Evaluating Poems for a Collection

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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.

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