Pushing a Poetry Manuscript to a New Level

This is part 2 of an 8-part series on the process I went through to get my debut full-length collection of poetry, Solving the World’s Problems, published by Press 53. Click here to start at the beginning, or feel free to continue reading this post.

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On January 4, I received the incredible news from Tom Lombardo that my debut full-length poetry collection was accepted for publication. In his initial e-mail, Tom wrote, “I like it’s structure and tone, and the poems are very good. I don’t believe it will take much editing.”

Of course, I was happy to hear the collection was accepted. Knowing we wouldn’t have to do much editing was fabulous news too. All I had to do was kick back and let the publishing process work its magic.

Not So Fast…

Solving the World's Problems

Solving the World’s Problems

On January 12, I received an e-mail from Tom that included this: “When I first read through (Solving the World’s Problems)–I noted its lyricism and its potential marketing platform. After now a 2nd more careful reading, I see its great potential as a masterpiece of lyrical poetry. But revisions will be needed to reach the potential.”

Further, he wrote, “Before I dig into the 3rd, 4th, 5th readings, I must ask you this question: Do you want to publish ‘Robert Lee Brewer’s poems,’ or do you want to publish ‘Poems by Robert Lee Brewer?’ Here’s the difference: People will surely buy the former, but they will respect and love the latter long after the purchase. Your answer will guide the extent of my editing. If you pick the latter, we will go for a long, fruitful ride. If the former, we’ll just go around the block and drink some beers on the way. The latter is a lot of work for both of us, which is why I’m asking. But I believe in your collection and also in the editing process.”

Note to editors: If you want writers to take the revision process seriously, tell them you think they have the potential to create a “masterpiece of poetry.” What could I say to that? I told him I was ready to roll up my sleeves and work this collection over. Beers are nice and all, but c’mon.

Rolling Up Sleeves

After giving the green light, Tom’s suggestions started coming in fast and furious–like the very next day. He sent e-mail messages; we talked on the phone at night, during the day, over the weekend, while I was on the road. But first, Tom laid out a plan and a vision for the collection that I totally bought into immediately.

First, he defined lyrical versus narrative poetry and said he thought this collection was more powerful when it was lyrical than when it was narrative. Since I’d heard compliments on the lyrical nature of my poetry in the past at readings, I was ready to make the plunge and cut all the poems that didn’t fit–even the ones I loved that had been published in great publications. Lyricism first.

Second, Tom stumbled on something I had never noticed before in my own work–and maybe it was tied to my lyrical writing–but nearly all my poems were written in tercets (even when they were blocks of text). It was so weird, but I found that most of my poems easily broke into tercets. So rule number two was to go through the poems and break them down into tercets. In some cases, this did require some very interesting revisions that I think made the individual poems stronger.

Third (and finally), Tom made a suggestion that I play around with the idea of adding space to my lines and maybe even abandon punctuation and capitalization. From his early mentions, I think he expected me to nix this idea immediately. The one thing about me, though, is that I absolutely love to experiment. So I went with it, and I think it was an absolutely inspired suggestion.

There are many reasons why I think Press 53 was the perfect landing spot for my first collection of poetry, but the main reason is that I’m absolutely convinced that Tom Lombardo was the perfect person I needed to edit this collection. If my collection succeeds, I owe a great debt of gratitude to Tom for helping it get to that point.

Example of Revision

So what does revision of a poem mean? In some cases, it was pretty minor–like just breaking a 15-line poem into five tercets and removing the punctuation and capitalization. Others were a bit more challenging. For instance, this monotetra is a form that requires quatrains:

as the sun set in the forest, by Robert Lee Brewer

as the sun set in the forest,
she slipped out of her slip. she left
it on a bench and then asked me
to follow. her bells became stars.

when the boomerang moon melted,
as the sun set in the forest,
her trail went cold. i tried to find
which way but only the raven

knows. the moon caught a glimpse of the sun
but shadow clouds surrounded her
as the sun set. in the forest,
there was nothing i could explain.

she was naked and i was scared
of not having her promises,
not that i could ever keep them,
as the sun set in the forest.

What could I do to keep this a monotetra and still hold to the tercet rule?

Well, actually, I couldn’t do both–so I had to make a decision, and here’s what I decided in this case. Cut out the refrain. After playing with the spacing (in a further revision) and removing punctuation, this is what emerged:

as the sun sets in the forest, by Robert Lee Brewer

she slipped out of her slip    she left
it on a bench and then asked me
to follow    her bells became stars

when the boomerang moon melted
her trail went cold    i tried to find
which way but only the raven

knows    the moon caught a glimpse of the sun
but shadow clouds surrounded her
there was nothing i could explain

she was naked and i was scared
of not having her promises
not that i could ever keep them

What Other Revisions?

Other common revisions included taking abstract words and/or images and making them more concrete. Or taking a theme in the poem and playing even harder with the concept. For instance, I had a poem involving origami that I spent a lot more time recreating–and I pretty much re-wrote a poem involving fortune cookies.

I didn’t accept every suggestion Tom sent my way, and to his credit, he did not say that I should. Rather, he acknowledged that he was giving suggestions and letting me decide what to do next. He put the onus on me to follow my gut, and that’s what I did–all the while with Tom giving me new directions, feedback, and encouragement.

And the encouragement factor really can’t be overstated. I’m a pretty harsh and critical judge of my own work–so it helps to have someone in my corner. Fast forward to June 17 when Tom calls out of the blue and gets my voice mail. He tells me that he was going through the final proof, and, “I just wanted to tell you how much I like it. … I must’ve read these poems 8, 9, 10 times, and they’re getting better every time.”

I hope that’s a reflection of my writing and wild revisions. But I know that it’s also a reflection of a good editor trying to dig the most out of his author and supporting him from the beginning of the process to the end.

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Robert Lee Brewer

Robert Lee Brewer, author of Solving the World’s Problems

If you want to learn more about Solving the World’s Problems, click here. Also, follow me on Twitter @robertleebrewer.

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3 thoughts on “Pushing a Poetry Manuscript to a New Level

  1. PKP

    Great fun traveling the road to publication with you – especially loved the aside about how an editor can ‘get’ a poet (writer of any sort) to go along with an editorial view by suggesting the vision of a ‘masterpiece.’ Good writing, here – going to share it – think others would enjoy reading as well! 🙂

  2. PressOn

    Robert, This is fascinating reading, and I, for one, would like to know more about omitting punctuation and capitalization. Intuitively I recoil from that, so I’d like to learn more about the rationale for it. Also, your example revision does not fit the monotetra specification you lined to; it looks more like a quatern to me.

    I have ordered your book and look forward to having it as I go through this series.

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