I’m pretty excited because today I’m having a blog exchange with writer friend Annie Neugebauer. I’m also excited because it’s the first time I’ve had a poet guest on my blog! To be honest I can’t remember exactly how, where, or when I met Annie, but from the beginning I was drawn to her blog for it’s varied and interesting content and also as a writing resource (she has a series called “The Organized Writer” and another called “The Decorative Writer”—all about writer spaces), but one of the things I love most is that Annie writes amazing prize-winning poetry and she’s a horror writer. And to be honest, both those things frighten me as a writer. (Okay, I couldn’t resist the joke, but it’s true. I am a mediocre poet, and I’m such a wimp I’m afraid to even read much horror.) Now Annie and I are co-workers, too: we are both bimonthly contributors to Writer Unboxed.
My post at Annie’s is part of her Decorative Writer series, where you can see photos of my home office. Check it out!
Last year, I found myself staring at the fast-approaching deadline to a national poetry manuscript contest. (A poetry manuscript is an unpublished book-length collection of poems. The winner’s prize is $1,000 and publication.) It was a well-respected contest that I had entered once or twice before, but for some reason that year I was procrastinating, and I wasn’t sure why.
I had two different manuscripts “ready to go.” One was a memoir collection of poems about me and my relationship with my father, whose alcoholism eventually led to his death. Obviously, that one was intensely personal. It was a mix of traditional form poetry, rhyming, and free verse poems. I knew it was a good manuscript; it had placed second in a state poetry manuscript contest two years before. But almost winning did something strange. When my name wasn’t called, I felt relieved. Sensing that something was wrong – but having no idea what – I shelved the collection for the next year.
My second collection was less narrative and less personal. Instead, it focused on life theories, true but less intimate anecdotes, and it mixed those together with poems about Pandora and the surrounding Greek myths. The theme of the collection was hope. It was almost entirely free verse, which is what most prestigious judges/contests are looking for these days. (Don’t get me started.) It had some great poems in it, but my gut told me it wasn’t quite cohesive enough as a collection.
Perhaps it was my subtle doubts about both of my manuscripts that had me hesitating. I suddenly felt I couldn’t justify a $20 entrance fee for something I knew I wouldn’t win – that’s $40 to enter both. (Hey, I’m a poet; I’m not exactly raking in the dough.) I knew that my use of rhyme was out of vogue enough to discount the first manuscript, and I knew that the lack of cohesion was enough to discount the second. Despite my husband’s encouragement to send both and “give it a shot,” I felt it was useless. Why bother?
The deadline loomed. I pouted. I decided to skip that year. Even if I knew how to fix either manuscript, it was too late this go-round.
Three days before the deadline, I woke up perfectly awake. If you don’t know me well, you might underestimate that. Trust me; I’m the polar opposite of a morning person. So for me to wake up and my brain be not foggy – that’s something on its own. But not only did I wake up perfectly alert, I woke up with an idea fully formed, sitting right at the top of my head. What if I combined my two manuscripts?
It was a mad idea. They were both full-length, so to mesh them into one manuscript I’d have to cut half of all of the poems. (Ouch!) And yet… once I’d thought it, I couldn’t let it go. The more I considered it, the more it made sense. At the root, both manuscripts were actually about the same thing: the dual nature of hope. And cutting so many poems might allow me to get rid of the rhyming ones that, though I adore them, really worked against me for the judges. I called my mom (she’s a great sounding-board), and as soon as I started explaining the idea out loud, I felt excitement bubbling. It was crazy, but what did I have to lose? I saved both original versions an extra time, just in case, and then I printed them off so I’d have hardcopies to play with.
I wish I had a video of the next few hours in my office that day. I must have looked like a madwoman, muttering to myself, shuffling through binders, tossing pages over my shoulder. I went through each manuscript as fast as I could so my subconscious would do the work. I threw out every poem that I even suspected needed to go. If it rhymed, it was gone. If it was weak, it was gone. If it didn’t fit in with my new, more cohesive theme, it was gone. If something nagged at me about it, it was gone. I didn’t let myself second-guess for even a moment – a trick accomplished by promising myself I could always put them back in later – and pages started flying. My floor was coated in poems. Good poems, solid poems, even poems that had already been published on their own. If I hesitated for a moment on a poem, I cut it. It felt like an exorcism.
Once I had cut a total of 121 pages of poetry down to 50, I set to work mixing them together and getting them in order. The poems from the first manuscript were easy to do, because they told a story, so they went in chronological order. The poems from the second manuscript were a little trickier, since they were about Pandora, but it didn’t take me long to realize how beautifully that myth spoke to my experiences with my dad and his addiction. I started “clumping” poems that spoke to similar things. I had a beautiful poem about Hephaestus, for example, who was the god who created Pandora, and how after creating her he had to let her go. It fit perfectly with the poem about my leaving home for college, which left my dad by himself in a house that used to hold four.
A New Path
In the end, I put the entire collection together in a day. I wrote eleven new poems to fill in some gaps and flesh out the new intertwined stories and motifs, but they flew from my fingers like they’d already been written. My personal story brought the myths to life in a new way, and the myths leant my personal story a new level of sophistication and universal meaning. It felt exquisitely “meant to be.” I gave it a new title that brought out the best of both books and sent it off to the contest on the last possible day. I knew that even if I didn’t win I had something special. The real clue was that I didn’t miss any of the cut poems, and I knew I would never, ever go back to the original two manuscripts.
The new manuscript received an honorable mention that year, which put me in the top five in the nation. It’s the biggest honor I’ve received for my poetry to date, and I couldn’t be more proud. I’ll continue to polish that manuscript and send it to other contests in the next couple of years, and maybe I’ll get lucky and hit the right judge at the right time – who knows?
But what I really gained from the experience was much more than acknowledgement or bragging rights. I learned how to trust my artistic instincts. There was a reason I didn’t want to submit those two manuscripts, and that reason was that I knew, deep down, that I could do better. I learned to take greater risks. I learned how amazing it feels to let old work go, even if I still like it.
Most of all, I learned how truly in control I am of my own narrative. I’m not chained to what I’ve done and exactly how I’ve done it. I am free to tear down and rebuild, to restructure and recreate, to go back and reinterpret again and again, because this story is mine. And somehow, in making it more fully my own, I’ve made it more fully everyone else’s, too. I think that moment when we reach the crossroads of fully realized self and fully accessible public consumption is what art is all about, don’t you?
Annie lives in Texas with her husband and two cats. She describes herself as “hyperactively organized” and she willingly shares “that neurosis” with other writers at The Organized Writer. While you’re there, check out her current projects, and browse pictures of writers’ offices at The Decorative Writer. She posts new blogs two to four times a month, and she loves to read comments! You can also connect with her on Twitter @AnnieNeugebauer and on Facebook. She also writes a bi-monthly post for Writer Unboxed.