Organizing a Poetry Thesis, Part 2 of 1,000

My thesis adviser gave me back my rough draft yesterday and suggested I start figuring out how to organize it, arrange it by theme, motif, etc. As he pointed out, my poems are violent. More than half of them deal with a literal death and a third of the remaining deal with some sort of violence (emotional, physical, sexual, etc.). I don’t know what that’s about, but I’ve heard once that we all write about sex and death. I guess I’ve got death covered.

There are many ways to organize a draft of poems or of any work. I’m grateful that just last month I laid out all the pieces for the Spring 2012 issue of The Pinch, so I have had some practice in intuiting location, harmonies, pieces that ring or build on/off each other. The important thing about this rough draft, is getting the poems to build off each other in such a way that it drives at something bigger. Lofty goal? Oh yes.

Jeffery Levine has an interesting article on how to organize a manuscript posted here.

Some things I’m taking away from that article:

1. Just because someone published/didn’t publish one of your poems doesn’t mean it’s better/worse than other poems. Just because something got published doesn’t mean it definitively has more worth than anything else. Sometimes our masterpieces take a little while to find a place. Include poems you really like and think are good in your manuscript. Definitely include those in the front. Don’t let your idea of which poem is “good” be influenced by which one’s have been published. Leave out the weak ones entirely.

2. Revise, revise, revise.

3. “Make sure the poems that begin your collection establish the voice and credibility of the manuscript. They should introduce the questions, issues, characters, images, and sources of conflict/tension, etc., that concern you and that will be explored in the book.”–Many of my poems deal with predators/attackers, etc. and prey/victims. My thesis adviser suggested I call it “Predator’s Tongue,” since many of my poems also include speech, tongues, mouths, etc. As I was sitting around last night trying to play with the order, I put one of my poems where a hawk tears out a swallow’s tongue at the beginning of the manuscript, followed by a sex poem where a woman runs off at the end “as if chasing prey.” Those both inform the dichotomy of the real and the sexual with physical violence and for me, make the beginning really evocative.

4. “Once you have created an order that you love, think about dividing the book into separate sections.”–This seems TOTALLY daunting. I have to find an initial order and then divide it AGAIN? He makes a good point though. Choosing to divide a work into sections forces us to not only make the poems interact at a more personal level, but also see how they might be revised to inform the greater trajectory of the work. Oh God. SO MUCH WORK AHEAD OF ME. When I interviewed Beth Ann Fennelly for The Pinch in Fall 2011, she talked about how every time she placed as a finalist for a contest or overall lost, she re-organized the work, constantly playing with a new order until she finally won the Kenyon Review Prize in 2001.

Those of you lucky enough to have already tackled the hefty prospect of organizing a thesis, what tools or tricks have you used? How many times did you submit/have you submitted?  What keeps you going?

3 thoughts on “Organizing a Poetry Thesis, Part 2 of 1,000

  1. Hope it goes well. I’d like to organize a manuscript one day, but I feel like I’m still finding my style. That’s a bit crazy considering I started writing poetry at age 13! I guess there were some years in there when I didn’t write much. Right now I’m finding that it’s better for me to go back to a notebook and pen for first drafts, even if they sit there for weeks before I type and revise.

    When you talk about dividing your thesis into sections, I’m unclear whether that’s how you’d submit it for publication (with separate heads for these sections) or if these are sort of invisible sections just to help you. I don’t see many poetry books divided into sections with the exception of collections from previously published work. Maybe it’s being done, but just not in the books I’ve bought recently.

    1. I believe I am still figuring out my own style! I hope I never “settle” into one.

      As suggested by the article I was responding to, he said putting your manuscript into sections would help you think about organizing them into smaller sections, revising them accordingly, as well as thinking about how these smaller sections would fit together. I think it’s more of an exercise of isolating and then connecting. I have read several first books that use “sections,” but I don’t think I’ll employ that with mine. Beth Ann Fennelly’s Open House does that, and I liked it all right. Carnations by Anthony Carelli, which won the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets, doesn’t, and I thought that book was pretty fabulous. Which ones have you read that were particularly good with no sections?

  2. I’m reading one now that won the Starrett prize in ’09 and doesn’t have sections. It’s called Paper Anniversary by Bobby Rogers — a book that was mysteriously missing in action from the Central Branch, so I ended up buying it. I still wonder what happened to that library book, stolen or shelved in the wrong place….

    Some of the other books I’m thinking of are just so concentrated in theme I guess it wouldn’t have made sense to make sections: Ted Kooser’s Valentines and Ferlinghetti’s San Francisco Poems (which I got signed recently!! : )

    I’ll have to check out Carnations.

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