Putting Together a Book of Poetry=Creating the Guest List for a Perfect Dinner Party

I’ve realized that I’ve written more about preparing for my recital next spring than I have about manifesting the book I’ve spoken of, other than to say that I hope to have my first long collection of poetry available by the time of the recital.

As some of you know and others may imagine, putting together a book of poems is an art all its own. A collection of poems is not just a bunch of poems thrown together. There are many websites out there that will, for a fee, guide you through the process. But here’s what I’ve learned.  For me, putting together a book of poetry is similar to making a collage in that putting diverse objects and/or visuals next to each other makes them react in new and unpredictable ways. They begin to speak to each other, and, as any good conversation can do, it deepens and makes more complex the individual points of view.

Over the decades, I have “put together” many a manuscript that was never published, in any form.  Often, while waiting for the inevitable rejections, I noticed “new” things and changed the order, or added a new poem, which changed everything.  It was an informative practice that, somewhat like a writer’s group, allows you to see your own work from a new perspective.

 One thing I have learned, which the luxury of a long writing career allows for, is to include only your best poems.  This is often hard to discover without some outside feedback. You want poems that not only speak to each other but that, individually, have something worth hearing. http://www.demeterclarc.comI suppose it’s sort of like inviting just the right people to a dinner party so that the conversation will never lag. Unfortunately, I have never been the kind of person to hold many dinner parties (partly because I am not a fan of cooking), but I imagine it’s something like that.

 I did take my initial manuscript to my writing group, which not only gave me encouragement, but made suggestions about individual poems that somehow did not quite “fit in” with the rest.  At a dinner party, this may sound elitist or exclusive. After all, it’s that one unusual person who can sometimes be most interesting. But even then, the party is likely to become focused only on that ONE person who stands out rather than on an equal exchange of ideas.  

 In my case, the poems that “stood out” were poems that I had either written for a specific anthology or group of people with a specialized vocabulary, or were poems that had a very different “voice” from the others. By that, I refer to a narrative poem in the “voice” of one of the characters; whereas the rest of the poems I had chosen were loosely in “my” voice.  And, familiar as I was with them all, my readers caught the disjunction and just raised a question about it.

 And so I have done a little revising, a little reordering, and have made some changes to those poems that make them “fit in” just a little better. I did not exclude them; I just softened their edges a bit. You may have noticed that sometimes in the Acknowledgements section of a book of poems, there will be a statement like this: “Some of these poems have appeared previously in a slightly different form in such-and-such magazines.”  Well, to me that phrase “in a slightly different form” either means that the poems have been revised at some point since then and/or that they have been altered slightly to “fit in” with the rest of the poems in that volume.

The other thing I have done in the past week, again with the encouragement of my writers’ group, is to send the manuscript to more than the two places I had previously sent it. This led me to Google the phrase “presses that publish book-length poetry manuscripts without fees.”   It is amazing to me that you can Google such things and come up with answers. But you can!  What I found was a manageable list of small presses (some now defunct) with short descriptions of the kind of thing they are looking for. Within just a couple of hours, I was able to submit my manuscript to six of them.

How different from years ago when the “research” involved going to a bookstore and looking at the publishers that published the poetry on the shelf, and the magazines that published it.  There weren’t many indie publishers at that time that weren’t just publishing their own circle of poets (some are still this way). Contests were just starting, but each required not only an entrance fee (they still do), but you had to print out each copy and take it to the post office and pay some hefty money for postage AND return postage if you didn’t want to have to type it out all over again.

How easy it is now just to submit it electronically!

A big difference, however, is the sheer number of poets out there looking for an indie publisher.  Forget about the big publishing houses;  they rarely publish unknowns anymore. And contests by small presses sometimes attract hundreds, if not thousands, of manuscripts. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that there is a lot of discussion going on out there about how people “should” and “are” getting published.  Self-publishing is not the pariah it was once considered to be. On-line publishing is becoming common, and often results in more readers than print publishing. Publishing print books is still an expensive process, however it’s done, and one must query potential publishers about their expectations and requirements. Sometimes it’s completely up the author to sell his/her books, and a certain number (100-200) are expected.  At this point, it’s hard to find that line between self-publishing and publishing a book to which someone else is lending their (often equally unknown) name in order to make it appear “legitimate.”

Wow. What we put ourselves through.

I believe I have said that I am fine with publishing this book myself. It takes a lot of time and money to do that,  however, and I’m not sure that’s how I want to spend mine. The up side of self-publishing is that you can make the book anything you like: you have complete “say” over aesthetics, content, everything.  I have published three chapbooks with three different editors. One was marvelous, one was so-so, and one was simply horrible in that she did not honor my wishes at all, and did not even discuss them with me, let alone compromise. So you never know what you are getting. But a good editor, like a good writers’ group, is priceless.

So that’s where I am at present. My book, called The Beautiful Unnamed (after one of the poems in it), is 88 pages long.  It includes 34 poems, nine of which have appeared in one of my three chapbooks.  Fifteen have appeared in poetry journals, and eleven have never been published. Even now, it is exciting to hear them chatter and mutter among themselves.  They are divided into five groups (sort of like dividing a class into sub-groups to discuss a particular topic). Each group is titled by one of the poems in that group: “The Beautiful Unnamed,” “Family Snapshot,” “Sonata,” “The Limits of Calculus,” “Climate Change,” and “Theme and Variations.”  Those of you who have read this blog from the beginning will note the “cross-over” between music and poetry in some of those titles.

So what is the book “about”? One poet, whose name I cannot recall (perhaps one of you can enlighten me) was asked to explain one of the poems he had just read publicly; he would not answer, but simply read the poem again. To me that’s a kind of obnoxious response, but it gets at something important.  The poem, though I believe it should be intelligible to almost anyone, reverberates in each particular ear.  It needs an audience, as I’ve said before, to “appreciate it”—to increase its meaning  through connection with something/someone else. 

So whether it’s an audience of one, one hundred, or simply the poems bouncing off each other between the (hopefully real) pages of a book,  only they can, for the moment, answer the question of meaning. We all make it, all the time.  

So that’s an update on where this book is at present. I hope that you will all eventually enjoy its conversation; you are on the guest list!







2 thoughts on “Putting Together a Book of Poetry=Creating the Guest List for a Perfect Dinner Party

  1. I can't wait to see the final product! Also, I would love to see the finished version of Theme and Variations if you want to send it to me!


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