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How to put together a poetry manuscript, part 1

I’m putting together my first poetry manuscript: gathering and editing poems, organizing and reorganizing them into some kind of order. Since I’ve never done this before, I wanted a little help.

I found an excellent article by Jeffrey Levine, an award-winning poet, and Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Press. In Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Poetry Manuscript: Some Ideas on Creation and Order, Levine gives an overview of the entire process from what font to use to how to find an effective title to tips on ordering the poems.

For me, ordering the poems was the biggest challenge. What seems as if it should be so simple, is not.

Levine advises: “Spread all of your poems out on the floor, a floor that does not need to be disturbed, and look at them. Read them. Live with them. See what relationships seem to be developing between the poems. Which poem wants to talk to that poem?”

I sorted my poems into piles according to theme but hesitated to spread them out on the floor for two reasons: 1) my house is small and since both my husband and I work from home, we use every inch of space;  2) I have three cats that LOVE to lay on any piece of paper they can find. Seriously, I am not joking. These cats will even eat whole pages they do not like (if you don’t believe me see this post “Writers and their cats“).

Anyway, back to poetry…I did find a spot in my sunroom to lay them out. I shuffled a few poems around until I felt I had the “right” order and went to bed. I woke the next morning and dressed in three layers of clothing to visit my poems in the sunroom (which is freezing cold in winter except for those 7.5 days when the sun peeks through our clouds). Holding my warm mug of coffee as if it were the only heat source left in the world, I bent over my poems and panicked.

Levine’s advice worked. My poems had spoken to each other. Loudly. Raucously. Dangerously. What I thought had been the perfect order the evening before wasn’t. Not even close. Over the next two hours, I drew in ragged breaths of cold air and reordered my poems. Pretty much everything changed. When I thought I was done, I got the official feline opinion. They seem happy:

But I’m not holding my breath. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

If you’ve ever thought of putting together your own poetry manuscript or chapbook–whether it be for a contest, publication, or as a gift to pass along to friends and family–give yourself plenty of time to let your poems speak to one another. And follow Levine’s advice. You’ll be happy you did.

See part 2 of this post here.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. This is great. I’m in the process of putting a chapbook together and Levine’s article is perfect for helping me get on the right track.

    January 26, 2012
  2. Hey Rena, I’m glad you found it helpful. Good luck with your project! Carol

    January 26, 2012

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