Who’s talking? Thoughts on structuring a poetry manuscript

December 5th, 2018

Sometimes you’re trying to organize a pile of miscellaneous poems into a coherent manuscript that might catch the attention of a publisher, and it feels like you’re working with pastry that just won’t stick together. The whole thing just keeps falling apart.

Examples from my personal pie-making: The time when I was convinced that two long poem-sequences must surely belong in the same manuscript. After all, weren’t they both about myth-making and narrative? (No. They didn’t belong together. But it took me a few rejections to figure out why they were like raspberry and chicken, and didn’t belong in the same crust.*)

Over time, I’ve come to think that one of the most useful tools to use in this situation is what fiction writers use all the time – a careful awareness of voice. As poets we often assume that we’re speaking in ‘our own’ voice, but that’s actually a very complicated construction that varies from poem to poem. It’s not so much what the poems are about, but who is speaking them, that matters.

So, in a spirit of helpfulness, I’ve put together some thoughts on structuring a poetry manuscript that might be useful to others who are trying to get their own books to stick together. This isn’t meant to be a recipe, but from one cook to another…

(* In case you’re wondering, the two sequences in my examples ended up in two different books, after I finally realized that the voices came from completely different places. Behind the dramatic monologues by female saints in Some Bones and a Story was a sympathetic voice—I liked these women; sometimes they spoke like my female relatives. The imaginary mythologies in Tales for an Urban Sky come from a more distant, satiric voice.  Of course, that meant another couple of years of writing more material to flesh out both books.)

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