When is it time to breakup? (with a poetry manuscript)

I recently finished a manuscript overhaul and submitted to a couple of contests, and now I am trying to figure out if Swallow Tongue is done and it’s time to finally move onto a newer project.

It’s a hard question, especially because I’ve returned to this poetry collection so many times to tweak individual poems, re-think the order, change the narrative, add in newer poems, take out weaker ones.

After this revision, it feels very done, like I’ve done raised it and now it’s time for it to get a job and an apartment in the city. It’s time for it to get out. But, is it really?

I then came across this interview with Traci Brimhall in 2011 after her second manuscript won a contest.

How did you know your manuscripts were ready to go out?
Part of it is knowing when you’re ready to break up with the work. With Rookery, I felt ready to move on, but I kept coming back to the manuscript to tweak poems or reorder. So I broke up with the manuscript a section at a time. I looked at the poems in each section and then wrote breakup poems where I tried to have it out with my obsessions so I could be done with them once and for all. Of course obsessions follow you wherever your work goes, but I did feel like I put my obsessions’ belongings on the lawn and told them to get lost. Each breakup poem became the final poem in each section of the book…

While I don’t feel the need to write individual breakup poems for each section of Swallow Tongue, a breakup poem is a great idea to letting me think about and move on from the obsessions that held me in this manuscript.

S.T. is really loss heavy. Every character is dragging around the weight of someone or something that has left them, so I decided to try to write a poem in which the speaker leaves something and it frees him/her instead. I also decided to parody some of the mythic stuff, so it’d be easy to leave it behind (at least for this manuscript…).

I started with making fun of Zeus’s aegis and swallowing hearts, and ended up with the leaving. All prose form, and currently a sloppy mess, but I did like this line:

“To vacate a body is to leave everything, to not hover in the base above your sternum, to not mouth something in the air that sounds like crying.”

In the interview above, I was comforted that Brimhall’s Rookery was submitted to seventeen contests before being selected.

Swallow Tongue‘s stats are as follows:

9 contests (currently at 3)

4 independent presses (currently at 2)


Reader, when did you know your little manuscript was done?

4 thoughts on “When is it time to breakup? (with a poetry manuscript)

  1. really interesting quote, thank you for sharing! i had never thought of it that way, but i definitely feel that way about Keeping Me Still–i’ve just moved on to a different part of my life and I’m glad to close up this chapter, move on to other things–i’m excited to try new stuff and new topics in my poems. after a while, writing about the same things, it starts to feel like the same poem again and again, you know? anyway, i will say.. i think it adds unnecessary stress to count how many you’ve submitted to and compare it to how many contests/presses other writers submitted to before they got published. just like some people meet and marry younger than others isn’t a measure of them being better people, a manuscript finding a publisher quickly is not necessarily an indication that it is a better manuscript than one that took a while to find a home. i think of my writing professor from undergrad, bobby c. rogers–his poetry manuscript is Fantastic, and it took him years to find its home. anyway, this comment got long!, just wanted to say that although that hunger and urgency to publish is useful in that it gives you energy to submit and revise and chase after it with a passion, it can cause poets to stress a bit more than they should. in some ways its a comfort to know traci brimhall’s book took 17 tries…but for me, that information could be less encouraging if your book were to go past that 17 mark. i know that i used to think (as a college sophomore, so) louise gluck published her first book at such and such age, so i have until then, otherwise i am no good. which is sort of ridiculous!… just my two (or maybe ten?) cents!

    1. I so agree with you! I guess the number didn’t worry me because I’m not too near that one yet, but I can totally see it bothering me once it did…Thankfully, I’m not in stress mode yet. I think, for me, it was helpful to write it down and just try to get a realistic idea of how many places I was sending it to and how much money I’m spending. I’ve always said that once I spent more than the amount of a particular contest prize, I’d stop sending to contests. We’ll see though. I don’t know really. I really need to submit to more independent presses, and hope for something to hit like yours did!

  2. Thanks for this. I think I’ll try a breakup poem for the chapbook I’ve been working on. Hope to hear some good news on Swallow Tongue soon!

    1. I never did that with my chapbook, but I imagine it would work really well. I really did things backwards. I wrote the full-length and then pulled out the strongest poems that fit together to make a really small chapbook because getting the full-length published just then wasn’t working out. Good luck with letting it go! Maybe the breakup poem will help you in moving toward a bigger manuscript?

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