Monday, September 10, 2012

Hurdles in Manuscript Construction: One Process

After I had written the poems in Town for the Trees, and established it as a manuscript.  I could hardly conceive there would come a time when I would (or even could) write more poems about my home town of Springville, Utah which would be truly new.  I felt there was no way for me to continue to use the town as a primary character in my poetry because I had written more than 50 or 60 poems about the town, and some 46 of those poems made it into the final version of the book.  There was just no way I could do it.  What I discovered is what happens after you write everything you think you can write on a particular subject.  What I did was write more poems.  A lot more poems.

My new manuscript, titled Hobble Creek Almanac, is another book written entirely about my home town of Springville.  As it stand right now, it's 44 poems and 74 pages of actual poetry.  That size will increase by about two poems.  Yes.  One year after my first book was published, I have another, entirely new book of poems ready to go. None of the poems written at the time I was writing my first book made it into this latest manuscript.  Those are the poems which made it into the manuscript.  As with my first, book, many poems did not make the final cut.

So how did this happen?  How did I go from not thinking myself capable of writing any more poems about a place to writing an entirely new book?  A few things happened which I think are relevant.  To start with, the poems I wrote for the first book were literally written over the course of a decade, and if anything, I am minimizing the time I spent writing them.  The other thing that happened was writing the first book expanded my scope, even if I wasn't immediately able to recognize it.

That scope which grew over the course of more than a decade.  Just like when I first started writing my poems back in college I did not realize I was in fact planting the seeds of a book length manuscript, I did not see the work in writing and shaping a book length manuscript  for the preparation it was establishing for another book.  That took a while.  My next project, after Town for the Trees, was a deeply jarring and disturbing manuscript, touching on all sorts of personal issues, which was unlike anything I had previously written.  It was a book of landscape poetry, but those poems were about my emotional landscape, the alienation between father and son, the loss of identity.  To say I was exorcising some demons from my system is certainly a safe and easy to prove statement.  Little did I realize while I was writing that book (which may or may not ever see the light of day in published form) my mind was at work on this second manuscript, contextualizing the world in terms of what I knew could still be said about my home town.

In this latest book, I began seeing a book expanding the history of my town, not merely the simpler themes of loss and separation explored in my first book.  Not that those themes are neglected in any way with my new book, but there is more to it.  I also had to let go of quite a few preconceived notions regarding the structure of what my original intentions were.  I doubt I would have been able to write this second book about my home town without the experience of writing the first.  Why? because the experience of writing the first one informed me about structure. 

You see, at first I thought I needed to write longer narrative poems to tell the stories of specific people and families from my home town.  I thought that would be the way to tell the history of my town.  The only real problem is I was wearing blinders as to the way to frame those narrative poems, based upon my mentor Dave Lee.  For anyone familiar with his work, you know what a masterful poet Dave is when it comes to the narrative poem.  I doubt anyone does it better than him, especially when it comes to his ear.  For a very long time I thought I had to write those sorts of poems, or poems like B.H. Fairchild---these expansive and sweeping descriptions, but I was wrong on both counts.  After struggling through a few failed attempts, I realized I had to make the poems mine.  And though you can hear hints of both Lee and Fairchild in my poems, the poems in the book is according to my own set of values within the narrative structure.  Coming to know I had that capability is the groundwork laid by writing the first book.  All of these poems in my head just waiting to come out were waiting for me to write them.

So what process did I use?  I found a structure first.  My first book had no sections. This latest book has three.  The first is about the first few years of settlement.  The second is structured as a series of persona poems, meant to be internal and external poems written by a real life-long resident of Springville.  It was important that I chose a person who was not my relative.  This connects back to the very real need of needing the ability to tell the truth and the freedom to lie.  I need to be able to tell the truth and lie certainly within the same book, and quite possibly within the same poem.  I needed to have a person/family to tell real stories and have them sit next to those I have fabricated entirely.  The third section is me trying to answer the difficult question of why my home down has such a strong hold on me.  I say difficult because I did not have an easy childhood or adolescence in my town, yet I am deeply in love with that place. 

I also was lucky ( I mean the hybrid of inspiration and preparation often associated with creative thinking) because family and town history is a passion held by quite a few people I know, including several relatives.  This meant I had access to books and documents not readily available to t5he general population which created several of the pathways as how to best lay out such a writing project such as this one.  I may not have told the stories I initially thought necessary or even related many of the details some people might think essential to writing such a book as the one I have, but I was in fact able to create a document I am proud of.

Then there are the footnotes and epigraphs.  Because I have always been a fan of the epigraph, there are plenty of them to be found: Two for each section, and a lot scattered throughout the book.  Some are real and some are not. Some of the footnotes are real and some are not.  This was essential for my process because again, I needed to feel free to walk in and out and even dance on the line between truth and lie.  I was not retelling a history, I was recreating a history.  And if any of you cannot conceive of a book of poetry filled with lies mingled in with truth, t hen I have to wonder why you are even interested in poetry at all.

I will tell you now in all honesty (you can trust me here) I was surprised by finishing the manuscript so suddenly.  Again, I think I have two more poems to be written, but I really did think up to about a week ago, I would still be making more poems for this book up until December, and have about 10-15 more pages than it does.  I was taken aback by the completeness of what I had, but everything felt right in the construction and in the length.  I know better than to keep pushing when things feel this good.  Now I still have plenty of work to do.  I am certain I will have a lot of revising to go through when my readers get finished picking the book apart, but the drafting is practically finished and I believe the biggest challenges are behind me, save the one where I get other people to believe in the manuscript enough to want to publish it.  If anyone has that one figured out, I'd like to know about it.