Evaluating Poems for a Collection

One of my goals for this year is to try and get a poetry collection published, and I haven’t ruled out self-publication if it comes to that. But I’ve been trying to go the traditional route by submitting to open submission periods and even a few contests. From interviews on Poetic Asides and my own experiences, there appear to only be a few ways to assemble collections:

  1. Put together your “best” poems.
  2. Arrange already written poems around a theme or themes.
  3. Write poems specifically around a theme or themes.

I’m not sure that one technique is better or worse than another, but I started off doing the first option. Then, I tried the second option. Now, I’m actually in the middle of the third option, which has led to a lot of successful acceptances this summer.

Put together your “best” poems
This is kind of tricky. Are your best poems only the poems that have been published or that have won awards? Are they the most recent poems? And then, once you’ve established a “best of” collection, how do you organize them? Chronologically? By theme? By its sheer “bestness”?

(Visit Collin Kelley’s blog to read an interesting take on good and bad poetry.)

Arrange already written poems around a theme or themes
If you do this, you may have to cut your “best” poems, because they may not fit the overall theme or smaller themes. For instance, I ran into this problem. Only some of what I consider my “best” poems deal with my own fatherhood. So, I had to cut them in one version of my poetry collection manuscript.

To solve this problem, I eventually cut my manuscript into several different themes. But then, I’m still not 100% crazy about the manuscript, so we’ll see.

The problem really could be that despite having written thousands upon thousands of poems that I’m still not ready for a collection. Or maybe the process of putting together a collection has led me to…

Write poems specifically around a theme or themes
Yes, quite by accident, I started writing a series of poems this summer. So far, I’ve written 43 poems in the series, and 10 poems have already been accepted for publication (a remarkable accomplishment for me!). And the thing that holds these poems together is actually artificial: it’s just an arbitrary form I devised that has no meaning at all for anyone.

(Click here to read one of the poems in the series, which actually had the form altered upon acceptance–which I totally approved.)

So maybe all the leg work of trying to put together a collection through the other two methods led to this one falling into my lap (the whole I get luckier the more I practice argument). I can say that writing around a specific theme, form, etc., has made the whole writing process very fun for me. I think it’s because I have a box with specific rules within which to work, and my job has been to play in that box and try to bend it as much as possible without breaking the box.

So, what makes a great poetry collection?
That’s a big question with many answers, but for me, I think it’s any collection of poems that allows a reader to get lost. Maybe that means it’s the best poems period. Maybe that means it’s the best poems that speak to each other through a common theme or construct. Maybe that means it’s a collection that is totally familiar or one that is totally unique.

Poetry is an art, which means it can’t be pinned down to definitions of good and bad–because those are subjective values that change with each new reader. And poetry is not something that can be judged off quantities. One poem can easily outweigh 1,000 (or even a million) poems. Three lines could touch the heart in a way that an epic poem may not.

The truth is that we’re ultimately left to our own devises and tastes to decide what should make the cut. Then, we send our poems and collections out into the world hoping they’ll find friends.


Follow me on Twitter @robertleebrewer


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15 thoughts on “Evaluating Poems for a Collection

  1. Amy Barlow Liberatore

    Just self-published a chapbook, a collection of 20 or so poems. Wish I had read this before editing (and glad I did a short first run, since even my editor’s eye missed some typos!), but I seem to have followed the general suggestions, especially keeping things within the same "vibe." Didn’t go into mental illness (but planning for a very accessible chapbook on that in the near future), no "adult" content.

    Once I start marketing the redacted version, will give y’all a link. Sam, I very much appreciate your detailed comments on self-publishing. Even when it’s a short work like a chapbook, it’s still important to publish with integrity and beware of ripoff artists. Mine is called "Jazz Groove Funhouse," which was written to a prompt on another site, but it also includes a few PA-inspired poems.

    Thanks to all for commenting! A

  2. Margaret Fieland

    Dennis, I, too, struggle with the ‘will this venue like my stuff’ — I tend to focus on style, not on subject or form. I also look for where poets I like and really ‘click’ with are published — and I find this helpful.

    Anyone else care to weigh in on this? Maybe there’s a blog post in this …

  3. Dennis Wright

    Thanks to Sam and Joyce for their comments on publishing. I found them thoughtful and with much information. Jacqueline suggests we put together a chap book and shies away from making more work for Robert. I also would not want extra work for Robert unless he wants to take it on. Another way might be the group take on some of that work. Maybe vote for our favorites to go in the chap book … just a thought.

    I find I can get leads to magazines that publish poems, but have trouble discerning what kind of poem will catch their eye. I look for topic and perhaps form and get nowhere. Roberts comment about poems readers can relate to seems the best advice. That brings me to putting myself in their readers shoes and I find that sometimes difficult. I wonder if other poets on this blog have experience like these.

  4. Hannah Gosselin

    I like that thought Jacqueline!!

    Thanks for the post on this, Robert! I’ve been wrapping my poetical brain around this very thought! Great ideas!

  5. Margaret Fieland

    Colette, thanks for the heads-up on the link — this is a test to see if I’ve corrected it.

    By the way, anyone who has ideas on who would be interested in publishing a chapbook-length collection of math poems, do feel free to contact me {grin}

  6. Dhyan

    wonderful post.
    i have been thinking of it for almost one year now, as i try to decide i can publish poems, if i have enough material for a collection or should i go for a chapbook (some hoe i don’t like this option so much). so first, i think i don’t have enough good work for a collection and there for i guess trying to make a chapbook is better way to handle that (if you have enough work for one subject)..

    and way, i am rambling about my self.
    thank you for the post and the links – they are of great help.

  7. Bruce Niedt

    Robert, is your collection going to be a "full-length" or a chapbook? At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s a lot easier to build a chapbook around a theme than a full-length book, but then I’ve seen many full-length collections broken up into two or three or more themes. I have published four chapbooks: two entirely on my own, one by Maverick Duck Press (run by a friend and poetic colleague) and one by Finishing Line Press. The last was a contest entry that didn’t win, but I still offered a contract to publish the manuscript. Before I entered, I asked the advice of a poet and editor friend whether I’d have a better chance with a theme manuscript or a "best-of" collection, and she suggested the latter. So I assembled one, even though it included several poems that had appeared in previous chapbooks (which were also allegedly "best-of" collections, at least in their respective points in time). Her advice seems to have paid off. I do agree with your pro’s and con’s argument about making a themed collection: you want to avoid the feeling that you’re including "weaker" poems just for the sake of the theme.

  8. Jacqueline Hallenbeck

    Hi, Robert/everyone:

    How about a chapbook called Poetic Asides, a collection of poetry from all the PA poets? Robert, you pick the best pieces and perhaps, if we all ever get together and meet, we can all read from it. Proceeds from it could benefit a nice cause/charity.

    Not trying to give you more work, I promise, but even if I don’t make, say the top 40 poets/pieces, I would be so happy to own a chapbook with all of your work. I have "met" some amazing poets here.

    Just a thought. ^^

  9. Joyce Mason

    Robert, glad I caught your tweet to this post today since it’s so timely for me. I am in the process of self-publishing my first poetry collection. I’m back to poetry with a bang after nearly 30 years away from it. My collection was already coalescing around a topic and had been long named and almost together. It’s called Thick Water, subtitle Poems on Bonds of the Heart. I was adopted as an infant, so until many years subsequent to the ’70s, the era of most of these poems, when I ultimately found my birth families, I had never known a blood relationship. All my bonds were of the heart, and I am an acute observer of the ups, downs, and magic of close ties. I’m quite jazzed to finally know I’m near to seeing it in print after so long. The topic chose itself; I just took the best of the poems that fit that topic and added a few new ones to round out the collection.

    Another thing affected my process. I read Kim Rosen’s book, Saved by a Poem, which finally explained to me the healing aspects of writing poetry and how that fits into the other symbolic arts that have been a major part of my work over the years: astrology, tarot, dreamwork.

    Lastly, just like the topic chose me, a new poetry blog recruited me, LOL! It’s called Stitched Verse—http://stitchedverse.blogspot.com. While it features my own poetry, plan to invite guest poets. If you or any of your readers would like to contribute, I’d be happy to discuss.

    Materializing my book has been a true odyssey, and it hasn’t been a fast one. I’m trusting it’ll be worth the wait and look forward to reading how yours works out.

  10. Dan Holloway

    I love the sound of Margaret’s collection (at Year Zero Writers, we put together an anthology earlier this year in praise of the Higgs Boson to commemorate the events at the Large Hadron Collider).

    This is something I’ve thought about a lot in recent months since I’ve started doing reviews of collections. I’ve seen collections that have been ruined by not knowing what they were – in genral the biggest mistake they make is clearly being thematic, building a great sense of each poem enhancing the understanding of those around it, and then dissipating all that simply because the author decided they had to get in one of their "best" – it’s exactly the same problem as novelists not killing their darlings. On the other hand I’ve read collections where no one poem is outstanding but it’s been put together so brilliantly it’s stayed with me long after the choice moments of all those bests has disappeared.

  11. Sam Nielson

    This is a nice synopsis of it and your experiences, Robert. I’ve thought some about this and searched about for information. There isn’t a lot out there, well, as of the last time I searched, anyway. There is a book called "Ordering the storm : how to put together a book of poems" edited by Susan Grimm, which is a collection of essays that marks out a few poets thinking on it. Their methods are wildly variant. An entertaining read on the topic.

    I also dabble with printing interests. And as such I have been interested, typographically speaking, in the best ways to present poems. Obviously it has to be done with taste to not detract from, enhance if possible, the poet’s work itself. The choice of typeface being but one of the considerable options available. Today, because of the wide array of publishing options from self-publishing to subsidy to on-demand, web, to ?? poets should have the choice to effect how their work shows up in print, if they so choose.

    If anyone has much interest in that, here are my little findings. There seems to be only 2-3 good sources about it. There are tons of other things out there, but mostly stylesheet kinds of stuff with only a paragraph or so about it, or one solution fits all. The best source by far is a limitedly produced book called "Printing poetry : a workbook in typographic reification" by Clifford Burke.(1980, it’s pricey, a good copy can run $100 or more) It’s probably been twenty-five years or more since I’ve read it, but I was engrossed in it for quite awhile. Walter de la Mare also wrote a little on the topic in the 1920s-30s. I know others were quite concerned about it, Robert Frost, W C Williams and others. That is about it for sources. I think a number of small/fine publishers practice the art of typography with poetry, but haven’t written anything down.

    Perhaps, Robert, these two topics, developing a collection, and presenting poetry typographically- considerations for printing, deserve a sidebar summary/essay in the newer editions of Poet’s Market? (If it hasn’t already been done. My memory is faulty and the fact that I haven’t seen the last 2 or 3 editions, could account for that.)

    I haven’t yet approached actually having something published myself. I am still trying to teach myself enough to be more dangerous with it. For some reason that hasn’t yet been important enough for me to pursue. I fully expect it will, though. I was asked for some things to be published in a University student publication, years ago, but it folded before the issue came out.

  12. Colette D

    Margaret ~ I’ll be your cheerleader, because I LOVE mathematics and math poems!!! Please do get a collection together, because mathematical poets use both sides of their brains, so I just know you can do it, even while continuing to do the fun part! BTW, it seems that the link for your name is not working.

    Thanks for the post, Robert!

  13. Kit Cooley

    Good job, Robert, with all those accepted submissions. I’m working on gathering a collection (or two, or three) together this year as well. I have one that I entered in a chapbook contest, and I am awaiting the results now (the same contest in which a similar collection of mine made the top 20 last year). I’ve tried methods one and two (but still not submitted them). I get too stuck in fretting over them, I guess. Maybe I will try method three next.

  14. Margaret Fieland

    I have a collection of poems about mathematics (mostly rhymed..) that I’ve had good success getting accepted for publication (considering how seldom I’ve submitted them, especially) but I haven’t been very diligent about finalizing and submitting the collection.

    I need motivation to get going on this. Unfortunately, writing the poems is so much more fun …


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