For a few months I’ve been thinking of the order of poems in my next book. I’ve lived with several versions of the contents page, and yesterday I laid all the poems on the floor again, something I did with both my pamphlet and last book.
Sequencing a poetry collection is not a scientific activity. I’m not a mathematician so I don’t know how many possible combinations of sixty poems it is possible to have, but suspect it is a lot. I’ve written about some aspects of putting a poetry pamphlet together before.
If the idea is to locate stylistic, thematic and emotional echoes and resonances between pieces, then there are so many permutations.
Grouping poems that ostensibly have similar subjects is one way to go, but may not be as simple as it seems. For example, one might think of putting together a set of poems about relationships, or set that all have a bird or birds in them.
The difficulty with this approach is that although a poem may reference birds, it might be primarily concerned with concepts of trust and fidelity. So it could easily go in a section with other ‘relationship’ poems. But the poem about a relationship might actually be more concerned with mortality, so maybe that should go next to the poem about bereavement. But the ‘bereavement’ poem is also about rebirth, so that might go next to the ‘birth’ poem, which also has ‘spring’ in it, and that poem is currently unable to decide if it wants to go in the ‘family’ section or the ‘ecological’ section.
Perhaps poems are, or perhaps should be, like this; those tidy or untidy little boxes each needing to refract and blend experience and memory, to break down artificial divisions such as ‘now’ and ‘then’, ‘here’ and ‘there’, ‘us’ and ‘them’.
There’s a very useful piece by Jeffery Levine on sequencing a poietry manuscript here. This is a quote from it
‘ Where do you see common images developing? In what directions do your various threads lead? What seem to be your concerns as a poet during this period of creativity, and how do they seem to want to group. What sorts of discoveries are your poems making? The process of inclusion and ordering is organic, calculated, thoughtful, instinctual, unconscious, and a somewhat Zen. You need time to permit all of those matters and anti-matters to work upon you, and upon your poems.’
I like this description a lot, particularly acknowledgement of the ‘calculated’ and thoughtful’ aspects of ordering a collection beside the ‘instinctual’ and ‘unconscious’.
I settled, or thought I’d settled, on the order of the book some time ago. But a friend suggested I move a sequence of about ten ‘nurse’ poems, about my time working in coronary care, towards the centre of the book. This seemed to balance things better (I can’t really explain why- maybe because the poems reference hearts a lot, and the sequence is now nearer to the physical heart of the book.) The order of the poems around it has completely changed and probably will change again as I see new ways in which they might connect, flow and ‘speak’ of and to each other.
As far as selection goes, I’ve recently been quite ruthless, deciding to leave out six or seven pieces, among them a few that were published in good poetry magazines. When I had a brief conversation with a poet friend about the manuscript I heard myself say “There are one or two weak ones.” A day or so later I thought ‘Why on earth would you keep poems in if you know they are weak?’ Like a poor team player, a weak poem or two can let the other poems down and disrupt the book’s chances of being as good as it might be.
For a while I was almost making excuses to include one or two poems I was uncertain of, justifying their presence on the basis of some technical merit or the fact that I had put a lot of effort into them, working and re-working them a few hundred times.
One poem seemed to have been written by someone else. I don’t mean this in a good way – rather that it made me uneasy. It is, I think, a powerful poem about an acute episode of depression. But stylistically and thematically it doesn’t sit well with the other work and would stand out in the wrong sort of way.
Another poem, about a bee using its sense of smell to detect if a flower has already had its pollen taken, has tried and tried to get into the book like a bee revisiting a flower. So far, no joy for that one.
I think I have realised the poems in the book should justify their presence to me; that their reason for inclusion should be self-evident and that if I need to argue their case too hard I should leave them out. This is all part of the normal process of assembling a poetry collection. I’m happy for now, having broadly decided what I’d like to include.
I might have to wait and ponder a while longer before the order becomes clear. As Agnes Martin, the expressionist painter says here
‘If you live by perception, as all artists must, then you sometimes have to wait a long time for your mind to tell you the next step to take’
Things are shaping up. Soon it will be time to find out what my editor thinks. They’ll be a little more work after that. Then we’ll discuss my ideas for the cover art. Then be time to let go.