“I’m really not quite sure about that…”: how (not) to make a poetry collection

Part Four in my blog post series about my poetry practice: Assembling a collection 

Getting started wasn’t a problem.

I set out on assembling poems for my first collection by re-reading a lot of old, in some cases half-forgotten, poems. Thankfully, I found there were still quite a few I was happy with. It was the next phase where I came unstuck: what to include, what to leave out, how many originals ought to be included.

This process quickly started throwing up more questions than it answered. Should I work out some sort of scoring system, with marks for style, form, content, originality and perhaps points for having been published?  I tried, believe me, I tried. I made spreadsheets and everything.

Funnily enough categorizing poems in this way doesn’t really work. I soon realised that certain approaches, which in theory might prove useful, were in practice not helpful at all. Simply including all my poems that have been published elsewhere, for example.

The potential advantage of this would be my having a certain confidence that these were proven poems, with a track record of at least one other person having seen something of worth in them. However, when presented as a set, these poems just didn’t hang together. Which makes total sense –  a bunch of poems, written about different subjects at different times, selected by a varied group of editors with their own subjective tastes and criteria, for specific editions of a particular publication. 

So, that wouldn’t cut it. I also had to bear in mind that had I done this, there would be nothing new or exclusive for potential readers of my collection to discover. I wanted and needed to include at least a few poems, that had never been seen anywhere else. 

Another related factor in this regard is, naturally enough, the editor of my collection, Matthew M C Smith of Blackbough Poetry, doesn’t have exactly the same taste as 20 or so other poetry editors, aiming at their own distinctive target audiences. 

Taking all this into account, I had to try another tack – This time, my personal favourites. 

Unfortunately, that didn’t work out either. A) I didn’t have enough. B) They were a bit random and didn’t play nicely together. C) I have an editor (those types don’t seem to want to let a poet simply choose all their own idiosyncratic best bits. Odd that). 

Despite these issues, somehow, after much head scratching, shuffling and pdf making, I put together a first draft, that seemed to work. This might all have been easier if I owned a working printer and could have moved bits of paper around on the floor to get a sense of how things flowed and hung together. 

In the event, I had to do a lot of reading, re-reading, cursing, killing of darlings and summary executions, but after several attempts, a document that I was potentially happy with, revealed itself. 

Then I shared it with the editor, who to my surprise didn’t change an awful lot in terms of content. What I did find after this initial stab, was that freshly minted poems kept on nagging to go in, or poems submitted elsewhere got rejected and I decided that these might find a better home here. 

But, you can’t go on adding more and more forever, at some point, you need to settle on a final cast. 

For mine, I aimed to find a balance between original, exclusive, but strong poems for the collection, combined with some previously published poems, or versions of poems that had been road-tested on social media – via Top Tweet Tuesday for example. 

The next problem I faced was the writers’ desire to tinker. ‘Ah ha, I have the chance to improve this poem now…let’s rewrite it…’ Again, as with what goes in, a degree of tinkering is inevitable, but eventually, you have to let a poem be. My rule of thumb on this, in the end, became if I couldn’t stop fiddling with a poem, I’d have to drop it. 

By around the fourth round of editing, reshaping, cutting, shifting and replacing, I, we, got to a set of poems that seemed to work well together. I found this part of the process not entirely dissimilar to crafting an individual poem – except rather than individual words, lines or stanzas, what you are playing with are whole pieces. Finding pairings that might chime off each other, or placing poems at the beginning or endings of sections so that certain phrases, themes or words might echo earlier poems, or foreshadow certain of those to follow. For example, the poems ‘A terror of twee trees’ and ‘The Nature Present’ sit next to each other in the book. Both involve trees – hornbeams on a street and an gnarly old hawthorn in the garden. Written months apart, the trees in each are partly imagined as dancers.

Once I’d found a sense of how to best balance poems as a set, I even quite enjoyed this aspect of putting a book together. Inevitably though, there were certain aspects of the publishing process I didn’t enjoy as much…

Some recent inspiration.

But I liked that word…

Now, I mentioned earlier my esteemed editor and rather excellent poet in his own right, 
Matthew M C Smith. Here’s a little on the specifics of my poet/editor relationship. 

My only previous experience with poetry editors has usually involved a lengthy wait for some sort of decision. This tends to involve a period of twitchy refreshing of email inboxes or submittable, then a sudden burst of swearing and abject self-doubt.

On those occasions when an editor has gone on to publish a poem of mine, there has usually been some kind of dire warning that once accepted, no editorial changes may be made, etc etc. All of which means, in poetry terms, I have been selected but not edited (regular readers of my blog, might interject here that I bloody well need it). 

Refreshingly, Mr M C usually got back to me on matters editorial within days, rather than the weeks, months, decades poets might have come to expect. Agreeably, he didn’t tend to say anything nasty, or kick dozens of cherished poems out on their dainty little arses. However, he did discover an issue. One I hadn’t even been aware of – I have a problem with commas.

Too many of them, too often, in the wrong places, or used ineffectually instead of more solid breaking devices such as colons or full-stops, or even Emily Dickinson style dashes. 

In my defence, I’d say I often try to write poems with a certain sense of flow, running giddily towards a conclusion. On the whole though, I’d have to admit that Mr Smith was right. 

Following his advice, I replaced many, many commas with full-stops, em dashes, semi-colons etc and soon discovered the joy of giving readers proper breathing/thinking space, rather than forcing them to career breathlessly on, through line after line of barely broken observation and insight [unlike the above sentence. Ed].

That part of editorial input I appreciated. Inevitably though, there have been some areas where a degree more to-ing and fro-ing between poet and editor has gone on. Not least titles for the book.

OMG! as we are contractually obliged to say on social media, if not IRL. 

I had a set of quite obviously brilliant, profound and stunning titles – many taken from lines or phrases in poems featured in the collection. I shared them with the editor. But did he agree? He did not. 

Via email and sometimes on screen, I was informed my suggestions were too negative, or boring, or didn’t say enough, or said too much, or were too downbeat, or simply didn’t work and wouldn’t cut it. 
I tried again. We had several rounds of this. Eventually, we agreed on one – suggested by the editor, but taken from one of my poems. I won’t reveal it here, but I like it. 

We underwent a similar process when selecting potential artwork for the cover. Who knew choosing an image with an imagist poet-editor could prove so tricky? Add in a small budget and you can see why issues might arise. Let’s just say I learnt several new, polite ways of saying ‘Nah’.  

There were other publication admin/chores I found less than exciting too – here’s a taster of my inner thoughts: 

‘What do you mean I need to suggest reviewers, poets or writers who might give a positive quote, you want me supply more photos of myself wearing hats/reading/hanging out drinking coffee/pretending to write stuff in notebooks, in colour and in black and white. Publicity? What? Really? You really you have to tell people that you have a book coming out and get them interested? Why do I have to do that? Oh, it’s my book and you are a small publisher without your own PR department. I see…

That type of thing, has not thrilled me. But I do have a clearer understanding now of why it’s needed. Funnily enough, my day job mostly involves advertising – I’ll just say advertising myself is an entirely different proposition. 

On the whole I have enjoyed the editorial process. Knowing someone whose own work you admire, is reading your poems in depth and detail, is very exciting. 

The final thing I’m going to mention here, that I found invaluable in putting a pamphlet/collection together, ought to be obvious, but perhaps isn’t always:

Read other poets’ collections and see what they/their editors have done. 

By this, I don’t mean Sylvia Plath, or Kathleen Raine, Denise Levertov, Thomas Traherne, Keats, Yeats, Hughes and Heaney. Obviously, the classics and modern classics are always worth reading, but if you are attempting to put out a collection now, it’s far more useful to see what other poets are doing now, not what happened in the 60s, or the 40s, the 1890s or the 16th Century. 

Read contemporary stuff, your betters, your peers – living breathing practitioners who are engaged in this today. So I’ve been reading quite a bit, trying to purloin some good ideas and a sense of how to bring a set of poems together. 

Recent collections from well-known names I’ve enjoyed include: Shine Darling by Ella Frears, Witch by Rebecca Tamas, Bioluminescent Baby by Fiona Benson and England’s Green by Zaffir Kunial. 

What really helped me get a sense of what to do with regard to assembling my collection, were poets with first or second collections with smaller presses or indies. There’s some brilliant stuff out there if you make a little effort to find it. 

This was inspiring and helpful not just for the poems themselves, but for things like how to write acknowledgements, or what kind of poem, length, style might go with what. 

In no particular order, I’d like to give thanks and a mention to: 

Kitty Donnelly, In Dangerous Hours – IDP

Damien B Donnelly

M S Evans – Nights on the Line – Black Bough Poetry

Lucy Holme, Temporary Stasis – Broken Sleep Books

Fiona Larkin, Vital Capacity – Broken Sleep Books

Jess Mc Kinney, Weeding – Hazel Press

Stuart McPherson, Obligate Carnivore

Jenny Mitchell, Her lost language – IDP

Larissa Reid, Rock | Salt 

Anna Saunders, Fever Few – IDP

George Sandifer-Smith, Empty Trains – Broken Sleep Books

Ankh Spice, The Water Engine – Femme Salvé Books

Ben Wilkinson, Same Difference – Seren Books 

And of course Matthew M C Smith himself, who’s latest collection
The Keeper of Aeons is out now with Broken Spine.

There we have it, a few things that I’ve learnt during this process of pulling together a first collection.
If any of this chimes, or helps, that’s great. Above all, keep writing and keep reading.

4 thoughts on ““I’m really not quite sure about that…”: how (not) to make a poetry collection

  1. Pingback: I’ve written the book. Now where are all my readers? – A post on poetry promotion  | Richly Evocative

  2. I really enjoyed reading this. I’ve been considering putting a pamphlet together, and all these things you talk about have gone through my head. I’ve put together some pamphlets for competitions (not even longlisted), but I have had poems published, and like you had thought about using those, but like you say, they don’t always hang together. The marketing etc., I’ve dealt with badly when self-publishing two novellas. I’m hopeless at it! I’d rather be writing. I wish you good luck with your eventual publication and congratulate you for getting this far. I love the honesty of your post and the methods you considered. All helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

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