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Collecting Poems into a Book: 5 Poets Share Their Method

I've been enjoying going through previous poet interviews to see how poets have shared common experiences--often in unique ways. So here's one more directed around the concept of collecting poems into a book.


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Ha Ha Ha Thump, by Amorak Huey

Ha Ha Ha Thump, by Amorak Huey

Amorak Huey for Ha Ha Ha Thump

"I had written an earlier manuscript of poems about blues music and blues musicians that for a long time I truly thought would be my first book. I sent that out repeatedly—55 times over two years—and it came close several times, but never found a home. That’s probably for the best, as such things usually are in hindsight.

"Anyway, while I was sending that out, I was also writing new poems, and eventually, I had a lot of them, and I put together a manuscript and started sending out that one, too. It didn’t land, either, but I kept writing poems, and eventually had so many that I split that manuscript in two, and one of those was Ha Ha Ha Thump. It went through a number of revisions along the way, and eventually Sundress took it."

(Read complete Amorak Huey interview.)

Megan Volpert on assembling poems for collections

"Yes, I’ve basically stopped thinking about each piece in isolation. They each have to stand alone, of course, but more and more often I am beginning with the big idea then drilling down to determine its component parts. I know what sort of machines I’m after, so I really proceed more from what the total function of the book will be and then write bits and pieces as I stumble across applications of the project’s main functions in my daily life.

Only Ride, by Megan Volpert

Only Ride, by Megan Volpert

"Only Ride, in particular, is based on a series of constraints. It’s all prose poems between 95 and 110 words, with titles that are complete sentences. My previous collection was the Warhol thing, which was so sprawling and research heavy that I really wanted to work on something more compact and minimal next. I typed most of them on my phone, on the train during my morning commute. I’d let a batch sit in my notepad for a month or so, then revise the whole pile over a couple hours on a weekend. I knew my subjects, so when I reached my target of 66 pieces, I laid them all out on the floor and organized first based on chronological order of the events in the poems then for the right emotional arch within each subject or time period.

"Other stuff can present itself for more obvious arrangement, for example, the 1976 book will report historical events in a straightforward chronological order, one month per chapter. I do prefer organic methods like that. My first two collections still feel well organized, but I agonized over those little piecemeal frankensteins, which in hindsight seems unnecessary."

(Read entire Megan Volpert interview.)

Todd Davis on assembling poems for collections

"I’m very much a daily writer and thinker. My mind tends to gravitate toward certain subjects based upon my experiences—in the woods, on the rivers, with the books I’m reading.

"For example, yesterday I was deep in on a small stream in the 41,000 acres of game lands above the village where I live. My son and I were taking a long hike and fishing for native brook trout. I came across an amazing caterpillar on the walk—it was lime green with what looked like small spines or quills covering its body. At the end of these spines where bright, vivid colors—red and yellow and blue. I hadn’t seen this caterpillar before, and when I returned home, with the help of the photos I took, I was able to spend time looking through my field guides, discovering that this was the caterpillar that would later turn into a cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia), the largest native moth in North America.

"Several years ago at the top of the mountain above our village, I was hiking on an extremely foggy morning. Mornings like this many flying creatures settle to earth because nature’s “ground traffic control” has cancelled their flights. I’ve come across a kettle of kestrel and other beautiful raptors on mornings like this. That particular morning, however, it wasn’t raptors that I found but a cecropia moth clinging to a long blade of grass in a meadow. I spent more than 30 minutes photographing it, studying it, trying to express how enamored I was by its beauty. (Yes, I tend to talk to the natural world!)

"I tell you this story because, like William Stafford whose example means a great deal to me, I go daily into the world simply to be with the miraculous range of human and nonhuman creatures, to observe what is unfolding, to attend to what is too often ignored. Out of this act of paying attention, I write my poems, trying to spend a few hours at my desk each day.

"After a few years I begin to see the patterns of what the act of paying attention has afforded me. Once I feel the body of a book beginning to take shape, I place poems on the floor of my office and start to see what happens when a poem makes neighbors with another poem. It’s a bit like chemical reactions. Just as individual images or sounds in a poem, when juxtaposed with other images or sounds in the same poem, cause a reaction between them, so do individual poems in a collection. It’s fun to see how a poem will be transformed when it finds a particular place in a collection."

(Read whole Todd Davis interview.)

Hive, by Christina Stoddard

Hive, by Christina Stoddard

Christina Stoddard on assembling Hive

"I’m not sure the process was at all typical. Most of the poems in Hive are written in the voice of a teenage girl who’s coping with a lot of violence, which in turn leads her to push against the confines of who her family wants her to be and the existence of the God she’s been raised to believe in. But that girl is a persona I discovered halfway into writing the book, not something I was consciously trying to create when I started.

"The truth is that I had actually written two other poetry manuscripts before Hive. I tried sending those manuscripts out to book contests and never got anywhere, so in 2011 I sat down to interrogate and overhaul them after getting some good advice from a mentor. As I did that, I realized there were a few recurring themes and decided to concentrate on those. This adolescent girl kept showing up, too, a voice who would eventually become the speaker in Hive. It’s amazing what you can learn about your writerly obsessions by reading hundreds of pages of your own work in one sitting.

"So when I put together the collection, I did it by choosing poems from my entire body of work over the past ten years. In a way, you could say that the earliest versions of Hive were curated rather than written, but it didn’t stay that way for long. Although I cannibalized my other manuscripts to get material for Hive, as things evolved and I figured out what Hive wanted to be, I ended up throwing out most of those older poems and writing new ones. Only five of the 40 poems in Hive’s table of contents were written prior to 2011, and all of them have been reworked considerably.

"If you’re wondering what happened to the first two manuscripts I wrote, they are moldering away in my file cabinet where they’ll probably never see the light of day again. But I’m okay with that. Even though it can feel impossible to let go of something that isn’t working, especially when you’ve put so much effort into it, sometimes letting go is the best choice. In economics, that phenomenon is called the sunk cost fallacy; people are extremely reluctant to give up on anything they’ve already invested in or purchased, even when it’s unwise or unhealthy not to.

"Hive is a significantly better book than the others. I couldn’t have written it without having first done those practice runs, even if I didn’t realize at the time that they were only practice."

(Read full Christina Stoddard interview.)

Traci Brimhall on assembling Our Lady of the Ruins

"I feel like the poems cohered as I chose a final ordering for the book, though I didn’t write the poems with a certain structure or overarching narrative in mind. I knew all my poems were about a mid-apocalyptic wandering, but the nature of the poems ranged really widely as I wrote. I cut over a couple dozen poems from the final draft because they didn’t fit with the narrative that emerged through ordering."

(Read complete Traci Brimhall interview.)


Robert Lee Brewer is the editor of Poet’s Market and author of Solving the World’s Problems. Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer.


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