Monday, March 31, 2008

How to Title a Poetry Manuscript or How Not To Live in the Monkey House

Yesterday, I emailed some poet friends of mine for their thoughts, gut reaction, and feedback on some titles for my manuscript I was considered.

It's been a fascinating process for me. Immediately, 3 titles took the lead. Then later, the 2 that were behind began to catch up. Now there is one title in the lead, one in second place and a three way tie for 3rd.

I will tell you titles my manuscript won't be-- Four White Damselflies or Inky Misled Icons. These were the two titles that turned most people off (and the fastest). Four white damselflies refers to the last stanza in my poem "Notes from a Dream Psychic" --

Your lucky number is four.
Your power color is white.
Your psychic insect is the damselfly.

While "inky misled icon" is an anagram for Emily Dickinson.

The other six are still in the running, though I'm slowly ruling one out. One interesting thing is that people have liked what I originally titled it, the title I started to worry about then changed about three months ago.

It seems ridiculous to me that I've gotten so close to the titles of my manuscript that I'm no longer sure what sounds like a good title and what is a disaster. It reminds me of one of the last Project Runway shows where Chris decides his final outfits will all be adorned with human hair. Tim Gunn says to him something like, "When you first enter into the monkey house in the zoo, you think, 'Oh my god, this place stinks!' And after you're there for 20 minutes, you think, 'It's not so bad.' And after you're there for an hour, it doesn't smell at all! But anybody else coming into the monkey house freshly thinks, 'Oh my god, this stinks!' You've been living in the monkey house." Anyway, I needed a reality check to make sure I wasn't in the monkey house and this seemed to be the way.

What I hope comes from this is a better idea what works and the realization that a manuscript can have more than one *right* titles. One poet friend told me that a well-known poet used to send the same manuscript out to different places with different titles.

For me, I'm realizing how the title changes each version of the manuscript. I find that some of the poems under title 1, do not work under title 2 and have to be deleted or replaced. It helps me look at my manuscript as a whole and decide what "story" I want to share with the others. It also shows me the bigger role for the title and how it pulls a selection of poems together.

Basically, once I choose a title, I go through my manuscript poem by poem and ask myself "Does this poem work with the title?" If it doesn't, if there is no connection, then the poem is pulled.

I think the reason I find myself struggling with a book title (I struggled with the title of my first book too and naming my daughter) is that it seems too big. This is what it will always be known for. However, titles somehow become themselves. I remember when the show "Everyone Loves Raymond" comes out and I thought, well, that's awful. When you say it enough, hear it enough, it doesn't seem so bad...(sort of like living in the monkey house), but I guess the good news is everyone eventually ends up in the monkey house with you. So perhaps, the nerves about titles should just be set aside with a more meditative "There are no wrong titles" belief.

Some of my favorite titles off the top of my head?

Miracle Fruit by Aimee Nez
Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky
The Cartographer's Tongue by Susan Rich
Famous by Kathleen Flenniken
The Island of Lost Luggage by Janet McAdams
Seven Notebooks by Campbell McGrath

These books however proved themselves by being great books of poems besides just having a great title. Both J9 and I bought the same book (The Search Engine) because of the title, then found we weren't as delighted with the poems.

So it's a good reminder, that in the end, as in life, it's what inside that matters. A bad title can be made better by good content, and a good title can evaporate if there is no substance.

By the way, if you're interested in seeing the titles I'm considering for my next book email me (kelli (at) agodon . com) and I'll send you the titles so you can choose your favorite. And let me know if I'm in the monkey house, or if hopefully, I left the monkey house long ago.

1 comment:

Lyle Daggett said...

As I was reading your post, I kept thinking of Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Welcome to the Monkey House," which is about very different subject matter though in a way seems related to what you're talking about here. One of the things I think the story is about is not being afraid to get down in the mud and sweat with other people. About rejoicing in that.

Some of my favorite titles of books of poems:

Sleepers Joining Hands by Robert Bly

The Branch Will Not Break by James Wright

O Taste and See by Denise Levertov

The Rescued Year by William Stafford

Too Bright to See by Linda Gregg

The Stone of Language by Anya Achtenberg

Map to the Next World by Joy Harjo

Movie at the End of the World by Thomas McGrath

Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note by Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka)

Hard Country by Sharon Doubiago

The Secret Meaning of Things by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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