Before this summer, it had been a while since I assembled a manuscript. Four years, approximately, since I wrapped up the manuscript for American Prophet and sent it to the publisher. And that book was somewhat easier, being a unified, thematic whole. I think I’d willfully forgotten between now and then how hard the work is, of editing and ordering so many poems into something of a hopefully cohesive whole. I agree with Sharon Olds, who said “I write poems, not books”–at least considering the process of assembling Our Sudden Museum. This time, I’m getting by with a little help from my friends. Rosie King and David Sullivan, poet friends in Santa Cruz, and Matthew Olzmann and Vievee Francis in Detroit–waded through the first draft sludge, and had similar ideas, that luckily dovetailed with my idea of the text–which as Vievee and Matthew said, is elegaic at its core.
It’s so much like writing a poem–on a larger scale–and similarly, the entire tone can shift in the editing. Gone from this manuscript are the humorous and sarcastic poems; and what remains, and continues to develop–are the weightier undercurrents. The book has had 3 titles, and has changed order dozens of times, in no less than 10 distinct versions. The most recent version, which I believe is close–thanks to the recent suggestions from my wife, who holds the sharpest blade, is two sections, beginning with the elegies, and followed by familial/domestic/cultural/political poems. Next I’ll be sending the manuscript to Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumathatil, poet friends who have been kind enough to offer to look at this latest version.
On the editing floor lie dozens of poems I didn’t want to cut–but so many didn’t fit in the end. It is so much like a film–so many scenes intwerwoven, so many currents and threads. So many poems you hate to see go, but that would weaken the whole. Must be similar for bands–in assembling albums. Surely my years of trying to make the perfect mixtape has come in handy.
Conversely, Severance, like American Prophet, came together easier–once I could squint one eye, step back and see how the colors blended together. The difference between assembling a collection of disparate poems vs. a unified thematic collection is immense.
Of course, next: to do the even harder work–to send these books into the world and to hope someone wants them.
Two strokes of beauty this week, though. I’ve been invited to submit work to an anthology of Michigan Poets, and two of my poems were solicited for a collection of poems about the ocean, called Ocean Voices, edited by a former poet laureate in New Bedford, Massachussetts. You can read those poems, here:
And in a few weeks, I’ll be interviewed at the Library of Congress for the show The Poet and The Poem, which airs on some NPR affiliates and will be archived on the Library of Congress website. Grace Cavalieri, the gracious host, asks scintillating questions about poets’ work. Give some of the interviews a listen.
Now, back to the aforementioned manuscripts.