Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Superb Piece on Creating a Manuscript - Thanks, Ploughshares

One of my  first "jobs" in the literary world was as a reader for Ploughshares Journal. I would stop by the home of David Daniels and he would greet me with shoeboxes full of submissions. From these over-stuffed boxes I learned so much. I learned that hundreds, if not thousands, of people (in the two years I was a reader) cared enough about poetry to write it, but not as many seemed particularly  interested in honing their craft. The letter I remember best was written in a spiraling circle on the waxy paper often used to wrap sandwiches. The poet cursed me. Or the me he imagined. He (yes, it was a he) imagined that I was a graduate student (I wasn't) and that I delighted in rejecting his poems (again, no). 

I learned that a short and positive submission letter did the trick. I learned that it's the poem that counts, not the bells or whistles in the envelope (sometimes photos). And today I can thank Ploughshares -- or more to the point -- Peter Kline -- for a beautifully written piece on how one might think about constructing a manuscript. Hope you enjoy! And by the way, Ploughshares is now accepting new work on-line. 

Peter Kline Searches for Voice

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time reworking my manuscript, ordering and reordering, adding and removing poems, trying to shape it into something that’s more than just a coherent collection.  I want my book to feel like a particular kind of experience, one that develops unexpectedly as it unfolds in time, like a provocative encounter with a stranger.  

There’s a party, a big room with many voices, spectacle, eye candy.  You’ve come to meet someone, but who?  It’s so hard to really meet anyone in these places.  Your eyes browse the hipsters in line at the cash bar, lingering on fripperies, amused.  Then someone crosses the room right to where you’re standing and fixes you with his grin.  Does he really think that line will work?  You challenge it – and find, despite yourself, that you’ve been drawn into a meaningful conversation.  His bravado complexifies into a kind of self-deprecation.  His manner, at first overfamiliar, now seems a direct response to the brevity of life.  Already you feel intimate with him.  Will you leave the party together?  No.  His heart is not his own.  He smooths the stray hair back from your eyes in farewell.

The best books of poetry lead us in and teach us how to read them; they are primers for themselves.  Some poets do this gently, with an outstretched hand; others just toss the reader into the maelstrom (my first experience of reading The Dream Songs had something of this character!).  But a well-constructed book of poems will use these waves to teach a reader how to swim.  Something of what must be taught is method: each poet has a different way, a different range of ways, to establish meaning, and part of reading new poets is becoming attuned to the subtleties of their meaning-making.  The difficulty of this endeavor has become much greater over the past century – many poets, in attempting to follow Pound’s dictum to “Make it new,” have abandoned traditional methods of meaning (coherent syntax, unified speaker, logical argument, narrative) in favor of more radically disjunctive or associative ways.  Because of this, lesser contemporary poets of an experimental bent are often incoherent unless they are interpreted using one particular rubric – thus, the necessity for manifesto.  These are poems that require a handbook.  A great experimental poet, like Berryman or, more recently, Rae Armantrout, teaches you the rubric as you read the poems, no handbook required. Click here to continue reading Peter Kline's posting.


  1. Lovely, helpful, and full of generosity, joy, and gratitude, this post! Thank you, as always, for what you share.

  2. Dear Kathleen, thanks for reading -- and for commenting. It means a great deal to me -- Susan

  3. Susan, thank you for bringing this wonderful essay to us. The voice I hear in it is honest, generous, and experienced. A joy to read.

  4. Thank you, Maureen, for reading and responding. I need to know these posts are read by other eyes than mine. So glad you also connect to his approach.