Getting the book in order (again)

I’ve been living with a draft of my book for a while now. The poems keep getting rewritten- line breaks changed, and changed back again. Poems have been removed and added ; the usual stuff.  I sent a version to my publisher a while ago, and he’s going to have a look in the autumn with a view to publishing in 2017.

In the meantime, I keep going back for a look, and when I do I find myself working again on poems I’d long since thought settled into their shape and sound. Even the shortest have been through countless drafts, and luckily, I managed to keep some of the first, since I’ve reverted to something close to an early version several times. I couldn’t resist adding a couple of newer poems to the latest file, mainly because they still give me a slight buzz of excitement, being not yet entirely familiar.

I’ve left out work that’s been published in good magazines- Magma (x 2 poems), The Morning Star, The North, The Interpreter’s House, Bare Fiction, Under The Radar and others – either because the poems don’t fit with the rest of the collection, or because I simply don’t love those poems enough.  I like and in some cases, love, (or will grow to love; time will tell) all the poems I’ve chosen, and I’m pretty sure they are strong enough, though my editor may offer reasons as to why one or two might be left out. I’m looking forward to reading his thoughts.

Today, although I am not at my day job and it is a beautiful day,
I’ve been at the computer a lot.


As well as being absorbed in re-drafting a new poem,  I’ve been looking at the order of the collection once more. Grouping poems by content is not as simple as it might be. Just because a poem has a bird in it,for example, should it sit with other ‘bird’ poems? I’ve decided not, as most if not all of my ‘bird’ poems are not about birds at all, but are poems with birds in them, birds that are usually passing through. Without going back and analyzing all the bird poems (maybe I should, and group them accordingly) I guess they are actually poems about change, transience, remembrance, loyalty, resilience etc.

There are so many possible ways of putting 60 odd poems together so that one leads into or echos or reflects something of the next. And of course my idea of a reflection may not be someone else’s. From where they are standing, the view may be completely different.

Then there is the option to break the book into sections. I’m not naturally inclined to do this, as I’m not sure what the benefit might be with this particular set of poems. I do have a sequence of some twelve poems about my time as a coronary care nurse, so that has its own title.

Where to place the sequence in the book is another question. At the heart, or middle of the book? I’ve been receiving some good feedback on these poems, and wanted to put them at the beginning. This didn’t ‘feel’ right ( although I can’t explain why at the moment) so I’ve compromised and am leading into the sequence with a short section of ten or so pieces, although this might change.

Putting the book in order, feels I imagine, a bit like designing a landscape garden with beds and ponds and hedges and sculptures.
Deciding on an order that will work is exciting and time consuming,
and, like most poets I imagine, I keep changing my mind.

However, as with every word and line break of the poems themselves, there will have to come a time when the printer puts a stop to experimentation and mutation: a time when the book will be held firmly in place by its cover.  Which reminds me, I need one of those too.

Sequencing a poetry collection, Uncategorized

Sequencing the new book

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.





Putting a poetry pamphlet together., Uncategorized

Putting a poetry pamphlet together.

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.

You will need 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?

Thinking Poet

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 it’s qualities and flaws as clearly as I think I can now.
Another pair of eyes can help, 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 valuable and 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.
But feedback can be invaluable, and even those comments or suggestions you don’t agree with can be as useful as those you do in helping you 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. First responses to critical comment are often defensive responses. This is another reason why it is important to have a bit of time to reflect on other’s input, 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 enter any competitions because you probably aren’t ready yet. That doesn’t mean you can’t make a start. It is exciting to open a word file and slot a few of your best poems, perhaps with a provisional title. Looking at how published pamphlets are set out with acknowledgements pages etc. might be useful in modelling your own work in progress.

However, you need to be sure (at least some of the time) that you have work of sufficient quality and quantity to be in with a chance of getting published before you start splashing  cash on sending a potential pamphlet to competitions or putting your work on the radar of publishers . Your poems present a part of you to the world, so you want them to be as good as you want them to be (if you see what I mean.)

Along with the poems you love there will be the poems you like. And there will probably be the poems that were hard-won; tricky to pin down, endlessly revised and perhaps in your eyes not quite satisfactory.  Some might be ‘alright’. You need to put all these poems in a pile.  The poems 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 of Paper Sandwich Tower published it two years ago. Try to revaluate each of your potential pamphlet poems. Read them aloud one after another. Would you be happy for the ‘weakest’ poem, the one you hare 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.

leap of faith

You have a pile of definitely and maybe poems. Now you can look at



You are going to take your reader on a journey. 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 than I’m sure you 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 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.

Poems on the floor

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. This  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 orderings and may even begin to enjoy yourself.


It’s a good idea to check that you are not 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 such these things are more likely to stand out.

You might want to show your versatility by including poems that vary in tone, rhythm and texture. This is probably an obvious suggestion, but it may be good to graduate and shade these changes so that a humorous piece is not placed next to 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 might be a poem missing that will provide the necessary cohesion you need for the pamphlet to feel more complete, you might try to write that poem. It’s not something I’ve felt the need to do yet, but I can understand how this situation might arise and how the poems might cohere around a particular piece, perhaps one that could draw 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 at it to gain an idea of 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. You may even have found a title that you like.