I don’t think it’s too far out to say that most emerging poets have no idea what to take into consideration when putting together a full length or chapbook sized collection of poetry. It’s not a topic most undergraduate or graduate creative writing programs cover. By the time a young poet has enough material to constitute a first collection chances are he or she will still have never met anyone who has published a book. They themselves may have only a vague concept of what they want to say, how they want to say it, or how to draw a particular response out of a reader. Sensing the need for direction in these matters, Susan Grimm asked a number of published poets to write about their experiences putting together collections of poetry. The result, Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems, offers insight, suggestions, direction, and the shared camaraderie poets so desperately need when trying to assemble a book.
Ordering the Stormis a quick read. At 97 pages I was able to breeze through it in a day. The eleven essays range from the esoteric to the practical. In the opening essay, “Best Foot Forward: Arranging a Poetry Manuscript,” Bonnie Jacobson examines the themes and structures used to organize books by Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, and John Donoghue among others, and how those structures maximize the emotional impact of the manuscript. In “It’s Simple Really: Just Sit Down at the Desk…” Jeff Gundy describes his own circuitous process of putting together a book.
All of the contributors toss out ideas on how to go about arranging a book of poetry. There’s the classic method of fanning all your poems out on the floor, and crawling around on your hands and knees until the pattern of the book begins to take shape. Some suggest grouping poems with similar themes, subjects, images, or turns of phrase into individual sections. Others suggest weaving poems with seemingly disparate tones or subjects together throughout the book. Above all, they remind the reader that no size fits all. Each manuscript is its own entity and will require its own individual tending. What worked for your first book may not work for your second.
What really struck me was how many of the contributors spoke of creating a dramatic arc, building tension, and moving the action along; terms more often heard when speaking of prose. But it makes sense that a poet would have to take those things into consideration when assembling a book. After all you want to keep the reader riveted and you want them to walk away from the book having gained something. It goes to show how green I am that I’d never thought of a book of poetry in those terms before.
Though reading about each contributors individual process gave me ideas of how I might want to approach the puzzle of assembling a collection one day, the essays themselves, their organization and presentation also provided insight into my own preferences. For instance, I found the essays presented in a straight forward and linear fashion the most helpful. I also preferred the essays where contributors talked specifically about their own process to those in which the contributors discussed the process of poets other than themselves. I like personal stories and I like writing that follows a linear path. As I was reading it occurred to me that if I were to assemble a collection of poetry the work would have to be intensely personal and it would have to flow in a linear manner, poem to poem in a kind of narrative that was no interrupted by sections. That would be my preference.
Ordering the Storm is a must have for any poet with aspirations of putting together a book of poetry. It offers poets a number of ways to look at and approach the task of assembling a book; of disassembling, re-arranging, and rebuilding a problematic manuscript. Most of all it provides new poets with a sense of comfort. Knowing that there are other poets in the world, even highly successful ones, who are just as confounded by the task of writing a book as you are makes the green poet feel a little less alone in the struggle.