Editing your poetry collection is an exciting process that involves gathering your beautiful poems and arranging them until they become a book that you’ll hold in your hands. It’s a process that’s quite different from the magical experience of writing poems. To create a poetry collection, you’ll have to put on your editor’s hat and think about the collection as a whole rather than just as individual poems.
There are two main ways that poetry books are arranged and organized for publication. The traditional way poetry books are arranged are as a collection of a poet’s best work. This arrangement works well for established poets who already have an audience because readers are searching for more poems from these well-known authors. This arrangement also works if you’re going to self-publish, and you want to introduce readers to your poetry.
However, if you’re looking to distribute your book with a traditional publishing house or press, you’ll need to consider that nowadays most books for emerging poets are thematically arranged. This means that the poems in the book are all organized around a central theme. For example, every single poem in Nikita Gill’s collection Great Goddesses is about retelling classic Greek mythology from a feminist perspective. For emerging poets, it’s better to begin with a thematic collection and then once you’re more established, you can do a “best-of” collection.
Below is a step-by-step strategy for turning your groups of poems into a book of poetry.
STUDY THE STRUCTURE OF POETRY BOOKS
The first step to understanding the structure of poetry books is to study how other poets have arranged their books. For example, a few years ago for Valentine’s Day, I purchased Love Poems by Pablo Neruda. All the poems in this collection were selected with a specific concept that unifies the book: love poems that Neruda wrote to Matilde Urrutia on the paradise island of Capri. The poems are sensual and erotic, and I turn to them when I want romantic inspiration. That’s the power of a thematic collection: It can focus a writer’s or reader’s energy on a specific topic.
If I want to learn more about free verse poetry, I’ll open up my E.E. Cummings Selected Poems. A best-of collection can help readers attain a greater grasp of the depth and scope of the poet’s work and doesn’t limit the collection to a central theme.
PRINT YOUR POEMS
I’m a big proponent of having creative works in tangible form in order to appreciate them more. Printing the poems will give you a physical and emotional grasp of your book. It will also help you decide the order in which to arrange the poems. You could just look at them on Microsoft Word, but printing them will give you a more effective idea of how the book will actually look and feel in a reader’s hands. It’s also easier to move the poems around if you have them printed.
ARRANGE THE POEMS
Sit on the floor or grab a large table, and spread the poems in piles and by themselves. You will need a lot of space to see how the poems can be grouped and put into different sections. Even though you’re organizing, this process can be messy and fun.
If this is a thematic collection, choose only the best poems that relate to the theme of the book. If this is a best-of collection, choose poems that flow well next to each other. Also, consider varying the length and style of the poems. This means that if you included a three-page poem that was complex and intricate, you can use a shorter poem right after it: This will give your reader time to pause and reflect.
As for the style of the poem, you could vary it by including lyric poems and narrative poems as well as prose poems or formal poems. Of course, this is dependent on and specific to the kind of book you’re writing. You could have an entire collection of only lyric poems if that would better develop the theme, but in general, it’s good to vary the kinds of poems you include to keep the book interesting and to avoid redundancy.
Lastly, decide if you want to structure your book into sections or no sections. And if you include sections, make sure each section is relatively the same length as the other sections and that you provide titles or Roman numerals to separate the sections.
EDIT THE POEMS
After you arrange your collection, read the whole book and try to imagine that you are not the author, but just a reader that grabbed the book at a bookstore and was suddenly entranced by the title and its subject. This emotional distance will help you decide which poems need to be removed and which poems need to be revised. You may even need to write new poems to develop the theme of your book.
Whenever you edit anything, whether an article or a book, you have to look at the work from an editor’s perspective. A good strategy for letting go of what is no longer serving the book is to tell yourself that you can publish those poems later: either individually or in another book. Sometimes, the impulse for emerging writers is to include everything, and that’s not going to be in service of the book. Remember that publishing houses and presses have guidelines on the length of manuscripts, so keep this in mind when arranging the book.
Editing a book is a process that takes time, patience, and determination, but the results are worth it. Soon, you’ll hold your book in your hands and be able to share it with a publisher and with the world!