In preparation for my upcoming panel (see events) on the experience of getting that first poetry book get into print, I’ve been thinking about what advice I might give to other poets who are where I was two or three years ago. I’m not an expert but, with two poetry collections under my belt and a third manuscript now making the rounds, I’m no neophyte either. Here’s an orderly list. I’ll try to be succinct, I am a poet after all.
*Once upon a time it was not unusual for a first poetry collection to be comprised of the young poet’s best poems to date. No more. Those good old days are gone. Somewhere along the line a savvy young poet put way too much thought into her collection as a whole and ruined it for the rest of us. All kidding aside, publishers and contest judges are looking for a higher level of intention in a poetry collection, not unlike a short story collection.
*If you’re just beginning writing toward what you hope will be a first collection, I would advise you not to write each poem in a vacuum. Look at the recurrent themes, totems and images that seem to be preoccupying you and making it into your poems. As poets, we all have these weird obsessions: extinct species, maps, rivers, reflective surfaces, you get the picture, as well as large, overarching philosophical preoccupations. I’m not suggesting you write poems about all of these things straight on, but keep them in your creative peripheral vision while you work, and be aware of them as a thread throughout your poems.
*If you already have what you feel is a complete or nearly complete first manuscript, look at it with all the above in mind. Chances are, there are many thematic threads running through the poems you may not have been aware of, or only half aware of. Now’s the time to play around with themes, through order and juxtaposition, as well as cutting poems and writing new poems to fill in the gaps. A simple poem, which seemed to be one thing to you, can become much more when you order the poems with an eye, and ear, toward allowing them to fraternize.
*Read the book Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems by Susan Grimm. It’s a collection of essays by poets who have put together many of their own collections. The poets acknowledge the fact that there are as many ways to ‘order the storm’ as there are ways to create that storm in the first place. I loved the book.
*When ordering your own collection, pay special attention to your opening and closing poems. You want to create an arc. You want to begin in one place and end up somewhere else. Pay attention to the movement of your collection, to the way one poem transitions into another, how they play off, and speak to, one another. If I have totem images or recurrent phrasing or titles throughout my poems, I make sure not to cluster them, but give them the space of several poems in between. During this process of ordering you will inevitably find poems that aren’t pulling their weight or seem out of place. An out of place poem could be brought into line with a title change or a little tweaking, but a weak poem is just weak. Why does it hurt so much to cut one little poem?
*I’ve been a reader for a couple first book contests, not the final judge who happily gets 15 finalists to choose from, but a lowly reader who wades through 500 manuscripts and winnows. These readers get word-drunk, lines begin to blur, and one thing sounds like another. So, your job is to submit the tightest, strongest bunch of poems that will pierce through reader-fog and rise to the top of the pile. It may seem daunting, but it’s do able. Someone has to win. Be tough on your collection and be aware of what it’s saying and doing as a collection. Readers and final judges want to see intent. They want to see that the poet has consciously crafted her manuscript, down to the last detail.
*With the above in mind, look closely at: poem order, title of collection, title of poems, opening and closing poems, sections or no sections and why, use of repetition, use of form, juxtaposition of poems (which isn’t quite the same as order), if you write both lyric and narrative and play with different forms, be aware of giving the reader some variation, i.e, don’t organize all of your lyric poems together, etc.
*Submit single poems to journals before the book is published, many won’t want the poems once they’re in book form
*Continue to tweak and tighten your manuscript while it’s being sent to contests and open reading periods. It’s not that your manuscript needs a complete overhaul, but just revisit the poems and try to see them fresh.
*For contest listings and open reading periods see Newpages, Poets and Writers and AWP. As a poet, I have never found Writer’s Digest and the other magazines with popular fiction writers on the cover to be very helpful.
*This is my best piece of advice, in my opinion. Ready? Move on to the next project. Around year three of submitting my first collection, only sporadically writing poems and getting more and more wound up and distracted by the submission process, I finally got wise and realized I needed to start writing toward another project, with all the experience I’d gained from completing the first. By ‘another project’ I mean I started to pay attention to themes and interests bubbling beneath the surface, I began to write with intent. I wrote my second collection in about a year and submitted it for only 6 months when it was taken by Parlor Press, just one month after my first collection won the Red Mountain Press Prize. Sometimes we forget, in the maelstrom of creating a book, that writing poetry is where it’s at. Always remind yourself.