Saturday, September 21, 2019

What Do You Do (After a Book is Completed)?

Welcome back to “The Music In It!”
 I hope you all had relaxing and peaceful summers!
The post that follows is one that reflects a number of voices—
those of poets whose work I especially respect and admire.
I hope you enjoy their comments.

About a year ago, I finished a new collection of poems. A hard copy of the manuscript sat on my desk for at least twelve months. Every time I opened it, I found something else I wanted to change. After months of making changes, I let the manuscript sit for while and didn't open it at all. Nor did I write. When I finally looked at the manuscript again, I made more changes; and only when I began to feel I was over-editing, did I decide that the collection was done.
I finally sent the manuscript out, and I'm happy to share with you that it was accepted by the publisher who published my two previous books. It will be a few months before the book is in print, and I've been thinking about the time it takes to write a book. Yep, thinking about, but not writing poetry.

It’s a fact that I every time I finish a poetry manuscript, I stop writing poems for a while. It doesn’t feel like a big-sigh-of-relief-and-now-I’m-going-to-take-a-break. It isn’t something conscious, and it certainly isn’t something I choose. I do write reviews and nonfiction articles, anything but poetry. It’s a strange process—one that I can’t explain—and it takes several months (sometimes longer) before I get back into writing poems again. 

I've always said the my muse is fickle—she vacations in the south of France, takes three martini lunches, and usually only shows up when I'm busy with a thousand other things. Apparently a finished manuscript is a ticket to ride for her because she cheerfully deserts me for long periods of time after I complete a book.

I’ve been wondering what it’s like for other poets. Do they finish one manuscript and keep on writing poems, begin a new manuscript, send the completed manuscript out right away or let it sit and “mature?” Here are some related comments from ten of my favorite poet friends. 


My first book of poetry was published when I was 43 and in the 27 years since I have only written three more full length collections. Unlike some of my poet friends, I am not at all prolific so to actually have a book completed is a very big deal for me.

Usually a few specific poems that I might have received especially positive feedback on will spur me to take a look at my body of work since my last book to determine if I might have a viable manuscript for a new full length volume.  Once a poem has been published in a journal I usually don’t make any changes so in putting together a possible manuscript it becomes more a question of how to organize completed poems that might have been written over a wide span of years into a coherent, unified book. That is where I rely upon an editor who can help with discerning how to order individual poems effectively. I only usually know in advance which poem I would like to be the first in the book and which poem I would like to be the last but, other than that, I have been open to suggestions from the editor at the publishing house. At Grayson Books I have been fortunate to work with Virginia Connors who has been extremely helpful in this regard.

When the book is first published I am excited of course but I also understand I then have the daunting obligation of promoting it through readings and mailings. This aspect of having a new book out has become more difficult for me as I get older because where I now live in Pennsylvania is such a long distance from most reading venues and the extended driving, especially at night, has become a challenge for me.

I haven’t had any problems in writing new poems after a book has come out but I don’t immediately consider them as automatic material for “the next book.” I know that if there will be another book it would be years away and I can think about that if and when the time comes. 
—Edwin Romond


Well, most of us know Paul Valéry's famous quotation, “A poem is never finished only abandoned.” Perhaps that's true of poetry books and chapbooks too. But for me a book is finished if it begins with a vision of some kind and ends when the text matches that vision (sometimes reshaping that vision). The vision might be to explore a theme, or it could be to avoid a theme. I come at this question more as a publisher than as a poet, but as a publisher I look for a manuscript that conveys a kind of focus and sets expectations in some way, whether through the title, in an introduction, or by becoming clear in the poems themselves. As a poet, I tend to write individual poems without proactively writing about a particular subject, such as for a themed book, but I admire poets who write with an intentional focus, because those poems can feel harder to write. I imagine that some poets will edit poems to fit better into the context of the book, but I've also seen where this can damage the integrity of particular poems on their own -- it's a delicate balance. But anything should always be up for revision, including input from other writers or editors. But at some point you've got to say it's done, shifting each poem and the book as a whole from private to public, from process to product. Perhaps that's the moment of abandonment, of holding on for the ride after the roller-coaster leaves the station. 
—Michael Dylan Welch


I don’t think I’ve ever planned to write a book. Instead, since I unexpectedly wrote my first poem at six years old (not that one could really call it a poem), I’ve always waited for the poetry muse to randomly land on my shoulder. And it seems to me that most of my poems write themselves.  My pen seems to work faster than my consciousness and I just am on a journey that my pen takes and I follow. I guess that makes me an intuitive poet rather than one who plots her poems or works on each individual line or image. But my method obviously has drawbacks.

Once the poem is quickly finished, there are many editing and revision steps necessary to correct the usual typos, line breaks, and decisions concerning word choice, specificity, and clarity.  The emotional truth, however, is something that is complete for me in the first draft. Sometimes, though rarely, my style results in a poem that seems finished (and despite the fact that for two decades I’ve been quoting to my workshop students that famous line  “ that a poem is never finished, just abandoned”). And oddly enough, those poems have often been the poems called my “signature” poems.

Because I don’t plan a book, I just keep writing poems whatever the subject until I have enough to fill a manuscript. Sometimes, I find myself almost obsessed and writing on the same subject but I often have such a variety of subjects, the ordering of the poems into a manuscript becomes a challenge—but a challenge I enjoy.

Once a publisher has accepted my manuscript, I really almost stop writing poems and focus on the editorial suggestions the editor and publisher’s proofreader suggest.  There's always a grammatical error or typo I’ve missed. Luckily, my editors have usually liked the order of my poems so that doesn’t usually change. But watch out I tell myself. Because if that seductive muse unexpectedly lands on my shoulder, I know there’s no resisting her. So I’ve learned to always keep my pen and a tiny notebook in my purse wherever I am, though I have recently given up writing while driving and I’ll let you imagine why. 


Once I decide to construct a manuscript, it can take a while to get it suitable for a publisher, maybe a few years. Just like with poems, I share my manuscripts with trusted friends who give feedback for changes: everything from excluding poems and reordering to revising poems and suggesting titles. I get a sense that a book is ready to go out for consideration after I’ve gone through several iterations of editing with those trusted friends, i.e., once I’ve used all the applicable suggestions and advice and there seems nothing more I can do. But even after that, I often go through several versions of a manuscript. For instance, various versions of The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost were sent out for consideration over about six years before being accepted. There are several reasons for that. One is that I apply different organizing principles for different versions. Also, as I generate new poems, I see how that work fits into a collection and can improve it. So, it's a constant editing process, a constant evolution toward something that is really only final after the printer gets it. Even after a manuscript is accepted for publication, there’s more editing done—a process I enjoy, since one sees the book getting better and better.

I don’t take a break from writing poems. The idea of doing so doesn’t make sense to me since poetry is my primary way of responding to the world. It would be like taking a break from thinking and feeling. In this sense, I’m always working toward a new collection. Although putting a coherent one together is, for me, the larger challenge given that I write each poem as an independent exploration. But these disparate struggles do generally add up to a single vision since I also tend to obsess about certain issues. And although I write essays and reviews, poetry remains the primary way I embody my thinking and feeling. In fact, sometimes when I’m trying to write an essay, the process of wrestling with the subjects in prose results in poems unintentionally bursting forth. Poetry just makes more sense to me. 


I began as a bar poet, meaning I read in bars and in art centers, and I was performative—not an actor, but someone who thought poetry ought to be memorable as much as crafted. Crafted can be introverted and I wasn't an introvert. A well crafted poem might not work in a bar, might not be the type of craft you ought to employ. I was against the tyranny of ambiguity and understatement. I paid a price for that. There's a difference between memorable and accessible. Some things inaccessible are memorable. Some things must be difficult because that's exactly what they are, but I was writing what I called "paper movies." My early poems like “Elegy for Sue Rapeezi” or “Ode to Elizabeth” were verbally "shot," so I didn't even think of a book. I didn't publish any book until I was 37 and it was not carefully composed. It was put together by my friend Dwyer Jones to be sold at my feature with Allen Ginsberg. It was a bag full of my poems. My first real book was done by Dave Roskos with an intro by Harvey Pekar and it was called A Portable Winter. Dave sequenced those poems. My last book A Night in Duluth shows an evolution from this original "bag full of poems" idea to a somewhat thought-out book, but I still sell most of my books through readings and you don't read consecutively unless you're deaf to an audience. I see my poetry as comic, but not in a light verse way. It's also different in that it still claims the right to feature characters, but also mix such narrative/fiction elements with small lyrics, formal poems, and even surreal moments (What I call, given my love of vaudeville and silent film comics: "Sub-conscious gags"). This is all a roundabout way of saying my books are still often bags full of poems. Consider it a kit bag, the black bag of a comic who uses props. I do not feel I am underselling myself by saying I'm a comic poet. I grew up loving Stan Laurel and the Marx Brother. All that had as much to do with my poems as poetry books. Also my Catholic sense of reality is a dark comic in which Eucharistic reality is the true unifying thread. 
—Joe Weil


On writing a new book:  I'm a painfully slow writer, so I have a hard time letting go of a manuscript. After I submitted my first book, I was so anxious, and I received a letter from a mentor who'd written a blurb telling me to be proud of that book. I remember sitting on the back steps weeping uncontrollably with relief. Now, I edit and change right down to the deadline, and deadlines help both to energize me to finish or force me to submit a manuscript even if they're self-imposed. I know more when a manuscript is not ready than if it is ready.  Submitting is still a challenge, and afterwards, I do take a break. Ellen Bryant Voight once said she changes forms for each manuscript to keep her writing fresh. Great idea, but that doesn't seem to work for me. Others write to a theme however loosely structured, and I'm trying this for my third book.  The challenge is finding a way to stay within that framework without forcing poems to "fit."
 —Priscilla Orr


I feel a collection is finished when I've gone through all the poems that might work together, weeded out the weaker sisters, rethought the order numerous times, and am especially happy with the opening and closing poems.

The changing and/or editing I do is mostly deleting poems that, much as I may love them, just don't work in the flow/context of the collection. Sometimes, though, I do minor tinkering with a poem, changing a word or two or rearranging line break—or sometimes even shifting a line or stanza placement. When I've done with the above, I think I'm ready to submit it to a publisher.

I don't find myself starting a new collection or new set of poems right away, although I may find myself writing more poems that "might" fit into the manuscript I just submitted. What to do in that case? It depends on the publisher. With my books with Mountains & Rivers Press, I was working with the editor to consider adding certain poems right up to a few weeks before she went to print. Some she liked for the collection, some not so much. I like a collection to have a unity of theme and mood, although the poems may vary quite a bit. So, other times, the poems I write after I've submitted a ms. just won't work in that ms.

Since I don't write on a deliberate timetable, sometimes I do take a break, other times not. Poems come when they will. If a poem wants to arrive, I welcome it. It's not very challenging to start writing when a poem knocks at my psyche.

In the beginning after submitting a ms. I do write unrelated poems with no thought to another collection. After I've written a bunch I then start looking to see if there is a connecting theme relating them. If so, I can deliberately build on that, or just keep my eyes open to see what else I write might fit with its predecessors. 
—Penny Harter

I have recently emerged from a brief poetry-drought. In early July, I completed a chapbook manuscript for submission, then immediately wrote a microchap manuscript for a July 31 deadline. Whew! I planned a short writing hiatus, but when I sat down to write again, no words surfaced. I let it go for a week, then tried again with the same result: no words. I pushed the block off to the distraction of summer activity, but then, after the third week, I needed to tune in to my blank space.

In the quiet of my room, the pencil, idle across the page. The cursor, a silent metronome, marked the time, marked each non-existent keystroke. I didn't panic––Hemingway's ghost whispered over my shoulder: Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now (The Moveable Feast). In the past, the expanse of the blank screen overwhelmed me. I would self-flagellate in despair, curse my lack and iron my shower curtain. This time, however, I reached out to a fellow writer, a poetry friend. "I can't write a thing! I feel empty," I texted. "Not in a bad way, but empty."

Confessing the writer's block has freed me to sit in my own silence and embrace it. Instead of shaking my fists at the void, I opened my palms to receive. I asked my shifting muse for a hint, a word, an inroad to my next written adventure. Within a day or two, I scavenged through my "tickle" folder and transcribed voice notes I stored on my phone. My thoughts sparked; ideas took shape, words created structure. My next steps of a new poetry journey. 
 —Michelle Ortega

I just sent my manuscript to my publisher and knew it was finished only because I smacked into the deadline. I was far too close to the material to know if it was finished in some organic sense.

Throughout the process I continue to change and edit both the shape of the finished volume and the individual poems.

I think that a collection is ready to consider for publication when, as a whole, it feels is as strong, moving, and surprising as the best of the individual poems that make it up.
I don't start a new collection right away, except in the sense that I continue to write poems. I don't envision a cohesive volume of work before I begin, but wait to see where the poems want to go.

I don't deliberately take a break after completing a collection, but I do begin again with revising work that was meant to be included but didn't make the cut.

It's always challenging to write!

I don't write individual poems toward an eventual collection, but try to make each poem better than any I've written before, and take it from there.
—Catherine Doty


I know that a book is finished … with a little help from my friends. Like most writers I know, I’m blessed with a few trusted readers who give me feedback on various poems, including my friend and long-time mentor, Chris Bursk, who is a genius at suggestions for placing a collection of poems in an order that makes sense. We’re generally too close to our own work to critique it with a clear eye, and even if we don’t agree with a friend’s every single suggestion in the end, it’s a good starting point through a fresh perspective to get a sense of the arc of the book and where to begin, where to end.

I do a fair amount of editing. I believe in Ginsberg’s “First thought, best thought,” but I would add, “First draft, not necessarily best,” citing Anne Lamott’s cautionary “Shitty First Drafts” in Bird by Bird. Of course, once in a very blue moon, a poem comes to the page whole or almost whole (what a a gift, yes?), but most poets, I believe, know it’s not the norm. So, though it is important to get first thoughts down before we lose them, it’s as important to let them brew awhile, then go back and sieve the dross. I often have a lot of that!

Once I have the introductory poem(s) and am settled on the arc, somehow, I end up with a poem or two that appear(s) to wind it down; I “hear” it. I strive for the same thing I tell my students about this: Yeats’ notion that the completion of a poem (or book) is akin to the lid of a box clicking shut. As in the art of painting, adding just one more stroke at the end can often wreck what really is finished, so again, I let it brew awhile until I “hear” that click. Then I know I can send it out.

I don’t start a new collection right away. For me, it’s like crashing into bed at the end of an arduous day. I need time to regroup and sometimes that can take months. This is not to say I don’t write anything, but I don’t necessarily have a book in mind as poems introduce themselves. Usually, I realize I might have a new collection as I start to see a cohesiveness form among the new poems I do have, and I resurrect old poems from the dark of notebook pages where I often find some that fit with new ones and work on tuning them again.

After completing a manuscript, I sometimes find it challenging to write new poems … I get the feeling I’ve said all I’m meant to say. For example, after the release of my most recent book, I had an inordinately long stretch of desert in front of me. But I attend a workshop each spring which “forces” me to bring something every two weeks, so it gives me a start; albeit, a slow one sometimes. And of course, prompts help. Ted Kooser, U.S. Poet Laureate (2004-2006), has said, “I tell my students that they ought to read a hundred poems for every one they try to write.” Best advice I know!

Generally, I write unrelated poems initially; I think that helps me get some direction as they come out. Or my husband or a poet friend will see connections that I couldn’t, being, as I said above, too close to my own thoughts, and that works as the trigger toward making a new collection—with focus. 

—Bernadette McBride

 Big thanks to all of these special poets! 
Be sure to click on the links and check out their websites and books!