Last weekend I did some work that made me really think about the poems I’ve been writing for the past 2 1/2 years. First, I finished a grant application which included a 10 page manuscript. This sheaf of poems contained what I believed to be my strongest work to date, but also reflected themes and imagery from my work-in- progress. Secondly, I sent a submission to a journal that asks with every submission that the writer discuss the work, so I wrote what I’d thought about while working on a certain set of poems. All of this work made me consider the poems I’ve been writing and collecting in a document for the past few years.
So far, the only work I’ve done toward making these poems move toward a manuscript is giving it a name which I know I don’t have to keep; after writing a few books I know this can change. I’ve also made a list of titles and tried to put the poems in some sort of order, but quickly decided I wasn’t ready.
I did the latter again this week: I printed the poems, thought about how each fit into a certain focus, and put them in separate piles designating the different parts of the focus. After I did this work, I put them back into a binder, but soon decided I didn’t want to separate the poems into sections based on parts of a focus, but to braid these parts together to construct a narrative.
In the past, sequencing a collection hasn’t been easy for me, but the process also hasn’t been as difficult as this one. My past books have called up a certain chronological narrative that this one doesn’t and can’t. Even though I called forth the past in both books, which interrupted each narrative then moved it forward, I can’t do that with this collection. In fact, I’m not even sure where to start.
I’m not frustrated with the process because I know that every book asks for something different from the writer. This one is a different creature than others I’ve written. To put the collection in order now may harm the process; I believe that when the narrative is ready to present itself, it will. My instinct is to take the poems out of the order I half-imposed on them this week, remove the poems that don’t fit the current focus, and keep writing. Forcing a structure on the work when I’m not ready won’t help me think and it won’t help my writing.
There is no right way to order a manuscript, that’s what I’ve noticed over the years. It’s not a perfect process. It’s messy and frustrating and joyful. As writers, we have to follow our instincts and decide when the work is ready to become a book. And if it isn’t ready, that’s okay. There’s no time limit. The only pressure is external, but we can’t do that to ourselves. We have to listen to and trust the work– that’s the voice that matters.