Someone asked me last weekend if I was thinking of putting a selection of poems on a specific theme together as a pamphlet/collection or whether I would slot the poems amongst others instead. The poems weren’t written as a sequence or written together around a theme but as individual poems.
With my reviewer’s hat on, the advantages of a themed collection are
- It gives a sense of unity to the poems
- It can offer differing viewpoints or issues within the theme
- It gives the poet space to present an argument and support it without becoming didactic or losing reader’s comprehension by becoming too compressed
- It shifts the reading focus from ‘what’s this poem about?’ to how the poem is written
- It tests poetic skill and craft as the poet varies the tone and voice of the poems
- A shorter or pamphlet-length collection can be more effective if there is clear theme to the poems
There are disadvantages too
- There are no surprises: I know what the next poem’s about before I read it
- The poems become predictable and too similar to each other
- Some poems might feel like slight ‘filler’ pieces rather than a poem that had to be written
- Instead of the theme emerging organically from the poems, the poems can feel as if they’ve been written to order
- A full collection can lose effectiveness if there is a clear theme and poems don’t vary from it
- Depending on the theme, the poems might feel as if the poet is virtue-signalling or preaching to the converted instead of saying something new
- The theme becomes restrictive so the poet gets labeled and boxed in as the poet who writes about this theme and this theme only
It’s worth exploring that last point in more detail. Labels can be restrictive and a way of dismissing a writer, “oh, she only writes about x.” Once the expectation that a writer only tackles a specific theme is created, it can lead to rejection of poems that aren’t on that theme. Locking writers into a ghetto doesn’t allow them to develop but traps them into going over the same ground repeatedly. Most writers start because they wanted to explore a theme or issue (even if they didn’t know it when starting out) and go onto to grow into exploring other themes or issues. Many may return to their original theme once knowledge, experience or perspective have grown and this will be an organic growth or a deliberate choice on the writer’s part. Where external forces, e.g. readers, demand a writer stays in their ghetto, it’s very difficult for the writer to move out without fear of losing readers or starting again from scratch possibly under a pseudonym.
Returning to the original question, my answer was that I would slot the poems on a specific theme amongst others rather than pulling them altogether in one pamphlet/collection. I couldn’t quite explain why my instinct was pushing me in that direction. I think I know now. I don’t want to be known as someone who writes on that specific theme. I don’t want to be labelled by that particular theme and if there are future poems on that theme, I want them to be on my terms, not from an external demand.
Leicester Writers’ Club hosts Carys Davies, short story writer and novelist from 7-9pm on Thursday 21 June 2018 at Phoenix Square 4 Midland Street Leicester LE1 1TG. £5 on the door for non-members. More details at Leicester Writers’ Club hosts Carys Davies.