There are as many ways to do this as there are to do anything worthwhile. I have done it different ways in different books, because the material one has often dictates the structure. Just as, in the writing of a poem, one has to listen to the poem itself, then with a book, one has to listen to the poems and allow them some say in choosing their own order.
Like a lot of other poets, I think it’s vital to print off the poems one hopes to include. It’s a good idea anyway, to have a hard copy of each completed poem; that’s the best way, other than having them published in book form, to guard against computer crashes and lost discs. I’m not always the best at taking my own advice here, I must confess.
My latest collection, The Five Petals of Elderflower, takes both its name and its structure from the title poem, which won first prize in the 2013 Buzzwords national competition. It is a poem in five parts, which can be read as the five stages of life. I divided the poems up into five sections according to the themes of each petal. I am indebted to my editor for this book, Elizabeth Rimmer, who saw at once the structure I was going for, and helped me cut down the manuscript I originally submitted, which was bursting with far too many poems. She had a very good eye for what worked well with those themes; some poems were cut because they will fit better in a later book. When working with an editor, one does fight one’s corner for the poems one loves, so there was some negotiation between us. I am enormously grateful for her acute sensitivity to what I was up to. The Five Petals of Elderflower is now available from my publisher, Red Squirrel Press.
My previous collection, Letting Go, has a different thrust. Because it is a selection of poems, some from out of print collections and some new, but all on the theme of childhood and parenthood, It is divided up into sections and runs chronologically, so it reads like a narrative, if taken in order, which people don’t always do with poetry. They dip, or start at the back, which I often do myself. But the narrative is there if people want to find it. The book doesn’t include every poem I have on those themes. With this one, I worked with Teika Bellamy of Mother’s Milk Books. She knows my previous collections very well and made suggestions as to what she would like to see included. Making the book at all was her idea in the first place, and it was her idea to use named sections, titled by quotations from the poems, which I had also done in an earlier book, The Fiddle (Stride 1999)
Paper Patterns, published by Dennis Greig of Lapwing Press, was structured more thematically, without editorial help. It includes two sequences which I separated by half the book, because readers need space and shorter poems after such lengthy ones. Themes include travel and curiosities, places, elegies, food, the brevity of life, seasonal poems, flower poems, literary references and responses, politics and ageing. Each poem speaks to its companions. This 2012 collection is still available.
I Sing of Bricks (Salt 2011) was a set of poems which were put together as a sample of my work, following my return to full time poetry. It was my first adult publication for four years, and I was asked to send my best poems at the time. What I hadn’t realised, but was pointed out by a very perceptive reviewer, James Roderick Burns, that it was all about work. “For this is a book about work—actual work, be it drudgery or stimulation; the work of starting and sustaining relationships; the dreadful work of mourning, remembering the (many) people who have died, and moving with their memory into something new; the work, in short, of life. “ It’s a very smart reviewer who tells you something you didn’t know about your own work. The point I am making here is that your own obsessions and themes will show themselves wherever your work accumulates.
In summary, here are my tips for putting your own collections together.
- Print off all the poems you want to include. Re-read them as you do.
- Spread them individually on a surface like a floor or large table to begin to assess them.
- Discard any you feel uneasy about or which need more work. Or do the work on them needed.
- From your re-reading you will have some idea of how they work together. Start to look now for themes, common topics or contrasts.
- Find a really strong poem to start and end with.
- From that starting poem, find another one that speaks to it, either by contrast, similarity, different angle on the same topic, or any small link like a word in common, or a place.
- Repeat until you have picked up all the poems, and making sure the run of poems up to the last one lead nicely to it.
- Listen to the work. Your order might be chronological like some of my books, grouped in themes like others of mine. There should be some kind of internal logic that facilitates flow for the reader.
- Pile the poems up in your chosen order, slide on one of those plastic binders to hold together. Go and have a cup of tea, a walk outside, a sleep. Then come back to it and read from start to finish. If it feels right, you are nearly there.
- If you are not lucky enough to have an editor, and not all collections do, show it to a few people whose judgement you really trust. Listen to what they say. Make necessary adjustments.