Poetry has been part of my life almost as long as breathing. So, for many years, I’ve been writing poems, buying hundreds of books of poems, reading poetry journals, studying poetry, reviewing books of poems by traditionally published poets, writing about poetry forms and techniques, and working with other poets and writers through consults or critiques.
Having had the privilege of being a freelance and assignment writer for most of my adult life, you might expect me to have several books of poems in print, especially since I’ve stockpiled more poems than Emily Dickinson! But here’s the problem that I, and perhaps other “self-taught poets” encounter – knowing where to start in selecting and arranging poems for a book.
With fiction, this proved to be no problem. I just started with a synopsis, a theme and purpose, and a list of story people and their main character traits.
With nonfiction, this also proved to be no problem. I just started with an outline of the main topic for each chapter, then listed the main points to make under each of those subjects.
With poetry, however, who knows where to begin?
And so I didn’t – for years. Then in 2012, I placed some poems with Written River and discovered the editor/ publisher, Jason Kirkey, also publishes books with an environmental theme. When I asked if he might be interested in a whole book of nature-based poems, he said he’d take a look. Later that year, he published my first full-length book of poetry, Living in the Nature Poem, which today (hallelujah!) was featured as the first Editor’s Choice of the new MicroReviews on Rattle .
How did I get there? After going around in circles with my poems (many of which had encouragingly been published in journals, anthologies, or e-zines) I did a word search in my Word file of poems for ones I’d categorized as “nature.” This showed me I had more than enough poems for a book of poems with a theme of nature, ranging from the nature of nature to the nature of God and almost every living thing in between.
If I had it to do over, I might cut a dozen or two poems to give me a good start on a second book with this theme. Besides, I’ve learned that some readers only want 60 to 80 poems in a book as this gives a satisfying “read” at one stretch with no left-overs.
Apparently Kelsay Books came to a similar conclusion because that’s their length preference, so when I asked the editor/ publisher if she would consider a book of “Bible people” poems, I put together a manuscript with those length requirements. This helped me to decide what to include and what to omit, while the biblical time frame helped me to arrange the poems in a logical sequence. So, Lord willing, before 2014 ends, Outside Eden will see print along with my easy-to-put-together book of children’s poems, Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, which I’m happy to say, Kelsay Books also accepted.
I still have poems awaiting the trial of assembling a new book, so if you have suggestions or thoughts on how to go about putting together a book of poems, please let us know in the Comments below. But if you’re also living in the poem, you might find, as I do, that selecting and arranging poems is like favoring certain aspects of life to highlight – perhaps those with reader appeal, rather than personal favorites – as we keep on writing through a life of poetry and mystery.
©2014, Mary Harwell Sayler
Living in the Nature Poem, paperback