Monday, August 28, 2006

Fewer than three weeks before the wedding, a little more than two weeks before the MLA Job Information List opens for business, one day before my first class teaching Shakespeare. Instead of planning for any of these, I am rearranging a poetry manuscript. Over at right under "Poetry" I've listed some poems under the title, The Nature Theater of Oklahoma, in my opinion one of the best titles I've ever stolen (it comes from the last chapter of Kafka's Amerika, aka The Man Who Disappeared). In spite of this the manuscript's been rejected time and again by, well, almost everybody. This might have something to do with the current trend in poetry publishing, the concept book: a mere "collection" of poems isn't as sexy as a book that has some kind of narrative or metanarrative hovering about it. Akin to this is the formally unified book, in which a device, constraint, or composition method creates a kind of (wo)man on the flying trapeze effect that publishers and readers alike find compelling. I've written both kinds of manuscript, arguably at the same time. But Nature Theater doesn't fit into either of those categories. While there are definitely recurring themes and moods, and to me at least the book does tell something of a "story" about my engagement with my Jewish-Modernist heroes, the poems themselves are various in subject matter, tone, form, etc. I think there still ought to be a place for the collection and so I've resisted trying to turn Nature Theater into a hardcore concept book—or more to the point, the poems have resisted me. But that does leave the problem of arrangement. I've tried putting the poems in thematically consistent sections, and I've tried dividing the book into two sections that seem to somehow oppose each or complement each other, and I've tried creating a continuous stream in which elements that really recur by obsession appear to recur by design. I've never been satisfied with any of them, and so maybe I shouldn't be surprised that the manuscript hasn't yet satisfied an editor.

This weekend I came up with a new arrangement that, at least for the moment, both satisfies and excites me, and restores the flow of the book's energy (when a manuscript hangs around for a long time it can get stale in the writer's mind, even if individual poems out of context still seem fresh and urgent): alphabetical order. It may seem like a cop-out—Ron for one has complained about magazines that publish their poets in alphabetical order, so as to shirk making editorial decisions about juxtaposition and conjunction. But surrendering to a constraint, even a simple one, has given my work a shot in the arm in the past, and I think it's happening again. In alphabetical order the poems interact in ways that I didn't force or control, and the conversation between them is far livelier than anything I've tried previously. Plus that quality of obsession that I mentioned earlier is, I think, more on the surface: more nerves are exposed. And the old poems are ventilated in a way that makes room for new ones: I've found a home for many of the poems I've written over the last two years (basically, post Severance Songs) here, and they engage playfully and provokingly with the older stuff.

Whether or not the new arrangement is pleasing to publishers, I hope it will please me enough to help me move on to something truly new. It can be hard to have an old project hanging over your head for years and years: hard to see past or under or through it.

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