"The Best Words in the Best Order: Douglas Manuel" by Alyssa Trapero
Typically, when I read poetry, my mind connects only to the difficulty of understanding. I get lost in the world of metaphors and undefined emotion. For me, understanding comes through narrative, dialogue, character. Douglas Manuel’s poems stick to me.
Evidently, they stick to a great many people, as his debut collection, Testify (Red Hen Press), won the 2017 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award for poetry, and his work has been published in such venues as Poetry Northwest, The Los Angeles Review, Superstition Review, Rhino, North American Review, The Chattahoochee Review, New Orleans Review, and Crab Creek Review. Originally from Anderson, Indiana, he received a BA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University and an MFA from Butler University where he was the Managing Editor of Booth a Journal. He is currently a Middleton and Dornsife Fellow at the University of Southern California where he is pursuing a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing.
Given this breadth of experience, it is perhaps no wonder that every piece, every line, every word speaks to me. I want to learn more about how that happens.
I ask Manuel about one of the important aspects in writing, his audience—specifically, if he aims his poems at a particular group. He admits that “No, when I write, I do not have a particular audience in mind.” I find this surprising since I was taught to write academic papers, at least, with one in mind. However, he explains that “I am very aware of the fact that my writing will be read differently by different audiences depending on what types of bodies they wear and their other identity markers.” This, I get. As an editor at MORIA, I learn that I bring a set of expectations and experiences with me when I read submissions that are not necessarily shared by the other editors.
Yet there is more to it than that, even. Manuel suggests that he keeps his mind separate from thinking of the audience, “I don’t want considerations like that to stifle the sometimes spiraling, unbridling nature of my nascent drafts.” That is understandable. Overthinking could lead to the choking of a person’s own creativity. As he explains, he privileges sound over meaning, as a way forward when he writes: “I’m trying to follow my ear as best as I can so that I can hear the poem’s truth beyond the meaning of the poem’s words. I’m trying to make the writing process as close to channeling and revelation as possible.” He seems to write, then, by getting out of an arriving poem’s way as much as possible.
As his poems go from mind to paper, and he begins to formulate words, he will sometimes use an expletive. When I ask Manuel if he ever receives backlash for this sort of unvarnished style, he mentions that
I try to adhere to Coleridge’s old adage of poetry being “the best words in the best order.” I interrogate every word in my poems to make sure that I feel as though the word is the best one for what I’m trying to convey. I don’t use curse words in my poetry just to curse. I use curse words in my poetry because sometimes I’m mimicking the way I’ve heard people speak or because I’m mimicking the way I speak. I use curse words in my poetry because sometimes a curse word is the best word to use.
Manuel is acknowledging that cursing is part of language. He is capturing that conversational style in his poems, which does turn them into a rhythm of words rather than a mishmash of words. You can hear this rhythm expressed in “Loud Looks,” when the beat echoes through, especially in the check list:
Wanted to be a rapper? Check.
Thought I was going to the NBA? Check.
Father went to prison? Check.
Brother too? Check.
Mother died when I was eight? Check.
The poem sounds like a song, but it reveals the speaker in a sort of condensed biography. It lists their background, their emotion, their life. Manuel’s formula for writing from mind to paper is to mimic human tongue and use words that fit to the situation of the narrative within.
However, beyond sound, I want to know about his use of imagery: “I try to create a balance between concrete and abstract imagery during the revision process,” he replies. That seems fair. The first poem is not the last poem. Revision is key—where would any writer be without it? He goes on to describe that his focus on concrete details precludes needing to worry too much about veering into vague territory:
I try not to think of matters like this during the generative stage of the writing process. And, honestly, I really don’t think about striking a balance of concrete and abstract language and imagery very often. When I’m writing, I’m always think about writing in the most specific and concrete manner as possible, so there aren’t too many times in my writing that I think about omitting abstract language.
Just as with the question of audience, Manuel wants to write his initial draft without being tied to it until later. Jot it down first, get it out of the mind and onto paper. His focus remains on the precise moments: “I’m just pushing for more and more specificity.” This specificity is showcased in such poems as “The First Time I See My Father’s Blood Cleaned,” which reads in part:
I’m at the door
with the greasy chicken
and smokes you asked for,
watching you bleed.
through tubes so fast
it seems not to move. Artificial
kidney does work
yours won’t. You don’t see
me. You shiver between death
and sleep. I place my bag down,
try to give you my time,
the thing you wouldn’t ask for,
and didn’t need, what
I’d been longing to give.
Manuel’s concrete details show us the son watching his father die, and the conclusion the son draws that what the father wants is in the bag and not in him. When the poem ends, readers are left aware of the scenario, the characters, and the environment that surrounds them—and something else, that hard-to-pin-down quality of poem-ness, in this case the desire, the “longing” for what you don’t have.
Perhaps that longing is a universal human quality, perhaps it’s very specific to this family and this poem. As Manuel mentions in reference to Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun, “It is funny how specificity often leads to broader understandings and identifications and notions of universality” even though Hansberry insisted she was “just trying to write about a specific black family who lives on the southside of Chicago.” Specificity seems to lead to that broader understanding, but Manuel also offers a cautionary about universalizing that would erase experience, rather than enhance it:
I don’t like talking about notions of universality, though, because usually we use this term as a default stand-in for whiteness. When I write, I am just trying to be as specific as possible, and I just try to stay as loyal as I can to the poem in my head and the poem that is unfolding itself across the page as I write it.
Manuel’s use of specific details, then, is a political act, as well as a personal one:
I will say that, like many of my contemporaries, my poetry has been influenced greatly by hip-hop, spoken word, and slam poetry. And, like many of my contemporaries, my poetry is not afraid to tackle subject matter that deals with identity politics and our current political climate.
Perhaps one of the takeaways here is that the next time you write, don’t censor yourself. Just let the words permeate the paper and take root from the descriptive seeds. You will have time to revise.
Alyssa Trapero was born in Austin, Texas, but was raised in Tarzana, California. She likes to be called Ray, which is her middle name. She is a 2nd year Game Art student with a minor in Creative Writing. In her free time, she enjoys playing Minecraft, cosplaying, and cuddling up with her dog, Leia. She also part of the LGBTQ+ community and identifies as bisexual.