Putting a poetry collection together – SWC member’s webpost by A C Clarke
Greetings from the back room of my tenement flat, where I do all my writing! I’ve never written a blogpost before and though I’m delighted to have been asked I’m not a natural user of social media so I’ve found it quite hard. This is my second attempt.
So many people are I’m sure blogging about life under lockdown that I doubt I can add anything new to the mix. I thought that instead I’d offer some thoughts on putting a collection of poems together.
Usually when people come to the stage of putting a collection together, whether self-published or for submission to a publisher, they have quite a wide body of work to draw on. So how to select? Do you choose only published poems? Do you, as one poet did, put together all your poems which have been successful in competitions (he titled the collection ‘Well, somebody liked them’)? Do you go for a themed collection? Or just throw all the poems in the air and see how they group as they land?
A poetry tutor I once had advised printing out all the poems you thought might go in a collection and laying them out on the floor, with an inner circle comprising the poems you definitely want in, then outer circles for the ones you’re less sure about. I’ve found myself that an Excel spreadsheet (which you can also use to group poems by theme to see if there is a dominant theme) is easier and less time-consuming. He also advised including some poems at least that hadn’t been published.
Once you’ve decided the poems you want to include, the next question is how to arrange them. In sections? If so, grouped by theme or chronology or by some other method? A strong opening poem and a concluding poem likely to linger in the mind are desirable but not essential. Not everyone (except reviewers) reads a poetry book like a novel unless it actually is a novel, like Stephen Watts’ ground-breaking crime novel in poetry Fairy Rock. A lot of people dip in and out – and ignore the arrangement. If you do that with Fairy Rock you’ll lose the plot – literally!
It can be useful to look at how others have structured their collections. I found W N Herbert’s two Omnesia books, each a partial reflection of the other, a useful pointer for my fourth collection. I would say too that if you have a sequence or a run of poems which you feel are pivotal it can be better to have them in the middle than at the end.
Lastly, the title! It doesn’t have to be the title of the first poem in the collection. It could be from a line in quite another poem. It could be something else entirely. Your poetry-reading friends can help here – they may see a pattern in the collection which you weren’t fully aware of.
A C Clarke, May 2020
Following on from Putting a poetry collection together, A C Clarke’s next blogpost will look at writing a collection round a central character