Monday, April 9, 2012

The Best of AWP: Putting Together Your First Book

AWP Denver was a transformative experience. Last year's AWP in Chicago was my first and, like so many others, I spent most of my time trying to get to all of the panel discussions whose titles fascinated me, in order not to miss anything relevant. The problem was I ended up skimming the surface. This year I decided to spend more quality time in the book fair, connecting with my writing community, and attending only a few of the panels that spoke to my primary writing goals for the year. This strategy proved itself useful. During the next few days, I will post a series of blogs on topics related to the post mfa experience. The first of these is based upon the recent panel discussion entitled "The 25th Poem: Putting Together Your First Book."

Dan Albergotti led off the panel. I had read his impressive The Boatloads, winner of the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize (2008), and was anxious to hear what Dan had to say. He had to say a lot, and I found his points some of the most helpful of the entire week.

He began by asking the audience of around 300 for a show of hands on how many of us had sent out our first manuscripts. Approximately 90% of us had. Then he asked how many had spent at least $100 in contest fees. The number went down to around half. $200? A fourth. $300 or more? About 10%. I still had my hand high in the air and was amazed that we had lost most of our fellow-writers. Dan went on the relate the story of Spencer Reece sending out his first manuscript (The Clerk's Tale) for nineteen years without any recognition. Dan dramatized the process by counting off on his fingers while repeating the litany of "rejected, rejected, rejected, etc." eighteen times and then "winner of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference Bakeless Prize." I thought, "What if he'd stopped sending out his manuscript after a couple of years? Ten? Eighteen?!?"

Then Dan shared two things that gave me a shot of confidence about my manuscript, as well as a way of evaluating it for further revision. First, he said that I would get my manuscript published if I did three things. Since I'm a sucker for lists, He had my attention. Here they are:

1) If your work is at the center of what you are thinking about.
2) If you believe in your work.
3) If you are persistent.

Ok, I've heard (and believed) the last two points for so long that they barely registered in the richter scale, and not a single picture on the wall tilted, not a single chandelier swayed. But #1!!! I'd heard "embrace your obsessions" as a mantra for writing success. But I'd never heard of evaluating your work by how central it is to your thought process, translated, your life. In the words of "Meteorite Men," I had found my first hammer rock from deep space, crashing into my house, and waking me up.

The other thing that Dan said was that "Sections are your friends." In other words, think of your manuscript in pieces. If we have chapbooks, he said, we should study them. Don't think about writing a book, but think about assembling pieces we already have. I liked that. It reminded me of putting together legos--concentrate on making sense of small collections, and then see how they might fit together.

Other good helpful ideas that Dan shared:

1) Think outside of literature to the other arts for assembling your work. Examples: spatial organization, music, ritual, litergy.
2) Think about the value of refrain.
3) Write every poem to honor the poem (not to flesh out the book).
4) Honor your obsessions.
5) For contests, put your best poems in front, in order to get them read by the final judge. You can rearrange them to your liking later, if your manuscript wins.

The next speaker was Nicky Beer. I'll summarize her insights in the next blog.


  1. Love this post, Terry! I didn't make it to AWP this year, so I really appreciate your insights. Keep them coming.

  2. Thanks for the info, Terry. It really helps even those of us who were at AWP but missed on panel in favor of another! I'm reminded of printer and poet Paul Hunter's advice--organize poems like you'd organize an art gallery with one piece at the center of attention and all others around it. Poets interested in the topic should also check out the book Ordering the Storm, a collection of essays on organizing manuscripts of poems!

  3. Erica--you're quite welcome. I plan to continue posting about my experiences at AWP. Thanks for the encouragement!

    Agbraden--glad to fill in the gaps. And thanks for the advice from Paul Hunter and the book suggestion. I'll pass them along.


  4. I like #3 above, "Write every poem to honor the poem"--I can't help but think that if you keep the engine going then at some point you'll have a book or several. But then publishing it with a press you value--that's another story related as much to the "quality of the poems" and their order as to being in the right pile at the right time. I love reading your AWP reflections--they're so wonderful, thank you!! If you ever want to swap manuscripts for feedback on flow/story/"best poems" for front matter--I'd be glad to join you in the quest for a first book!!!