February 03, 2012

Trust Your Eye: On Ordering Poetry

One of the pleasures of my recent stay at Virginia Center for Creative Arts was the chance to spread out the pages of my manuscript-in-progress. This is something I've been able to do with each of my poetry collections, first on the walls of my studio at the Millay Colony and then on the floor of my apartment in DC. But I live in a much smaller apartment now, so this was my first chance to look at Count the Waves in this way. In the snapshot above, the far left is the end of the first section, curving upwards in a confident curl (that one feels most complete); then a cluster of colored push-pins marks the initiation of the second section, shaped like the symbol for long division; the third section, in the lower right, is pretty amoebalike at this stage. 

I've helped many friends and students order their collections over the past five years, and one thing I always say is Trust your eye. What I mean is that reading is not just an intellectual experience, but a physical one. Some poems are more tiring to read than others--even if their richness is worth the effort.  Though it is often smart to group poems according to voice or motif, make sure there is some variety of form on the page to keep the reader's energy level up. It's the same common sense as alternating moves in a work-out. You need to look at poems en masse, as shapes. Is the quatrain growing monotonous? Scan to make sure you haven't ended on the same word or syntactic trick three times in a row, even if it is a justified ending each time in & of itself. 

A few nights I purposefully slept in the bed VCCA provided in my studio so I could wake, bleary-eyed and slightly disoriented, to look at pages on the wall without awareness of individual texts. In this way I noticed my dominant line lengths and stanza structures, and saw places where I could resist those modes in meaningful ways. I found sequences that felt too "light" or too "heavy." I realized I couldn't have two "valentine" sestinas side by side, no matter how well they matched thematically. 

Later in the day and after a few cups of coffee, I continued to work in a way unique to this bulletin-board display style. I could flip up the latest draft to look at the previous days' drafts layered beneath it. When I pulled a poem out of sequence the empty rectangle that remained pushed me to interrogate what was needed to fill the hole--what question I had not yet asked of myself or of the collection. Sometimes I would pin up a page blank except for a title, then scribble & riff until something caught hold. (One night I had a visitor whose gaze became distracted; I soon realize he'd spied a blue-ink scrawl of "astral spunk.")

By the time I left VCCA, I had written six new poems in three weeks. But just as importantly  I committed to a whole new sequence in the third section, to balance a sequence in the first. I realized my closing poem was not really my closing poem, if only because it is ekphrasis and I don't want to share my ending with Whistler's drawings. I pulled a poem that had been discarded back in to open the second section, realizing that what I had worried to be its weakness--direct language, short lines--is the perfect parry before the winding, punny poem that will follow it. I love it when a poem you had a private affection for suddenly reclaims a home; it's like finding a $20 bill squinched into an old coat pocket.

A book isn't a project. A book isn't a pet. A book a lover, and you have to get to know it on all levels--mind, body, and soul. I'm glad to find out we're ready to live together. 

This post is featured over at the SheWrites blog, where I served as a guest editor this week. Check out the wonderful posts contributed by my fellow writers:

Laura Susanne Yochelson - "Enjoying the Process"
Bernadette Geyer - "What? It's Possible to Keep Writing After a Kid?"
Jeannine Hall Gailey - "How I Became a Poet, Or, Why I Write About Superheroines"
Eugenia Kim - "Romance of the Writing Life and Where the Writing Happens"
Lisa Fay Coutley - "Sentimentality Be Damned: On Gratitude"


Justin Evans said...

I really agree with you on this. When I am putting together a manuscript, my decision to order poems is often based on visuals and the notion that I want my reader to ease their way into my manuscript---which means I will more than likely begin my books with a shorter poem, which does not force them to turn the page to finish the poem.

Far Beyond The Ridge said...

yes, it's hard to keep a reader interested. lose em for a moment, and you lose em forever.