This is no. 86 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
One of the most common questions I hear when I visit universities is: How do you organize a poetry manuscript? Ordering poems is one of those intuitive processes that can prove challenging to articulate. I often share Natasha Sajé’s article “Dynamic Design: The Structure of Books of Poems,” which appeared in the Iowa Review in 2005. Reading that essay informed how I shaped my first book. It enriched my understanding of sequence, thematic and aesthetic gestures, beginnings and endings. It made me consider the importance of enjoyment—Sajé cites Roland Barthes’s concept of pleasure, both physical and intellectual, as part of the reading experience. But over the fifteen years since then, I also developed an idea I began to call “the arc of understanding.” This arc, like a story arc or outline, helps a writer to frame the overall trajectory of a poetry manuscript—or individual poem—with intention at all stages. That intention works alongside intuition on the way to feeling “finished.” Over the past couple of years I’ve only talked about the arc of understanding extemporaneously and with a fair bit of self-deprecation, but I want to articulate it now for the first time in writing.
To revise or organize toward an arc of understanding, ask yourself three basic questions:
- What do you want your reader’s experience to be when reading the poem or book?
- What do you want your reader to understand by the time they arrive at the end of your book or poem?
- What order of poems or lines will lead them to that experience and understanding?
For a manuscript, I recommend writing the answers down rather than just holding them in your head, and—perhaps this goes without saying—to repeat the questioning process for each manuscript. When applying these questions to individual poems, especially longer poems, the third question can feel tricky. Instead of lines, you may wish to think in stanzas, depending on the shape and content of your poem. For experimental or less narrative work, I find it helps to think in terms of patterns—shapes, sounds, images, and so on. Tracking and balancing patterns is of course part of revision no matter what kind of poetry you write, but doing so with a specific arc of understanding in mind can help add cohesion.
When I answer these questions, I make sure to articulate both intuited and explicit understanding, since, after all, understanding works on multiple levels. In A General Theory of Love (Vintage, 2001), three psychiatrists outlined how the brain processes love, noting that the levels of our triune brain—reptilian, limbic, and neocortic—haven’t evolved to talk to one another. Respectively, they deal with our instincts, emotions, and critical thought. Those processes happen simultaneously. Poetry can thus offer an instinctive and felt understanding in addition to (or rather than) an explicit one. Said another way, we understand a poem instinctively, emotionally, and intellectually. As a poet, you can use ambiguity in language to invite the reader to imagine into those multiple levels of understanding.
The more familiar I become with these questions, the more I generate corollaries: What obstacles do we place in the way of ease, when it comes to understanding? Why do we place such obstacles there? Are they actually obstacles, or are they signposts of depth, invitations to complicated or layered meaning? What is the relationship between clarity and accessibility? How do we balance variety, complexity, and clarity? How can we redefine and expand access for folks who are Blind and/or D/deaf by reconsidering structure and publication? Indeed, how can we make sure full inclusivity becomes baseline professional practice?
Consistent questioning and naming bolsters depth and clarifies intention. With each new book I write, I aim to make more conscious choices that move each poem and the book as a whole work toward a more complex, multifaceted arc of understanding—a pathway made of language and illumination, perceiving comprehension not just as concept, but experience.
Khadijah Queen is the author of six books, including Anodyne (Tin House, 2020) and I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On (YesYes Books, 2017). Her writing has also appeared in American Poetry Review, BuzzFeed, Fence, Poetry, and Tin House, among other publications. Holding a PhD in English from the University of Denver and an MFA from Antioch University, she teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and for Regis University’s Mile High MFA program.Thumbnail: Weston MacKinnon