Alyssa Ogi of Tin House Recommends...

When I start editing a poetry or story collection, I’m immediately curious about energy and momentum. How is this writer using their unique style and craft to propel me through their manuscript? What holds me close to the page and makes me eager to read more? What causes me to get stuck? I dissuade writers from thinking about an audience while in the generative stage, but I do think it’s helpful to shift into generosity at a certain point in revision and consider how a reader can have a dynamic experience of a book from beginning to end, even if the poems or stories aren’t deliberately linked.

Momentum can develop in multiple ways. Building a compelling narrative arc is one method, and we all know how satisfying it is to be immersed in the churn of a plot that rises to an energetic finale. Narrative poems that follow a specific speaker can do this beautifully. But it’s also worth thinking about how formal and structural variation can invigorate a manuscript, keeping the reader surprised as they turn the pages. Tighter lines, more white space, a shift into a series of sestinas—these can signal fresh movement. Changes in perspective and voice also shake up the energy of a book, especially if the manuscript is focused on one theme across multiple poems.

For fun, I often encourage poets to try radically rearranging the first twenty pages of their collection and observe what happens to the energy. For instance, what changes when the poem that had been first in the lineup for the past three years becomes fifth? Sometimes the new order is an obviously bad idea, creating a chaotic, confusing, or—worse—boring reading experience. If that happens, that’s okay: It shows that the initial ordering instinct was right, and we can always return to the previous draft. Other times, though, the rearrangement can awaken an unexpected tension or animation among poems, one that might make a reader excited to see what comes next. To me, that’s a great joy of the work: playing, experimenting, and ultimately harnessing a spark that only your manuscript can manifest. 

Alyssa Ogi, editor, Tin House

Photo credit: Ezra Carlsen