3 Big Insights from the Complete Manuscript Course
What iteration, intuition, and awkward yoga poses can teach us about assembling a standout poetry manuscript.
Before I get to today’s post, I want to welcome new subscribers. We’re glad you’re here. Wherever you are in your process of writing and publishing poetry, this newsletter offers advice and insights from many perspectives. Some subscribers are actively working on books. Others are navigating a long-term commitment to poetry, figuring out how to keep the practice up in a world of 10,000 distractions.
Poet to Poet is not a one-way street. I’m a longtime poetry writer and teacher and book author, sure, but the value of this community is in the collective. So send in your Qs. Post comments. Join our monthly conversations. Whatever your style, I and all of the poets gathered here look forward to hearing from you.
Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash
3 Big Insights from the Complete Manuscript Course
The 3-month Complete Manuscript Course that I launched in January just wrapped up last week. It’s an extended version of shorter manuscript development courses I have offered for a number of years.
As is often the case, the quality and evolution of participants’ work far exceeded expectations. Publication may still be a ways off but I look forward to holding their collections in my hands. I am confident that, like with others who have attended workshops, I will be interviewing some of them about their books down the road.
The extended course underscored certain truths about the book assembly process. Here are three of my biggest takeaways.
Insight #1: Clarity about your book’s themes—its territory and general arc—can arrive at any point in the process.
Yes, it is possible to sense a book’s territory before you even write the poems. (A writer friend I spoke with the other day is working on a new book in this way.) More often the book’s territory presents itself deep in the weeds of a months-, sometimes years-long process. It can feel like a long journey to reach that clarity.
But clarity can arrive at any time—while sequencing poems, assembling a TOC, or going through the exercise of writing a hypothetical book blurb and your author bio. Poets in the course reached ah-has at different stages all along the way. It was thrilling to see those insights emerge, propel the work, and allow further insights for each writer.
Takeaway: If you’re starting book assembly without clarity about the book’s themes, that’s normal. And if you’re well into the process and are still not feeling clear, keep going. Trust the process. Trust that clarity will arrive through the process—because of the process.
Insight #2: Poetry manuscript development is uncomfortable.
I practice a slow-moving and uncomfortable form of yoga that helps people like me with injuries work with structural imbalances. It puts my body in intentionally awkward positions, right at the edge of serious discomfort, until something shifts. The process creates a kind of liminal space for the nervous system and, sometimes, my whole body suddenly orients itself in a fresh way.
The process of poetry manuscript assembly is a lot like that. We learn to sense where the structure is impeded or stuck, meeting discomfort until a breakthrough occurs. We receive new clarity, energy, direction, freedom and can move into to the next area that needs our attention.
Meeting edges of discomfort in a group setting, with a cohort, helps tremendously. You know that others are in the same position, pun intended. This particular Complete Manuscript Course cohort developed such an appreciation for working through manuscript development together that they decided to keep meeting beyond the end of the course.
Takeaways: Make friends with edginess, awkwardness, discomfort. Practice meeting those edges, and do this in the company of trusted others. Engage in other life/work practices that help release resistance. Then put your attention where it is uncomfortable. Where you find the greatest resistance is often where there is gold. The places we’re stuck hide our greatest insights and freedoms.
Insight #3: Assembling a poetry book is an iterative, intuitive, nonlinear process.
In the cohort, some participants were by habit and nature more organized and precise, some more comfortable working intuitively, by feel.
Yes, there are steps to take—or, as I like to say, there are lenses through which we can view the book that help us clarify our direction. But, at the core, building a successful poetry manuscript is just as much about accepting the nonlinear, iterative nature of creating art. It is as much about play and puzzle solving as it is about assembling with purpose and vision.
As my yoga instructor said yesterday, “Sometimes we’re too concerned with the outside forms and forget to move by feel.”
It’s hard to let the subconscious do its work. We live in a productivity oriented culture that takes its cues from calendars and to-do lists and a million daily notifications coming at us from those attention suckers, our phones. But poetry manuscripts don’t have a machine-like workflow or respond to time-pressured pings.
So, let’s not expect the process to be linear. Let’s embrace pauses, even long ones. I can’t tell you how often this happens: A student or writer friend will have to take a very unwelcome break—because of a death of someone dear, or a serious injury, something that takes them fully away from writing or manuscript development for an extended time. It’s painful to step away, but then in the aftermath their work suddenly makes a quantum leap.
Believe in quantum leaps.
Upcoming Events / Poet to Poet Community
The Poets Circle: Drop-in Conversations
APRIL: Weaving the Thread—On Coherence
Apr 19, 12-1pm MT
How do you cultivate coherence in your work? How do authors you admire create coherence in their work, across poems?
MAY: Flow & Modulation—On Variation
May 3, 6-7pm MT & May 17, 12-1pm MT
How do you invite variation into your work? How do the authors you admire work with the principle of variation?
I had a manuscript in January. I took it to the Tupelo Manuscript Conference where I learned it had no cohesion. Through a review of my title bank that consisted of my titles, and lines from other literature and nonfiction books, I found my new title. That new title became my "core message," so to speak. But it wasn't until I read the suggestions in Marbles on the Floor that I printed out my manuscript, four manuscript pages to the printed page, cut them up and spread them out like a deck of cards. This tactile approach made me engage with each poem, decide which poems stay or go, what the sections should be, where I had holes, and how to sequence the poems within each section. I await feedback now from my beta reader. I enjoyed the process so much more with these card-like pages.