Mornings now, finally, are chilly and damp with whatever it is that happens in autumn nights that makes everything sweat so, and so gloriously, shining in the morning’s sun. I’ve cut down the garden but for the inane zinnias still blooming like nothing is about to happen. Even the small mum I planted in early September has given up. And what of it? Death comes to us all. It’s the peculiar task of the living to ignore that. (Matthew Zapruder again from Why Poetry: “More than any other use of language, poetry speaks, while also pointing to and reminding us of nothingness…In a poem we feel what’s there, but also what is not.”)
One primary task, surely, is to try to figure out how to make the best of living among each other. Each Other. Will we ever evolve enough to stop seeking to define — and therefore hate — the Other? Will we ever stop being overly alarmed by not-same-ness? One of these things is not like the others. Yes. Hallelujah.
Surely our life task is to find ways to connect with all the other things, the Other things, that are awake and breathing this day.
Even the loud family across the street? Yes. Even the people next door who let their dog bark frantically on and on? Even the centipede scurrying disgustingly down the wall? Ew. I guess no one said it would be easy. Some tasks are lifelong. Wait, even the terrible invasive vine that’s constantly trying to strangle the apple tree and forsythia? I’m sorry, I have my limits. I’m only human, you know.
I’m not saying it was necessarily because of the title changes, but I had the experience once of radically changing titles of two poems that had been rejected several times from lit mags and suddenly and immediately got an acceptance for them. Coinkydink? Possibly. But it certainly made me sit up and take notice of what titles can do.
– A title can situate a poem in place or time, so you don’t have to use up vital poem real estate with that information. Yeats sets us right on “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” so we’re already in place when he begins. But you may run the risk with that of overemphasizing time or place when the point of the poem is to transcend time or place. You have to ask whether the time/place title helps or distracts or gives too much attention to itself.
– A title can emphasize a certain je ne sais quoi that the poem is getting at. But you run the risk of beating the reader over the head. A title that basically says “Be Prepared to Feel Sad Ahead,” or “This Poem Is About Grief” just aren’t that interesting. But you can suggest it slantwise with an image, perhaps, or an echo of sound or word/words from the poem. I mean, sometimes it’s the only good solution to name a poem about daffodils “The Daffodils.” But maybe it’s a lost opportunity.
– A title can carry some of the weight of the poem, in that you can ask it to act as another line, the first line, in fact. You can ask the title to address the same things that the poem addresses, or hint at them, or choose a title that creates a resonance. A long and searing poem of several parts tracing a personal and family history Ocean Vuong titled “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.” There is nothing about earth nor beauty particularly in the poem, but the title captures a tenderness toward the fallible humans considered in it. It prepares our heart somewhat for what lies ahead, and when the poem is done helps settle a kind of grace on the experience.
Or you can choose something completely innocuous, I suppose, and not ask much from a title at all. Modern visual artists do that all the time — “Painting #7 of a Series of 10,” for example. But visual artists don’t have to work in the medium of words; poets do. (What if visual artists “entitled” their work with splashes of paint or visual gestures instead of words? I think that would be helpful sometimes.)
But we poets work in a world of words and white space, and the title has a particular status at the top of the page. It sits lordly over the poem text, wearing its white robes. It offers an opportunity to capture something about what lies ahead or provide a way to loop from the end back into the beginning again. It can provide crucial information for the reader to find her way into the poem, or set a tone, or cast a lifeline for the reader to hold as he walks through the poem, then out and back in again, or out and out and out into the world.
I am reading Matthew Zapruder’s excellent Why Poetry, and particularly, his very useful meditation on learning to read Ashbery (a skill I have not yet acquired…). In this meditation he speaks about imagination and its power. He quotes Wallace Stevens’s 1941 lecture “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words”: “What is [the poet’s] function? Certainly it is not to lead people out of the confusion in which they find themselves, Nor is it…to comfort them. I think that his function is to make his imagination theirs…[be] the light in the minds of others…to help people to live their lives.” As Zapruder puts it, “..[N]ot an escape from the world around us, but a different sort of engagement.”
This made me think of my recent lurking discomfort. Although completely understandable in the face of the grimness of life in the world right now, the current poetry I’m writing and what I’m reading/hearing/seeing seems to suffer from an excess of earnestness. I am also hearing a voice in today’s poems that cries over and over “I am Other,” “I am Other.” The personal seems to be only or primarily political, rather than essentially human, as complex, contradictory, and infuriating that state is. I read (and write ) and I listen but find myself in the end hungry. What do I want for sustenance if not this? Is it humor? Whimsy? Distraction?
A different sort of engagement. Yes.
There is cleverness in abundance in the poems I’m encountering, certainly, and wordcraft and wordplay. But am I seeking the imaginative? Something that takes me away from the headlines? I’m not necessarily seeking to be comforted — there is nothing comfortable about the rough beast slouching toward Bethelehem or the boy falling from the sky as the executioner’s horse scratches its behind on a tree. And those are poems that do feed me. Headlines change. But what does not change, it seems, are the essential dilemmas of being a human being in the world, bumping up against each other and the earth and the cosmos. I think about Dickinson’s slanted telling. I want more of that.
Marcel Proust, in commenting on the early 20th century poetry of Anna de Noailles, talked about work that came from “the profound self that individualizes works and makes them last.” I’m not sure that these works written so quickly in response to the day’s atrocities are given even half enough time and consideration to reflect that “profound self,” the individual experience so deeply considered that it becomes universal.
Zapruder again: “When Stevens writes that the role of the poet is to help people live their lives, it sounds very grandiose. But really what he means is that the role of the poet as he perceives it is to deepen experience, to write poems that we can use to protect ourselves in some small way against the constant encroachment of ‘the pressure of the real,’ …The original Surrealists of the 1930s in France had a similar, utopian, impossible desire for poetry, that it would reconnect our daily existence with the world of imagination and dreams that modern life has split from us, leaving us in constant deadening pain.”
I don’t know that I entirely agree, but I think he’s getting at something I’m missing right now in my work and so much of what I’m seeing just now. Big big vision. Deep consideration. Grand imagining. And, yes, maybe a little whimsy.
I play any number of editing games with my work (including that game of believing it’s absolutely perfect right out of my head onto the page): chopping things up, turning things upside down, tossing things away, changing articles and personal nouns and verb forms. But there is no more exacting revision tool than time. A “perfect” poem put away for a while will, once brought back to the light, reveal its skin tags and moles, its sagging belly, its misshapen feet. Yes, it can be gruesome. Don’t get me wrong, some poems do come out of the head fully formed and pretty solid. But the thing is, you can’t really know that until some time has elapsed.
What is a poem? A made thing — poured onto the page, nudged onto the page, spat onto the page…and then worked: carved, smoothed, questioned, made exact. I’m not sure anything that does not undergo that process should be called a poem, but rather some other word: a thing, a whatsit, a lump of something that might be something.
When someone shambles up to the microphone at an open mic night with phone clutched in hand to read a “poem” they “just wrote this morning” — that noun and that phrase should not appear in the same sentence — they do a disservice to themselves as a maker and to the made thing, not to mention the long-suffering audience.
How much time does it take? I wish I knew. I often get tired of waiting, often think “oh, it’s fine, just get it out there.” Sometimes I’m right. Sometimes I’m wrong. Only time will…well…you know.
Putting Together a Poetry Manuscript: Everything I Can Think of at the Moment
You have been working diligently. You discover one day that you have 50 or 60 poems, maybe more, you think, gee, it’s high time I had a book of poetry published. What comes first? I’m not talking chicken/egg, I’m talking about which of the poems in the pile in front of you should come first? Gaah! you cry. This will not be the last time you cry gaah, but here are some ways to approach the process.
You are putting together a collection of poems, so you might take a moment and think about the collective. A bunch of disparate poems may not a collection maketh. Nor does a tight group of thematically or otherwise related poems necessarily make a good collection. Too much difference makes a collection feel random. Too much sameness makes a collection feel boring.
If you’ve been lucky in your life, at some point you’ve been a member of a group that has cohered, has been able to embrace a level of diversity, strengthen the connective tissues, and make of itself a functioning thing. Experiences like this are fun, and fine. This is what you want to make of your poems. I was part of a singing group that started as the Five Fabulous Females. Tall, short, prim, ribald, soprano, contralto, Broadway-oriented, bluesy. Viva les differences. Things quickly fell apart, however, as one member seemed to want different things from the group through a different process, and we never actually performed together as five. Then we were Four Fabulous Females. A performance or two later, things fell apart as one member seemed to approach things with a different sensibility to the rest. Then there were three. We three went on to perform together many times and remain friends to this day. So it goes. You could put out a collection of poems some of which live uneasily with each other. Or you could hold out for a good team.
So taking a deep breath, ruthlessly read through the poems, and by instinct and without much thought, put to one side poems that cause a little hitch in your confidence, a tiny question of readiness, any momentary hesitation. They might be able to be saved, but for this first round, anything questionable has to be put aside. Don’t worry about how many you’ve set aside and how many are left. You want the core of your manuscript to be the best poems you have. Then anything new you have to generate or revise you know you need to raise to the same standard.
Ordering the Disorderly
Go through again the group that is left and again in a quick sort, without too much thought, mark poems that seem to be addressing similar themes or issues. Maybe put a different color dot for different themes.
Go through again and mark in some other way poems that are similar in form or approach.
Go through again and mark in some other way poems that use similar imagery perhaps or share some other similarity.
Now put all the like-themed poems together. You might find several streams of themes — put the groups in some (at this point perhaps random) order and read through the whole thing. Make any notes on what you’ve learned or poems that seemed particularly well suited together and poems that were too similar and should not appear next to each other.
Now maybe reorder them using the form markers and read through again. Make your notes.
Now reorder in whatever other similarity markers you have used and read through the whole thing again. Make your notes.
This is exhausting and you will periodically want to just go to the top of the stairs and throw them down and then leave them in whatever order is left when you clean them up. This is also legitimate. Do it. Read through and make notes.
You will probably come to find that there are poems that seem to want to be in close proximity and poems that do not. You should begin to find that some kinds of bunches work together and some do not. You may begin to feel that too much similarity of some of the poems will dictate that they should be spread throughout the manuscript, their similarity functioning as stitches that tie the whole thing together. Trust this process.
You will likely have some outliers. It could be that they belong to another manuscript all together. You will feel panicked by this, because you have now lost a number of poems and no longer have a full length collection. This is the way things go. Better to build from a good base than to shove 60 random poems together and hope they work.
Your chosen poems may be falling into natural groupings. Should you make them into discrete sections? Not all manuscripts have to have sections. But sections can help to focus the collective attention of both the poems and the reader. So if groups seem to fall naturally into sections, make sections. If not, don’t worry about it.
There are all kinds of ways to order poems. Try as many as you can think of, but keep in mind the idea of “collective.” I attended a dance performance recently in which one piece was made up of short dances to 24 short pieces of music. In the end, I felt that what we’d watched was 24 short dances, not one coherent dance. The performance seemed to go on and on because there was no arc connecting the dances together. The same can be found in poetry collections. Try to find and highlight some kind of connective tissue, to reveal some kind of arc.
Filling It In
At one point I thought I had a manuscript just because I had a bunch of poems I wrote in a certain (lengthy!) period of time. But in the end it felt like a collected works instead of a slice of a concentrated period of a mind working. In the end, as a collection it did itself a disservice by meandering and feeling jumbled and uneven after a while. I had to identify some central concerns and…yes…write new poems. Once you have a pile of your best work set in some kind of order, you will begin to see where the gaps are and/or where you need to create more work that supports and lengthens what you’ve collected thus far. Thus your assignment: write on.
Give some thought to what the collection is getting at, what themes are being considered, what of your obsessions are being visited, or are you exploring a kind of form, or an image, or a period of time, a person, an event. If you had to write a blurb for the back of your book, what would it say? Once you’ve captured that, are there poems that clearly lie too far outside that statement? Maybe put them aside for another collection.
Take a Step Farther Back
You will not thank me for this, but I have to raise the issue: Is what you’re saying compelling? Is how you’re saying it compelling? The fact is the poetry publishing world is competitive. Many able poets are writing very competent poems in collections that are not very interesting. Many interesting writers are offering collections that are not very competently written. Why not strive to be both writing well and thinking deeply, imaginatively. Push your work into places where you don’t entirely know your way. Wonder does wonders for work. Imaginative + vivid + fully felt = winning combination. By imaginative, I mean evidence of a lively mind at work. By vivid, I mean something special in the language (my preference) or the form or the approach. By fully felt, I mean some emotional gravitas.
I was reading a manuscript of someone else’s poems recently, and they were really good poems. Very competent, lovely poems of domesticity and parenthood. But, I thought to myself, some element is missing. Is the problem that I’m just not that interested in poems of domesticity and parenthood? I didn’t think that was it. I decided finally that what I was missing was a kind of reaching. This very able poet was not reaching beyond her grasp. She knew the world of her poems too well. If I call what I wanted from this manuscript more risk-taking, what do I mean by that? It’s a sense, I think, of a mind in motion rather than a mind at rest; questions asked and pondered rather than answered. What does it mean for any of us to take risks in our work? How do I write a poem that feels risky to me, that feels like I’m peering over the edge of something, and something that makes the reader tremble there too? Is risk about subject area, form, language, meaning?
A friend says, “I demand emotional risk. Not necessarily confessional, but someone willing to open a vein, or why are we there anyway?” I think I agree about “emotional risk,” but I’m just not always sure what that means — both in what I read and in what I write. And I actually don’t always need “emotional” risk, but SOME kind of reaching, whether emotional, craftish, wordish, conceptual.
You do not want to hear this. You do not want to do this. You may not have sufficient distance to look at the collection from this perspective yet. Either put the collection away for a little while until you can get a fresh perspective, or…ignore me and sally forth. Whatever you do, do not give up.
Where To Begin
There is likely one poem you think is terrific and should open the collection, and one or two poems that feel conclusionary in some way. You may be wrong. Don’t settle too quickly on the opening poem. It may very well be the last decision to be made, once you settle in to the feel of the whole manuscript.
The first poem should teach the reader how to read the whole manuscript. It should give some sense of what the reader can expect.
The last poem should open out somehow, so the reader feels like they’ve opened a new door back into their own life through which they see things differently.
This is a lot to ask of opening and closing poems, I know. But if our reach does not attempt to succeed our grasp, etcetera.
Proofread. Proofread. Proofread.
Regarding typeface and format: Make sure the way you designate titles is simple — all caps for example, or bold. Don’t make it too fancy. But make it consistent. The same goes for section headings. In headings and text, don’t use obscure tyepfaces. If you are playing with spacing or other odd presentation on the page, be prepared to submit your work as a .pdf in case transmittal screws up your careful play.
Make sure every poem kicks ass. The more poems you put into a collection, the more likely it is that you’ll include ones that aren’t as strong as others, which weakens the collection. Remember, there are a lot of poets out there, and a lot of people doing really good work. Be one of them.
I have finally “discovered” Neil Gaiman. Wow. I just finished Neverwhere, which I’d picked up on a whim, long after a friend told me that I should read him. Why the book was in the YA section of my library, I have no idea. I guess adults aren’t supposed to read works of fantasy? Oh, but the world is too much with us.
In Neverwhere, an ordinary bloke helps out a stranger who turns out to be a VIP with the London underground. Not the metropolitan transit system, but the world under the Underground, where people from aboveground have fallen through the cracks and time is a funny thing. There are all sorts of good and evil doings down there and our unlikely hero gets involved and comports himself admirably, all the while only wanting to go home to his normal life.
SPOILER ALERT here: His normal life turns out to be not all that, and he chooses to go back down to life underground.
This is a dangerous ending, it occurs to me. He chooses life underground because he had a purpose there, he could be of service, and things were exciting. This is why soldiers sign up for another tour of duty. This is why people join extremist groups. This is why I am, a year into my unemployment, beginning to feel desperate enough to consider taking a real job or some other insane thing that will just shake me out of the humdrum of this lovely life I have and purportedly give me purpose.
Our hero could have sought a better job, could have NOT settled for the girl in Accounting, could have shaken his normal life up in some normal way, rather than choosing to throw his lot in with the fantasyland of below. I’ll bet you that life didn’t turn out to be all that either.
This desire to live in a hyperaware moment can be dangerous. It is one of the things that makes homecoming so difficult for people who have been in combat. But it’s not so dissimilar to that living-wide-awake notion that Buddhists talk about. Is there some way to bring that alertness, without the fear-based edge, to daily life — that seems to be the challenge.