Poet Tip 101: How to Order Your Poetry Manuscript

Mel's: Your Poetry Drive-In

What if you could just stop by a drive-in on your way home from work to pick-up the arrangement for your new poetry manuscript? You'd speak into the silver microphone and request a burger,  fries, and a coffee shake --- then finish the meal off with a newly ordered group of poems ready to be published to wild acclaim.

If only.

No one teaches poets how to carefully place one poem in front of the next until you have the prerequisite 48 pages of poetry that comprise a full-length manuscript. Classes abound on generating poems, revising poems, publishing poems --- but ordering a manuscript? Not so much.


In 1983, when I was working with my undergraduate thesis advisor, Madeline DeFrees, on my first poetry "collection," she took my poems and spread them across her living room floor. I remember the two of us down on our knees looking at the last words of one poem and seeing if they linked to the first lines of another. I still love using this method --- as if the poems were having a conversation together.


But this is just one of the many ways to order your poems. Here are a few things I've learned putting four of my own collections together and working with several poets as a book doctor or an editor/mentor. You may well find that your method is a hybrid of some of the ideas below.


A Favorite: Chronology: I think of Mary Jo Bang's Elegy as a perfect example of how going through the seasons of the year as a way to show how grief changes (and doesn't) over time is the perfect strategy for this intensely moving book. Sometimes, if there is a clear narrative (or you want to build a narrative structure around an event) this framework keeps the reader easily located and a story arc appears. Annette Spaulding Convy's In the Convent, We Become Clouds is another superb example of a book built around a chronology which may mimic "how it happened" or be totally constructed from the poets imagination.

Beginning / Middle / End: I know this sounds like chronology but it isn't. This is creating your own poetry collage broken into three parts. Perhaps the first section is to introduce yourself or the three themes prevalent in your poems. As the reader delves deeper into the book the pieces of the poet's obsessions (hopefully) begin to gather a 3rd or 4th dimension. The ideas behind the poems accrue. I've used this strategy in my book, Cures Include Travel, where the section titles are: Guidebook; Talking Geography, and Crossing Borders.

Sliced Like a Pizza:  theme by theme is a favorite for some poets. One section explores the poet's time in Istanbul, the next section concerns only poems on food, and the final section is devoted to sex with animals. Okay -- this is not a book I've read but you get the idea. Like with like. The problem with this is that sometimes too much of a good thing is, well,  too much. I'd rather eat one exquisite chocolate than an entire box.  The first scenario leaves the eater (or reader) wanting more and the second scenario could lead to stomach illness. However, this could easily work for some poets; there just needs to be some variety within the like subjects. For example, if one section is focused on family, perhaps place a poem about crazy Aunt Jane next to the elegy for Jane's brother.

Sumptuous Braided Challah or a French Twist: Reader, this is my book ordering bliss.  I like to have poems rub up against each other in new ways; I like the juxtaposition of the ordering to elicit surprise and disruption. In Cloud Pharmacy, the initial poem is "Blue Grapes" which introduces the speaker's odd spiritual sense --- a certainly surreal point of view where "God visits, brings me ice cream." The book is comprised of four sections with only one "Dark Room" focusing on one subject -- the photographer Hannah Maynard to act as a counterpoint to the other sections. Hannah Maynard took self portraits in the 1890's and employed trick photography often appearing in the same frame several times. My hope is that the other sections of the book refract off this central sequence.

Sunday Night Special The truth is that most books are a mix of these different approaches. There can be sections "sliced like a pizza" that also follow a chronology. For more insights on this process I recommend the collection of essays, Ordering the Storm which can be found in an e-book format on-line or you can purchase a hard copy.

And eventually your beautiful new book will be loved and admired in the world like Ada Limon's Bright Dead Things has been recently. It's a book I'm very glad Limon brought into the world. I sincerely doubt she thought it would be nominated for the National Book Award and yet here it is --- sticker and all. 

There's more to say on this subject --- much more --- but it will have to wait until 2016.


  1. Good ideas. I've also heard of thinking of the manuscript as a piece of classical music with the sections being movements, or as a play with rising tension/ resolution

  2. Hi Roberta,
    I love the analogy with a musical piece and with the form of theater. I think Classic Hollywood would work, too.


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