together and expand each other. The images of the last poem seemed to bloom from the images of the first, even though they were not the exact same images. This resonated: I liked the idea of the book seeding itself and working as a kind of exponential force, not merely a journey from point A to point B.
I was excited but cautious. A lot of thought had already been given to which poem was first and which was last, so maybe this wasn’t an entirely new revelation. So I read the second poem and the second-to-last poem. The third poem and the third-to-last poem. Each time, the poems were tugging on each other in a different way. I became more and more surprised, so I kept going. Working this way, I discovered:
Unexpected and more subtle points of tension. I noticed where some poems were setting up a bigger idea or question, and other poems were trying to challenge the idea or answer the question. This also helped surface spots where the tension was so subtle I made revisions to the individual poems to draw it out more. Sometimes the later poem instructed on where the earlier poem should be questioning. Sometimes the earlier poem told me where the later poem wanted to go but hadn’t yet landed.
Repetition that deadened the writing instead of feeding it. It’s one thing to build tension and thread together themes in a body of work. It’s another thing to simply repeat a word, image, or phrase and count on repetition alone to convey the importance of an image or theme. In my manuscript, it felt like the equivalent of pointing and shouting, “Do you get it? Do you get it? Look! Look at what this means!” (I have this ongoing obsession with how we gesture in poetry, much like how an artist can convey a treeline without giving us every tree. I hope there is a subtle, strange, gesture-y kind of book in my future someday. Which is to say: I hope I figure this out someday.)
Inconsistencies in tone and the arc of the book. I was about a dozen poems in on either side when the rhythm broke down. The 13th or 14th poem didn't seem to engage its companion on the other side. It felt cantankerous in a way that made me stop. This didn't have to mean something was wrong, but it did make me ask if that's really where those poems belonged. It also made me consider whether I was going for a mirroring effect in the poems (as in, they “see” or directly reflect each other somehow) or more of a tension effect (as if they were on opposite sides of a tightrope). I decided I’m hoping for tension rather than perfect mirroring, so I reordered certain poems based on that.
Symmetry, with a kind of centerpiece poem… and oh, am I a sucker for symmetry. I discovered the poems were funneling into a single poem in the middle of the manuscript. I hadn’t counted the final number of poems at that point, since I was so deep into examining the parts before this exercise. Finding an underlying symmetry raised many possibilities: Does symmetry mean something to the themes of the book? Is the shape of the book speaking to its content now, or should it be? Is there (should there be) symmetry afoot in my line breaks or the shapes of key poems? Should this centerpiece poem be the title poem of the book? Is it reflecting a central theme or question? Has it earned this special placement? If not, which poem belongs in this central spot?
In the end, this little practice unlocked subtle edits in individual poems, reordering of poems here and there, and most importantly, a deeper rooting in the hows and whys of this manuscript. I’m grateful for the practical edits that flowed out of this exercise, but it was the awareness of the manuscript as a whole that excited me the most. I feel more rooted in what I’m trying to do and what the speakers in these poems are longing to make heard. And knowing that gives me a better place from which to try to honor the body of work… I feel a little less an outsider to my own poems, if that makes sense.
I should add that I’m not assuming future readers will engage the book in this way (although I’ll say it made me want to read other books this way). In retrospect, I realize the spirit of this exercise was about tapping into my own relationship with the writing. It had nothing to do with a possible future reader.
Bringing a poetry manuscript together is a kind of synthesis or alchemy. Readers will engage the final whole in whatever way resonates with them. I do think of the reader in a particular way and at particular times as I revise, but I try not to feel beholden to them in these formative moments. As the person creating the whole, I need my own recipes, patterns, tools, and paths in to that (w)hole… if this journey has taught me anything, it’s that I’m a nonlinear writer.
Which is part of the magic of art, I feel. Something that is created in drifting circles can also be appreciated that way, or it can be read in a straight line (one poem after the next), or it can be loved viscerally, such as a single line that catches you. If this book someday found readers willing to give it a go in any of those ways, I would be thrilled. For now, I’m happy to have a better view of the whole, if only for myself.
Hoping this practice meets you in wherever you might be with your writing… while it’s tuned to poetry manuscripts in this example, I imagine it could work on a paragraph-by-paragraph level with essays, a chapter-by-chapter level with fiction, or even a line-by-line level with individual poems. If you give it a try, I’d love to hear what you uncover. Or if you have other practices you’re using, say hello or share a link to your post, if you’ve happened to write about it. I’d be glad to hear from kindred spirits on this.