Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Best of AWP: Putting Together Your First Book II

E.M. Forster in his Aspects of the Novel distinguishes between story and plot: story being "a narrative of events arranged in time sequence," and plot being a narrative of events, "the emphasis falling on causality." Forster reserves story for the "wriggling and interminable, naked worm of time," the skeletal backbone of actions present in any literary organism. Plot, on the other hand, involves the hidden, mysterious, causal elements necessary, among other elements, for transforming the bones of a story into a living, breathing piece of literature.

Nicky Beer's contribution to the panel discussion ("The 25th Poem: Putting Together Your First Book) centered around Forster's distinction, applying it to the sequencing of poems in a book, with the main point that each poem is to be viewed as an action contributing to plot, rather than merely the story. Thus the poet should strive to link poems organically, rather than chronologically, to achieve the greatest effect.

James Allen Hall echoed this maxim and pointed out that a chronological structure does organizational work, but what is also needed is emotional work. One should consult the images in one's poems as one would themes in a musical score and attempt to organize them in the same manner.

Anna Journey (author of If Birds Gather Your Hair For Nesting (The National Poetry Series), emphasized that there is no one right way to organize a book of poems. One can group them by theme (somewhat artificial), one can utilize a linear ordering (tends to box one in), or one can "allow the poems to order themselves." (This is where I gagged!) Journey articulated her own strategy as one that attempts to "persuade a reader by voice." By this she said she meant to "sense the psychic preoccupations of the poems, and make them resonate."

Finally, Sandy Sang (author of Sediment (Four-Way Books) emphasized the overall diversity of the manuscript. She advised creating an arc (not necessarily narrative) from beginning to middle to end, where every poem is seen to have a purpose. This begins with identifying the "core poems" and discovering a direction for the book from them. Identify the themes that appear again and again and utilize them as an organizing principle.

Of course these panelists were poets and, therefore, most of the advise was couched in metaphor. But if the advise was difficult to reduce to a ten step program, at least it provided a tremendous amount of motivation to experiment with order and structure in one's manuscript. So much so that the next morning I went downstairs from my hotel room at 5:00 AM and completely re-ordered my full manuscript. It may not win any awards any time soon, or even be published, but it is better for the process, and I think I have finally laid to rest my misgivings about its weaknesses. Perhaps more importantly, I'm ready to move on and write another manuscript. Maybe that's the lesson to be learned. If, after making it as good as you can, your first manuscript doesn't get published, just write a better one! And while you're doing it, you might look at the advice of these award-winning poets.


  1. Thanks so much for these two posts on The 25th Poem. I couldn't make the panel and was bummed, but your notes are so helpful.

  2. Thanks, Sandy. I'm going to post some additional blogs about panels in the near future.

  3. The author of "Sediment," referenced in the piece is named Sandy Tseng (rather than Sandy Sang). Just FYI!