I’ve been so excited about my new poetry project, Field Notes, that I forgot how difficult it is to organize a poetry collection.
So far, the 40-odd poems I’ve assembled fall into the following themes:
Tree, Plant, Weather, Flowers, Seed, Insects, Earth, Grass, Compost, Bird, Stone, Ocean, Animal, Desert
My first thought was to put the poems into seasonal categories, i.e., Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall. Then I thought that was too obvious, and besides, I didn’t have any winter poems. My next idea was to organize the poems by the places I’ve lived: seaside, desert, forest, town. But then I noticed that I had a poem about grass – where would that go? and how about those “frustrated gardener” poems? Too many poems would end up in the sections where I’d lived longest: forest and town. I only have a few ocean and desert poems, not enough to make a section. The largest category of poem in this group is weather, followed by flowers.
Of course, I plan to write at least twenty more to make a full book of over 60 poems. New themes may emerge during the writing process, or the book may just flow from some intuition I’ve yet to discover. I don’t want to write a poem just to fill a blank spot – I can usually tell when a poet has done this and it always jars.
In keeping with the title, Field Notes, I intend the poems to be observational, a record of the natural world as I experience it, less a chronological account than an emotional exploration. I want them to interlock, to borrow a phrase from Susan Grimm’s introduction to the wonderful book, Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems. On the first page, she asks, “Which is the more useful question – How do the poems fit together? or What is the whole trying to do?”
I enjoyed reading poet Jeff Gundy’s process, from the chapter “It’s Simple, Really: Just Sit Down at the Desk…” Here’s an excerpt:
“Put all the poems in a big pile. Spend numerous hours, scattered over weeks or months or years, sifting through the poems, making piles, arranging and rearranging. Discover that there appears to be both too much and too little order in the poems: some seem mere echoes of each other, others have very little to do with each other. Very gradually begin to puzzle out some kind of plausible order.”
If there’s a place to over-think a poetry collection, I believe it’s in the arrangement of the book. My book Night Court suffered through dozens of reshufflings, poems deleted and re-inserted, moved here and there, the last poem and the first swapped more than once. Or twice.
How do you arrange a poetry collection? Have you discovered a method to ordering poems? If so, please share in the comment section. Thanks!