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.
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?