I’ve never thought about them so carefully before.
That sounds daft. I work with people putting first pamphlet collections together all the time. Which poem comes first is important, and the choice is never accidental.
But this was different. Last week, I was at Lumb Bank (I have never been before) with a group of poets thinking about how they might put together a first pamphlet or book. (I was tutoring for the Arvon Foundation with Helen Tookey, poet and managing editor for Carcanet Press).
You know that bit you see on people’s bio at the back of magazines: Pansy Piffledunk is working towards her first collection?
I’ve always wondered about ‘working towards’. It’s not the same as ‘walking towards’ or ‘wandering towards’. It has a sense of determination and direction. Pansy Piffledunk knows where she’s going. These days Pansy Piffledunk also has an ‘overarching theme’. She is working towards a first collection based around an imaginary group of miners' mothers in the lost Goose Egg Gold Mine of El Dorado County.
But I don’t want to mock her. Not really. We all aspire to a degree of Piffledunk. It’s not unreasonable to feel one should be ‘working’ rather than ‘wandering’, even if the reality is different. And looking closely at first poems was fascinating, especially for someone like me who usually opens the book at the back.
We looked together at the opening poem of Niall Campbell’s new book Moontide. People loved its setting and atmosphere – the image of lighting a match in a grain store. A couple of them went away to buy the book. Lots of opening poems seem to be in some way or other about the act of writing poems (buried in metaphor).
I found an original 1992 volume of Simon Armitage’s Kid, in the Lumb Bank library, with its weird opening narrative about a man who comes to stay (alive) and leaves very much dead. And what about the haunting opener to Tara Bergins’ This is Yarrow? I won’t forget it. Another book I have to read the rest of.
During the week, although we did discuss opening poems and (briefly) structure of first collections, we mainly agreed (though we didn’t put it quite like this) that ‘wandering towards’ was okay. Wandering via the best possible poems you can write. Themes might turn out to have been arching over. Or not. Doesn’t matter really.
What does matter, if one has publication in mind, is understanding how publisher/editors think and feel. (They do have feelings.)
Writing poems is one thing. (A privilege and a joy.) Getting them published (if that’s the right choice) is another.
But poetry publishing is not a mystery. It’s not hard to find out how it works, and then plot a route towards a destination. Not half as hard as writing poems.
Pansy believes a publisher will take an interest in her work – such a keen interest that said publisher will invest time and money in making her book available to The World. She may not have noticed that the publisher’s also engaged in a creative task. She or he is working towards (and never ever arriving at) making a whole imprint come together. If Pansy isn’t interested in what the publisher is creating (except in so far as it concerns herself), why will the publisher (who doesn’t need any more poets anyway) be interested in her?
(Because my poems are so good, of course, says Pansy.)
I know I’ve used far too many brackets in this blog entry. Half of what I think these days is in parenthesis. (I don’t care.)
(I have been away for nine days. In my absence, the Christmas cactus has gone berserk. Things bloom when I am not here.
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Lots of opening poems seem to be in some way or other about the act of writing poems (buried in metaphor)
Ted Hughes' The thought fox' has a lot to answer for, methinks. Maybe, in an age where aspirant-poets are kind of thick on the ground, they deem it appropriate, first and foremost, to justify 'doing' poetry at all. Or maybe it just is the case, that 'Poetic self-deconstruction began in 1954, just before the Beatles, and not long after the War?!
No. I didn't mean to make it sound as though the first poem was some kind of justification. That wasn't it at all.
Or even obviously about the act of writing. I don't mean to over-simplify this.
All the first poems we looked at were, in their many dramatically different ways, good first poems. And also good poems.
Sometimes the positioning of the poem alone makes it somehow echo the act of opening the book. It might be a metaphor, of a kind, just by sitting on page 1.
Thanks for sending me back to Moontide and the first poem - I read it with heightened perception. I also usually start at the back of the book, remembered 'the light being always on his back' so it was good to enter the grain store again. I wonder if other people know which is going to be the first poem - it is much more difficult if you are away with a theme I guess!
I just want an opening poem that says "Hwæt!". It needn't shout it - probably best if it doesn't. Perhaps any poem put in that position will have a declamatory nature attributed to it, just as any final poem in a collection will be read as somehow elegiac. It would be interesting to swap opening and closing poems around and see how they're perceived.
I think 'Hwæt!' could be arranged...