from ballrooms to book arranging

by heather hughes | November 2016

I read that Mark Z. Danielewski spread the manuscript pages for Only Revolutions out on the floor of Danny Elfman’s ballroom when he was organizing the book for publication. (If this isn’t true, shhhh, leave me the romance of the story.) Danielewski works in the novel form, but the most common advice to poets working on a manuscript is to do exactly that: lay the whole thing out, all 48+ pages, where you can see it and walk around and shuffle it and perhaps sigh dramatically as the thing still doesn’t dance itself into perfect order when you glance away.

Setting aside the unfortunate reality that no one has yet invited me to carpet their ballroom floor with my manuscript, I’m conflicted about this advice. I recognize the value of it, but it’s not a plausible strategy for me or for many other poets. We have cramped apartments, opinionated pets, or rambunctious children. What do we do when we don’t have an option that allows for a luxurious, undisturbed, soaring overview of our work?

One option is to reframe the question. What is the goal of the ballroom strategy? For me, it’s a way to make explicit and implicit connections between poems and to focus on the big picture of the book, not on the fine detail of the word or line or image. Among numerous failed experiments, an approach that I’ve found useful is thematic visualization, or concept-mapping, a list-making strategy that doesn’t require sprawl.

Thematic visualization starts with a set of key words that identify the concepts and ideas behind individual poems. These might be repeated words or motifs from the manuscript, thematic throughlines, images that recur, or just about any other jumping-off point that allows for groupings of poems. Go through each poem in the manuscript and write out as many key words as possible. (Word cloud generators such as Wordle can be a good way to begin if nothing immediately presents itself.) The key words for my first manuscript include concepts like “body” and repeated words like “ghost.” Using an organizational app (I like Mindly) or drawing by hand, put a key word in a central bubble and branch off the titles of any poems that fit. Some poems will obviously belong in a category, others may be more subtle; for instance, not all of my “ghost” poems feature the word itself but instead carry a haunted motif that I only noticed by generating the list. Repeat this process for each key word. Poems will almost certainly be listed in multiple key word categories. (And it’s worth asking at the end if an orphaned poem belongs to this particular manuscript, and if so, how.) I work with visualizations both on the computer and on paper, as illustrated below, because I discover different connections through each approach.

With thematic visualization, key word groups suggest options for how poems could be interspersed or alternated or massed together as a potential book. Maybe all of the “river” poems should be in a section of their own. Maybe each “lake” poem leads to a “river” poem leads to a “sea” poem. Maybe the “red” poem list is larger than expected and that gives a new insight into the manuscript overall. Until there’s a ballroom floor on offer, this is one practical way to re-envision poems as a cohesive book.

heather hughes is a contributing writer for Mass Poetry who hangs her heart in Somerville and Miami. Poems recently appear or are forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Queen Mob's Tea House, and Vinyl Poetry, among other journals. She MLA-ed in foreign literature at Harvard University Extension and MFA-ed at Lesley University. Her other adventures include working in academic publishing and creating letterpress prints. She never outgrew her science fiction & fantasy obsession. Find her online at