With less than two months until the 2022 New Poets Prize deadline, you may be starting to get serious with your manuscript. If you haven’t already, there is still plenty of time to put a winning collection together.
Bringing your poems together is no mean feat, especially if it’s your first time, so we asked 2021 New Poets Prize winner Karl Knights for his advice on building a winning entry…
If it’s your first time structuring a collection, it can seem a daunting task. During the editing process, I learnt that in Italian, the word ‘stanza’ can translate to ‘room.’ Thinking of the poems as rooms helped a lot. Are you putting a room with no furniture next to a cramped room? Are two very large rooms joined together? Is this room warm or cold? Inviting or mysterious? Asking myself those kinds of questions helped me know what the poems were up to a lot more.
“I recorded myself reading the entire manuscript, and would listen back to it periodically.”
Interrogate everything about your work. In all my manuscript drafts, there are endless notes in the margins, asking ‘what is this poem doing? What do I gain by this poem being here? What would I miss, if anything, if I took this poem out?’ And I would often write out reasons for and against a poem being in the sequence. I was lucky in that very few poems were cut outright, but more often than not, the reason for a poem being cut out was that it was too similar to another poem in the book, or the poem repeated things that were better executed in other poems.
Keep an eye out for any repetition. You’ll quickly realise that you’re fond of particular words and phrases. For example, probably the most mortifying moment of editing for me was realising that I used the exact same descriptive phrase in two poems, poems that were written years apart from one another. You can feed your manuscript into Excel and other things that will tell you about all your repetitions, but I preferred to notice them myself. My best tool for noticing repetitions was this: I recorded myself reading the entire manuscript, and would listen back to it periodically.
“If I could go back, I would tell myself that books don’t happen by chance or divine intervention, you have to work.”
So, my winning entry was my eighth entry to the prize! This pamphlet is standing on top of seven failures. The difference between this entry and the others is quite simple: I worked a hell of a lot more. In hindsight, I can see that my previous entries were actually quite sloppily put together, I’d just chuck poems together and send it away. I wouldn’t even call those past entries books, because, just as a sequence, the poems had no arc, no flow, no structure to speak of.
If I could go back, I would tell myself that books don’t happen by chance or divine intervention, you have to work. You have to think deeply about every line end, every word, every comma and full stop.
“Ultimately, there are as many ways to work on a manuscript as there are poets.”
It can be disheartening to be a working poet and not see how you work in all the usual advice that people give. For example, people often recommend spreading your manuscript out on the floor or a table to shuffle the poems around, and I don’t have a table or enough floor space for that, and that’s okay. You’ll know what works for you, and you’ll know what methods you can comfortably use. Whether you’re writing using dictation software, or whether you’re writing on a borrowed laptop, or whether you’re writing in a bedroom, it’s all valid, and it doesn’t make you any less of a poet. The methods of working that I’ve detailed here strike me as fiercely autistic ways of going about making a collection. Ultimately, there are as many ways to work on a manuscript as there are poets.
Eventually, I got to the point where I knew exactly why every word, comma and full stop was where it was. One question I kept asking myself was, ‘is this the best you can do? Are these the best poems you can write at the moment?’ And I knew that the manuscript was ready to send away once I could say ‘yes, this is the best I can do right now.’ Even if I didn’t win, I knew I would honestly have no regrets, because I did the absolute best I could do in that moment.
You can read more from Karl Knights in his conversation with Ruth Yates, ‘Kinship and community: In conversation with Karl Knights, winner of the 2021 New Poets Prize’
Karl’s winning collection Kin will be published by the New Poets List in June 2022