17 April 2008

Putting together a poetry collection

The other day, over at The Peripatic Poetess's blog, I posted a comment about how I put my next poetry collection, My Iron Spine, together. She's about to put together a poetry manuscript, and was looking for some advice.

In case anyone else is interested, I thought I'd reuse what I wrote there:

I’m sure there are lots of ways you could successfully put your collection together. But this is how I put together My Iron Spine, which is going to be published later this year.

Of course, I started with the poems. While I was still writing them, I started noticing recurring themes and ideas, and I wrote new poems building on those. I also noticed that they fell into three types: autobiographical, biographical, and poems that were a fantastical combination of both – where I hung out with various women from history (for example ‘Swimming with Virginia Woolf’). At that stage, I wrote some more poems to fill out the last section.

Then the ordering! The first section was easier, in that I was trying to create a (fairly) chronological narrative through the section – beginning with me as a child, ending with me as an adult (more or less). But I also wanted it – and each of the other sections – to have an emotional narrative.

For each section, I kind of pictured in my head a graph, plotting the emotional rise and fall. The first, autobiographical, section begins up high with innocence, heads downwards with experience and disillusionment, but then heads upwards again with a growing sense of identity and hope.

The second section, comprising biographical poems, has a similar emotional structure. The line of the graph doesn’t start so high this time, but it also heads downwards, but fights its way back up with hopefulness.

The third section begins low, but heads up, getting lighter and, again with hope for the future.

A friend told me recently that Sylvia Plath had a similar kind of structure in mind for Ariel (links to an article about the 'restored edition'), in which, after mining the emotional depths, would end on a more hopeful note. When Ariel was published after her death, Ted Hughes changed the order and some of the poems, leaving us with a very different book.

The way I got the poems into order in each of their sections, was to print them all out and kind of shuffle them. I’d start with one, and then pick up another poem, putting it either in front or behind, depending on what felt right, and what fitted with the emotional trajectory I wanted. I did a fair amount of tinkering later, but eventually got something that seemed kind of right.

Then, when I was ready, I gave copies of the manuscript to five friends whose opinions I trusted, who I knew would be sympathetic to what I was aiming for, and who would give me constructive and insightful feedback. I am very lucky to have such creatures. I also gave them a list of questions, including one about the order. They suggested a few switches, for various reasons (eg, a better poem to start the collection with, this poem goes really well next to this one), most of which I followed.


Helen said...

Great post Helen :)

litlove said...

I will pass this on to the aunt of a friend who is trying to put her first poetry collection together. She asked for my advice but I didn't have anything as useful as this to say! This is extremely helpful and insightful.

harvey molloy said...

I'm looking forward to the book. Are you planning to use prints as you did in Abstract Internal Furniture?

Helen Rickerby said...

Helen, thank you very much.

Thanks also Litlove, and I hope your aunt finds it useful. There are probably so many other ways to do it, but I think that having some idea of the trajectory you want is a good idea. When I do a reading, I often do things the other way around - I start with 'funnier' poems to get the audience interested, and then bring on the harder stuff. That approach might work in a collection too.

Thanks also Harvey. I don't think this book will have pictures this time. I'm having enough trouble sorting out a cover image! I thought the pics in Abstract Internal Furniture worked really well with the poems though - I felt the artist was doing in her photocollages what I was trying to do with my poetry - it's ordinary things but put together in a slightly surreal way.

Colleen said...

Helen -

Thank you for the comment, and for reposting it here! (I made a long comment the other day, but my computer ate it, methinks).

While working on ordering my manuscript, I actually ended up building a second full length manuscript (that included some of the poems from the first, but not all, plus some others I hadn't intended) and took the manuscript in a different direction. It's been very interesting working with it, and I appreciate your advice!

I'm looking forward to reading My Iron Spine, as well. Best!