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?

Presses with fee-free open reading periods

For those of you (maybe like myself) who are tired of the contest hype (and the pull on your pocketbook), here a couple of presses with fee-free open reading periods:

Black Ocean Press (Full-length poetry manuscript only)–Submit full + cover letter

Black Lawrence Press (novel, novella, short story collection (full-length and chapbook), poetry (full-length and chapbook), biography & cultural studies, translation (from the German and the French), and creative nonfiction)–Submit full + cover letter

dancing girl press (poetry chapbook only)–Submit full. No simultaneous submissions. Limited to women poets.

Brooklyn Arts Press (Poetry (full-length and chapbook), short fiction, novels, nonfiction, and art)–Query letter + work sample

Bat Cat Press ( poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and other forms (such as manuscripts that include illustrations or other media). Collections of short pieces are very welcome as are long and short single works – novels, novellas, poems, stories, etc. For their 2013 submission period, they’re especially interested in seeing collections of short fiction and prose poetry)–Submit full

BlazeVOX (poetry, short stories, experimental fiction, literary criticism (including companions, studies and histories)–Submit full + cover letter

Manuscript Redux

With several large first poetry book contests on the horizon (namely, Yale, Walt Whitman, and APR), I’ve spent the last several days working on my manuscript, Predator’s Tongue.

First, I printed out the whole manuscript and read each poem aloud, cutting and trimming as I went along.

Then, I accessed order. I’d been thinking about flipping the current first and second sections, and after getting some feedback from some friends, I decided to go ahead and do that. Moving the current first section to the second one wasn’t going to be easy. I had ordered the current first section as leading up to the current second section. Now that I was switching those two sections, I have to completely re-order both sections so the transition makes sense.

I worked through the current first section (which will now be the second section). This section has a lot of dark farm/mythical poems in it, so I wanted to add some realistic ones to play with how the reader reads a realistic poem juxtaposed with one of the other styles. Most of the poems were also written in the third person, so I added in some realistic first person poems, and also changed one of the dark farm poems to first person. This section is also particularly violent, so I moved a couple more violent poems from the last section into this one. Since this section would now be followed by a “love” section, I also wanted the poems to slowly transition into being softer as they went along, so I moved some more tender poems to the end, and I think the order of this came out perfectly.

I’ve got the current second section (now first) and third section to order now. By flipping the first and second sections, I’m really changing the arc of the whole manuscript. Before, it went from violent poems to mostly child/parent poems to adult love poems. Now, the child/parent poems start first, with the violent poems next, and the love poems last. Because the child/parent poems section now starts first, I have to make sure that the strongest poems in that section lead it and then order the rest of the poems to build enough suspense to throw the reader into the second section.

When it comes to the third section, I have to reorder all of it as well. It needs to be an easy transition from the second section to this one, and I have to re-think the ending. The ending always needs the strongest poems since it’s also the ending of the whole manuscript. I also originally chose the very first poem and the very last poem of my manuscript because they were similar thematically and worked as good dialogue pieces. Now that my very first poem has changed, I have to think about about a new last poem.

I’ve also been wondering if the title (Predator’s Tongue) will still work since the “predator” aspect is going to be a little more subtle in this revision. The mouth/talking/tongue/speech/silence aspect will still be very present, so I’m wondering if Swallow Tongue might work better. A swallow’s tongue gets torn off in one of the poems (yes, I did say they were violent…) and the other meanings of “swallow”: to eat, to put up with (swallowed the insults and kept on working), to suppress (swallow one’s feelings), to devour (a building swallowed up by fire), to take back (swallow one’s words), to mumble (the actor swallowed his lines). The title also makes me think of when Hannibal Lecter convinced his cell neighbor to swallow his own tongue (which he dies from), which…could be good or bad. Thoughts about all that??

/sigh. So much work ahead of me, but I have 10 days to continue working through it. Thank goodness!




I just submitted Predator’s Tongue to its very first First Book Award. It feels like I put it on its very first bus to kindergarten and that I hope it’ll make friends and see more of the world. It also feels really, really weird, like, “I just did that? Wasn’t I freaking out about doing that like three days ago?”

In any case, my manuscript needed an overhaul and somehow, magically, the time and the right ideas came together.

After going back and forth for a few hours, I finally decided to cut my section-break headings. Keep the pages with the italicized quotes, but leave off the names (“Animal,” “Child,” “Adult”). Really, I felt like the “titles” were too constricting. It was suggested to me to put my best work in the front of the manuscript, as well as work that hints at what comes later, so I needed some dark farm, some confessional, some myth, and I needed that to all go together and create a harmony. It wouldn’t make such sense with the “Animal” heading shadowing everything.

Then, I moved onto re-ordering, which is quite possibly the most fun and least fun part of dealing with a collection.

I started with re-ordering the first section. Most of the poems in this one haven’t moved around much, but I wanted to add in another poem and re-order some to help foster this new one. What I look for when I order is things that ring off each other: similar subjects, similar ideas, words, lines, images, etc. For example, I have poem that is the story of a woman who loses a pet lamb that she had that was sort of like a baby to her. I then follow it with a poem called “The Sheep Child.” Some are less obvious than that. One poem ends with the line “becomes young again,” and the poem following it is about a speaker reflecting on themselves as a baby.

I also choose the placement of certain poems based on whether they’ll create interesting incongruities. For example, having one poem about a really awful marriage followed by a poem about a speaker talking about her husband. Because the reader has this idea of the “awful marriage” already in his or her head, it shadows the meaning of the marriage poem that follows it. I’m always really interested in how to create different shades of meaning and how to form narratives from placement.

In terms of re-ordering, I’m also thinking about arc: does this section or whole book lead to something? I had the biggest trouble with the second section. While I really liked the order and progression of it, the stronger poems were really at the end, and I needed to have some at the beginning of the section. I tried moving the stronger poems to the beginning, but then, that left the not-as-strong poems just at the end of the section, which I didn’t want either. So, I started folding them in. Maybe one or two strong poems, with a not-as-strong poem after it.

I also decided I wanted to take two poems from the third section and put it in this section. These two poems were more “cross-over” poems. Originally, my second section was just poems about children or parent/child relationships, and my third section was about adult relationships. The two poems I wanted to put in the second section were obviously written by an adult speaker about the adult’s present, but the focus was on their parent relationships, so I wanted those to be included in the no-longer-titled-but-loosely-defined “child” section instead. Once I did that, I had a real clear sense of the arc. I still had the strong poems at the front, a clear progression, and some fun turns I discovered, as well as two poems that could end the section and clearly facilitate a transition into the next one. Wowza.

Lastly, I worked on the third section. I added a poem back in I had recently deleted, and added in two new poems that had pretty clear places to go. I re-checked how this section progressed and was really pleased with it.

Before sending it off, I then did one last read-through of the whole manuscript, paying attention to cutting any words, and checking that the order felt solid and made sense. There are some places that I felt were a little shaky. For one, there are a couple of poems that I chose not to revise. I’ve been thinking about revisions for them, but nothing has really come up, and I wanted to focus on the work I could picture changes for. Also, some of the pieces in the second section did still feel a little out of place, which could be because they’ve been in the same place for a long time, or because they haven’t found their fit yet. If my book doesn’t win its very first First Book Award, this is a section I think I’ll come back to. It may require replacing some poems, but we’ll see how time weighs out on that matter.

Thanks to all of you that talked me down on my last post! I’m really excited about letting my book out into the world for the first time. Who knows what might happen?

Happy writing (and editing and submitting and editing and submitting…)!

Manuscript Pre-Send Out Panic

The deadline for the First Book Award from Crab Orchard Review is just four days away. I had this idea that I would work on my manuscript, “Predator’s Tongue”, while I was in Spain for a month and have a well-hammered piece by today. Well, that didn’t happen. Then, I wrote a couple of poems I really want in the manuscript, which requires more work: looking at how pieces ring off each other, how the narrative arc is developed, etc. etc. and so on. I’ve also been working on revisions for a couple, and they don’t feel done yet. Sort of far from done, really. I feel incredibly unsure. I do still have FOUR days to do something about this, but I’m finding myself feeling like I should just hide my manuscript in a box and wait until I feel like pulling it out (which may be never).

So, I’ll sort of brainstorm thoughts on here:

1.) My manuscript is currently divided into three sections (Animal, Child, Adult). The first two focus on different types of trauma (emotional, spiritual, physical, sexual, etc.). Many of the poems in the “Animal” section could be put into the “Adult” section, which means I could just have two sections. But I do like how the poems in the “Animal” section have a different ring to them because of the section heading. I also like having three instead of two section breaks, so if I decided to change it, I’d need to figure another one out, or cut the headings and just have blank pages…I think blank pages look weird in poetry books…Have any of you used blank pages for section breaks? Why? What do you think it accomplishes?

2.) This manuscript is a mix of myth/mythical poems and regular ones. Sometimes, I think that’s working since they balance one another out and break up the flow; other times, I look at the more confessional-style poems and think, “All of these need to be weirder! WEIRDER IS BETTER!” Other times, I think I should scavenge this manuscript for all the myth poems to stick into another manuscript, and leave the bones of this one to rot in some box in my computer room (Isn’t that a happy thought?).

3.) The other train of thought I’m following is, “Why don’t I just send it out as it is and see what happens? Yeah, it’s $25 that could be wasted, but wouldn’t it be cool to have enough faith in my work and in the process to TRY?”


Argh, argh, argh. Let’s see what happens in the next four days, shall we? Might be nothing. Might also be something.

Thesis: The Order (Maybe? Hopefully? Please?)

In my post-AWP fatigue, I was still able to make huge strides on the final draft of Predator’s Tongue I’ll be turning into my thesis committee. While at AWP, I finally figured out the themes I needed for the section breaks:


-Focus on poems that have animals in them or deal with animalistic brutality.


-Focus on poems that point at daughter/parent relationships


-Focus on poems that deal with adult women/adult relationships (a lot of these poems also point back at the animal or daughter themes, which helps the building of the arc)

I really like the idea of the evolution of the sections, going from animal to child (daughter) to adult woman. I also think these sections help me really focus on how to make the poems resound off one another in smaller groups. I’m also spending a lot of time thinking about each section as a new “book” that compliments a “book” after it. What would be the best ending poems? The best beginning poems for each section? I’m also realizing I could incorporate the animal poems into the daughter or women sections, which I may decide to do later.

I am having to cut and re-work several poems, which is, in some cases, easy, while in others, really difficult. I am also adding the myth poems that I’ve been writing currently, since they work well in this framework, and I could always pull them out to put in a different manuscript altogether.

I’ll keep working at this, but I feel really positive that I figured out these section breaks and have some clear idea on how to edit things from here. Hurrah!