I tend to work on many things at once, which used to bother me but now I see as just how I work and even an advantage in some ways. If something’s a dead end, which happens a lot, I can pick up some other poems or what have you. But definitely the poems come first and the books later; I don’t think of them as projects but poems.
They also evolve out of each other: I was writing the Basquiat book and it was mostly done, and had become this massive long poem, and no one wanted it. Or they liked it but balked. Because it was also a “public” book, one purposefully without an “I” in it at all, I started writing the more “personal” poems that became Jelly Roll. At first it was just a clutch of 15 or so heartbreaking poems, with all this weird syntax—though I always knew it would be subtitled “a blues,” I didn’t know if it was a series or a section of a book or what. Only when I set it free, and really started thinking about the form, did it become a book. It too grew a bit long before I cut a lot of the poems—some even good poems that didn’t fit, or were redundant, or didn’t move the whole in the way that even some of the smaller poems did.
That’s the hard but important thing: if you seed enough you have to be willing to yank the weeds. And even a plant that’s too close to the house or whatever. Sometimes these stray things have later lives, but not always. One day some may see the light.