Working towards a collection of poems

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.


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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.

 

 

 

 


 

Should certain words be banned from poems?

There’s a debate on Magma poetry magazine’s blog about whether certain words, e.g. shards, should be banned from poems.  This stems from Peter Sansom’s book on writing poetry, which suggests certain words have become so over-used they are rendered meaningless.  Other words such as gossamer, palimpsest, lozenge, lambent, shimmering, have been suggested.  Doubtless, that list could be longer.

As some have pointed out, Seamus Heaney, who has been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, uses shards in his collection “Human Chain” so if he didn’t get the memo, then poets shouldn’t concern themselves with being in the know and avoiding certain words.  There were also concerns poetry could become divisive with those who have read the book and know about “banned” words becoming divided from those who haven’t read the book or have read the book and use the “banned” words anyway. 

Additional concerns such as who chooses which words get “banned” weren’t aired but would arise.  Poetry already has gatekeepers such as editors, publishers, competition and award judges, who select what gets published, praised and given prizes.  To some, these gatekeepers already make poetry look like an exclusive club.  To add more gatekeepers who choose the “banned” words would be extremely unhelpful.

However, discussions on whether or not certain words should be used or not miss the point.  The real problem isn’t the words themselves, but what they represent. 

If you read poetry widely, you’ll be aware that some words seem to be repeated in different poems by different poets, as if the words have suddenly become trendy.  Sometimes this is down to synchronicity: it’s not unusual for poets to write on similar subjects or be inspired by the same media report or documentary.

Sometimes, however, it’s laziness.  A writer grabs the first word that comes to mind or the first one that offers a good fit.  Then fails to go back and ensure that it really is the best fit, in terms of rhythm, sound and meaning.  Often the first word that comes to mind is the cliché or the common word of every day vocabulary.  Whilst I’m not suggesting that poems should be stuffed with exotic words that have readers reaching for their dictionaries, I am suggesting poets should be sure that every word in a poem earns its place.  On occasion, shards will be the only word that will fit, but poets need to explore alternatives before settling with their choice of words.

Personally, I’m not in favour of banning words.  Trends come and go and avoiding words like “shards” may help you get published now, but won’t guarantee you’ll still be read in years to come.  The poems that endure will be the ones where the poets used the best words that offered the best fit so the poem rewards re-reading.

Signing off now until the New Year.