Decorating your house, choosing your wardrobe, landscaping your garden, and putting together a book of poems have a lot in common. Thank you, Holly Wren Spalding, for suggesting that I talk about the latter one. She says she’s been gathering information about it for years for her own benefit and for her students, and would like to hear my take on it.
Oh dear, Holly. I haven’t gathered any information, so you’re way up on me with that. But I’ve been reading books of poems forever, and I have a feel for the shape of the whole. If you have 25 poems in a book, of course the book should be the 26th poem.
The University of Nebraska Press just wrote to tell me that they’ve put my my copyedited manuscript in the mail to me, to read against the original. No doubt I’ll see all sorts of places I’ll wish I’d ordered things differently. So many poems to arrange. A lifetime of them to pick from. Did I do it right? Will I be happy with the result? Too late now to change anything.
My friend Gibbons Ruark made a lovely book, Passing Through Customs: New and Selected Poems, by not identifying which book the poems were from, mixing them up into a whole new thing. I ruled this out right away because my book was going to be too big to handle such a complete re-vision.
So there was the really difficult process of selecting 20 poems each from eight books, plus a huge batch of new poems. I started by picking poems I just plain like best. I decided, with Ted Kooser’s gentle suggestion, to take out the poems from The Devil’s Child because the tone was so discordant with the rest of the manuscript. So already, I was thinking tone. My tone. The tone of the Whole. I am giving you an image here, so this book won’t be forgotten. I’m quite proud of it, but it just doesn’t fit.
That’s what I think you start with in your house, your wardrobe (Don’t look at me, there!), your garden. The tone of the whole. Then you look at the individual pieces. I considered each section of 20 poems a book in itself. How should it go? Should each poem suggest the next? Is there an upward trajectory? A downward one? An implicit “story”? Do I want to work with or against that implicit story?
In the manuscript of my book, Reunion, I had a series of flower poems all grouped together. My friend Dabney Stuart said no, pull them apart, disperse the energy throughout. Lo and behold, he was right. I am growing to very much appreciate books that carry echoes through the whole. Maybe it’s the natural love of narrative: “Oh, I’ve seen that before! Now it’s here, but different, expanded, maybe.” I could name a dozen poetry books I’ve read lately that do that.
I couldn’t do it with this new one. So I did my usual, spread hard copies of poems out on the floor to see which one speaks best to the next, and how they all move, one to the other. No criteria. No plan. Just a feel for it.
Just before the cut-off date, I asked to have one poem pulled out. Frankly, it might have caused hurt feelings. There are plenty of poems, probably better ones, that tell the truth slant.
Naming the book. Oh lord, the agony! Ted helped me choose The Woods Are On Fire: New & Selected Poems. We decided it had the most zip, the most sense of urgency. I think the title is the one place where marketing needs to come to the fore.
I need to write a whole column on marketing. You think I’d talk about how to do it? No. I’d say put the market and your incipient fame and all of that in the closet and lock the door when you’re doing your work. Don’t throw away the key, but put it on a high shelf. Same thing is true, of course, with your editor-mind. Put it on the shelf while you’re still playing in the mud, seeing what can be made.
P.S. If you have ideas or thoughts to add, please do, even if you don’t write poems. What do you appreciate about the arrangement of a collection, what do you not respond to?
I asked some of Wobbly Bicycle’s most faithful readers what topics they’d like me to dig into. Here’s the first one from the stack, from Adrian Koesters:
“I would love to see a post about how you sustained a long writing life, especially in the face of raising family and all the personal things you went through that have felled or silenced many another writer. I think everybody likes to hear how writers keep going.”
My response: I dunno, it makes me, well, should I say happy to write? I grew up amid a great deal of familial turmoil. I guess I burrowed into my own conch shell of words. Then as the years went on, the reasons for writing began stretching out, beyond me.
I woke up this morning, having half-written this post, dying to get to the computer. I already knew where I needed to add, what I needed to cut. The news came to me in my sleep, apparently.
That feeling. Writing for me is a perpetual itch that wants scratching. Poetry’s harder than prose, more depressing. I never know what’s next. There’s a feeling of always, every minute, falling off a bench. If I fall right, it will be a glorious pratfall. If wrong, I’ll break my arm. When I write, I’m both immortal and worthless. Can’t explain that, really. Or, I’m the one who’s climbed Everest yet wasn’t able to make the last 20 feet. Never on top, but always higher than I expected to be. Wouldn’t I sell my soul to the devil for the right lines, the right stanzas?
I am a plodder. Do you think I would have gotten a Ph.D. if I were a renegade? No. I would have worked on a ranch in Australia, I would have played pool at the corner bar, I would have invented Google. No. I did what they told me. I answered the questions right. I wrote what I was supposed to. So I got a Ph.D. Oh no, that’s not fair to me. I love to learn things. I like the hard things. I like biting into dense, whole-wheat bread. But truth is, I am dogged. I get up every day and go to my computer. It’s my religion.
Seriously. It’s my religion. It is my ritual, my tool for reaching beyond myself. I can’t write well if my ego’s in the way. So in the interest of the far reach, I have to become emptier of my preconceptions about who I am and what the world is like.
When I had cancer, when Jerry was having major back trouble, when there was strife in my family, when my father was having his leg amputated, when we moved him up here, I was writing. All the more reason, to my mind. You could say I like making order of chaos. Maybe. You could say anything.
I don’t know why some people quit writing under difficult circumstances and some people don’t. If there’s absolutely, uncontrollably no time, or if the pain is too severe, or if there’s major depression—those would stop anyone. But otherwise, I keep wanting to see what I have to say. I don’t really know until I write it down. Even then, I’m surprised. Oh, that’s where I was going. I want language. Not just how it is, but how it relates to everything else. It seems that the urge to do that increases for me with the years. Life is precious. (e.g., I had cancer. I could again.) Write like crazy. Write what there is to write, anything that appears.
Also, I write because of insane jealousy. When I read something so good it makes my mouth water, I am already examining how it was done, how I could do it myself. I would break my own arm if it would make the words come out like that.
What would make me not write? I have to say, if no one wanted to read anything I wrote, I would no doubt become discouraged and eventually quit. My religion requires mutuality. We have to break bread together. You have to read. You know what breaks my heart? The student with no talent who longs above all to be a writer. You know what torture is? To hear gorgeous words, to be awestruck by a poem, and to only be able to put down broken granite chunks of words, oneself. I know, because I’ve written a quarry full of granite words. But the others, the ones that, astoundingly, fly, they sustain me.