This piece is addressed to those poets who haven’t had a collection published before, so I’ll be covering what I consider to be the basics of putting a pamphlet together based on my own experience and including ideas and advice I’ve picked up from my reading and listening to others.
The majority of poetry pamphlets contain twenty to twenty-five poems. The first thing you will need (apart from enough poems of course) is to set aside some
Selecting and ordering poems is a creative exercise that requires attention and care. If you are hurried or under pressure to meet a deadline you probably won’t be able make the best judgements and as a result you are unlikely to enjoy the process or have the satisfaction of knowing you have put in your best effort.
It’s best to start the process and return to it over a period of days, weeks or months.
It is a good idea to print copies of all the poems you are going to consider. It is much easier to take an overview of your work and consider the ordering of your pamphlet if you have sheets of paper to handle rather than word documents to move about on-screen.
If you have exactly twenty-two poems I would suggest that you should wait until you have a broader range to choose from. Ideally, a number of these poems will have been previously published in magazines or placed in competitions. I wouldn’t want to encourage anyone to send off for a pamphlet competition (most involve you parting with cash) without having had affirmation from a couple of magazine editors that some of the work is of a publishable standard.
If you have more than enough you are in a very good position. It can be difficult to select the poems you are going to submit. You could begin by asking yourself
Which of these poems do I love?
If you can also explain to yourself why you love those poems then that’s great. It indicates a knowledge and understanding of your work and of its qualities. You may be reading this and thinking ‘of course I know what I like about my work’. But if you don’t then it’s worth thinking about this.
I felt largely clueless when putting my first pamphlet together.
I struggled with just about every aspect from selecting poems to
putting them in order and choosing the title. Everything turned out well in the end, and I am still very pleased with the finished product.
But I realise that I didn’t have much distance from my work and wasn’t able to see qualities and flaws as clearly as I think I can now.
Another pair of eyes can be invaluable, particularly if those eyes are experienced at reading poetry. I was lucky enough to receive some advice from a poet/editor friend. If you are lucky enough to have one (or preferably more) trusted poetry friends, get them to take a look at some stage in this process and tell you what they think.
Although other people’s opinions can be very useful, there is no shortcut to gaining a better understanding of your work. Only reading and writing and re-writing can help you develop this.
However, even those comments or suggestions you don’t agree with can be as useful as those you do agree with in helping you to understand your work (I hope to say more on this in another article.)
In my experience it may take a while for suggested changes to make sense. My first reaction was often to reject comments out of hand. First responses to critical comment are often defensive responses. (See my pieces on constructive criticism). This is another reason why it is important to have a bit of time to reflect on feedback, returning to reconsider why a particular suggestion has been made at a later date when it may make better sense.
Back to the pamphlet. If there are no poems you love or even like, either you are having a confidence crisis day/week/ month/ year (poets regularly do this) or perhaps you really haven’t got to where you need to be in terms of writing what you would like to write. In which case it’s best to have a re-think and don’t send your pamphlet away because you probably aren’t ready yet. Forget about the pamphlet for now and keep on writing and reading poetry.
This doesn’t mean you can’t make a start and lay foundations for later. It is exciting to open a word file and slot a few of your best poems, perhaps with a provisional title and contents page. Let them accumulate. Let them live together and live with them for a while.
Looking at how published pamphlets are set out with acknowledgements pages etc. will be useful in modelling your own work in progress. You will want to ensure your poems
are presented well, with enough space on the page (preferably one poem per page, unless they are extremely short.)
You need confidence (at least some of the time) that you have work of sufficient quality and quantity to be in with a chance of getting published, particularly if you are entering a competition that involves your paying to enter. Rushing off work to a potential pamphlet publisher is probably not the best use of time or resources. If you have serious doubts about the work, better to wait until you feel you have consistently achieved a higher standard or at least feel more comfortable. You are hoping to present a sample of your work to the world, so you want them to be as good as you can make them.
Along with the poems you love there will be the poems you like. And there will probably be the poems that were endlessly revised and perhaps in your eyes not quite satisfactory. Consider leaving the latter aside. Leaving poems out of your pamphlet doesn’t mean they have to disappear forever. Anything you leave out can always be included in a full collection or in another pamphlet at a later date. You might want a ‘definitely’ pile, a ‘maybe’ pile and a ‘not for this collection’ pile.
Trust yourself. There is a reason you are doubtful about a particular piece. Read the poem aloud; this is a good thing to do with all your work. Reading aloud will expose any off kilter rhythms, areas where the eye and tongue stumble over your words, any ‘clunky’ areas or awkward lines.
It may be a poem needs more work or that it doesn’t seem to fit with the rest, in which case you could hold on to it until you are able to write other poems that are similar in tone. What you are looking to do right now is to present your best work in the best order.
Your choices will no doubt be influenced by any or all of the following. The poem has been
a) published in a magazine
b) placed in a competition
c) praised by people when you have read it aloud. (In my case there was the time the slightly drunk chap in the cap and purple flares said
‘I bloody loved the one about the bird’. )
d) given positive feedback from any other source other than grandma, such as teachers, lecturers, poet friends, writing groups etc.
A poem that’s been published in a good magazine may well have added kudos in your eyes. But this does not necessarily mean you should include it. It might be years old and you may have moved on and feel you can write much better work now than when the editor published it two years ago. You are the ultimate arbiter in this instance, so try to reevaluate each of your potential pamphlet poems. Would you be happy for the ‘weakest’ poem, the one you have doubts about, to represent you? If not, take it out. One poem less is better than having a weak link.
The ‘success’ of a poem (publication in magazine or place in competition, for example) should not count if you don’t like the poem or decide you can do better. Of course it is difficult to be objective, which is where a stout second opinion may come in. Sometimes, when making decisions about what should be left in or out, we need to make what can only be described as ‘little leaps of faith’. If you wait until everything is ‘perfect’ you may never send anything away.
You have a pile of definitely and maybe poems. Now you can look at
It is generally thought to be good practice to place one of your strongest (or the strongest) poem at the start of the collection. You will need to capture the reader’s attention, and obviously you want the next two or three poems to be among your best too in order to sustain that good start.
Themes, narratives, dialogues, connections
There are several approaches to ordering poetry collections. Single themed pamphlets can be extremely effective, with poems linking and building on each other to explore a subject or subjects. If you have a set of poems like this that works well together then you probably don’t need to read on.
If you don’t have a single unifying theme there are still likely to be themes running through your poems. You can identify themes by making notes. Then think about how these might work together to create narratives that help you decide how you would like your pamphlet to unfold. You may be able to set up dialogue between poems by placing them in succession. Poems can enhance one another by echoing or expanding on an idea, emotion or image. You could group similar poems in section or sequence or space them throughout the pamphlet as a kind of recurring thread that ties the pamphlet together.
If you lay all your poems on the floor you can have an overview of how they may fit together. I’ve spoken to several friends who have assembled pamphlets or collections and all of them have followed this method. You can do this as many times as it takes, perhaps putting the poems away and spreading them out again at a later date to see how you feel about the choices you made last time. You can experiment with different
ordering and may even begin to enjoy yourself.
It’s a good idea to check that you are not unintentionally covering the same ground with different poems. Repetition of images and use of the similar language can sometimes be ok in a larger collection, but should be avoided in a slim pamphlet where these things are more likely to stand out.
It is a good idea to pay attention to the tone of each piece and graduate or shade them
accordingly. For example, you might not want to place a humorous piece next to a ‘serious’ one about a fatal industrial accident. It is also worth thinking about interspersing longer poems with shorter ones to vary the rhythm of the pamphlet and make varied requests of the reader’s attention to sustain their interest.
If you feel that there is be a missing link that will provide the necessary cohesion you need for the pamphlet to feel more complete, you might try to write that poem. It could be the piece that draws together some of the main themes of the collection.
Just as the first poem needs to one of your best, the last should also be among your strongest. If it is memorable it will leave your reader with a sense of your work, and like any good finale, will leave your audience wanting more.
I think most people find choosing a title for a book or pamphlet of poems difficult, and I’ve written about this subject on here before. If you’ve kept a list of possible titles you might have one or two to try out on other people. If you haven’t got one you might try looking for significant words of lines or themes that occur in the collection.
You might feel that after all this careful consideration your choices have been set in stone. But if your pamphlet is accepted for publication, a good publisher should always be able to discuss the work and make suggestions for improvement. You may end up doing some revising or being asked to consider substituting a poem or two or five. My first pamphlet was changed a few times with poems dropping in and out of the line-up.
If your pamphlet does not win a competition or receive an acceptance from a publisher you sent it to, you will have to deal with the initial disappointment (along with the four hundred other people who also sent in work.) But your time will not have been wasted. You will have gained experience in selecting work and looked closely and thought about its merits and deficits. You will have identified themes and narrative threads and tried different ordering of poems to see how they fit together, as well as perhaps receiving advice and suggestions on how you might improve your work. Setting your poems out
as you would wish to see them presented in published form might also help you take your work more seriously. You may even have found a title that you like.