More Thoughts On The Book: How Does One Teach Another To Write A Book of Poetry

First, I have to say, I’m glad to be blogging again with some amount of regularity.

OK. Continuing on from yesterday’s post on book, surely we all do this because of our love for the book, for print, for poetry books in print. I am also thinking about the ongoing conversations in grad poetry workshop. I am loving the realizations my students are making as they go through this process of creating cohesive bodies of work. This is why I conduct workshop as I do, in order for emerging poets to come to recognize their poetics, and in order for their colleagues and peers to also come to recognize one another’s poetics, both of these more easily facilitated when handling larger bodies of work (versus individual poems spread out over time). How to recognize one’s own tendencies and instincts, and having come into that awareness and recognition, how to go about honing, clarifying, and building. How to proceed in a more informed manner.

This does not preclude beautiful poetic accidents and surprises. This is about clarifying a work ethic.

So this all sounds like it should be common sense, but outside of these specific classroom settings, I am still struck by the insistence upon what I will call a myth, that the poem and that poetry is pure mystery that eludes and transcends all explanation. That a poem can only be gazed upon with wonder and bewilderment, that any critical explanation strips away the beauty of the poem. That’s the myth.

Indeed, poetry does strike us in ways that are challenging to articulate, precisely because poetry appeals to our humanity and deep soul searching selves. This is a beautiful thing, and a major reason why I have chosen poetry as my vocation and vehicle. “First, a poem must be magical,” wrote Jose Garcia Villa, and I know that poetry, poetic lines, phrases, fragments, images, stay with us and perhaps even change us somehow. That is magical.

Poetry is, as Luis J. Rodriguez has said, a special and intense use of language, a very important way of using language to communicate what is sacred, and then by the same logic, what is also transgressive and/or blasphemous. All of these adjectives — sacred, transgressive, blasphemous — indicate social structures and social settings. This is not hermetic or abstruse to me. This is about communities of human beings and meaningful communication between human beings in social/shared spaces. Poetry hits us deeply, precisely because it speaks to our lived experience, things we are constantly trying to know, to understand, and to name.

That said, the book as a body of work which is doing what I’ve described above. That’s an ambitious and daunting task we set upon ourselves. But isn’t this why we do it, precisely because it is not cheap and easy, because the hard work and the results are indeed meaningful to our soul searching selves. Even the impulse to “simply” tell a story indicates to me something about communicating human experience and relating to others in important and necessary ways.

I don’t know that I am really saying anything new about how to teach another poet how to write a book or create a body. These are just some things I think when I work with emerging poets, that communicating the many layers of complex experiences is indeed challenging and something for which to strive. That the clarifying happens with each precise word choice, each precise formal decision we make, in its appearance on the page, its symmetries and repetitions, in its orality, in its movement from the opening of the body and through the body, from one poem into the next, into the next, into the ending and its many possibilities beyond the body and back into the world. That there are no easy resolutions and neat tie-ups, and that to claim otherwise would be cheapening.

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Barbara Jane Reyes

Author of Gravities of Center, Poeta en San Francisco, and Diwata. Adjunct professor in Philippine Studies at University of San Francisco.

3 Comments

  1. One of the things I’ve done periodically, over the years I’ve been writing poems, is to take ten or fifteen or twenty poems I particularly like by other poets (usually one or two poems per poet), and I pretend I’m compiling a small anthology, and I play around with finding what I think is the most effective sequence of the poets and poems. I’ve done this now and then, even though I’ve never actually edited an anthology for publication.

    I’ve continued doing this because it’s good practice. It’s a useful kind of exercise for training my ear, to listen for things like affinity or contrast between poems, how one poem follows another, the repetition of images and themes, a consistency (or lack of consistency, which is sometimes preferable) of flow and rhythm from one poem to another. * I’ve found it especially useful to practice this with poems by other poets, because I’m not as emotionally invested in the poems as I’m likely to be with my own.

    In a sense this is a fairly limited “mechanical” or technical aspect of writing poems, though maybe not just that. It has, without a doubt, helped me when I’ve been putting together books of my own poems. To sense the larger underlying geometric structure of sequence and movement of the poems, taken as a whole and as individual poems.

    (This week I received from my publisher the galleys for the next book of my poems that we’re doing. I’ll be diving deep into proofreading for a couple of weeks now. The things you’re talking about in this post, and in the preceding one, are much on my mind at the moment.)

    Nearly 30 years ago I found the anthology Friends, You Drank Some Darkness,, translations by Robert Bly by three 20th century poets of Sweden. One of them was Tomas Transtromer. In his introduction, Bly told how Transtromer’s books tended to be fairly “skinny,” containing not a large number of poems — his first three books, published over a period of 12 years, contained a total of 52 poems. Bly commented that this would be six months’ work for many American poets. Transtromer however had managed to build a considerable reputation in the literary world of Europe by quietly persisting and writing his poems.

    I liked the intelligence of the approach, and to some degree it’s been a kind of model or path I’ve used with my own books. All of the books of my poems that I’ve published, during the upwards of 40 years that I’ve been writing, have had between 10 and 20 poems in them. The kind of book often called a chapbook, though I’ve tended to avoid the distinction when I talk about my own books — my feeling is that a book of poems is full-length when it has enough poems in it. (The forthcoming book will be larger, a retrospective.)

    All of my books have been published in very small print runs, a few hundred copies or (with the more recent ones) 100 or 200 copies. Although this inevitably limits the books in one sense — it’s hard to “market” a book that’s been published in such a small number of copies — at the same time, the small print run in a way also extends the life of the book. The copies sell (or give away) more slowly, in smaller numbers. Once in a while somebody buys (or finds one way or another) a copy of one of my books that was published twenty or thirty years ago. This is a kind of life for the poetry.

    • Hi Lyle, I like that practice of compiling others’ poems into some kind of “anthology.” It does say something about how we think of grouping poems, and even though initially we may not be able to articulate the connections between those poems, with time and reflection I think we do start to find the words. I think this is useful practice for poets both emerging and established, as even we established poets are continually growing and evolving our poetics.

      I too like what you say about full-length meaning complete as a collection, regardless of the actual page number. I think about my current chapbooks, which are as complete as they can be – for now. If they grow as I grow, then I should be open to that and allow it.

      I love that poetry’s life can indeed be long, and also that it can, after a time, be found again and “resurrected.” Though “resurrected” is not exactly what I mean. Maybe that poetry can reemerge.

  2. Possibly the most important thing for smart people to understand is that intellect, creativity, spirit or what you will are not enough. Self-discipline and hard work are step one for doing anything worthwhile. Creative activities are not exempt from this rule. Lyle’s post is a wonderful practical application of this principle.

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