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?

Swallow Tongue Gets Revised Again

I’m nearing the end of another major revision.

I first laid out the poems and organized them by theme. What I found is that my poems fit pretty neatly into child, lover, mother poems, excepting two which I pulled out. The rest of them were already working thematically or could be reworked easily.

The child and mother poem sections had a good 10-13 poems each, but the lover one had nearly 30, so I decided to go through that section again and see if there was another way to divide it. I found that nearly half dealt with some sort of violence and the other half didn’t, so I could really just split that section in half.

Then I had to figure out how to begin the book. My po friend had made some suggestions for new beginning poems, and I started thinking about each of them and how they might help begin the narrative.

One, in particular, now titled “Song” but once called “Philomela,” really had all of the things I wanted the book to start with and is basically the title poem because it recounts the story of a hawk tearing out the tongue of a swallow (based on the myth of Philomela).

I chose “Song” to begin the book, but didn’t want to launch into lover poems just yet which it would be more closely linked to, so now I’m thinking about having “Song” be a prologue poem (or proem).

April Ossmann said, “As a reader, my expectation for a prologue is that it be one of the strongest and most representative poems in the collection, yet poets often choose a weak one, placing it in the most visible spot in the manuscript.” I’ve talked with my po friend, and we both think it’s a strong poem and could work, so I’m hoping I wouldn’t be doing exactly what she cautions against!

I wanted the child section to come next. It came first in the last manuscript order, but I’m completely re-ordering the whole section, and I just like it.

Next, I stuck the violent love poems since the child section is an easy transition to this one. Then the mother poems, which begin violent and end sweet, and then lastly, the sort of “sweet” love poems ending with being abandoned.

I still need to fine-tune the order, as well as read it through from beginning to end, to make sure it makes sense. So far, I’m pleased. I got the four sections I wanted, and thematically each of them is really tight. After I lock the order, I need to go back through and see if there are places where I can make the poems ring of each other more as well as do line edits to keep the poems really tight.

My next manuscript re-ordering should include reversing its current order, going from abandoned to mother to violence to child. Hopefully I won’t ever have to get there, but it’d be an interesting idea.

Onward, writers!

The Nature of Revising and Revising and Revising

The reason why an MFA program is so helpful is once I’m able to figure out what’s not quite right with someone else’s work, I start to see it in my own. It’s been a while since I’ve done anything akin to critiquing someone else’s work, so when a poet friend of mine asked to read my manuscript (Swallow Tongue) not only did I take him up on it, I asked to read his as well.

This weekend amid lesson planning, Memphis Madness, a wedding, and a great local production of Young Frankenstein, I went through it for the first round and made organizational suggestions. They were suggestions I needed to hear myself, and I need to go back through it again to look more at it poem by poem.

For my own manuscript, I’m feeling resistant to plowing through it right now. I came up with plenty else I could do this weekend instead of working on it, and then last night I got an e-mail back from an independent press I had queried and then asked for my full:, “Your submission made it to our final round of reading, but unfortunately we have limited resources & cannot accept everything we enjoy. There was a lot to admire about your work, but not enough within this particular iteration of the manuscript hit us just right to warrant publication at this time.”

Of course, that’s never good news to get, but as Traci Brimhall says in her essay, “Notes from the Slush Pile: Advice on Book Contests and Some Confessions,” sometimes we send a book out before it’s ready. Though ST got a semifinalist nod from Crab Orchard Series First Book Poetry Award and now this “close, but not quite” e-mail from an independent press, it’s obviously got potential, but it does need some work. :/

What is good about this news is that I can start editing (any day now) and feel no hesitation about sending my manuscript out to a couple of the contests with upcoming deadlines.

This morning, instead of revising, I looked up general information about revising and re-ordering and found a couple of helpful essays:

April Ossman’s “Thinking Like an Editor: How to Order Your Poetry Manuscript

Jeffrey Levine’s “On Making the Poetry Manuscript

I remember reading plenty of posts from Sandy Longhorn about her reading her own manuscript with an editor’s eye, really taking a step back and pulling out and putting in poems. Her hard work paid off and her second book is now in print.

I’m having some trouble letting go enough to be the editor for my manuscript, so I’m actually hopeful that my po friend who I exchanged manuscripts with can help me out. I know if I really want to push this manuscript, I’m going to do what everyone suggests: read each poem, assess its strengths and weaknesses, think more about themes and ordering. Right now, I’m just in the whining/struggling phase. Give me a day or so and hopefully I’ll snap out of it.

Hope you are faring better on your writing adventures!

The Nature of Editing a Poetry Collection

Sometimes you’re at a book festival and it’s one you’ve only stopped in at because by random chance perusing through the schedule you realized a friend of yours was reading and you wanted to love and support them by sitting in the audience and being ready to shoo out/spear any texters/hecklers/etc. Sometimes when you go to see that friend before that reading, you meet their poet friend, and they are a poet you have admired, and not only have you now met them, but they’re really pretty and exceptionally nice, and it makes you want to buy their book and get them to sign it, and you do, and you crack their little book open while your husband is driving you back to your hotel and suddenly you realize you are holding something that provides you with all of these ideas for what you could do with your own little book and it is like everything is right with the world.

That poet was TJ Jarrett, and her book, Ain’t No Grave, is fabulous. Really. Please read it.

Here are some of the things that seemed relevant in thinking about my own book:

  • Her book has five sections, each named. The first and third sections have 10 poems. The second and fourth sections have 7, and the last has 15.
  • Form and length are pretty diverse. No two poems next to one another look the same and a terse two stanza poem might be next to a two-pager.

Here are thoughts I’ve had in response:

  1. Should I add one or more new section breaks?
  2. Should I title all of the section breaks?
  3. Should I play with form more?

Things I’ve done:

  1. Played with form pretty drastically and done some re-ordering so several poems of similar form aren’t all clumped together.
  2. Considered new organizing structures. I really like the sections as they are, but there are some poems that could definitely be moved as they are a little more open. I also like the idea of splitting apart my “meatier” middle section so it doesn’t get so bogged down and gets up the momentum.

I wish I could say this manuscript was “finished” and that I’ve moved onto other projects, but it’s not and I haven’t. Thankfully, several contests have deadlines coming up to help me push ahead:

American Poetry Review /Honickman First Book Prize (Deadline: 10/31)

Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize (Deadline: 10/31)

Perugia Press Prize (Deadline: 11/15)

The Yale Series of Younger Poets (Deadline: 11/15)

Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Book Prize (Deadline: 11/15)

Walt Whitman Award (Deadline: 11/15)

Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition Awards (Deadline: 11/18)

A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize (Deadline: 11/30)

If you are submitting your own manuscript, good luck! We certainly all need it.

Happy writing or revising or submitting or reading. 🙂


Good News

My little book, Swallow Tongue, was a semifinalist for the 2013 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Since my little book has never been a finalist of any designation, I was really humbled and excited to get the news. CO also does their contest a little differently as I wasn’t told S.T.’s status until after they had also announced the winner. I imagine it makes things a lot less stressful that I wasn’t told on the front end and then had to wait until the final winner was announced (and find out it wasn’t mine to win).

Either way, just getting a finalist nod from any contest, let alone such a big one, is a really great honor. It also means that maybe I should keep at it!

I also have another poem forthcoming from The Los Angeles Review. It’s now called “Wild Oats,” but was originally “The Sheep Child” and went through many, many incarnations until it made it to the prose poem that was finally accepted by two of my favorite editors in the world (you know who you are). 🙂

This is the third poem of mine to grace their pages. I’m making a really conscious decision this year to focus on building relationships with journals, and The Los Angeles Review is one I love.

Happy writing! 🙂

The Nature of Revision

I read this article on revision yesterday and found the concept fascinating. To boil it down, Craig Fehrman argues that our idea of revision–making large changes–is a modern invention, brought on by first the use of the typewriter and made even easier by the invention of the computer. He argues that writers centuries ago rarely made huge changes. They might make small line or word adjustments here or there, but the gist of what they originally threw down was the same. He explains that this might have been because paper was a luxury, an expensive commodity, hence measly writers couldn’t really afford to make wholesale changes, especially when it would mean handwriting it all!

Once the typewriter was invented, the cost of paper was also less and writers such as Hemingway would often hand-write their drafts and then type them up. Adding that step made it much easier to make changes and helped make the writer (as explained by W.H. Auden) more aware of glaring defects they might not have seen on the page. Today, revision is a slightly different beast. He says our use of computers means we often don’t save or have printed-out copies of drafts, so we might just have one “living document.”

Talking about this with a poet-friend yesterday, it made me realize that I hadn’t looked at an older version of my manuscript, Swallow Tongue, since…well…it was the current version. Thankfully, Submittable keeps records of all the files we’ve ever submitted, so I simply clicked the “Declined” tab and searched through the list to look at the .pdf of the manuscript I submitted last year to the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award (btw, the deadline for this year’s contest is July 8th!). I had trouble finding it at first, but then I remembered that I actually submitted it under the title “Predator’s Tongue.”

Going through that old manuscript, a version very similar to the one I submitted as my thesis and defended, made me hyper-aware and glad of most of the changes I had made since. Plenty of the poems in that first version have been changed dramatically, placed in another section of the manuscript, and/or been cut. I also found a couple of poems that, while they didn’t work in a previous draft, I could easily add them into my newest version.

Reading that old version made me dive back in to another round of edits on its current incarnation. I found myself wishing I could just make tiny changes like the pre-Modernist poets and call it a day, but we writers today all seem to fall in line with the mantra: “good writing comes from good revision!” By the end of the evening, I had re-framed another version. I wish I could say what number draft this is, but I haven’t kept a record!

Changes made this go-around:

A suggestion I received from a reader was that I consider making all of the poems in the first section (a section strongly centered on daughter/parent relationships) seem to be spoken by the same speaker. She said it sort of felt like whiplash going between first and third person and when the speaker changed as well. Sometimes, the parent was the speaker; sometimes the daughter was. Traci Brimhall’s Rookery seems to have a cohesive speaker throughout each section, so I used her book as an inspiration. I changed nearly all of the poems to the first person point of view and switched the p.o.v to all being that of a female speaker.

I also moved a couple of poems that no longer fit to another section and brought in a few others than I then changed to fit. For example, “The Swamp Wife” was currently in my second section. This is a poem I really like for its language and sort of surreal qualities. I needed a poem that had those aspects in it in my first section, so I brought it in and changed the title to “The Swamp Daughter” and changed the husband in the poem to the father instead. Since this poem ends up following one about a daughter and father, it works well in expanding the idea of the relationship set up in the one before it.

The second section is pretty similar to what it was before, excluding some poems from it were moved elsewhere and two more were added in. There’s lots of whiplash going on, but I think it works better here than it did in the first section. I also played with the order some more to sort of make it more tense and dark. It is also currently the longest section, so I really wanted the energy to have a clear rise, plateau, and then fall in preparation for the softer third section.The last section also did not change much, with just one or two added additions.

I also played with using “and” vs. “&.” Whether using ampersands really does much has been a running debate in the writing world, and I myself refused to use them for the longest time. I’m now trying it with some of my poems because I do think it changes how a line is viewed, whether if it’s with irritation as the critic Alfred Corn says or with a change in meaning. Visually, I find them appealing, this “different” character on the page. My eyes run over it much more quickly than an “and,” to the point that it seems that I combine the words before and after it more strongly than if they were joined with an “and.” “Tea & honey” seems much more linked to me than “tea and honey.” I like the idea of using them when I desire a more muscular or tenacious connection. I want the ampersand, at least in my manuscript, to do more than just appeal visually. 

With this round done, I think it’s time to send it out again.

Oh writing friends, how do you revise?

Weekly Update

The deadline for some of the biggest Poetry First Book Contests is TOMORROW. Thankfully, I’ve done quite a lot of work on my manuscript, and I have a couple of hours free today to push through the rest of it and, hopefully, come to an agreeable consensus that it’s, for this round, “done.”

Ever since I printed out the second round of revisions, a sort of laziness has taken over me and it’s been harder to get myself to hunker down and tear through them like I did for the first round. I’m so glad at what I have edited so far though because I found some glaring errors (like repeating the word “dolly” three different times in a poem, and in another poem, I stopped mid-edit and had a sentence ending on “the.”). I also did a couple of shifts in terms of the order, so the last ordering I did is holding pretty strong so far.

This last edit is really about nailing down each poem. There are a few that keep flying away from me, and I’m going to have to figure out what to do with them.

Thankfully, tomorrow I will send this manuscript off into the world to 4 contests and won’t have to worry about it for some time.


In other news, acceptances! YAYYYY!

One of my writing goals for this year was to get one of my fiction stories published. This has been a goal of agony. Writing fiction for me is incredibly hard and so is editing fiction in an attempt to make it good enough to get published.

When I looked back over the last year, I had sent my story “The Last Hurrah” out 29 times. I got several nice rejections (from big journals even, like OneStory and Camera Obscura), but no acceptances. I knew because it’d gotten some nice rejections that it was close, so I just kept working at it. I finally decided to submit to a journal that had a word requirement of 2000 words, so I cut a total of 4 pages off the story, and what that did was remove some really irrelevant scenes that I had been holding onto since the very first draft that didn’t really do anything emotionally or move the narrative very much (things I’m learning about fiction…). That particular journal didn’t accept this version, but Panka journal I adore and have had work featured in before, did, so “The Last Hurrah” is now forthcoming in the February 2013 issue of Pank. 

That same day, I got an acceptance e-mail from the wonderful Stacey Lynn Brown, editor at Sou’wester, telling me they’d like to accept my poem “The Swamp Wife” (draft notes here) in a forthcoming issue.

Here’s to the final push. May your final pushes come together as well!