Ordering the Storm edited by Susan Grimm

August 25, 2009 at 3:03 pm (chapbooks, essays, nonfiction, poetry, publishing)

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.

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How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead by Ariel Gore

August 22, 2007 at 12:09 am (nonfiction, publishing, reference, writing)

I generally avoid all reference books on the subject of writing because they make me feel like a slouch. They say you must write every single day in order to hone your craft, never submit a piece of work until it is absolutely perfect, and you must find yourself an agent before you can hope to achieve any degree of success. As someone who doesn’t write everyday, rarely comes up with anything perfect, and does not have an agent, I usually walk away from these books convinced that I don’t have an infant’s chance in the Mississippi of becoming a successful writer. What made me pick up Gore’s book was the title. Bold and brazen, it made me curious to see if she could actually carry through on its promise of seeing my words in print and my name in lights.

How to Become a Famous Writer Before You're DeadA far cry form the many disciplinary texts on writing, the pages of How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead are filled with humor, compassion, empathy, and understanding. Grouped into five sections, each dealing with an essential aspect of writing, Gore lays out seventy-eight steps to becoming a literary star. She covers everything from how to deal with large publishing companies to how to keep writing when you’ve hit a wall.

The tone is what really sets this book apart from others on the subject. Gore’s voice isn’t the least bit authoritarian. She addresses the reader as an equal, cracking jokes and making fun of herself the way one might do around a trusted friend. This is particularly powerful in the first section of the book which deals with issues of motivation and confidence. Gore adopts the role of cheerleader rather than mentor, willingly telling her readers what they need to hear in addition to what they need to know. Writers need to know that they will face loads of rejection. They need to know how to market themselves to an agent, publishing house, and the general public. But, writers, particularly struggling ones, need to hear that they are genuinely talented, and their work down right genius. They need to hear that the people smart enough to publish their work will be doing themselves a favor. Gore wants to cultivate the sort of confidence and determination absolutely essential to literary success and she succeeds beautifully.

Gore also deviates from the norm by encouraging writers to utilize alternative forms of publication. If you can’t get an agent or a book deal, says Gore, then self-publish. Start a zine or a blog, or utilize print-on-demand services. So many publishing insiders turn up their noses at these methods. It’s nice to find an established writer who sees them for what they are, an effective way of getting your writing out to a wider audience. Similarly, she encourages writers to publish before they are ready, maintaining that every writer is embarrassed by their first publication and it is more important to get a mediocre piece of writing read than to sit at home tooling a piece to perfection before letting others read it.

I found How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead so motivating that after finishing it I wrote my first original essay in several years, and after some light revision, submitted it to a literary blog I admire. Of course, it was rejected, but that’s okay because, according to Ariel Gore, I am a literary genius and my rejection is their loss.

Every struggling writer I know will be getting this book for Christmas this year. And while I’m on the topic of gifts, why don’t you treat yourself to a copy? It’s worth every penny. And just think, the price of a paperback will look like chump change once you’ve received your first six figure advance. You can have a sneak peek at the first chapter on Ariel Gore’s official website.

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