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.


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Pay to Play Poetry Journals: Is This Right?

NOTE: This post is 8 years old. A lot has changed in the market, and I’m not completely sure how much of this post I still stand behind. It’s getting harder to find publications that don’t charge, so I find myself willing paying fees more frequently. 

The Nov/Dec issue of Poets and Writers magazine ran a story on what may be one of the most important issues facing the literary community, or at least the literary journal community, today. The article discussed the emerging trend of literary journals charging writers for content submissions.

Several journals, including the Missouri Review, Hunger Mountain and the New England Review charge a fee of $2-$3 for writers to send in work for possible publication. Some, like the Ploushares, only apply that fee to online submissions while others require the fee from all unsolicited submissions. None of the journals mentioned in the article or in online conversations that followed it charge authors for solicited submissions.

The fee issue created a little hurricane in several blogs and forums for obvious reasons. At one point a private listserv conversation by editors belonging to the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) was made public, eliciting more outrage from both writers who read the emails and the editors who (rightly) didn’t want their debate on the issue made public.

Now of course I know that times are tough for literary journals. They’re facing three primary problems. First, funding for literature (particularly in university-affiliated journals) has been significantly cut. Second, the workload continues to increase as the number of people who want to get published (partially fed by expanding MFA programs) gets overwhelming (one editor said he receives about 1,000 submissions a month). Finally, while interest in getting published increases, subscriptions decrease—less people are buying the journals.

So of course that means that both money and time are stretched thin. I get that. I work in consumer magazine publishing myself. I understand the problem of shrinking staff/resources and shrinking budgets. I never met a dollar I didn’t like. What I don’t understand is how the answer to the problem is to charge the very people whose work publishers should be embracing and without whom they’d have no product to publish.

A few editors commented that they hoped charging writers would limit the amount of submissions they received. So far the results haven’t proved that. If they want to receive less submissions, how about shortening the open submission period? I have trouble understanding a paradigm in which an abundance of artists is perceived as a problem that requires a punitive response.

Do writers expect special treatment when they’re paying for their work to be read? Many journals use interns or grad students to screen their open submissions—I was one of those when I was a grad student 20 years ago, so I know how it works. How long do these readers spend on a submission? Often they only spend a minute or two on a piece, maybe less (and still take six months to respond). In their defense, bad writing singles itself out quickly; however, if a person has paid for the privilege of submitting should that person expect a more thorough reading, maybe even something more than a generic, unsigned rejection form? Maybe a faster response? If you think money doesn’t influence expectations in a relationship then just ask to borrow money from a friend and see what happens.

While I don’t like contest entry fees either, I see a big difference. With contests there’s the promise someone will get a big payoff (hundreds or thousands of dollars in some, book publication). Most literary journals pay little if anything. The most frequent payment is a copy or two of the journal.

A few of the journals who charge fees for unsolicited submissions also note that the acceptance rate for open submissions is less than 1 percent. This means the 99 percent are essentially subsidizing the work of writers who were invited to the journal and didn’t have to pay the submission fee. How is that fair?

On the Facebook page of an editor on a well-know literary pub (a pub that doesn’t charge fees) I made the comment that a journal that needs to charge its rejected writers in order to survive needs to examine its business model and maybe rethink its product into something people are more likely to pay for. Or the product could be redesigned into something that cost less to produce/mail.

I was quickly shot down by another editor for the blasphemy of equating an art journal to a business or product. I understand the sensitivity considering the political climate and all, but what I meant and believe is that if the publication is not able to find a supportive audience without imposing a submission tax then that is a publication that needs to wonder about the need it is serving. I’m not saying a literary journal that’s losing money needs to shut down, but it should think seriously about its place in the community and whether or not it’s doing a good job. If readers aren’t willing to pay for it, is there something wrong with the publication? Is there something wrong with its outreach or marketing?

One of the rationales for charging for online submissions is that the fee of $3 is roughly the same as we’d be paying for postage and envelopes. That may be the case for fiction writers who mail 25 pages at a time, but for poets who mail 5 or 6 pages it’s not even close. And even if the costs were the same, why does the saving in postage now have to go to the journal? Why does a journal get to profit from the opportunity to reject you? Let’s be honest, with acceptance rates of less than 1 percent, they’re profiting from rejection.

So if ultimately the problem is a lack of paying readers, how about solving that problem rather than creating a new ethical problem?

One of the problems with submission fees is that they inadvertently discourage subscriptions. Hopefully most writers feel some sense of obligation to the journals they’re targeting and especially the journals they’re accepted by. Hopefully that sense of obligation occasionally results in a purchase or subscription. But with submission fees the writer feels that he or she has already met that obligation, but at a much lower cost (and without the benefit of receiving the journal). Why feel obligated to buy a copy when the writer has already done his part by sending in a $3 rejection fee?

Right now I’m subscribing to seven  journals at a cost of about $95 a year. I send out about 30 poetry submissions a year. From some of the editors’ comments on the leaked listserv I should be subscribing to 30 journals a year. Is that really reasonable? Next year I’ll re-subscribe to about half of those journals and subscribe to three or four new ones so over a number of years I’ll be able to sample a wide range.

Some editors suggest the option of only allowing subscribers to submit. The problem with that is that it creates a closed little club. The journal turns from a public forum to a private one, and it greatly reduces the pool of qualified writers.

I do recognize the problem. Really I do. But the burden shouldn’t be put on the people whose work creates the journal. Even more, the burden shouldn’t be unevenly put on the people who are least likely (due to high rejection rates) to be a part of the journal’s forum. If journals look at this as a reader problem, not a revenue problem, then they won’t leap to the most vulnerable population available to be exploited. They’ll instead be forced to look at themselves, their audience and their mission and come up with creative solutions to the problem.

So far I personally haven’t faced this situation since none of the journals I’m interested in charge fees, but many editors seem to believe that the fee model is bound to become the norm. I’m not sure I believe that, but I’m interested in hearing what other people think.

Read comments from the Missouri Review here.

Read the opinion of Gian Lombardo, editor of Quale Press, here.

Go here for the blog of Laura Maylene Walter, author of the Poets and Writers article.

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