It’s what every poet eventually has to do if they’re putting together a manuscript. Spread the poems on the floor. Like the batter of a very rich cake, pour it in the pan, spread it evenly. Let it find its shape and settle. But the recipe is not as clear with poems (and you don’t get a delicious cake as a reward for your hard work).
Before today, I was very sure about the order of this manuscript. I had about 50 pages or so that I thought were done, and maybe 10 new pages I wanted to fit in somewhere. Once the poems were on the floor, a lot of moving around ensued. I circled the area like it was a crime scene, picking up poems, examining them, jotting down notes, putting them down. Before today, I knew what the first poem of the manuscript would be. Now I have some contenders.
The poems gathered together in clusters like continents floating on the ocean. Now I’m afraid to move them, lest the plates start shifting. I tiptoe around the room.
The process of ordering a manuscript provides some answers, but raises new questions. What is this poem doing here, among these other poems? What is this poem doing in this manuscript at all? Does this manuscript hold together? Are the poems too different in style, yet too similar in theme? Are these questions mere neurotic distractions from a much more intuitive process? If I gave the manuscript to a group of monkeys would any of them order it the same way?
The poems must stand on their own. Seeing them in a group helps me detect the finished ones from the unfinished or disposable ones. I see how poems fit together, but it’s tempting to view the manuscript as a jigsaw puzzle. You are putting together a puzzle whose final picture you can’t see, but which hopefully emerges. Not all the pieces are even there, you realize.
There is no right way to order a manuscript. You do what works.
I remind myself that poets didn’t always put together books of 64 or whatever pages. That there is some artifice to this whole process. So it seems like a formula I can work with, almost as arbitrary as a writing prompt. Nevertheless, I do think these poems share a sweeping something that means they belong together in a book. I have to trust that sense as I place the poems side by side, one at a time.