How to Structure a Poetry Collection
And other advice on developing a stand-out manuscript from poet Mary B. Moore and publisher Luke Hankins of Orison Books
I recently had the great pleasure of interviewing poet Mary B. Moore and editor Luke Hankins of Orison Books about the process that resulted in Mary's beautiful new collection, Dear If (forthcoming, Orison Books, April 2022). We discussed:
· The unique qualities that led Luke to select Dear If and raise funds especially for its publication
· How poetry writing marathons helped her generate the book
· Writing in community: How Mary involves peers, editors, and poetry doulas in her process
· How to begin the process of structuring a manuscript
Mary B. Moore has three books and several chapbooks: Dear If; Flicker (winner of the Dogfish Head Prize 2016); and The Book Of Snow (Cleveland State UP, 1997); her prize-winning chapbooks are Amanda and the Man Soul (Emrys Prize, 2017) and Eating the Light (Sable Books Contest 2016). Her poetry has won awards from Nelle, Terrain, Asheville Poetry Review, and Nimrod’s Pablo Neruda Contest (2017). Poems also appeared lately in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Gettysburg Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, Nelle, Terrain, The Nasty Women Poets Anthology, several of Orison Book's annual anthologies, and Fire & Rain, Ecopoetry of California. A retired professor from Marshall University, a native Californian, she lives in Huntington, WV.
Luke Hankins is the author of two poetry collections, Radiant Obstacles and Weak Devotions, and a collection of essays, The Work of Creation. A volume of his translations from the French of Stella Vinitchi Radulescu, A Cry in the Snow & Other Poems, was released by Seagull Books in 2019. Hankins is the founder and editor of Orison Books, a non-profit literary press focused on the life of the spirit from a broad and inclusive range of perspectives.
Click to view the video, or keep scrolling to read the interview in text. For a taste of Mary’s work, check out the video, which includes her reading two gorgeous poems from Dear If.
How to Structure a Poetry Collection & Other Book Development Insights
[Interview lightly edited for clarity.]
Radha Marcum: Luke, you are seeing many, many submissions for the press. What drew you, in particular, to Dear If? What struck you most about the manuscript?
Luke Hankins: I've long been a big admirer of Mary's poetry, which is sonically dense in a way that is unusual these days. It’s reminiscent of some of my favorite poets who are deeply invested in word play and sonic elements, like Hopkins and Dickinson. Mary’s poems are very much in the present moment, but she retains a deep investment in the potential of playing with language in a profound and effective way. I had encountered her poems for many years and, as an editor at a poetry review, we've published her work in. And she has submitted work to various Orison Books opportunities over the years and was twice a finalist for Orison’s annual book prize.
I knew Mary had an amazing manuscript. I had seen it in a couple different forms through the prize entries. And so I made a decision to offer to publish her book outside of our regular submission opportunities. Our press is a nonprofit press so, in order to publish it, I needed to raise a little bit of money. I started raising some pledges assuming that Mary would accept the publication offer that I was hoping to make, if I raised enough money.
Mary B. Moore: I'm so moved hearing you say all that. Thank you. I feel like crying.
Radha: It is such a labor of love, isn’t it, for both the author and the press? Mary, I want to acknowledge what a journey it is to get a book to this stage—which includes not only the development of the work, the poems, but the many relationships you built in the process of sending work to various editors. Can you share with us the process behind the book, before it got to Orison? How did it start? Where did the poems begin for you?
Mary: I started the poems when I did a private marathon by myself. A marathon means you write a poem a day, even if you don't feel like writing some days. You don’t get great poems many of the days, but you commit to writing. On about the fifth day of my marathon, early on, I realized that for years I've been talking about God without really addressing the subject directly. So I gave myself permission to do that. At about the same time, I picked up a poem that said, dear something. And it wasn't a name. Since I'm an agnostic, but have nostalgia for belief, I decided that if was the name of God in this manuscript.
Once I got the concept of dear if the poems just started coming the way a lot of my poems come from what surrounds me—nature, objects in the house, as well as my reading. My scholarly field was the Renaissance, and I've always been deeply moved by Donne and Herbert. I think that's where I get the concept of serious wordplay— wordplay that is not meant to be funny, but that is an expression of wit and paradox maybe, and also of depth.
So I kept writing them for a month and then they continued afterwards and I had a large batch of them. It happened way faster than most of my collections. So at that point I asked Lise [poet Lise Goett] to look at the poems and see if something was there. That was my first question. Is this a thing? And my second question was, if so, can you start structuring it? She weeded it out and gave me the beginning structure.
Radha: People who don't know who Lise Goett is, she is a very fine poet and is someone who helps many poets in this process of structuring.
Mary: She’s a wonderful poet, an amazing poet.
Radha: It sounds like the book’s themes were pretty clear from the get go. For many manuscripts, it might be a little different—it's not certain which theme or topics will drive the book. But did Dear If’s themes change as you went along? Did you uncover sub-themes or things that you weren't expecting to find?
Mary: An interesting thing happened. I'm obsessed with the color blue, and I have always attributed it to my childhood love of the Virgin, who appears traditionally in a sky-blue cloak. So I started thinking, why don't I write about Mary? And I encountered a poet who uses her name, which I had thought too bold, but she did it. So then I did it. That gave me an entree into two longish poems about Mary.
Before I sent the poems to Lise, I had a structure that plunged right into these theological questions. Lise said, no, your reader needs to have a sense of you—of the speaker—first. So she put some poems near the beginning that are more personal, that situate me in a place and with the Catholic background and as the later agnostic.
Radha: Where to start the book is such a challenge for so many poets. We're not working in narrative structures. We’re not handed these sorts of narrative devices by which we can situate the reader and structure the book’s sequence. Nevertheless, I hear it in your approach that there can be a leaning into something you might do in a book of fiction or a memoir—helping the reader enter into larger themes and topics through a close, maybe even intimate, sense of the speaker, which is not you as the poet, necessarily, but the speaker representative of the poet in the book.
Mary: One other thing about structure was that some of the poems play with language in a way that makes them a little more complex for some readers. That also influenced Lise’s structuring. She wanted the earliest poems to welcome the reader in and then prepare them for the stronger word play that occurs later.
Luke: With some of the structural changes that we made together, Mary and I, I thought a lot about theme and variation throughout the manuscript. Sometimes you might have three related poems in a row. We distributed those so that the reader has a variation in tone, mood, sets of imagery throughout the manuscript.
In some books, you can do quite the opposite. You might even have discrete sections where one section is all poems on one topic, and the next section is another topic. With Mary’s book, it felt better to interweave the tones and moods and different concerns rather than to group them together.
Radha: Seems to me that approach is truer to life, to the way that we experience such concerns coming in and out of the picture.
Radha: People have this vision of the poet as a solitary creator, as someone who goes into the woods and creates alone. In many ways, writing poetry is a solo activity but, in fact, as you mentioned earlier, we often have collaborators. What or who most nourished this work along the way? What supports did you have during the process of writing Dear If?
Mary: I have a writer's group of women—and we don't critique each other. We share our work and we support each other. We do comment on each other's work, but their responses are just, oh, I like this one; oh, that's great. It helps to know the one or two poems that are better than others.
Also, Frank Paino, another author of Orison. Frank and I met through a post Luke made on Facebook sharing an early poem of Frank's and I went, oh my God. And so I wrote Frank and we became friends and we do read each other's drafts. And I have a official critique group here in Huntington, which consists of published poets. They are the nitty gritty critiquers that help with redundancies and repetitions and stuff like that.
And then my reading, my background in religious poetry, poetry of nature. Plus, there’s nature itself—out my window, all around.
Radha: Any advice for poets who are working on manuscripts? Is there a kernel of wisdom that you would encourage poets to think about?
Luke: It is much harder to be a self-editor than it is to be an editor for other people. In my process as a writer, when I'm putting a manuscript together, I normally start with those blocks of similar poems and ultimately try to shuffle them up a little bit. It can hard to find balance, and it's different for each manuscript.
My advice to poets putting manuscripts together would be, you may feel like you're done because it can feel exciting to realize, oh my goodness, I have these blocks of poems that all make sense together. And it can feel like you're done in initial phase. But you're probably not done. (And I'm just talking about the structure. At this point, you may not be done with the poems themselves, either.)
Your first instinct for how to organize the manuscript is rarely the one that's ideal. In my experience, you might have that bolt-of-lightning inspiration about how it should be structured; that does happen, but that's the exception to the rule. Get feedback, be flexible, get input from writers you trust, and try different configurations. Try them out, lay them out on a table or on the floor, shuffle things around. You can always go back to what you had at first experiment. Be willing to try breaking those blocks out.
Radha: Thank you both for sharing your work and your wisdom. I can't wait to have the actual book in my hands. One of the best things that we can do for ourselves—to support ourselves in our own work, as well as to support the work of others—is to buy books. So I really encourage everyone to check out Orison Books, which has published some tremendously beautiful collections in addition to Mary's forthcoming book.
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