I interviewed poet Ada Limón for Cleaver Magazine. We talked about her new book, The Carrying, some issues on poetry craft and other things. You can read the whole interview at this link.
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 five 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.
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) is a straight line. 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.
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.
About a month ago, maybe more, I was hiking some woods I didn’t know very well. I’d been there only once before and hadn’t gone far along the trail, so this day was for exploring further. These certainly were some gorgeous woods–huge boulders tinted with moss and lichen, mixed oak and hickory trees that left a thick cereal of leaves, twigs and nuts on the ground, and a light covering of snow that shifts normal perspectives.
So Emmett, my dog, and I tramped down into the hollow toward a creek, back up along a rocky ridge, cut into a wider path that led to a logger’s opening, then back into the protected part of the woods where the trail zigzagged and upped and downed, until after a few hours, my feet were getting pretty sore, the sun was no longer warming my back, and even Emmett looked ready to curl up in the back seat of the car. But we were probably 40 minutes from the pulloff where it was parked.
By now the much of the fascination with these new woods had faded, and was instead replaced with thoughts of my aching insoles and frequent glances at the trail map to decipher the shortest route out of there. Emmett had stopped peeing on every rock, so I knew he was thinking the same thing.
That feeling of having gone too far is also familiar to me in my writing, and usually it’s a moment that comes up during the initial draft of a poem, or shortly after when I’m building on an initial jumble of words. That first impulse to write a poem can often be sort of directionless. But that’s also what makes it exciting. One of the biggest thrills I get from writing is the discovery that happens on the way through a first draft, and that’s very similar to the feeling I get when I first set off on a hike along a trail or a kayak trip down a creek. The difference is that with a hike, once your realize you’ve gone too far, you generally know where you need to return to (and hopefully you know how to get there.). With poem, it’s harder to know just when things took a wrong turn.
This came to me this morning, when I was reading Raymond Carver’s poem, conveniently tilted This Morning. In the poem he’s going for a walk and eventually reaches a point where he starts to take in the world and reflect… ie, gets poetic about it. It’s a good moment, and he carries it off for a few lines until the perfect moment of insight ends with the line “I know I did.” I would love if the poem just ended there with that sudden self awareness.
Unfortunately, as good a poet as Carver was, he was also known to not be great at self editing (thank you Gordon Lish). The poems goes on for four more lines, which really just drags out and diminishes the wonderful moment that happened with “I know I did.”
So how do you know? Ah, well, that’s the hard part. Sometimes it’s just recognizing that you’ve made your point, hit your mark and now you’re just saying it again with different words or new images.
Writing beyond the ending is something I see pretty frequently in poems, usually by younger poets who can’t resist the impulse to just keep walking on down that trail. It’s also something I’m prone to myself, a lot. After I’ve put my first efforts on the page I go back and carefully feel out whether the poem went too far. Usually this requires some time or distance. I need to put it down for a few days, or read someone else in between, so I’m not hung up on my own endorphin rush from writing. Walking is different. You know when you’ve gone too far, but sometimes by the time you know there are already blisters on your feet and you just have to suffer through them until you get home.
I used to be hooked on four to six line stanzas. I loved the pressure that small packages forced on me, the fact that I needed to squeeze a moment or impression into a six line box, then move onto the next one was both an organizing factor, and a way to allow my mind to make multiple leaps within a poem.
Here’s how I typically composed: A first line or image would kick off the writing session. I’d randomly (usually based on how the first line went) select a basic stress count (somewhere between 5 and 7 beats per line was typical), though I rarely went for any strict meter. By the time I’d get to the third line I’d start to look for ways to tie up that stanza and allow me to move to the next.
This process of working on one stanza at a time, rather than trying to approach the whole poem at once, made the writing process less intimidating. It’s like cleaning a room by dividing it into sections—first I’ll tackle the desk, then the bookshelf, the closet, then the floor… By focusing on one step, or stanza at a time, I could keep the progress going without actually worrying about where it would end up.
Usually the same decision system I applied to the stanza length would surface in the overall poem length. Mostly due to my short attention span, and dislike of longer poems I’d start thinking of an exit by the time I finished my third stanza. This is probably why most of my poems from that period are made of four or five stanzas.
Here’s an example of one of those poems, as is the one pictured to the right.
The benefit, at least in my mind, of all those stanza breaks, is that they allow frequent jumps, such as scene changes, logic changes, even language shifts, without throwing the whole poem off the sofa. I could be talking about a bridge or a beach and then in the next stanza shift to room or a person, which all seemed to be allowed in that form. Those movements let me do things with poems that other approaches to building wouldn’t, and for several years it became second nature, as if my mind naturally worked that way.
One thing that format didn’t do for me was allow for a certain forward momentum, and along with that, a drama brought on by that momentum. When a poem is full of stops or pauses, it doesn’t pick up a lot of speed. That’s an effect I began for, and one I could only seem to find in longer unbroken poems. That seems to be where I’m at a lot these days (as people in my monthly writing group have noticed). I’ve been forgoing the stanza breaks and scene shifts for shorter lines, longer poems (though not too long) and more of a dramatic arc.
Poems that lack stanza breaks need justification to keep going without giving the reader a breather. At the same time, unbroken poems can exhibit a kind of steady momentum that often meets a key turn moment, and then rolls into the end. I picture it like holding a hose and spraying into the air—the water arcs upward, gaining power, hits its peak, then cascades down to the ground, gravity taking over.
Here’s an example that I think pulls off what I wanted.
I’ve liked working in this form, but it can cause other challenges. How do you keep or increase momentum? How do you shift ideas but still maintain the narrow lens focus? Or, alternatively, do you use the form to allow a wide-ranging wandering? Attention to how I use caesuras, transitional phrases, repetitions and other rhetorical tools play a role. I talk about some useful tools here and here, but there are endless others. Like any writer, I’m trying to figure it out on a case by case basis.
One of the reasons I like to try on different forms is to prevent getting stuck in a rut. I’ve seen poets who haven’t evolved their style over decades. Richard Hugo is the most obvious example, and except for 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, he wrote the same style of poetry his whole lifetime. I don’t want to get bored with my own poems, and I also want to explore new ways of doing things.
It’s a question that comes up every month for me a few days before my writing group meets. Which new poem do I share? Which one needs the most work? Which one will my friends like best? Which one will I get most defensive about.
Not all of those are valid questions when selecting a poem, but they’re questions that come up in my mind, and probably other people experience the same ones. I’ve written a handful of new poems since our last meeting, some I like a lot, some I think are just skeletons, and some I think are in need of a few key fixes to make them publication-ready (I know, that doesn’t necessarily have to be the goal, but I’ll leave that issue alone for now).
The selection issue was a little different when I was a grad student many years ago. I was in a weekly workshop for two years, and the frequency of the workshop meant that I had less work to pick from every week. I’ve never been a write-every-day person—I start one or two new pieces a week, and then tinker with them, and others, occasionally throughout the week, and frequently abandon them after a while. When I only wrote one new poem, that was the one I brought in.
In the workshops I teach I usually assign prompts so the participants have less choice in what to bring in at the next meeting (though I almost always allow people to bring in an alternate if my prompt just wasn’t working for them that week).
So, all this brings me back to my initial issue—how to pick the poem. This is mostly a matter of deciding what you want from the workshop and what kind of feedback you think you need. People who just want positive feedback or need confirmation that they’re doing something good, tend to only bring in finished or mostly finished poems. The problem with that approach is that the readers in the workshop are automatically going to assume your poem isn’t finished, and they’re likely going to start talking about changes. If you’ve decided in your heart that the poem is finished, then your heart is going to get broken. I’ve seen this happen in workshops. The result is usually a very defensive poet, and nothing gets learned.
I’ve also seen people bring in poems they previously workshoped with other groups or other teachers, and that can also be a strange situation, especially if the feedback from one group or teacher seems to contradict the other. Workshop groups, and workshop teachers, don’t all see things the same way, just as all journals and publishers don’t see things the same way. If the writer does this to pit one group of readers against another, or hopes that one group is going to be more receptive then the other, then the writer isn’t really learning. If the writer just wants a second opinion, then takes all the suggestions home to think about, that writer is learning.
And that’s the most important part of being a workshop participant. You don’t have to agree with every or even any suggestions, but you should listen to them, think about their context, and think about how the suggestions fit into your own goals with the poem.
I usually come to workshops with a few specific questions about the poem I’ve brought it. Maybe I’m uncertain about the form, or worry that the central metaphor misses the mark, and in the discussion I listen to see if anyone addresses those questions. If not, I may come out and ask, but usually if no one said, “hey, your stanza breaks are confusing,” then I assume they must be OK.
I also listen for unexpected comments. Often in writing I’m concerned about one aspect of the poem, and not really noticing how another part is driving off the road. Those surprising observations can also be helpful because they direct your attention to places you hadn’t been considering.
And finally, know that not every comment needs to be acted upon. The poem, ultimately, is your poem, and you have authority to agree or disagree with other people’s opinions (just not out loud). Not all the readers in a workshop will have the same likes and dislikes as you, so not all the suggestions are workable suggestions. But give each one a respectable chance. I’ve learned more from suggestions I’ve disagreed with, than from those I did.
My writing group meets next week, and I still don’t know what poem to share with them. If I get some new work done before then, maybe I’ll figure it out.
I have a poetry group that meets once a month at a pizza shop. We’ve been going there for years, so the servers know us well enough to get our drinks without asking what we want.
While most of what we do at these gatherings is workshop our poems, we usually spend the first thirty minutes updating each other on our writing news, sharing our rejections and acceptances and general po-biz chat.
One thing that comes up from time to time is the issue of choosing publications to submit to. There are just so many, and many of them our really good, that sometimes you feel you spend more time just staring at the computer deciding between Well-Dressed Newt Review and Writer’s Tears Journal—and then you don’t send anywhere.
So, here are a couple culling strategies that I and my friends practice.
First and foremost, read a lot of journals, both online and in print. Read them, know them, understand their tastes or trends. If you’re targeting print journals, then subscribe or buy single copies as much as you can. In my writing group we all regularly bring in journals to share, so that spreads the cost around a bit. The easiest and smartest thing is to look for journals that publish works you like. If you don’t like what they publish, but just like the pub’s reputation, then you’re wasting both your time and the editor’s time.
Above all, you need to think about the editors’ and journal’s needs, not yours. While most editors care deeply about literature and are generous with the time they give to writers and their publication, their primary interest is in their journal, not your work. Give them work that fits their journal–don’t expect a publication to change its editorial passions just because you believe your revisioning of Gilgamesh as a cyborg trash compactor is the next big thing. If you write pastoral sonnets, don’t send them to a pub that wants metamodern supernatural erasure poems.
If I find some poems I like in a journal, and I think my work is of equal quality or similar style, I look in the contributor section to see where else that person has published. This has worked pretty well for me, and since I’ve been doing this I’ve noticed my work is turning up more frequently in the same places as works by people I like. It’s a kind of poetry stalking, but in a non-creepy way.
Similar to the above method, if I like a piece in a journal, and see that author is also the editor of another journal, I’ll make a note to check out their pub. Often that writer’s own journal publishes more works I like, so I’ll send them a pack—and maybe mention that I read the editor’s poem in X journal.
I do the same thing with books—when I read a book I really like, I’ll turn to the acknowledgments page to see where the poems first appeared, and usually I’ll pick out a few I think I’d have a chance in.
I keep a list of my top tier journals (the ones that are probably a reach, but worth trying anyway) and will send to those once a year or so. Last year I scored one of those, and this year another (after lots of rejections). My top tier journals may not be yours. For instance, I’ve never sent to The New Yorker, The Paris Review or Tin House, even though I’d be thrilled to appear there, I’m also realistic.
Paying for submissions is a tricky subject, and one I’ve talked about in previous posts, but in the past couple of years I’ve done it more frequently. I don’t like it, but it’s the state of the world now. Of the last 12 places I’ve sent to, three required a $3 submission fee. If a journal offers a buy-an-issue or subscribe alternative to the fee, I’ll take that, even though it cost more, because at least then I know I’m getting something, and it feels less like I’m paying for rejection.
Finally, don’t be afraid to go back to places that already published you. A publication likes developing relationships with its authors—just don’t move the relationship too fast. If it’s an annual or twice yearly pub, I wait two or three years. If it’s monthly, once a year is fine.
Volume also counts—the more you send, the more you’ll publish. I try to keep at least 20 packs of poems circulating at one time, more if I can, and I’ll send a pack out within a day or so of it coming back (unless I’ve decided to work on the poems some more). I also will send the same pack to three places at the same time (and I’m very prompt about notifying the other pubs if I need to withdraw something).
Finally, when you do get something published, help the publisher out by promoting it–share the link on Facebook and Twitter. Send a thank you email or tweet. Post pictures of it. Be proud. If you get rejected–and of course you’ll get rejected–don’t be a jerk about it. That NEVER makes things better.
If you have a strategy that works for you, share it in the comments. If you’re a journal editor, and any of these ideas seem insane, also share that. And if you’re Kevin Young and want to invite me to submit to The New Yorker, hit me up at @uniambic
About a week ago the website Change Seven published an interview with me, conducted by writer Curtis Smith. The interview mostly focused on my book of poems, The Magician’s Handbook, that was released by PS Book in October. One question, however, asked about my writing process, and one part of my answer concerns a topic that’s important to me, so I’m going to elaborate here.
I stated in the interview that I often make up or exaggerate situations or events in my poems. I don’t think that’s a revolutionary concept, but sometimes it still leads to raised questions and sometimes raised eyebrows.
Truth, in poetry, is a complicated issue. I cringe when I hear poets talk about how they’re writing the truth or getting at the truth or whatever truthiness idea they go on about. Maybe that’s because I equate truth with facts, and in world where anything a person doesn’t agree with is branded as fake news, truth can be difficult.
Rather than aiming for truth in my poems, I aim for real or authentic (again, a vague and unhelpful word, sorry). Do the situations in the poem feel real, does it move or affect the way real feels move or affect. There’s a sort of truth, I suppose, in all my poems, and many of them do include autobiographical references, but rarely are they completely loyal to the events or people referenced. Because a poem is written in the first person doesn’t mean that it’s naturally about my experience or that the experience happened the way it’s depicted in the poem. It’s always bothered me that a short story is assumed to be fiction (in part because that’s how we’ve come to compartmentalize the genres) while poems are not. The fact that “creative non-fiction” is its own genre kind of baffles me.
Rather than sticking to the facts, my loyalty in writing is to the language—the way it sounds, the response it makes in my gut, the pictures it draws in the head and the places it steers me.
I raise this point because I think it’s important that poets feel free to create, not report. I’ve had students resist following the language out of fear of not properly reporting the facts.
I’ve had people ask me, usually after readings, about specific things in poems, and sometimes they’re disappointed if I tell them part of it was made up. I’ve burned down buildings, broken up with girlfriends, lived in towns, and killed off family members, all that didn’t exist. Every time I publish a book I’ve had to explain to my parents (who are still alive, despite what one of my poems says) not to take it too seriously.
Of course I’m guilty of the fallacy of autobiography too. In being moved by every Philip Levine poem about a factory, I have to remind myself that he didn’t, in fact, work for 40 years in every auto plant in Detroit, however it might seem that way.
Anyway, this is at the top of my mind now because my next book (which is due out this month) includes a section drawn on a group of people who are incredibly close to my heart, yet, out of necessity, are semi-fictional. It’s a series of poems set in the 1980s and describes my sort-of reckless teenage years. Names are changed, events are changed, though there’s a realness to it all that’s important. The three or four recurring characters in those poems are mash ups of about ten different people, as are the stories they act in. It’s easier for me to write that way, and allows me to be loyal to the language, which is what’s really more important for the poetry.
Here’s an essay I had published recently at Cleaver. It discusses some techniques to control or use pace and volume in poems–how some poems exact their control on readers by turning up or turning down the volume in your head. In it I reference poems by Richard Hugo, Maggie Smith, Jennifer Givhan, and Kim Addonizio. Read it at this link and tell me what you think.
When I dug into Brian Beatty’s new poetry book, Brazil, Indiana, I was in the middle of season 2 of Twin Peaks (I liked season 1 better), so it’s probably no surprise that I spotted some of the same small town surrealism in Beatty’s book-length poem as is found in Peaks. There’s a man who trains moths, a man who half buried an old truck to spend days sitting in it, a town giant and of course a crazy cat lady.
These are some of the characters that populated the Midwest Beatty grew up in, and he’s populated his book with their stories, as well as, presumably, his own stories, in about 100 short 12-line untitled poems. Each poem is a vignette, some just a little more than anecdotes while others read like psychological profiles of people and locations.
I should note before I go further that I’m not an unbiased reader. I knew Beatty from our MFA years in Bowling Green University, and I have a short blurb on the back of his book. I’ve been reading these poems for years as Brian and I emailed our work to each other. In that time I’ve developed a deep admiration for his insight, talent and discipline to the craft.
About that craft–Beatty’s images strike the critical balance of being both familiar (especially if you’ve lived in a small town) and new. There’s the surreal quality I mentioned earlier, though not the surrealism of Breton, but more the surrealism of Simic, where the real world provides enough weirdness that the author doesn’t have to invent it. There’s the examples I mentioned in the beginning of this post, and many others, such as the kid with Tourette’s who slept under the counter at a burger joint, a beauty queen who wielded butcher knives, and a mayor who kept old circus animals. These people and their stories are used as doorways into a shielded world, one where the gears that kept an old town going are slowly disintegrating, and now the inner workings are starting to show through.
And then there’s the insights that will be familiar to every person who’s been around a farming community:
Every barn at some point becomes
nothing more than a metaphor with a roof
and a door straining against
its last hinge, like this old farmer bent
down to repair the truck tire flat in front
of the only world he’s ever known.
As noted earlier, the poems, are all composed of twelve lines, though the line length and number of stanzas varies throughout. A frequent strategy of his is to work the poem like a Jenga puzzle, stacking images together and then pulling out a key piece at the end to undermine or change it. Just as an image or situation is fresh in your mind, he pulls out a piece to dismantle your first impression. The technique has a way of keeping you alert to shifts and changes, like the weather is constantly on the move, which in his Midwest of memory, it probably was.
While each poem is meant to be read as a part of the book-length work, each stands on its own, and many have appeared individually in journals, though it does benefit from being read in order. The poems build on each other, especially as a few of the characters, notably the main speaker and his family, recur throughout the work. The settings and subjects of Brazil, Indiana will appeal to readers from the Midwest or small towns anywhere, while the technique and quality will appeal to any reader who appreciates surprise, manipulation and lyric story telling.
About two weeks after the 2016 presidential election, poet Richard Blanco came to Bucks County Community College for a reading to kick off the college’s Many Voices, Many Stories writing conference. Before the reading, Blanco and I sat down in a little stone cottage on campus to discuss the role of poetry in society, his own writing process, and some of the challenges facing people who enjoy the craft. Read the complete interview at Cleaver here.