Virginia Konchan and Sarah Giragosian, eds.
Marbles on the Floor: How to Assemble a Book
U of Akron P, 2023
reviewed on April 1, 2023
At a moment in American poetry when the idea of poetic “craft” has become more or less anathema for many writers—“whose craft?” one can imagine hearing in a 300-level workshop—the publication of Giragosian and Konchan’s Marbles on the Floor testifies not only to a certain fearlessness on the part of its editors, but also, I would hazard, to the endurance of poetic craftsmanship itself as a conceptual and material framework.
Marbles reconstructs that framework—of craft, of poetry as a constructive labor—in committing itself to what Giragosian and Konchan call “the art and technique of poetry manuscript assembly,” a figuration which aligns the poetry manuscript, of course, with sundry others forms of material “assembly.” Its contributors echo this commitment, from H. L. Hix’s comparison of the manuscript to an IKEA bookcase to Karyna McGlynn’s discussion of paper collage to Victoria Chang’s assertion that “making a book of poems is similar to caring for bonsai plants.”
Indeed, across this important and incisive collection of craft essays the most thoughtful, it seems to me, are those reflections which root themselves firmly in the materiality—the at-hand technical procedures, the specific strategies—of putting together a manuscript.
This opinion no doubt reflects my own implicit biases, interests, and investments—I wrote a book on craft.
But it was nothing short of a pleasure to encounter, for instance, Hix’s suggestion to “choose the option on [your] computer to print four pages per sheet, and then (manually, with scissors) cut out the poems, so that each is its own closely cropped card.” In nearly twenty years as a writer, ten as a teacher, I had never considered this technique. Nor had I articulated with such metaphorical precision Christopher Salerno’s observation that collections of poetry possess areas of “prime real estate,” readily conspicuous “plots of land upon which you will place a structure that will receive a good deal of attention.”
Salerno’s is one of the standout essays in Marbles, a text to which I expect to return time and again, both for myself and for my students. Whether reflecting on the function of section breaks or diagnosing what he calls “the prefatory poem”—“these poems have a vatic quality,” Salerno writes, “or else carry a good bit of gravitas or large-scale magic”—or conceptualizing the thematic and intellectual “evolutions” of a manuscript, Salerno keenly perceives how contemporary manuscripts operate. At the same time, Salerno encourages writers toward more thoughtful, more richly substantive organization; “simply linking poems by titles or last lines/first lines is clever,” he writes, “but not sufficient as the main binding agent for a book […] not the same as thematic, mythological, narrative continuity or connection.”
Less compelling, from my perspective, are those essays here which hew closely to the autobiographical, or which, at their worst, read as self-satisfied reminiscences of—or plugs for—a writer’s career. “My archive in the Beinecke Library,” explains Annie Finch, “includes dozens of manuscript versions for each book.” “I’d gone to France to visit family that summer,” Kazim Ali recalls, “and while there I left the safe confines of Paris […] and wandered the south for a month.” While autobiographical material can certainly inform discussions of craft in important ways—indeed, this is precisely what it is at stake in ongoing re-appraisals of “craft”—in these instances and others such material pulls the essays in question somewhat afield from the organizing principle of Marbles. “The danger,” Diane Seuss warns in her own contribution to this collection, “is meandering. Self-indulging.” And so it is.
One exception to this autobiographical indulgence is Karyna McGlynn’s excellent “Leaping Between Seams: What Analog Collage Taught Me About Sequencing a Book of Poems,” another of the collection’s standout contributions. Comparing manuscript assembly to collage—McGlynn is herself a brilliant collagist in paper and related media—the essay grounds itself in the rich materiality of McGlynn’s collection of paper dolls, so that the haptic experience of paper in one form becomes, in McGlynn’s hands, a way to think about the experience of paper in another form, of poetry. “One of my most treasured childhood possessions was a book of paper dolls called ‘Glamorous Movie Stars of the Thirties,’” McGlynn writes. “I was a seven-year-old with shaky hands, a shitty pair of safety scissors, and no sense that there were other copies of this book in the world, so I allowed myself to cut out only one doll or outfit per month. […] Then I created little supper club scenarios for my starlets to parade around in their fantastical Erté gowns, their Irenes, their Heads, their Orry-Kellys.” Lavishly nostalgic, McGlynn’s reflections offer an exciting, cross-disciplinary approach to the seams, juxtapositions, and collisions that take place across a poetry manuscript. McGlynn brings up her own manuscripts, moreover, only as a tactical exemplum of the craft-based theory she lays out. Her poem “Rich Girl Camp Revenge Fantasy,” for instance, “concludes with an image of class conflict,” McGlynn explains, while the following two poems examine “luxury, class conflict, and death.”
The shortcomings that hamper Marbles owe more, to my eye, to individual essayists than to Giragosian and Konchan’s editorial vision. One laments, for instance, the overplayed objections to MFA programs, to academia in general, and to the “project book,” objections less common in Marbles, thankfully, than they have become in contemporary discourse.
In fact, Marbles is one of the most savvily assembled, most thoughtful craft books I have encountered, testament to the care which Giragosian and Konchan have brought to the project.
Inter-articulated with one another, the essays here meditate collectively on a tension between order and disorder in the contemporary manuscript, a tension which Marbles metaphorizes in various ways. For Salerno, this crucial tension draws on Apollonian and Dionysian traditions in western culture, embodied, he finds, in the differences between Louise Glück’s tonal terseness and Carmen Gimenez Smith’s “various and overflowing” long poems. For Seuss, the tension is even more immediate. “There is something to be said for a boundary,” she writes. “There is also something to be said for unbinding. Ask anyone who has ever worn a bra.”
So too is Marbles itself expertly ordered, only appropriate given the collection’s subject. McGlynn’s essay on paper-doll collage, for example, is followed immediately by Philip Metres’s fascinating discussion of the vellum overlays in his collection Sand Opera and of the full-color travel posters in Shrapnel Maps. “Working with Photoshop,” Metres recounts, “I engaged in my own croppings and erasures.” Metres’s discussion of the publishing marketplace, in turn, comes just prior to Ali’s reflection on his own early efforts to get published. His book “was a semi-finalist, then a finalist, at several contests,” Ali writes. “Again and again and again. Eventually in the spring of 2004, I put it aside and began to work on new poems.” Such an admission, from a writer of Ali’s stature, no doubt both aids and inspires emerging writers in our own hyper-competitive poetry culture.
So does Marbles, as a collection, offer an array of helpful, inspiring, and generative approaches to manuscript assembly. Destined for wide adoption at the graduate and advanced undergraduate level, the collection is a long-needed and generous text, a craft book worthy of the genre.