Poets & Writers

Order Out of Chaos

IF YOU follow any number of poets on social media, you’ve probably seen a version of this photo: the pages of a collection in progress, spread across the floor or perhaps taped on a wall. Sometimes it’s an orderly line across the room, sometimes a flurry of printer paper, sometimes a spiral. Often there’s a cat and a joke about its editorial feedback. But what exactly are those poets doing? How does a whole bunch of poems, printed out and arrayed in space, become a book?

I’ve been obsessed with this question since the first time I tried to order the poems of a manuscript, in my final semester of college, when my best friend and I decided that the morning after we’d thrown a big party in our cheap, large off-campus apartment was the perfect moment to revise our senior theses. (I’m thankful that, back then, we did not have smartphones or social media to document the sticky cups or ashtrays we pushed out of the way to make room for the poems that stretched across the couch to the coffee table and onto the floor.) Since then I’ve published a book and a chapbook, and I’ve read for chapbook and book contests, so I’ve seen many, many approaches to making order out of the chaos of a group of poems.

The advice I’ll offer here is all underpinned by an argument that the poetry book should be more than just a shuffling-together of the best fifty or so poems you’ve written so far. Instead the poems should sit deliberately together to create a world. Together,

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