All entries for January 2007

January 19, 2007

What Does a Title Perform?

What does it do, sitting there on its own like a little crown prince of your continent of writing?

The title offers a first impression to readers. Like it or not, it may tip the balance between your work being read or not, and it might form part of what is graded within a writing course.

You must make your title work as hard as all the words in your piece; harder in fact, for the title is a door for the reader to open, or a little window through which they peer at the interior, an intrigue making them question whether they should enter or take part. A lazy or imprecise title can damn an entire book.

This applies to poems, stories, novels and creative nonfiction. Spend a great deal of conscious time on your titles, and produce many maquettes of it: several versions and variations that you can trial on your fellow writers in your workshops, or your tutors.

Use a working title to begin with, even if you dispense with it later, since evasions like Untitled, Story or Poem carry no charge. You might borrow a phrase from a well-known literary work, but make sure there is a precise resonance between the phrase and your own work; or go through your own piece and locate a phrase that either summarizes it or captures its spirit.

It may be that one of the character’s names, the setting, or the time, contains that spirit too, as might your theme, or some over-riding idea, or trick of structure.

Titles require a reader’s eye, and many titles come to their authors a long time after composing, when writers can become a reader of themselves again.

Choose wisely and, if you do not have that leisure, at least choose precisely.

Playing and Planing Language

January 18, 2007

Shaping a Collection of Poems

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Shorter poems are sometimes set in a sequence, unified by one or more threads, such as narrative, form and theme. This unity need not be frictionless: the shorter poems may be dissonant with each other in some ways. For example, each part might take a different point of view, and the sequence as a whole provides the arena for this variousness.

Taken further, some poets order their collections carefully so that the poems in it, individually and as a whole, resonate in some way with each other and with the title of the book. In this way, the book itself becomes a type of poetic form – although you should be warned that many readers simply and naturally “dip” into a poetry collection rather than read it as they would a novel.

Begin reading your poems with these ends in mind. For example, do some of the poems share the same concerns, or even images, and might they be brought together in some way to make a more powerful piece? Are there leitmotifs in sound between poems that would be clearer if the poems were grouped in some sequence?

By shuffling and reshuffling your poems, is there some kind of narrative running through them, and might this be a sequence, or the best order for your portfolio of coursework, or first collection? If so, what title might illuminate these connections, or even challenge and subvert them?

Writers often use their notebooks as “commonplace books” to collect pieces of writing that impress them, show them something new, or speak to them emotionally and to their own need to write. When you have assembled at least two-hundred poems of these types, make copies of them, and begin looking at them all with the view of creating your own anthology.

What unites them? Are they mostly in form or free verse? What is the gender and background of the authors? Is there a theme or themes? In multiple permutations, try ordering these poems so that they speak to one another in sequence; and ensure the final order has inner logic from a reader’s point of view.

This is excellent practice for examining poems from many angles, and for developing discrimination. You will find it helpful for when you order your own poems into a portfolio, poetic sequence or first collection. Later, should you become a poetry editor (as many poets are, however briefly), this practice will be of use in creating a poetry magazine or a published anthology of poems.

January 2007

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