It seems as young poets, we are searching for the secret decoder ring or the secret handshake that will allow us to have our books noticed and published in the world of poetry contests. Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems offers essays from eleven poets with advice on how to order a poetry manuscript. The books is an interesting hodgepodge of advice where one poet suggests placing all your poems on the floor and seeing what kind of theme emerges for a book (a suggestion that returns essay after essay) and another essay contradicting that idea. Ah yes, advice from poets! How different we are.
As someone who is currently ordering my second collection of poems, I find myself underlining large parts of certain poets’ essays and none in others. One of the best essays is by Liz Rosenberg. What makes Rosenberg’s essay stand out is that she speaks honestly and has faith in the poet’s own intuition. She writes, “Beyond the aspect of creating a journey, I have very little system for putting together a book. It is an intuitive process (17).” Later she adds, “Like most young writers, I spent years asking others for their opinions, and learning how little is to be gained by it. No one else can teach you how to be more of yourself” (19). Still, even with her belief that poets should look inward, Rosenberg does offer suggestions for creating a full-length collection of poems. She prefers sections because she feels it give her “permission to tell many stories.” She believes, “You sacrifice individual poems for the sake of the book as a whole. You find your tics. Your tricks” (18).
Rosenberg’s suggestions seem close to my own feelings. While I believe mentors and friends can offer ideas or suggestions while putting a book of poems together, as poets we need to rely on our own inner vision, even if it seems misaligned with what others feel. As Albert Goldbarth once told me, “Art is not a Tupperware party.” We each have our quirks and own unique ideas about things and we need to trust those feelings inside of us.
The organization of poems is highlighted more in this book than ideas on how to title your manuscript, however Beckian Fritz Goldberg touches on this subject briefly. I wish more poets had explored this subject as naming my own manuscript has always been much more difficult for me than trying to name someone else’s collection. Mostly, I feel too close to what I’ve created. Just as it was extremely difficult for me to come up with a name for my daughter, it’s just as difficult for me to name a collection of poems. But Goldberg offers this on the subject: “Taking the time to select a title for the book that conveys some metaphoric property or governing tone is an integral part of structuring a volume of poems. . .It’s difficult to construct a book around a vague or generic title even if it’s cloaked with meaning for the author (49).” She also suggests not having one word titles, a suggestion I find too broad to make given the many poetry manuscripts in the world.
This brings me to the issue and praise I have for the book—it’s impossible to give good poetry advice for everyone, yet these are some rules that mostly apply, such as avoid vague or generic titles and to group poems together with similar themes. However, there are some ideas that may not work for all such as “a book of poems should have a dramatic arc” and stay away from one-word titles. Ordering The Storm reminds me how personal and subjective poetry is. I am reminded that what we each create comes from a difference place based on our own unique experiences. As I read this book, I find ideas that work for me and ideas I feel resistant to—and both can allow me explore my own ideas for what I feel creates a strong poetry collection.