Ada Limón on how to write a collection of poems ‹Literary Center

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One would think that I would now know how to make a book of poems. Apparently I have written six books of poetry. But books are still a mystery to me. I begin, as most poets do, with one poem at a time. I make a poem and then stare at the frighteningly bright world, convincing myself that I will never make a poem again. Then I somehow surprise myself and make another poem. I have learned, despite all the protests of the blood, to trust the process. So too when poems do not come. Although I have been silent for a long time, I think poems will return to me eventually.

But how does a book of poems become a book? How to make a book out of pages with individual poems written over a number of years? This is still difficult to explain. But I will try, and most likely fail, to convey how I have done it. But first a warning: everyone makes books differently, everyone makes poems differently. There is no one way, no right way, only the way that brings you pleasure, the way that makes all the poems vibrate and pulsate on the pages.

I used to think that making poetry books was about collecting everything I had ever written and then cutting things out. But that is not entirely true. I have written a lot. And if all the poems I compiled went into my books, the books would become inflated mess of repeated chaos that would only confuse a frustrated reader. What I do, instead of collecting all the poems I have ever written, is to start by collecting the poems I am attached to in some way. Now this can be difficult if your relationship to your work is particularly antagonistic. (We’ll have to save that conversation for another essay.) But I start with poems that mean something to me that somehow feel important. I call these “anchor” poems.

From there, I begin to build on these anchor poems. I look for which poems speak to these “anchor” poems, even if it is to disagree or contradict – at least they are in conversation. During this process, it is important that I consider poems that do different things aesthetically. I am interested in when a series of musical shifts, lyrical considerations, sonic disturbances, and narrative impulses can all coexist in the same script. Sometimes I insert poems that do not necessarily “fit” into something, but I simply like them for some reason.

After I have a collection of e.g. 25-40 poems, I start to ask myself if there are any threads that connect these poems. In my notebook, I write simple words that keep popping up for me as I read, “Animals, excitement, isolation, connectedness, ancestry, love, sorrow.” The words can be abstractions and they do not have to be precise or precise. Yet they give me a feeling, a mood, a world in which the work lives.

No matter how you make your book, you should be willing to change it, change it, write more, move it in the direction you want to move it.

Then the really exciting part happens. I start building the book, not just by organizing, but by writing. While I used to think that making poetry books was about cutting, I now think it’s about writing, about making. I’m starting to add more poems that I’ve already written that speak to the words that I’ve written out, and then I want to ask myself the big questions: If this was really a book, what do I omit then? What have I been afraid to write about? What would I like to be sure was on these pages if this were published?

With those questions in mind, I start writing more poems. Sometimes it takes years. Sometimes I only add two or three poems over a few months. Sometimes I find old drafts and edit for several months to make sure the poem is ready to go in the book. This is for me the most exciting part. To take encouragement from my own work, my own life. To imagine what the book needs is to imagine what I need is to imagine what poem I have avoided or perhaps not written because I considered it an unimportant image to explore. This feels like “the right job.” The part where the book gathers begins to take shape, begins to move like a whole living thing.

Of course, there are wonderful poets out there who could probably empty a desk drawer between two book flaps and have something earth-shattering ingenious. But not everyone can be so lucky. I need some time to make my books. Most importantly, I want to feel that the book is meaningful to me, that it means something to me. When I have made something that resonates with me as a poet, as the person behind the work, I begin to share it with my dear first readers. When I’m ready to send it out, I want the book to feel coherent, well-crafted, and as well-attended as one long poem.

Who knows, the next book I write might be made in a completely different way. No one can predict the creative process, and I hope I always grow as an artist and as a human being, but right now I feel strongly that no matter how you make your book, you should be willing to change it, change it, write more , to move it in the direction you want it to move. Make it something completely your own, make it something you want to offer, no matter how long it takes, make it something you want to read.

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