Indigo Moor is a poet, playwright, and author currently residing in Sacramento, CA. His second book of poetry, Through the Stonecutter’s Window, won Northwestern University Press’s Cave Canem prize. His first book, Tap-Root, was published as part of Main Street Rag’s Editor’s Select Poetry Series.
Three of his short plays, Harvest, Shuffling, and The Red and Yellow Quartet debuted at the 60 Million Plus Theatre's Spring Playwright’s festival. His full-length stageplay,Live! at the Excelsior, was a finalist for the Images Theatre Playwright Award and has been optioned for a full length film.
A graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program—where he studied poetry, fiction, and scriptwriting—Indigo is a past board member for the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, a graduate member of the Artist's Residency Institute for Teaching Artists, and former Vice President of the Sacramento Poetry Center. www.indigomoor.org
Poet and playwright Indigo Moor shares his advice on how to choose the poems for a poetry manuscript.
Pick Out Your Favorite Child to Carry the Family Crest. (Part 03 of 04):
If you already have a theme for your manuscript, you won’t need to do this part. If you’re still learning the art of theme catching, just remember this is not as hard as it seems. The process involves relaxing, reading other books, watching movies, television, and listening to music, all while pretending your theme quest is not on your mind. That all the poems aren’t swirling in your head demanding your attention.
This method is time consuming and may test your ability to meditate, absorb input from other books and mediums, and to not strangle anyone while you hunt down the lightning bolt of inspiration. When you find your theme it will feel like it was there all along, but also like you were prodding snakes until the right one bit you. Pick out the poem you consider your favorite child. Keep in mind, this is a process. It doesn’t have to happen in one day. You are allowed to change your mind as often as you want. One minute, it’s the poem about the assassin rabbit with a heart of gold; the next, it’s the poem about the wheelbarrow running for president of Mexico. Let your mind float and muse. Have some wine. Listen to music. Watch a show or two. Each time you choose a favorite, read it several times, feeling the flow, taking in the subject matter, the small hills and valleys, the peaks. Absorb every theme about this poem that fascinates you; even the ones you didn’t know were there.
In parts 1 and 2 of this series (Link to Part 1, Link to Part 2), we discussed in depth the four categories of poems collected for manuscript assembly.
Select all the poems from the first three categories that work thematically with this favorite poem. If you’re lucky, there will be a lot of poems that fit this theme. If not, you can loosely define the theme you got from the poem you chose and try again. Find the tangential relationships. Find those that are the antithesis of the theme. If this theme doesn’t work, pick another theme. Go back and forth. Go back and forth a million times. Open another bottle of wine. Go away and come back. Do the dishes. See a movie. This might be a good time to remember you were supposed to be at work an hour ago and go there. But don’t despair. Unless you wrote the poems with a theme in mind, this is supposed to be difficult and time consuming.
Breathe and let it be so. You spent years writing these poems, raising these children. Don’t dress them in rags before sending them to school.
When the theme is right, you will feel it. That you have hit on something. Once you have a theme, and that theme allows you to have enough poem, or close to enough, to complete the manuscript, go with it. Call it a manuscript. Every day, every time you mention it, call it my manuscript.
Own this step of the process.
Collect all the poems (still, not the 4th category yet) that match the theme and be sure to jettison the ones that don’t. Trust your instincts. As long as the poem doesn’t stick out as obviously not belonging to your theme, publishers are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt that it does. Trust goes a long way. Once you earn it with the publisher, they will stick with you.
Trusting your instincts works both ways. If you put a poem in the manuscript that clearly has nothing to do with the theme, no matter how good that poem is, you lose the trust you desperately need. In addition, 9 times out of 10, you lose the publication. Have I said this enough?
Now, take the manuscript for a spin. Literally. Print it and take it with you wherever you go. Read it anywhere except your home or office. See how you feel about it in different locales. Got to a coffee shop, or other place where you might read it, and see how it sounds in your head.
Doubt will creep in. After all, you are your hardest critic. You have to separate self-doubt from your critical eye. Notice, at no time have I invited someone else to look at the manuscript. This omission is not an oversight. It’s hard enough handling your own fears, much less the criticism of someone who hasn’t been there for the whole ride.
Side Note: If you have some people you trust, who understand how you think and what you are going for, by all means have them work with you from the beginning. Whatever floats your boat. But, in this case, shut them out from the initial read. If you’ve written enough poems for a manuscript, you have probably had enough well-meaning advice along the way. It’s now time to push yourself out of the nest and fly. Once the manuscript is all together and meets your standards, you can solicit criticism. But not in the middle. Too many cooks and all that jazz.
If you invite several people to look, have them respond separately and read their comments collectively. Some or most of their comments will be crap. Personal tastes, how they might have done it, etc. However, if most of them have the same feedback, you might want to rethink.
NEVER answer their questions, their inquiries. Comments are for you to gauge your manuscript, not for them to get answers. Let them know up front that this is how it will be. Nothing saps your creative energy and confidence more than having to explain “what you were after” to someone who may not get it anyway. If they are not comfortable with the feedback being for your benefit, make sure you never choose them again.
Good luck. Friendships can rise and fall on this stage.
It is time for to address the pesky 4th category. Here’s the deal with poems that need work: if it fits the theme, work on it. If not, no matter how good you think it might be one day, this is NOT that day. You’re putting together a cohesive manuscript. You are expending a lot of energy. Make a conscious effort to stay on track. Don’t try to rework poems that don’t fit and need work. This is not the time. As with the poems you didn’t like (for the right reasons), put them away to prevent temptation.
When revising your selected poems, you may find the job is much easier now. Once a theme is chosen, the places where these poems are broken will probably leap out at you. Give yourself no more than one day on each of these reworks. If it doesn’t shape up, ship it out.
And that’s it. You have a poetry manuscript. Except:
We haven’t talked order or title or number of pages or table of contents or acknowledgments or who you are going to piss off by leaving them out of the dedications page.
Up next: Dressing Up Your Children and Sending Them Out Into the World.
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