Emily Wall: Thinking in Books

I got word this week that six of my new poems are going to be published as a “micro chapbook.” I’d never heard of this term until a friend back East introduced me to the Origami Poems Project. This press has created a unique way to publish small books. They have designed books that consist of a single sheet of paper. They publish your micro-chapbook with a limited run which they share at events and in several venues, but also put up on their website. They post folding/cutting directions as well, so the idea is that anyone can download your work and create the small book (“free poetry is our mantra”). I’ve downloaded and created several and absolutely love them. For Poem in Your Pocket Day I carried around an entire book in my back pocket.

One of the things I loved most about putting together my submission to them was thinking of six poems being an actual book. When I first started writing poems years ago I didn’t write with the idea of book in mind, I just wrote. Even with my first collection Freshly Rooted, I didn’t set out to create a book. I just wrote for years and one day realized I had enough poems, all on roughly the same themes, to create a book. Then I sat down for a few months and worked out a way to organize them. Ever since that book came out, I’ve been surprised and interested to see that I don’t work that way any more. Even when drafting a single poem, I’m thinking book—how will this fit into a collection? How will it shape the book? Is it repeating other poems? Does it create counterbalance to the work I already have? Those larger book questions become part of the revision process along with considerations about diction, syntax, image, music, etc.

Writing and organizing my second book was such a different process. I knew from the beginning, when I was sitting on the deck of my sailboat drafting poems, that these would form a collection. I didn’t know exactly what it would look like, and it went through some pretty major revisions, but it was always a book. I do wonder if that kind of thinking limits the work—does it force me to work more narrowly? Or does it help me explore all the aspects of a single idea/time and place/theme?

One of the things I enjoyed most about that book was finding the order of the poems. I attended a panel at AWP on poetry book organization that really made me think through organizing strategies. One of the things they talked about was looking at poems in groups of three. The poem we read just before this one shapes our reading of this one, and the one after reflects back on this poem. When I had the poems finished for the book, I laid them all out on my office floor and spent weeks grouping them into threes and thinking about the way each poem shaped the ones next to it. Ever since then, I’ve thought of small groups of poems as parts of books, or “runs” instead of just a single poem.

When I heard about Origami Poems I wondered how I would choose six. I’m working on a third book now, and had thought maybe it could have a chapbook first—12 – 15 poems, as is standard. But six seemed like a real challenge. Could I take six poems and create a book out of them? I didn’t want this to be just a random collection of poems. I spent all of last week reading others’ examples and they have done a beautiful job of this. Six poems can give us such an intimate and haiku-like moment. I’ve always loved haiku for the way they can focus us way down, and these micro chapbooks do exactly this.

I love moments like this in the writing life—when a wonderful idea by another poet wakes me up to entirely new ways of thinking, revising, and writing. If you haven’t checked out the Origami Poems Project, do so. And I hope you’ll think of small groupings of your own poems—three or six or whatever number you choose—as micro books, as intense, rich moments of your larger collection of work.

Emily Wall is a poet and an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau. She has been published in a wide variety of literary journals and has won several poetry prizes. Her second book of poems, Liveaboard was published in February of 2012. Her first book, Freshly Rooted came out in 2007. Both books are published by the Irish Press Salmon Poetry. Emily lives and writes in Juneau, Alaska. You can find her online at: www.emily-wall.com

1 thought on “Emily Wall: Thinking in Books”

  1. Congratulations, Emily! That sounds like a great project. My kids and I love making "magic books" by folding paper. I'm so looking forward to seeing yours!

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