2.14.2006

posted here for comment --

this is certainly current "best practice" as they say in project management, but I wonder at the history of manuscript presentation, and the way it is taught and not taught in mfa programs (which no longer really lead to tenure track teaching jobs, except with rare exceptions)

part of this may be with the contest rubric, and the fact that readers are often recent mfas

Creating and Ordering the Poetry Manuscript
Some Ideas from Jeffrey Levine
Publisher & Editor-in-Chief, Tupelo Press

My advice, given as one who reads 4,000 manuscripts a year. Admittedly, a good deal of this advice is concrete, generic, and merely stylistic, though I suppose even advice of that nature has some value when collected in one place. As style is a matter of taste, you must take into account that what I say reflects my own prejudices and preferences. Other advice here concerns more abstract matters: what makes a book a book? What is the artistic process as applied to making a poetry manuscript cohere? What are some useful approaches to the art of transforming individual poems into a transcendent whole?

The nuts and bolts:

1) Use 11 or 12 point font, Times Roman or other clean serif (Garamond or Palatino, for example), nothing smaller, nothing larger, unless graphic representation is an intrinsic component of you creative process. For example, I usually have more patience for a smaller font size when reading experimental work. Still, have mercy.

2) Beware the frontispiece poem (that poem of yours that you might have elected to place before your numbered pages or before your table of contents). This practice draws far too much attention to a single poem and, in my experience, the selected poem more often than not (80% of the time?) turns out to be one of the weakest poems in the collection. There is simply too much pressure on a poem that not only leads off a manuscript, but stands alone.

There are two things about this -- one is that witha paucity of reviewers able to, apparently, read, the frontispiece poem, the title poem, the poem -- no matter where its placement -- that tips the poetic hand, flags all the signs, etc. -- is a great convenience

I have an ms. where the title is from a poem that isn't -- was never intended to be -- the "title" poem --

3) Use decent quality paper, but don’t go overboard. It makes me nuts when I get a manuscript printed on expensive paper. It’s wasteful and indulgent.

this is a survival from I think my own undergrad experience, where we had to hand everything in printed on rag --

4) When ordering poems in your manuscript, pay no attention (none!) to which poems have been published (and where), and which poems not. At the conclusion of contests, I often (call me perverse) go back and look at acknowledgment pages. I find that most poets place an inordinate and mistaken reliance on their publishing history in ordering poems (or in deciding to include certain poems). Many of us assume that because a journal editor smiled on a particular poem that it must be better than the poems not taken, or that a poem taken by Poetry or the Paris Review must be better than one taken by a lesser known print or online publication. I am almost always amazed—amazed—by which poems have been taken and which not, and by whom. Nothing could be less relevant to creating a manuscript. If you believe your poems, and believe they belong in a particular manuscript, then include them and order them according to your own aesthetic judgment. Period. If that poem the New Yorker took doesn’t work in this particular manuscript, save if for another book.

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