After months of hard work (not to mention a culmination of two years worth of writing and revision), the final draft of my manuscript for my MFA program is out to my mentor. It’s a great feeling!
The process of putting together a manuscript, like the craft of poetry itself, is an art. There is no formula, no “right” way to do it. Whittling down my pile of poems was easier than I thought. I started with about 100 pieces. There were quite a few that just weren’t up to par, and many that weren’t even poems only scraps of ideas. It was a little more difficult to cut when I got down to the polished or nearly polished pieces. There were some poems I really had affection for, but knew they wouldn’t mesh with the rest of the book.
My mentor for this semester said that piecing together a poetry collection “is the art of saying no, then yes, then no.” The writer has to trust that they are making the right cuts, which was difficult for me because I usually feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. But in a lot of ways, that’s the best frame of mind to approach a manuscript with. It allows the work to take its own shape rather than having a form forced onto it. I had to keep reminding myself that I could cut poems and decide to put them back in later. While the process of cutting is very fluid, it must eventually solidify for the sake of not working on the same book for the rest of my life. At a certain point, I had to trust that the poems I included in the manuscript told the story I wanted, and that the pieces left out will be better served elsewhere.
The hardest part of putting my manuscript together was figuring out which order to put the poems in. The pictures at the top and to the right show the “system” I adopted. I created piles of poems on similar themes (family and God, to name a couple). Then I mixed them in an attempt to mesh all of the threads, which is how I experienced these story arcs in real life. The green tabs on the poems indicate that those poems are “pillars,” my stronger poems that hold up the various story arcs and the manuscript as a whole. The pink tabs indicate that a poem needs to be revised.
As of now, my manuscript weighs in at around 48 pages. It is by no means finished. There is still revising and tweaking to be done, but it certainly has come a long way.
So, to answer the question posed in the subject line of this post: I have no idea. As I mentioned earlier in this post, there is no one way to string poems together. Manuscripts are their own brand of living, breathing beasts. You have to listen to them, feed their needs. The process is by turns frightening, frustrating, and deeply rewarding.