Putting a collection together
I did a workshop on this with Sally Evans at the Bakehouse in Gatehouse of Fleet recently, but you couldn’t all attend, so I thought I’d post something about it here. I have to say at the outset that this is a very personal view – you may not agree with what I’m what I’m saying here, but I’m going to suggest some things you may want to consider when putting a collection together.
Publishers these days like to see a submission with a mix of published and unpublished poems. It wasn’t always like this; in the past some poets, such as Norman MacCaig, would not publish a poem in a new collection if it had been published earlier in a magazine or newspaper.
How many poems should be in your collection? If it’s a pamphlet, usually 20-odd. If it’s a full collection, it’s normally three or four times that.
Especially for pamphlets, publishers think in 4-page units, because that’s how they’re printed, and you don’t want too many blank pages at the end. Readers think they’re being overcharged if they see that.
Is your collection themed or unthemed? Does it have any sequences in it? They need to be kept together.
Does your collection have an underlying principle, or are there significant thematic links between poems? If so, decide if you want them grouped, or if you’re going to disperse threads throughout the collection.
Poems don’t always have the same dynamic effect: there will be high-impact poems, and others which take the reader over stepping stones to the end of the collection. It’s not a good idea to put all your high-impact poems together. Disperse them. Give the reader a bit of a roller coaster ride. The high-impact ones should be on recto pages, because these are the ones the reader’s attention is drawn to first.
The first poem in a collection should be chosen with great care. It should welcome the reader in. Similarly, the final poem in a collection should signal a goodbye.
The placement of the title poem is interesting. Generally, I don’t like it to be the first poem in a collection, maybe 3rd or 5th – again on a recto.
The shape and size of the poem on each page is significant. Leave white paper round the poems.
Short poems generally occupy single pages, longer ones have double-page spreads.
There are generally four prelim pages in collections: title page, verso, contents page and a blank (which might contain the dedication).
The title page should contain the title, subtitle, the author, publisher and year. Nothing more.
The verso contains the bibliographic information, copyright declaration, statement of author’s rights, acknowledgements, publisher’s address (and printer’s address if applicable), and copyright declarations for illustrators and editors.
Cover design and back cover design are matters of personal preference. The back cover should contain the barcode, ISBN, publisher and price. Other elements might be author biography, quotes by pre-reviewers (these are called ‘shouts’), and maybe an author photo.
If you’re submitting to commercial publishers, look at their websites and see what they want. Some want only a sample of four or five poems, others want the whole manuscript.
If you’re self-publishing, non-standard page sizes, colour printing illustrations etc will add to your costs. Be warned.
And that’s it. Good luck.