I’ve never sat down to write a book of poetry; I just write poems. When enough poems accumulated that I felt were of publishable quality, I started to think about putting together a book. The current manuscript has been through several cycles of: select poems; assemble manuscript; send out; receive rejection. Each time, I’ve altered and refined the selection of poems, changed the title, etc. At what point does it become a different manuscript? Hard to say.
The most recent cycle started late last fall. I sat down and went through my poems archive and picked out about a hundred to a hundred and twenty poems I thought were among my “best.” “Best” is a pretty fluid criterion in poetry, and has meant different things to me at different times. In this case, I was aiming for a certain level of brilliance in imagery, as well as technical soundness and clarity of message. (I don’t mean I was picking out “preachy” poems; I was just trying to avoid obscurity, an occupational hazard of poetry.)
I was targeting a length of about 90 poems, so I culled. In the process, I found some poems that, although up to the level I was looking for, just didn’t seem to fit thematically or structurally with the rest of the collection. Now, I like variety; when I pick up a book of poems, I like them to not be too much alike. However, what I’ve observed about published poetry makes me think editors prefer a stronger unity of tone, form or formalism, and theme. So I eliminated several poems on that basis.
In the process, I realized that the poems I was left with fell into two roughly equal groups, one associated with a cluster of emotions I loosely called “dearth,” the other associated with emotions I called “plenty.” To expand a little, “plenty” included things like ecstasy, curiosity and wonder; “dearth” included poems about both physical and emotional needs, loss, yearning. These are very subjective classifications, of course; if the book is published, and you read it, I fully expect you’ll find poems in the “dearth” section that, to you, evoke plenty, and vice versa. But that’s poetry for you.
So now I had the idea that I would organize the manuscript into two sections. As I sorted the poems, I found one that made a perfect “hinge” between the sections: it refers to Pharaoh’s dream (in the story of Joseph) about the seven good years followed by seven drought years. So I placed that poem in its own section, in the middle of the manuscript: you’ll find it below.
Meanwhile I had realized that a lot (I mean, a lot) of poems in the manuscript featured fire or burning, and several featured scorpions. (I had unfortunate encounters with scorpions as a child.) A great title popped into my head! The manuscript went out under The Scorpion’s Burning Kiss. (I should mention that there’s only one kiss in any of the poems, and it’s imaginary.)
I needed titles for the sections, so more close reading followed. I found that the “plenty” section contained a lot of fire/burning poems and a lot of poems about rain, water, and the coming of fall. So I titled the section “Burning and Quenching,” and arranged the poems to more or less alternate fire poems with water or dampness poems. I also tried (which I always do) to put a very strong poem at the beginning and at the end of each section.
If you’ve glanced at my blog, you know that I write a fair amount of formal poetry, A quick look at the blog label list shows 1595 poems and 530 free-verse poems, meaning that poems in some kind of form number over 1000 (there’s some slop in these categories). However, I had pruned away a lot of formal poetry in the earlier steps. I was surprised to find that the “dearth” section still contained equal numbers of formal and free-verse poems.
A good rule of thumb I discovered when giving readings is: alternate free-verse and formal poems. (Obviously you don’t do strict alternation unless you have almost equal numbers.) I found the sound-change from formal to free-verse and vice-versa refreshing both for me and for my listeners. So I followed the same principle here, and titled the section “Imaginary Kisses.” (The one kiss I mentioned occurs in a poem in this section.) The section also moves thematically from concrete forms of dearth (homelessness, torture) to emotional and then spiritual forms (homesickness, yearning for God).
I keep all my poems as computer documents, but somewhere between the second and third paragraphs above, I printed out the ones I was working with. Theoretically, one could do all this without using paper until the final manuscript is ready to be printed (and if you’re submitting electronically, you might not even do that). But– although I’m as paper-free as any poet I know– it’s just not practical to manage that many files on a computer screen. Reading through poems one after another, sorting them into stacks, putting them in different orders… these steps really demand paper.
These steps also demand both close reading and reading “from a distance.” As the manuscript took shape, I got a sense of the “big picture” that was forming. Throughout the process, I had to be ready to move or jettison poems that didn’t fit with the section or the manuscript overall. Some of my favorite poems bit the dust in this way! I console myself that they could get published in journals, or perhaps in a later book.
Harder than saw-blade steel, this gem
was surely never wood. What tender green
could grow from stone-cold orange cambium?
Yet growth-rings, seven fat and seven lean
recall both plenty-years and years of drought.
Intruded quartz, a jagged mass of white
recalls the thunder-strike and wooden shouts
of breaking. Sunk in montmorillonite,
a strange clay-change turns trees to stone. Medusa’s
eyes were not as potent– only meat
was hers to alter so. But clay reduces
everything to mineral at last,
a color-coded skeleton, complete
recording of a lost organic past.