It’s inevitable, isn’t it? We start writing poetry, get a few published pieces in our columns, then decide it’s time for a manuscript.
Call me predictable.
I had an inspired trip with my mom this past August, and the work coming out of that one week has already become 26 pages of content. I run each one past my trusted editorial crew (a.k.a. my writers’ group), and these things are as strong as I can make them. They keep coming, too.
That’s a good thing. The number of poems I need, based on my own research, is about double what I have.
I found out other things, too. (In my day job as a freelance writer and editor, I have to find things out for myself, so that part wasn’t hard.)
- Themes are encouraged
- Writing poems for a collection works best if you write within the same time period (I know my stuff from a few years ago simply doesn’t fit with my current mindset)
- Order matters (think like a DJ)
- Use the poems’ lines to create connections
- Printing out and rearranging all poems by hand help visualize the order better
- Too much theme can bore the hell out of reader
So let’s chew on these a bit.
I would love to include a poem about my cousin’s journey to the Wall in this manuscript, but the theme is one of families and aging. While he experienced plenty of loss in Vietnam, it may not fit. Nor will the one I wrote about Chopin. So I had to decide on a theme, even if it’s unspoken or not readily obvious. That helps keep me on track.
I don’t remember where I saw this advice, but looking back over my poems from other years, I get it. I’m not the same person I was in those moments. Not that those moments aren’t valid, but they’re not part of this current wave I’m riding. Some poems may fit, but others are clearly meant to go elsewhere.
That first poem in particular is key. It’s like starting a fashion show with your strongest piece, or starting a novel with a fantastic first chapter. That first poem is going to set the mood of the entire manuscript. Read this piece by Katrina Vandenberg and see how she equates poetry order with a mix tape. It made me think of a DJ at a wedding and how each song has to be selected to relate somehow to the mood (or lighten it, as need be).
Creating connection through lines
Again, the Vandeberg article explains how one poet does that. Not a bad idea, either.
Printing/rearranging by hand
Sometimes you need to print it out. So do it. Single page (not double-sided: you’ll drive yourself batty should you want to move those poems to different places), lay them out on the floor or a table, then mix and arrange. What will happen is you’ll see some that simply don’t fit. Easy to remove this way, aren’t they?
Lighten up on theme
So my current manuscript has a lot of aging parent stuff. That can get extremely heavy about ten pages in. That’s why I’m breaking it up with related stuff — a humorous poem or two about something one of my parents did, a few poems about a divorce or breakup, and yes, maybe that poem about my cousin. It’s all wonderful to have a heavy theme, but the reader needs a break. So do I.
Have you published a poetry book of any sort? Are you working on any?
How did you arrange your poems? Did you use a theme? If so, how closely did you stick to it?