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BLOG Falling Into Place Paola Corso | May 19, 2017 Some of the best advice I ever received on how to sell a poetry collection came from an unlikely place—an editor who passed on my manuscript. His instruction: Take your time and think about why these poems belong together. Do what it takes to make the compilation as good as it can be. Interpreting this advice as an invitation to resend my work after a thorough edit, I got back to work. Cuts were made, poems were added and the entire collection was purposefully reordered with a more cohesive flow. I sent the work back to him, and he responded with a publication offer. I considered (and still consider) myself very lucky. We all know editors and contest judges read hundreds—even thousands—of poetry manuscripts every year and publish so few. What makes the chosen ones stand out? To find the answer, I interviewed accomplished poets, as well as poetry editors, and found 10 tips on forming an interconnected manuscript that’s sure to help you connect with readers and get serious consideration from publishers. I’ll be sharing these tips with you in this and the following nine blog posts. 1. Collect your best and most cohesive poems. April Ossmann, executive director of Alice James Books, advises asking yourself this question before you think you have a finished manuscript: Does your collection consist of all the poems you’ve written in the past few years or your best, most thematically interconnected poems over the past few years? She recommends striving for the latter. Editors agree that cohesiveness is paramount, provided that the work is strong. Larry Smith, director of Bottom Dog Press and author of Milldust and Roses, says he looks for the vision behind the work—its witness, intention and centeredness. Michael Simms, executive director of Autumn House Press, notes that coherence is unique to each collection. It may require a distinctive voice, consistent argument or repeated form to hold the poems together. “Just as there’s no single quality that makes for a successful poem, there’s no single strategy that makes a successful collection of poems,” he says. On the other hand, there are several ways to send your collection down the road to failure. Jim Daniels, creative writing program director at Carnegie Mellon University and author of 14 books of poetry, says he’s judged and rejected many collections too tightly clustered around a concept that seems gimmicky rather than heartfelt. “Unless I feel like the author is personally invested, those manuscripts are going to fall by the wayside pretty quickly,” he says. Poet Tina Chang, author of Half-Lit Houses, gave herself room to make initial discoveries before thinking too much about concept: “I allowed myself to have fun, to be influenced, to fall in love, to live my life—and the poems naturally shaped themselves. There was no need to ‘farm my heart,’ as the poet Jack Gilbert once said. The substance, of course, was there. It seemed to spring from ideas that had been gestating all my life.”
Read Paola’s Ellis Island essay in The New York Times
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