Friday, February 13, 2015

Pretty in Black and White

            I spent much of today taping poems to the walls of my little office. It’s the kind of thing that you do when you’re in possession of two chief requirements: a book manuscript that is going nowhere and at least four blank walls painted a grim, institutional hue.
            My book manuscript has been making the rounds for a while now without catching an editor’s eye, with one exception. I recently switched some things around and added some new work, to good effect—I’m currently a finalist in a book contest with the slightly revised version.
            The way I see it, if a few small additions and deletions of poems can make me a finalist, well, then overhauling that sucker will surely result in a book. And a prize. Great reviews. A National Book Award or Pulitzer or two ....
            But I digress. The manuscript is older than my artistic vision, and it’s time for more of the sorts of changes that seemed to help it a bit in the contest I mentioned. And just like Andie (the Mollie Ringwald character) in Pretty in Pink, you need to do something that’s just right for you with the material you have, even if it requires getting out the seam ripper and the pinking shears and going to town on the original.
            (I’m sorry. I can’t let the reference to the Pretty in Pink dress go by without mentioning how incredibly ugly Andie’s finished product actually was—like a cross between a mother-of-the-bride dress and a toilet paper roll. It is, quite simply, one of the worst dresses I have ever seen. One of the benefits of blogging is that you may bring everything to a grinding halt so that you can offer a strong opinion about a twenty-nine-year-old movie.)
            Allow me to return to my manuscript, which is now thoroughly deconstructed and lining every inch of the walls of a small office. I even maximized space by taping poems into a bookcase, on sides, back, bottom, and underside of each visible shelf.
            The result of my effort is that I can sit in my chair and steeple my fingers under my chin like a don—love poems to the left of me, mom poems to the right, body poems behind me, uncategorized work out in front. The ceiling is bare. I’m not out of poems; I just don’t have a ladder to put them there, much as I’d like to lie on the floor and mentally rearrange them.
            In a previous post, I recommended poetry projects—that is, I recommended that busy writers have an ongoing topic or exercise so that they can cut out the time they might otherwise spend wondering what to write about. While this plan is effective for time saving, and is artistically energizing, my mess of a manuscript reveals a flaw in the idea. The reason my poems won’t fall into a tidy line is that when I look at them, I don’t see a book—I see a dozen chapbooks and a bunch of strays.
            I suspect that the problem isn’t the poems. After all, they spring from the same consciousness; they reveal my idiosyncratic rhetoric and lineation and imagery and form. I feel as though one could pick any two from the walls or the remaining stack (ceiling material!) and recognize that the same woman wrote them. (That could also be the problem—that woman, bless her heart, may not be any good! But that’s an issue for another day.) The poems work together, and each one shores up the efforts of the others.
            When it comes time to make a book, I realize that I may be locked within a project-driven mindset, and I have a hard time sticking several sets of poems together. While I appreciate my imagination—quirky and flexible and vivid—in the composition of the poems, my vision totally fails when I try to use it to find a path through my own book.
            The imagination that is willing to get into the kind of trouble that yields a poem is lodged in a mind that struggles to bring order from chaos. I am not the first poet to feel flummoxed by the organizational aspect of the publishing task. And when I look across my messy home desk, positioned in a chaotic room of a disorganized house, this is especially clear.
            This is really just a long way of inviting you to my office. Tucked away in a deserted corner of an academic building, it’s a good place to sit and think. And if you have a moment, could you eyeball the poems all around you, maybe shift a few from one wall to another?

            There’s a roll of tape in the drawer. Please turn out the lights when you leave.


  1. When I was working on my MFA thesis, I did not have a "project" or theme. There was only the common thread of a middle aged woman with lots of miles and memories. Poems from the same consciousness, as you said. My advisors wouldn't let me group poems by theme or subject matter or chronology, as much as I was tempted to. I guess they were convinced the juxtaposition of style and subject was interesting. But now I can't group like poems together in any way. Ordering poems is a hard task, and then there's the psychological hindrance of people's input. I certainly don't have a book yet, but I think I may get out a roll of tape and go at it again. Might be fun.

    And, I agree about the dress in Pretty in Pink--that was a very strange creation and waste of nice fabric.

  2. Yay, agreement! I mean, it's the title of the movie -- shouldn't it be pretty? And shouldn't it be flattering on Andie? Neither of those things proved true!

    But more importantly -- it IS hard. But you're right -- the tape plan is really fun. Plus, it's healthy to carve out physical space for your poems. Feels good.

  3. Karen, my quandary exactly, and you are so brave for saying this in just this way. Somehow, I think there's something wrong with not only my poems but with ME because I have this mess. I've settled on yet another shape for now but I'm almost positive I have two chapbooks instead of a full-length manuscript. Why does the market (har - such as it is) lead our artistic form? Why is a "full-length book" the apex of achievement? I've been asking myself this question and sending out the long form, working against what my gut knows just in case. Thank you for helping me feel accompanied. I'm taking this as my valentine. - Lori

    1. That's exactly what it is -- a valentine! I miss the days of the actual first book -- when we didn't have tightly thematic books, but a sampling of what a poet can do. I miss those days.