In my experience as a book editor, the biggest mystery to emerging and sometimes even established poets is how to effectively order a poetry manuscript. As a poet working on revising and re-revising my graduate thesis toward book publication, I didn’t have much idea either. Here’s why: Ordering a manuscript requires a different kind of thinking than line editing or revising your poems—a kind of thinking I hadn’t been taught. A poet I work with calls it “the helicopter view,” which I love. I think of ordering as a kind of three-dimensional thinking, as opposed to the two-dimensional thinking (like using tweezers under a microscope) necessary for line editing poems. Ordering requires seeing each poem from a distance, so that all its sides are visible; it also requires seeing the manuscript as a whole, so that you can decide how each poem and its parts might connect with others in a series.
It wasn’t until the beginning of my tenure as executive director of Alice James Books, in 2000, that I really learned how to order poetry manuscripts. I challenged myself to suggest an ordering strategy particular to the poetic style, themes, subjects, obsessions, strengths, and weaknesses of each book I edited. Excited as I was to be entrusted with the task, I was profoundly anxious. Since I hadn’t yet published my first book, all the poets I edited had accomplished something that was still a goal of mine. At the very least they had had their first book accepted, and many had published multiple books. But performance anxiety was a good teaching tool; I was determined to give my best to those poets, and to make sure my best got better. The method I developed is the one I still use, ninety-plus edited books later.
The first thing I do when I edit a manuscript is to consider the inclusion and exclusion of poems, which is a critical part of ordering. It’s also perhaps the most difficult editing we perform, because it can mean letting go of emotional attachments. As poets we keep poems in our manuscripts for all kinds of reasons, but there are two inseparable criteria that should govern: The poem is “book strong” and fits the major or minor themes and subjects, helping to create a cohesive whole. We keep poems that don’t fit those criteria for several reasons. Sometimes we’re attached to a poem because it represents an important emotional moment, phase, or event. Other times we’re attached because it’s the title poem and “must” stay, even if the wise voice we so often ignore whispers that it’s not up to snuff. And still other times we’re attached to a poem because we think it’s critical to the collection’s narrative, themes, or chronology; it was published in a magazine; it’s our mother’s favorite; and so on.
If the poem doesn’t fit the criteria, save it for a future manuscript, for rereading, for framing as a broadside and hanging on the living room wall—but don’t leave it in the manuscript. Strength, not length, makes a good book.
Unless the manuscript is overlong, I ask authors for extra poems to consider with the manuscript, and I recommend that poets who are acting as their own editors do the same. Try considering strong poems that may be newer and may not feel as if they belong in the manuscript. I read the manuscript and extra poems, giving each poem a grade: check-plus, check, or check-minus. Then I set the check-minuses aside. If there are enough check-pluses to create a book-length manuscript, I set aside the checks, too, after deciding whether they can be edited up to check-pluses, giving special consideration to those that are thematically important or have great potential but are simply in an early, rough stage.
Then I reread the poems, listing each one’s themes and subjects, as well as noting repeated words or images. We all repeat ourselves, but some of us do so more obsessively than others, and that can be a strength or a weakness—or both. Next, I separate the poems into piles based on theme or subject, count the number of pages in each pile and note how many of the strongest poems landed in each, and use that information as one of multiple guides to a successful ordering strategy. I’m not a believer in the one perfect way to order a given poetry manuscript. I believe that the many ways to order a manuscript are limited only by imagination, so feel free to invent strategies beyond those I suggest. It’s important to try different strategies and to make a decision based on both intellect and intuition. Go with the order that feels right.
Working with Adrian Matejka to edit his first book, The Devil’s Garden (Alice James Books, 2003), produced an ordering that felt right to me. As I recall, the manuscript arrived with a roughly narrative or chronological ordering. The collection contains multiple subjects and themes, but in reading the manuscript I noticed a common thread: identity. The final ordering highlights it, delineating how music/musicians, history, art, pop culture, ethnic background, family, and experience formed the speaker’s identity. Poems on those subjects are interwoven throughout and ordered to create a sense of growth or evolution (not chronology—the poems jump forward and flash back in time, reflecting how the mind experiences identity), resulting in a thematically cohesive collection.
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.
To achieve an order that maximizes strengths and minimizes weaknesses, it’s crucial to gain the editorial distance necessary to self- evaluate, to think like an editor. An exercise for achieving this is listing a minimum of two strengths and weaknesses per poem, as if preparing criticism for poetry workshop fellows. Some things to assess are syntax, diction, and voice; either too much or not enough description; the balance of abstract to concrete imagery or symbolism; the flow or rhythm; the presence or lack of tension or risk (narrative, dramatic, linguistic, formal, emotional); the capacity to surprise; line breaks; word choice (the best, most accurate, evocative choice for context); point of view; and the use (or misuse) of dialogue. Noting as many strengths and weaknesses as possible allows for the most objective evaluation of which poems are strongest and why.
I also consider whether a manuscript needs sections and whether the sections will benefit from titles. The current convention tends largely toward creating untitled sections, and that works for many, but isn’t right for all. Some progressions are best not interrupted, and some collections don’t require the extra breathing space. Valerie Martínez’s Each and Her (University of Arizona Press, 2010) is a perfect example of both. The poems, ordered as a numbered series without sections, are exceptionally spare and employ metaphor, collage, lists, found poems, fragments, and juxtaposition, all revolving around an emotionally charged subject—the murdered women of Juárez—to create a fractured, incomplete narrative and a tense, riveting progression.
For manuscripts that benefit from sections, I begin and end each one with strong poems that create links between sections. It’s important to begin and end the manuscript with two of the strongest poems, but I also recommend giving consideration to which subjects, themes, or poetic styles best introduce the poet’s work and the speaker’s character within the context of the manuscript, and what the poet considers to be the crucial “takeaway” for the reader. Which lines does the poet want to ring in the reader’s ears on closing the book—which are most worthy and memorable?
I don’t often recommend titling sections, because it often feels too “telling,” too directive, and too limiting of potential interpretations, especially for poetry that employs accessible styles. Titling sections for such manuscripts works best when it heightens ambiguities or adds to potential interpretations, rather than explaining. Titling sections for more elliptical poetry styles can be a boon for the reader, offering an assist without spoiling the mystery.
Other ordering conventions include the use of prologue (“proem”) or epilogue poems, epigraphs, and notes, all of which can add to or detract from a manuscript’s strengths. As a reader, my expectation for a prologue is that it be one of the strongest and most representative poems in the collection, yet poets often choose a weak one, placing it in the most visible spot in the manuscript. Title poems create a similarly oft-disappointed expectation. In such cases I recommend that the poet omit or line edit and re-title the poem, but keep the original title as the book title. Epilogue poems rarely seem necessary to me, but can be a fine or fun choice where they function as true epilogues, offering a bit of the after-story, or in cases where their use is humorous. Even then there’s a risk of the epilogue’s feeling overly intentional, coy, clever—or just plain unnecessary.
Epigraphs have been such a popular convention for so long that many poets seem to feel they’re required for a book to be taken seriously. As both rebel and reformer, I take issue with real or imagined strictures, but some poets and readers simply love epigraphs. Unless I’m editing a manuscript, I tend not to attach much importance to them. For me, they work best where they highlight, comment on, or expand on a theme, subject, or obsession in the manuscript, but if the poet has done good work, an epigraph shouldn’t be necessary (poem epigraphs that are noticeably better written or more interesting than the poem should be omitted). For me, they’re candied violets on the frosting on the cake, and I happen to like cake best. I wouldn’t, however, deny others their candy or frosting.
The use of endnotes is probably the most contentious consideration (some readers find them necessary, some vehemently oppose them). The tradition is that poetry shouldn’t need notes, that it should be complete in itself and shouldn’t need explaining, but there are many poets and readers who enjoy them, and the types of endnotes employed are multiplying. Notes were once mostly limited to translating foreign words, defining obscure ones, and acknowledging textual appropriations. Now they include dedications to family, friends, or writers; direction to source material or additional sources for further study; and acknowledgment of inspirational sources. As a reader, I prefer few or no notes. As an editor, I’m more flexible, but recommend keeping them as brief as possible. Pages of endnotes can be off-putting, and author Web sites or blogs provide a better venue for fun and interesting but extraneous material and notes.
Once I’ve ordered a manuscript, I let it steep overnight and read it again the next day to see if the ordering still seems good. I recommend this to authors, but on a more elastic timeline: Try going back to read the manuscript at odd moments over a period of days or weeks. Try printing several versions employing different orderings, and then use your intuition to decide which one is best.
April Ossmann is the author of Anxious Music (Four Way Books, 2007), an independent editor, and former executive director of Alice James Books. Her Web site is www.aprilossmann.com.
“If the poem doesn’t fit the criteria, save it for a future manuscript, for rereading, for framing as a broadside and hanging on the living room wall—but don’t leave it in the manuscript. Strength, not length, makes a good book.”