There is perhaps no greater mystery than ordering a poetry collection. The decisions can be nerve-wracking: debating which poems will open and close your book, asking which poems pack the most punch to hook the reader, questioning if these poems should sit next to each other for the rest of their life.
Okay, so maybe there are some greater mysteries. The Bermuda Triangle, achieving world peace, and how to keep love alive to name a few. But that’s another day, another blog.
Point is: ordering a poetry collection or chapbook is highly subjective. It is like trying to decide what a Rorschach “means.” So many different interpretations and reflections. One day you see a monarch butterfly and another day two men in a bar fight. When it comes down to it, ordering poems is all about interpretation.
ASK THREE DIFFERENT EDITORS HOW YOU SHOULD ORDER YOUR COLLECTION AND YOU ARE LIKELY TO GET THREE DIFFERENT ANSWERS.
Sure maybe some of the same poems will be in the beginning and end but they might have different reasons, or sections, or insights. Same goes for poets themselves, I know how I felt about ordering would sometimes change from Monday to Friday.
I have read advice from Writer’s Relief, Poets and Writers, and more. The advice, like ordering, extremely subjective.
The best, most concrete advice I have read is in an interview with Poets and Writers, Tiana Clark (one of my favorite poets) says Nancy Reddy taught her, “remember the last poem in your book is the entire book.” I love this idea and attempted to do it justice in my debut collection, Boat Burned.
But what about the rest of the book? Overall I would say ordering your poetry chapbook can be broken into a few choices:
Themes: What are the subjects that make up the collection? How are they woven together? How do you move from one theme to the next?
Repetition of Images: What are the images that are repeated. What multiple meanings do they offer? How do they grow and transform?
Chronological poems: What is the story and how does it move in chronological order? What is the catalyst? How does it unfold the book? How do we reach the end?
Linked Poems: How does one poem lead into another? Do any of the last lines speak to the first lines of another? Are they in similar conversation?
Now here comes the fun part… Just kidding, it’s all the fun part.
REMEMBER ALL GREAT ART INVOLVES A JOURNEY. BOTH THE SPEAKER AND THE READER MUST GO THROUGH A TRANSFORMATION.
Ellen Bass says “all poems must make the reader feel changed.” Jericho Brown says that “a poem should be a call to action.” This doesn’t mean you read a poem and sign up for a march, although that is an option. It means that a poem should drive you to do something, perhaps call your mom you haven’t talked to in months or look at something different. After reading Keith Leonard’s “Spatchet ” in Ploughshares, I will never look at a spratchet, the thing that separates your groceries from another in check out, the same way again. The same rule also applies to poetry collections.
A MANUSCRIPT SHOULD CREATE NOT ONLY A CHANGE OR TRANSFORMATION IN THE READER, BUT IN THE WRITER/SPEAKER AS WELL.
Ask yourself what is the change in your manuscript from beginning to end. Not sure?
ONE OF THE BEST WAYS TO TRACK YOUR COLLECTION’S JOURNEY AND INFORM ORDERING IF TO USE THE PIXAR STORY TEMPLATE.
You can find the Pixar Story Template the fourth rule on Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling.
PIXAR STORY TEMPLATE
ONCE UPON A TIME, THERE WAS [BLANK].
EVERY DAY, [BLANK].
ONE DAY [BLANK].
BECAUSE OF THAT, [BLANK].
UNTIL FINALLY [BLANK].
This template has also been referred to as the Story Spine and is attributed to professional playwright and improviser Kenn Adams. I like to think of it as the extended hero’s journey.
What if even that is too complicated? Not sure where “once upon a time” begins?
PIXAR SUGGESTS YOU ASK THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS:
1. WHY MUST YOU TELL THIS STORY?
2. WHAT’S THE BELIEF BURNING WITHIN YOU THAT YOUR STORY FEEDS OFF OF?
Stephen King agrees, in On Writing he argues that there is always a larger belief that is driving the story if you really sit and think about it.
In The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative author Vivian Gornick says the story is what happens (the plot) and the situation is the take away (the theme). The situation is the emotional experience, what you have come to say.
Starting to sound familiar?
Over the past two weeks, I have read three books on writing in three different genres: fiction, poetry, and memoir. All say the same thing. There must be a takeaway or realization. In other words: a change.
The problem with poetry collection is there are so many mini transformations from poem to poem, but you must look at the overarching change as a whole.
THE PIXAR MODEL CAN HELP YOU GET THERE. USE THE PIXAR OR STORY SPINE TEMPLATE BY DOING THE FOLLOWING:
- PUT ALL YOUR POEMS IN ONE DOCUMENT AND PRINT THEM OUT.
- IDENTIFY THE MAJOR THEMES AND IMAGES.
- ASK YOURSELF WHICH POEMS BELONG IN THIS BOOK AND WHICH YOU NEED TO SAVE FOR ANOTHER.
- IN YOUR COLLECTION OF POEMS LABEL AT LEAST 10 POEMS BEGINNING, MIDDLE, AND END.
- NEXT GO TO THE FIRST PART OF THE TEMPLATE. WHERE IS YOUR ORIGIN STORY? YOUR “ONCE UPON A TIME POEM?” THINK ABOUT WHAT IS THE “ONE DAY” POEM AND SO ON.
- WRITE OUT THE ARC OF YOUR COLLECTION USING THE PIXAR TEMPLATE, DOES IT WORK? IS CHANGE THERE?
Of course, on any given day your poems might shift slightly but this will provide a great framework for ordering your manuscript in a way that is clear, concrete, and doesn’t want to make you pull your hair out. Happy ordering!
–originally published on https://www.kellygracethomas.com/
KELLY GRACE THOMAS is an ocean-obsessed Aries from Jersey. She is a self-taught poet, editor, educator and author. Kelly is the winner of the 2020 Jane Underwood Poetry Prize and 2017 Neil Postman Award for Metaphor from Rattle, 2018 finalist for the Rita Dove Poetry Award and multiple pushcart prize nominee. Her first full-length collection, Boat Burned, released with YesYes Books in January 2020. Kelly’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in: Best New Poets 2019, Los Angeles Review, Redivider, Muzzle, Sixth Finch and more. Kelly is the Director of Education for Get Lit and the co-author of Words Ignite. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband Omid.
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