How to Organize or Arrange A Poetry Book, GPS Style

easton to pittsburgh

A friend who’s starting to put together a poetry collection asked me recently if I had any tips for how to organize a book. I suggested the standard practice of thinking about the book as having a story or arc, and organizing it around that. And while I still think that’s pretty decent advice, it’s also pretty vague. I also told her I personally like to end on a note of hope and look for the poem that will leave the reader with that feeling, and that’s when I realized what I actually was doing with my own organization strategy—I was creating a map toward hope.

So with that in mind, here are a few things I do or think about when organizing a collection of poems. I’m not much of an authority at this. I’ve only published four books, and I’m not a press editor, but here are principles that help guide me.

Focus on the destination

Think of the book as a trip. On a trip, unless you’re just aimlessly wandering, you usually pick the destination before you start driving. You punch the addresses into your phone, view the route, and then hit the road. Every so often you get a reminder to turn left at the next intersection or exit the highway via the off ramp. None of the individual steps along the route could happen if you hadn’t picked the destination first. When organizing a book, I’ll look for the final poem first (or at least early in the process). That poem is the destination. It’s where I want the reader to arrive at the end of the journey. As I stated earlier, I usually want to end on something hopeful, to leave the reader knowing that whatever happened earlier in the book, that all is not lost. If you want the reader to end on X feeling, you need to know what steps, turns or transformations will need to occur to bring them there.

Detours matter

Most poetry books today (including mine) are broken into smaller sections. Sometimes these sections are thematically linked to tell a particular story (the first parts of both The Trouble with Rivers and Reckless Constellations focus on specific people and narratives). Think of those sections as necessary detours on your trip—but they still need to function as steps toward your goal. If you’re driving across Pennsylvania, you may make detours to visit the Anthracite Museum or Gettysburg, but how will those stops contribute to the overall experience of the trip? How will they help bring you to the end of the book? Do they support a transformation that happens in the book? Do they expand or contribute to themes you’re working toward?

Plan for rest stops

You can’t get through a long trip without stopping to pee now and then. You’ll need breaks, deviations, places to stretch your back, get some coffee. This can be true with poetry collections as well. Too much of one thing gets tiring, even if those things are very good. A friend called one of my poems a “park bench poem,” a sort of poem that allows the reader to take a breath, release the tension. Rests are part of the trip and necessary to reach the goal. Without a break now and then a book, especially one with emotionally intense poems, can be a bit overwhelming. Use rest stops sparingly, and make them useful to the whole, but use them.

Turn by turn directions

No journey (well, few at least) are straight lines. Every turn is a moment for consideration. Every turn is a choice. Your individual poems are also choices, and those choices have consequence in how the book unfolds. The order of your poems, like turns on a trip, can either get you closer to your destination or lead you away from it. You can also end up going around in circles without advancing further toward the goal. I write a lot of fishing poems, but I’ve never grouped them all together just because they’re all about fishing. That would be like getting stuck in one of those terrible New Jersey loop intersections. Instead, I’ll think of what each of the fishing poems is doing, what experience it’s leading the reader in and how it helps us get to the destination.

Going home

Sometimes, as in life and Lifetime movies, a book’s destination is the same place you started. But in order to realize that, the book has go through the motions of leaving home, process the experiences of being away, and eventually find its way back. The journey itself must still be important, otherwise you wouldn’t have written the poems. It may be a round trip, but it’s still a trip.

Of course there are other ways to organize a poetry book, or, as Hayden Carruth did in Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, don’t organize them at all. These are just ideas that help me. You can do your own thing.

 

Find some of my books here on Amazon.

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12 Books: A Poetry Nerd’s Poetics Reading List

I recently finished up leading a poetry workshop at a writers’ retreat at Rosemont College near Philadelphia. During one of the classes, populated mostly by MFA graduate students, I brought in a pile of craft/theory/poetics/rant books. I’m a nerd for books about poetry and interviews with poets (I always turn to the interview section first when a new issue of Rattle arrives). Aside from reading lots and lots of poetry, one of the best ways for me to learn more about poetry is through reading poets talk about their own processes and ideas. Here’s a partial list of books I think should be on every poet’s shelf. I’m offering this list here for the retreat students who didn’t get to write down the names of all the titles they were interested in.

Please add more books in the comments section if you think I’ve left out something important or interesting. There’s no particular order of importance in the way I’ve assembled this list, and I may add more as I find things on my shelves.

Writing Poems by Robert Wallace. Harper Collins.
I came to this, as I do with a lot of craft books, first as a fan of Wallace’s own poetry. This book is an excellent hardcore treatise in the basic principles and how they work within poems. Lots of samples and some writing prompts.

Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry by Louise Gluck. Ecco.
Here’s a book I love to argue with, which makes the process of reading it fun (and why my copy is so full of scribbled notations). Gluck’s book mixes essays on composition theory with comments of specific poets (Eliot, Oppen, Kunitz). The essay I marked up most is “Against Sincerity.”

Poetry in Person, Twenty-five Years of Conversation with American Poets Edited by Alexander Neubauer. Knopf.
This book is mesmerizing. In it you find 23 transcripts of poets talking with teacher Pearl London and her creative writing classes. These aren’t just any poets though—we get to eavesdrop on Maxine Kumin, Robert Hass, Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell, Lucille Clifton, Li-Young Lee, Charles Simic…

The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. Norton.
This is a very practical and easy to love book on craft. It’s designed more for people who are new to writing poetry, but it also has plenty of insights for established writers. It would make a great textbook for a creative writing class. Lots of prompts and examples are provided. Engagingly written.

Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry Essays by Jane Hirshfield. Harper Perennial.
I first came to this book, 1) as a fan of Jane Hirshfield’s poems and 2) because I was looking for new ways to think about nature poetry, and Hirshfield suggest I read her essay Two Secrets which is collected here. This book is a mix of theory, craft and philosophy—particularly zen.

The Sound of Poetry by Robert Pinsky. FSG.
Here’s a book that really tries to bring back respect for sound and texture in poetry. Good information, but ironically it’s a bit of a flat read.

Best Words, Best Order by Stephen Dobyns. St. Martins Press.
This should be required on every new MFA student’s shelf. I particularly like chapter 5: Pacing: The Way a Poem Moves.

The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo. Norton.
Any fan of Richard Hugo’s poems probably already knows about this book. On one level it’s a guide on how to write like Richard Hugo, but it’s much more than that. For the beginning poet, he makes poetry less intimidating and more personal, but for the mature writer, there will also be a lot of shared “ah ha” moments. Get this book.

Lofty Dogmas: Poets of Poetics. edited by Deborah Brown, Annie Finch and Maxine Kumin.
This is one of my favorites, and I’ve love to teach a class with this as the text book. It compiles essays from ancient times (Horace) to contemporary poets, discussing issues of inspiration, craft and poetry culture. Many of the most important essays on poetry are all wedged in here.

Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry Essays by Stephen Burt. Graywolf.
This collection, all republished from literary journals, attempts to explain and support the work of what Burt calls the elliptical poets—poets like Rae Armantrout, CD Wright, John Ashbery, Lorine Niedecker and others. Often, for me, the support Burt uses doesn’t hold up, but I appreciate it nonetheless. If you’re a fan on this kind of poetry, you’ll find a lot to like here. If you’re not a fan, this book will at least help you understand what they’re trying to do.

The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song by Ellen Bryant Voight. Graywolf.
There are (I think) seven volumes in The Art of series. Of the five I have, this one is my favorite. It offers clear explanations of how sound and texture affect poetry. My other favorite in the series it Dean Young’s The Art of Recklessness.

 

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Interview with Grant Clauser about Necessary Myths

Here’s an Interview at ITMOAW in which I talk about myths, my relationship with readers and other things I’ll regret.

Inside the Mind of a Writer

I was lucky enough to meet poet Grant Clauser at the Push to Publish event this past October. I grabbed his book, The Trouble With Rivers, and knew I had to interview him.

Below is the interview:

WITTLE: What books are you reading right now?

CLAUSER: The most recent poetry books would be Richard Carr’s Lucifer (sort of a novel in poetry form—he tells the story of a drug-addled guy who’s stuck with Lucifer hanging on his shoulder all the time); Mary Biddinger’s O Holy Insurgency (I just started this one last night); Brian Russell’s The Year of What Now (awesome—you must get this book); and James Galvin’s Resurrection Update (this is a collected poems from 1998 I think. He’s a very outdoorsy writer, which is something l like a lot).

WITTLE: Who has influenced your current writing style the most and how?

CLAUSER: Influencing my writing and influencing…

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Book Review: Say Luck by Hayden Saunier

sayluckfrontcover

Of the many complements I could pay to Hayden Saunier’s second poetry collection, Say Luck,  the one that comes to mind first is that it’s fun. While there are poems of grief, doubt and anguish, those are balanced with poems of wit and awareness that ring out with gratitude for life. This ultimately is what makes the collection feel authentic and trustworthy. It’s so seldom that one can say that about a book of poems these days.

The first poem, which is also the title poem of the book, is one of my favorites. It’s in some way a reprimand for self-pity even though “Love walks down the road and death waits at the river.” and an accounting for what’s important in life—it’s a lesson in perspective:

Since you are alive and have leisure enough to read poems

I’d say luck has entered your life more than once.

The strength of Saunier’s poetry is her ability so see, to say, almost what should be obvious to us, but often isn’t. “So much goes unnoticed,” she says. The tone, diction and syntax are largely conversational even when more formal elements are used. The approach eases the reader into the poem, as if she’s letting you in on something. Usually that something comes out of a moment of illumination or discovery, as in the poem “How It Happens, Sometimes”, where an encounter with a stranger stirs a memory of the speaker’s lost mother. Other times those moments are of self-awareness “—ah yes, / you recognize your landscape now.”

A tactic Saunier is very good at is smoothly moving from, or I should say within, an image and into those moments of awareness. Sometimes it happens so subtly you hardly see it sneaking up on you, and then, there it is, some wisdom she’s dropped on your lap:

Our arguments blow over,

shake down like leaves,

all sap retracted

but we recognize the danger here:

how lumps of bullet lead

as hard and blunt

as any words we’ve said

remain suspended

            from Living by the Site of a Minor Civil War Engagement 

In passages like the one above, and many others, you see her talent for loaded lines—words and phrases casting two shadows. She moves into those lines easily, and they appear on your horizon like the crest of a hill you’ve been driving toward but didn’t know you’d reached. “The view from here / will always be the view from here, no matter / who is witness.” she writes in a poem about dealing with someone’s death.

By the end of the book, if you’ve read the poems in order, you feel as if you’ve been walked through a life, maybe as a bird sitting on the author’s shoulder, and been invited to share snippets of experience, ordinary moments and epiphanies drawn from them. She observes, catalogs, recollects, questions and offers insights, as good poets do, asking us to pay similar attention to our own surroundings.

You can find Say Luck here at Amazon.

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Book Review: Lucifer by Richard Carr

luciferIt was on a flight to Las Vegas, hell on earth, that I opened up Richard Carr’s latest book of poems Lucifer. Like Vegas, Lucifer is unique, full of sinister and untrustworthy characters, but completely worth the visit.

Lucifer is a story told in a series of 66, mostly short, poems. In the book are four main characters: Lucifer, a parasite (real or metaphorical or both) who clings “like a tick” to the narrator; a sometimes friend Mick the Bastard; and the girlfriend Juliet.

“This is my condition.” the narrator states in the opening poem, and it’s with point-blank language like that that Carr carries the reader through the narrator’s turbulent relationship with his Lucifer and the other people in the book. The narrator is a slacker, a pot-smoking bum who leaches off his girlfriend and takes people for granted. Lucifer is his constant companion, his comforter, his enabler, his co-conspirator, “Lucifer waits for me to wake and feed him. / Half dozing, I give him his due.” That sounds a little like the relationship between a mother and her infant, but no infant has ever had teeth like this.

The relationships in Lucifer frequently shift; alliances and trust are both fluid, yet Lucifer is a constant, though not always dependable companion. Like any addiction or human frailty, Lucifer is there with an answer or an excuse.

“Love rhymes with blood in the language of Hell” says the narrator. Everything that Lucifer touches is tainted, and Carr’s language leads the reader through that hell where “all the TV channels reach the same conclusion” that “Lucifer leads me slowly onward.”

This book is full of loaded lines like those cited above—language that shows the narrator’s internal struggle, his weakness, his failures: “I let everything but hunger slip away.”

Lucifer is an engaging read and one that should first be done in a single sitting (I finished it before the 5-hour flight landed). The momentum of the story requires it.

You can buy Richard Carr’s Lucifer here from Logan House Press

My Book “Necessary Myths” Wins Dogfish Head Prize

Necessary Myths Dogfish Head Prize 2013 coverI am very pleased to announce that my book, Necessary Myths, has been awarded the 2013 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize and is published by Broadkill River Press.

The prize was sponsored by Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery, a maker of exceptional craft beers (especially fine is the 90 Minute IPA and Burton Baton which I receive as part of my prize). Brewery owner Sam Calagione is a former student of the writing program at Columbia University in New York and with Jamie Brown of Broadkill River Press, continues to support poets through this contest. The contest was open to any poet from the Mid-Atlantic states (DE, MD, VA, PA, NJ, NY and NC).

A reception for the book was held December 8 at Dogfish Head’s flagship brewpub in Rehoboth 90-minute-ipaBeach, but winter weather prevented me from attending. I hear the food was very good.

I’ll be doing several readings throughout the year at places like Musehouse, Doylestown Bookshop and Big Blue Marble Bookstore. You can buy a copy from me at these events. I will be adding more readings and workshops soon I hope (go here for the latest).

You can order the book here

Praise for Necessary Myths

Grant Clauser knows where the bodies are buried (or not buried).  At times startling and unflinching, his poetry confronts the worst in us and along the way discovers language freshly marked by compassion.  “Twitter loves a failure,” he writes with characteristic directness and wit.  He finds sources of renewal in images of streams, rivers, and the “gossiping” of springs—and speaks up boldly, memorably, and disarmingly for the guilty and the innocent alike.

—Lee Upton, author of Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition, Boredom, Purity & Secrecy

In “Necessary Myths” Grant Clauser focuses on little things that together gather energy to create a strong sense of place and drama.  In his short poem, “Yin Garden,” this:  “And somewhere out in the yard/the dandelions wound their tails/around their neighbors’ throats/killing off the wild sage/then launching their feathery/seeds into the wind.”  This is what we experience in poem after poem, this energy, this changing, this launching.  It is a well-wrought collection, and I am pleased to recommend it.

—Harry Humes, author of Butterfly Effect and Underground Singing

In these clear-eyed, deeply considered poems, Clauser engages the world in its entirety—from an outdoorsman’s encounters with the wild, to the daily media onslaught of terrible human news, to a father and husband’s tenderness and toughness—and offers us moment after moment of illuminated life.

—Hayden Saunier, author of Tips for Domestic Travel and Say Luck

Also check out my first book, The Trouble with Rivers.

Review of Sower on the Cliffs by Helen Mirkil

Here’s an excerpt of a review I wrote of Helen Mirkil’s new book, Sower on the Cliffs.

Soweronthecliffs_Mirkil

Sower on the Cliffs, Helen Mirkil’s book of poems and original sketches, works on the reader like one of those evening conversations over coffee where catching up with a friend has gone on for hours, yet when it’s time to call it a night, you feel like you’ve just gotten started. That’s because Mirkil’s use of language, mostly direct, gives you a sense of a door opening up before you.
The book is divided into 10 sections, each with only two to four poems bound to a theme. Many of them are family focused, some touch on losses, issues of faith and some tender moments with loved ones. Mirkil leads each section with one of her own sketches.

Like the sketches, black ink outlines, shapes and suggestions of shapes, Mirkil’s poems also follow the less-is-more approach, and that approach yields rewards as well as surprises at times. In poems like “The Station” and “Pressing In,” she offers a few details that act like an invitation for the reader to start making discoveries.

Home again. A knocking

At the screen door,

Parkinson’s. Let it in?

Read the rest of the review here at Philadelphia Stories.

You can buy the book here on Amazon.