Welcome back. If you haven’t read my first post, The Art of Reframing Your Poetry Manuscript, you may want to start there. Today, let’s lean into unifying your manuscript through theme. You’ve arrived at a place where you’d like to re-engage with your poetry. Maybe you’ve worked your way through the decision tree or hit pause, but remain curious about the connections that are emerging. What are the next steps to ensuring that you submit the tightest collection possible?
Assuming that you’ve already removed the poems that aren’t doing heavy lifting (be honest, even if a poem has made it into a stellar journal this doesn’t mean you should keep it in your manuscript), then you’re likely at one of the following places. You have too many or too few poems. If you have the right amount and each piece contributes to a greater purpose with the manuscript flowing well, then congrats! You might not need to read any further. For the rest of you, don’t despair, let’s work through ways to examine your writing through the lens of voice, play, and juxtaposition.
First, define your goals for this collection. What are you trying to achieve? As you go through the following steps, keep your goals in mind and revise your manuscript accordingly.
Print out a hard copy of your collection and grab a pen. In this pass, we’re going to focus on the common question, “What are your poems about?” Read each poem to yourself, sometimes it helps if you read it aloud, and jot down the topics that spring to mind. Keeping the focus broad, such as “grief,” “love,” “environment” or “science” can be helpful to start. When you’ve done this with each of your pieces, go back and list the top 2-3 themes that have emerged.
Now, switch back to your computer if you prefer. For those of you who need paper in hand, go ahead and print out an additional copy or two of the in-process manuscripts. If only one strong theme has emerged, then you’re set for this part. For those of you with multiple connections, investigate how the sub-themes do or do not play well together. At first glance, “environment” and “love” may not appear to connect, but is there a third piece at play, like “grief”? Arrange your poems into 2-3 (or perhaps more) stacks or files of potential manuscripts, unified by 1-3 themes. Remember if there are multiple themes at play, there has to be an overarching principle or reason, beyond your need to fill the prerequisite number of pages, to keep these together.
Before you select the file or stack of poems that has the largest number of pages, go back and read through each potential manuscript with your focus on tone and voice. As writers, we experiment at different points in our lives, consciously or not, with style. This includes format. Is it ok to include one sestina in a chapbook of poems that are predominantly free verse? Maybe. Maybe not. What about persona poems or the one long, visual poem that winds along the page? It’s hard to set an exact rule, but if you’re going to include one poem that stands out from the rest then you must answer these questions. How does this poem further the goals of my manuscript? (If you don’t know what your goals are, go back and define them.) Does this poem unify the collection or appear to be misplaced? If your poem in question doesn’t satisfy the goals of your collection, you need to set it aside.
At this point, you may have a stack that is just screaming “Choose me!” Don’t be surprised if this stack isn’t the largest. Return to your files and revive those gems that for some reason were overlooked previously. This time, in order to make it into your stack, the poems need to match the tone, style, overall format, and themes of your manuscript. Of course, they have to be strong individual poems that contribute to your goals. If you still do not have enough poems to proceed, don’t fret. Now, you have the opportunity to sculpt your collection by responding to it directly. Which poems need to be written for the collection to feel complete? Keep a list and check them off as you go. Remember, this isn’t a sprint. Publication is fun, but once your writing is out there, you can’t take it back.
Lastly, don’t overlook your intuition. What does your gut tell you about your collection? How do your poems connect not just poem-to-poem, but as a whole? Who is your targeted audience? It’s critical that you know when you’ve achieved your goals. Maybe your ultimate is self-publishing. In that case, you may want another set of eyes on your manuscript and guidance on the best ways to package and market your collection. Maybe you want to get your collection ready for another round of submissions? Some input from a writer or mentor you respect could be beneficial at this point. Have you tightened all the pieces (title, individual poems, order, theme), until the manuscript feels whole?
Before I sign off, I’d like to illustrate how I went from shopping my second full-length to having 3 chapbooks published within a year. First, I changed my goals. Trying to get my second full-length published became exhausting, energetically and financially. What was I trying to achieve? I wanted to expand and connect with an audience by sharing my often, ridiculous stories of growing up in the South, while nudging 2 of my longer (17- and 30-page) poems into print. The aha moment happened, when I realized that I had enough Southern poems to form a playful chapbook. I submitted Lay Down Your Fleece to Shirt Pocket Press and it was accepted and published in fall 2017. On the heels of this, I decided to send one of my epic poems to dancing girl press. Nearly, a 30-page visual poem that flirts with space, was published in spring 2018. Shortly after, I realized that one of my favorite, longer poems had the same feeling, tone, and theme as 2 shorter poems I had written around the same time. Setting these shorter poems as the bookends to my collection, A Nation (Imagined), an elegy to the Pacific Northwest and love, won the Floating Bridge Press chapbook award and was published in fall 2018. To my surprise, “Discovering Your Stamp Collection” wasn’t just a long poem—it was the backbone to an award-winning chapbook.
While I didn’t set out to have 3 chapbooks published in such a short time frame, and it may not be your goal either, my point is this: the solution is already there. Maybe your collection wants to be a pamphlet or 7 poems hand-stitched? It could be a full-length or a postcard greeting. You get to decide, yes, but sometimes when you tune in you might find that it wants to be something you didn’t expect at all. If you listen, you just might bring more fun back into your process, reconnecting you with a greater goal and the thrill of writing.
Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? TrishHopkinson.com is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts.
Natasha Kochicheril Moni is the author of four poetry collections and a licensed naturopathic doctor in WA State. Her most recent chapbook, A Nation (Imagined), won the 2018 Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award. Natasha’s writing has been featured in over sixty-five publications including Verse, Indiana Review, Entropy, The Rumpus, and the recently released Terrapin Press anthology, A Constellation of Kisses. As a former editor for a small, literary journal, a panelist for residency and grant award committees, and a chapbook contest judge, Natasha loves supporting fellow writers. She owns and operates Helios Center for Whole Health, PLLC which offers naturopathic medical appointments, medical writing, and poetry manuscript consultations. Please visit natashamoni.com and helioswholehealth.com for more information on how to work with Natasha.