James Engelhardt: A Stack of Paper

The first time I tried to put a book of poems together, it was a disaster. I had been writing the things for years, and it’s a natural next step when looking at a stack of paper to think that, well, books are sort of like stacks of paper, only they have a binding. It’s natural to think that, but it’s wrong. 

And it’s wrong in particular ways that can be challenging, but fixing these issues gives your collection—poems, stories, essays—a much better chance for success with a publisher. And I want to be clear that I’m not talking about longer, cohesive works like novels or memoirs. I am only talking about poem, short story, and essay collections.

First, you need a golden thread. At least, that’s what one of my teachers called it. Other teachers call it a spine, or an arc, or some other metaphor for structure. What pulls the reader through? What shape does the collection have? A story, a journey, a struggle with an idea? For example, I’ve been reading Afaa Michael Weaver’s recent poetry book, City of Eternal Spring, in which he struggles with many different versions of his own identity. (He was at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference earlier this year—a tremendous resource!) Not in every poem, but it’s a consistent journey the he takes us on. A collection doesn’t need to reference the architecture with every piece, but the thread should appear consistently—deepening the reader’s engagement and thinking.

The second issue is pretty obvious: Theme. But, like the thread, the theme doesn’t need to show up in every piece. Like the thread, the theme—the writer’s engagement with the theme—should change throughout. If the theme is homesteading, let’s say, the ways that homesteading appears and gets explored should evolve across the collection. Yelizaveta Renfro’s collection of essays, Xylotheque, does exactly this kind of thematic work with trees. They frame each essay, though the pieces explore human relationships and experiences. But the trees surround the reader. 

Third, you need to think about pacing like a mix tape or playlist. Already we have two big ideas moving through the collection, but they don’t have to appear at the same time. Think about how smaller pieces might fit between longer ones to vary the reader’s experience as they move through the book. This strategy caught my attention when reading Zach Falcon’s forthcoming collection, Cabin Clearing Forest. Some of his pieces are just a page or two, allowing readers a moment to catch their breath. Try not to have two ‘80s hair band selections back-to-back is pretty much what I’m saying here. 

Fourth, the resonances. This step might show up during any of the other steps, but it’s a crucial final step—especially if you haven’t been stepping through this step before. Hm. I think that makes sense. Regardless, this idea of resonances is about both surface and depth. As you go through the manuscript, look for useful details that can recur. If there’s winter gear, say, will there be gloves or mittens? If there are birds, which ones? Of course, this work is at the heart of revision (looking for abstractions and making them more solid), but the work of resonance asks you to start looking at those details as opportunities both to polish the surface and to deepen the manuscript by adding subtle connections between the pieces. 

These points all bleed into each other, as I’m sure you can tell. And there are other issues, obviously. I’m sure you can find a host of other issues in books on writing or out in the wilds of the internet. But I hope these points will help you consider that stack of paper on your desk as offering more potential for exploration than you might have thought.

James Engelhardt is the acquisitions editor at the University of Alaska Press and a former managing editor of Prairie Schooner. His scholarly and creative writing appears in numerous literary journals and anthologies.

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