What I Learned from Putting Together Two Little Books of Poems

An Appreciation of Poetry Collections

It all started when I was sifting through my notes of hundreds of scraps of rhymes written over the years. I had thought of these as almost throwaway pieces but for some reason on this day I opened my mind to considering what these could become and realized that they clustered into a few themes. 

Turns out, there is an art form to stringing together all those separate pieces into a cohesive whole. Even with the very same pieces, their order may give them a whole new meaning.

I found myself moving back and forth between four different activities. 

1. Deciding what to include or exclude in a particular collection. 

2. Editing the poems.

3. Ordering the pieces. Considering the themes, repeating words, contrasts, lengths or strengths of the poems, and a sense of narrative or growth and evolution.

4. Writing new poems. Just going through the poems as a whole sparked new ideas. Other times I wrote to fill a hole in the collection.

The first time I tried this, with Techtopia, the process took months. Even though it is chapbook length and has one fairly clear theme. How to order the pieces was a real headache and I tried many different versions. Many times it came down to some hard to explain feeling.

The second time with Nothing Wrong the ordering was a bit easier as there was some sense of chronology and changes in understanding. I also trusted my intuition more. Still this too took a few months as I found myself writing more pieces to add to the collection. Granted, I only had short bursts of time each day to work on the project.

As with anything, trying this myself gave me a much bigger appreciation to what is involved in putting out a book of poetry as opposed to just writing individual pieces. Even before things like cover design, thinking of a compelling title and even chapter titles, the front and back matter of the  book, and other nitty gritty details of publishing that will enhance the whole experience and bring more clarity to the overall vision.

For me, poetry has the fewest of words that take the longest to read and also to write. It may take a surprisingly long time to build up a collection, years even decades. It was validating to hear of the “tectonic pace of the poet” but I can’t recall where I encountered this. Of course there are prolific exceptions. But in general, word count has little meaning in the world of poetry. 

I also noticed that compared to prose books, a book of poetry requires much more effort into formatting. Making sure it looks just so in each format, even though mine don’t have that much visual elements.

This is also why I’d like more people to create, even if it’s not “good enough”. Because we learn so much more when we try to make things ourselves compared to when we simply consume what others have made. You also enjoy a deeper level of appreciation and comprehension of others’ work as well.

Many thanks to this article by April Ossmann, poet and editor, which I referred to multiple times throughout the process when I had no idea what I was doing.

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