It all sounds so easy. Write poetry. Organize your poetry into book format. Submit chapbook. Profit! Well, maybe not the last one. We all know how much poetry pays. Sometimes it’s tempting to fold poems into paper airplanes and send them out into the world. I favor the “tie a poem to a balloon and send it aloft” method, but that’s bad for the environment.
So, what to do with all those poems? First, print them out. All of them. Even the ones you don’t think will fit into your book. Seeing them in black and white on paper has a whole different value than looking at them on a computer screen. Now that you have a towering stack of poems, start combing through them. First pass, pull out the ones you feel are strongest. Now you have two piles. Make another pass. These are your medium-strong poems. Now you have three piles.
Look through your strongest poems. Is there a theme that leaps out? Are a bunch of poems dealing with family relationships? Pull them out and set them aside. Now comb through your second and third piles to find poems that meet the theme. Put them in the theme pile.
Go through your theme pile, strongest first. What is it you like about them? What intrigues you? Can you sustain the theme through a chapbook of 25 poems? 40? Check out your weaker poems. Do they embrace the theme? Can you rewrite them and make them stronger? Another thing to consider is the arc of your book. Do the poems tell a story? Can you put it in a logical order? Your strongest poem that sets the theme should come first.
Shoot for that 25 poem chapbook first. Make a tight arch, thematically consistent. Got poems left over? see if you can expand the chapbook without weakening what you are trying to say. Many times just looking through your work you are inspired to write more on the theme. Go with that! It means another round of organizing but it can result in a stronger book. Put aside for a week to gain perspective.
You finally get a bunch of poems in an order you think works. Congratulations! Now make copies and give them to your trusted poetry friends. Ask them to address specific questions about arc, theme, and strongest/weakest poems. If you are looking for critique on the poems, ask for that also. Type those questions out, hand the list to them on the top of the stack of poems. Even the best of us get distracted from what we are supposed to be doing. If they are a really good poetry friend, they will be analytical and not try to rewrite your work to their specs. When you get the feedback, go over it carefully. Revise as needed. Remember, suggestions are just that. You are not creating your book by committee.
Are you ready? Organize those poems into a book once more. Arc, theme, strength. Send it out. If there are a lot of rejections, take another look at how you’ve organized your work. Above all, read other chapbooks with work you admire. Examine how your book compares in organization style. Tearing apart and rebuilding is a never-ending process for some people. Others bless it and call it good. It’s up to you. When finished, go forth and write more poems. There’s another chapbook in you waiting to come out.