How I Built A Book (insert laugh track)
If you can create a poem, you can create a book of poems. Period.
I was looking for someone to republish a chapbook whose publisher had decided to retire right after putting my chap out. The first place I queried (they had published books for two people I know) replied [more or less] that yes they did republish, and they would be willing to read the chapbook, but did I have enough material for a book-length collection? They’d really prefer that.
I had done any number of gift booklets, samplers, and mock chapbooks, as well as two published chapbooks; and I certainly had poems. So: Sure.
Having a publisher willing to look at a manuscript—without paying some contest entry fee—was a massive piece of good luck, but the tradeoff was time. I did not have the luxury of months or even weeks to assemble, refine, and rewrite a target minimum of seventy-five poems. The chap had eighteen.
I tried to turn that into a single, unified “poem” of a book, and that was NOT working, when I noticed (duh) how many books of poems (research) were broken into sections, like chapters. Like chapbooks. hmmm. I had two chapbooks, both with extra, associated poems that hadn’t fit for space. That was the beginning.
It is easier to work with several smaller units than with one large one.
So I set aside the poems for those two sections and started in on a third, new one. And this is essentially my process for putting together a chapbook. Even if my memory were as good as it once was, I would have printed out almost everything resembling a usable poem. Waste paper. I have no guilt. Everything gets to be read again and again. Spelling, punctuation, lame words, better phrasing, etc.
First piles. (at this point there is no theme, no nothing)
Short poems and fragments (Enough for a section of their own? Punctuation?)
Potentially useful (a fuzzy category, but I can’t function without it)
No way, José (“Why did I print out a Christmas poem?”)
No Way—into a box
Shorts and Potentials—into open boxes
Second (and third, etc.) piles
Poems that MUST be in the collection
Other good poems
This is interesting
I don’t think so
The four “best” I laid out to begin and end the section, and I started looking for similarities. Tone, theme, sound, look. Don’t want any that are too similar—set one of them aside. Nothing jarringly different.
Eventually, every poem is like a line for a larger poem, and it is a matter of arranging them so that a reader can go from one poem to the next, not seamlessly, with a sense of rightness. Maybe a little surprise, because there are surprises within poems. I had to do some rewriting to make some poems fit.
And plenty of changing my mind about what constituted a good beginning/ending/middle. But the time came when I couldn’t take anything away or add even my favoritest favorite without damaging the integrity of the whole. Can’t explain that: it just happens.
Then back to the other two sets, repeat the above—adding some, taking some out, tinkering.
And finally back to the computer, and revised the individual poems’ files. Set up the compiled book both as .doc and pdf. Sent it to a couple of people, hoping they would catch any embarrassing mistakes. Tinkered some more.
Sent it to the publisher. From there, the pride-swallowing, comma-eating process.
If I were advising someone without that existing chapbook structure that simplified building Heirloom Language, I would suggest creating sections that serve the same function. Choose three or four, or five (if you have enough material) of the strongest pieces. Strong, because they will collect similar poems to them—magnets for light poems, or father poems, or poems with lots of trees, maybe something subtle like water flowing downhill in one poem and cars in another and in a third changing jobs. Let those be your anchors.