Making a Manuscript—Structuring Intuition

Inspired by Michelle Ovalle’s description of her process, a few notes on my own, up to this point. I’ve no idea where the manuscript as it exists will go as I revise over the next few months, but at least I feel now there is something there, some key structural element.

When I started last August, I pulled together way too much of everything and let it overwhelm me. I started making piles, which wasn’t helping. Then, on my friend Kim’s suggestion, I bought and read Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems, edited by Susan Grimm. That gave me a great swirl of ideas, including these few favorites:

I think all good books of poems must have drama-something at stake, a larger meaning, and the feeling that the book, while perhaps composed of smaller stories, is at the same time telling a larger, overarching story. (Liz Rosenberg)

The most important thing is not “imposing” an order, but discovering the relationship between the poems and letting that suggest an order (Beckian Fritz Goldberg)

Reading a good book of poems is like traveling unknown terrain at night, glimpsing in each lightning bolt a swatch of vastness (Philip Brady)

So I gathered all this stuff and thought hard about categories. Last spring I’d helped poet Dane Kuttler arrange her manuscript, which coalesced around Hillel’s three questions. Remembering that, I found my four categories—earth, water, fire, air. The working title was then “Earth My Body” from a pagan/wiccan/Peace Camp chant. Those categories gave a clear way to organize most of the poems, but then a subset didn’t work so I invented a floating fifth category of poems about loss.

But that was first draft. With a strong push from my mentor, I abandoned, for now, the poems in earth (about coal mining) and water (about rivers, oceans, the disaster in the Gulf) and started again on the remaining work. New themes arose: loss, sex, desire, surviving sexual abuse, a sequence that combined surviving sexual abuse with past lives and desire and drowning. I was writing new poems, too, in part because there were clearly holes in what the bigger story was telling and in part because the poems were pushing themselves out of me.

I knew I wanted sections in the manuscript because the poems were distinct and because, as a creator of ritual, I wanted to build an emotional arc that made sense to me. But I also knew I didn’t want something too direct, too obvious. I’d been reading such astounding poets, especially poets whose books had some kind of conscious narrative far beyond being a “collection,” and I wanted my own work to feel anything remotely like how these books made me feel. At some point in November I had the PERFECT arrangement, based on how Toi Derricotte, in her collection Tender, created sections that were not meant to be read in order but to exist as spokes in a wheel around a central poem. In a fury of work and insight I pushed my poems into shape around the concept of a labyrinth, with sections representing the four quadrants and a section representing the center. I arranged the table of contents so the sections were not in numerical page order, to push the idea that the poems were meant to talk back and forth to each other, the way that, when walking a labyrinth, you move from side to side, close to far, winding around in no straight way to the middle.

“Perfect!” I thought.

Until the next day, when my Beloved pointed out that the whole concept of “labyrinth” was imposed order unconnected to my poems in any way and that a labyrinth has an extremely clear, directed path—one does not wander, but moves along a determined trail. Shit. Back to the drawing board.

But from that idea I did pull vital elements of my final form, mainly a sense of repetition, mirroring, circling back. I realized I could build the sense of ideas, lines, images in conversation with each other by how I structured and titled the work, so suddenly three different poems had the same title and opening line, two other poems also shared a title and opening image, and the title of one poem was the title of a different section. From my friend Carol Burbank I received a structural idea for how to encapsulate a complex idea in a simple structure, and let this also recur throughout the collection to pull the poems together.

And so to enter into my body was created. It’s not nearly settled. Poems are being edited and more will be written and some removed. The final two sections might be switched. A section that is a single long poem called “Headwaters” (a very very unfinished long poem) might be cut completely, for the poem is so rough and also maybe unnecessary; it was part of a vital conversation in my head about the connection between the survivor poems and the sex poems, but the manuscript might not need that philosophical argument at all. The poems themselves, flashes of lightning, will make the connections they make without my trying to force narrative or explanation on them, and I should shut up and let them do so.

And while I read several essays cautioning against having a title poem that stands alone before the first section, for it becomes so fraught with meaning and significance and if not perfect can scare off judges and editors, I have exactly such a poem, one that, for me, speaks to all the themes but also stands on its own. And because the final poem of the last section summed up only that section but not the book, I also added a closing poem. Someone I read this fall had the same poem at beginning and the end, which was perfect because the poem now meant something completely different after the journey through the book, and I loved that idea, but couldn’t pull it off with anything I’d written. So I added something I’d written last year, a piece more prose than poetry, but that felt like it fit. Readers so far feel like it fits, and that is really the clearest description I have of why it’s there.

Maybe the best advice I have so far, with an MFA manuscript but no book published, is that the process is one of structured intuition, with the latter ruling the former.

Which is why I chose to enter an MFA program and not a Ph.D. Intuition for me does create structure, rather than the other way around, and the rigorous intellectual critical analysis I was pushed to do during that ugly year in UCIrvine’s PhD in critical theory felt too much like shooting, gutting, and draining poems of all their blood instead of entering them, grateful for the invitation into their world.

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