In my experience as a book editor, the biggest mystery to emerging and sometimes even established poets is how to effectively order a poetry manuscript. As a poet working on revising and re-revising my graduate thesis toward book publication, I didnâ€™t have much idea either. Hereâ€™s why: Ordering a manuscript requires a different kind of thinking than line editing or revising your poemsâ€”a kind of thinking I hadnâ€™t been taught. A poet I work with calls it â€œthe helicopter view,â€ which I love. I think of ordering as a kind of three-dimensional thinking, as opposed to the two-dimensional thinking (like using tweezers under a microscope) necessary for line editing poems. Ordering requires seeing each poem from a distance, so that all its sides are visible; it also requires seeing the manuscript as a whole, so that you can decide how each poem and its parts might connect with others in a series.
The first thing I do when I edit a manuscript is to consider the inclusion and exclusion of poems, which is a critical part of ordering. Itâ€™s also perhaps the most difficult editing we perform, because it can mean letting go of emotional attachments. As poets we keep poems in our manuscripts for all kinds of reasons, but there are two inseparable criteria that should govern: The poem is â€œbook strongâ€ and fits the major or minor themes and subjects, helping to create a cohesive whole. We keep poems that donâ€™t fit those criteria for several reasons. Sometimes weâ€™re attached to a poem because it represents an important emotional moment, phase, or event. Other times weâ€™re attached because itâ€™s the title poem and â€œmustâ€ stay, even if the wise voice we so often ignore whispers that itâ€™s not up to snuff. And still other times weâ€™re attached to a poem because we think itâ€™s critical to the collectionâ€™s narrative, themes, or chronology; it was published in a magazine; itâ€™s our motherâ€™s favorite; and so on.