Fig. 1: What themes can you guess these chapbooks have, based on the cover art choices?
Once you have the poems for your chapbook, and you have an idea of what theme or common element unites them, the next step is to order the pieces.
Good ordering is the difference between a series of separate poems and a single body of work. Ordering makes the individual poems come together to create a larger entity. Ordering can also be used to invoke a certain meaning in the text, or to create a certain experience for your reader. That is to say, through ordering, you are leading your readers through your poems.
This is something that editors are looking for in a chapbook manuscript—does the ordering create a natural flow between pieces? Are the pieces working together?
There are many approaches to ordering your chapbook, and you’ll have to decide what ordering makes the most sense for your specific project. But here are some strategies to consider:
- Start with your strongest poems at the beginning and end. Hook the reader! If the first poem doesn’t engage them, it’s likely they won’t keep reading.
- Diversify length of poems. That is to say, don’t have all your long or short poems together. Mix it up.
- Sections can help organize multiple themes or ideas in your book. Be careful in your use of sections though—it should help organize the poems, but not break up the overall momentum.
- Have poems with similar or continuing ideas flow into each other. (For good examples of this, check out Ocean Vuong’s Burnings)
- Do certain poems have content that inform the reading of other poems? If so, make sure the ordering gives appropriate information at the appropriate time.
- Is there a certain narrative you’re telling? Do you want to tell them in chronological order, or is it better for them to be ordered by another factor?
- Strong, engaging opening that creates some sort of tension
- Build up to a climax
- a decision is made, resolution
Now again, I talk about this in narrative terms, but this structure can also to apply to abstract concepts. Regardless of content, there is a certain emotional energy behind your poems, an energy that if harnessed will create an investment in your reader—not unlike the investment created in a reader of a novel. An interesting example of traditional narrative structure manifesting itself in a chapbook is The Fifteenth Station, and how the gradual breaking down of format creates a certain narrative tension.
Another strategy to consider is a complete annihilation of order. I’m not saying to toss your poems together randomly, but that there are opportunities to highlight the power of ordering by choosing a medium that has no order. An example of this is Eric Suzanne’s Riding SideSaddle*, which is a work of interchangeable flashcards, allowing readers to create their own narrative with each read.
The cool thing about chapbooks is that they’re printed by small presses, and small presses aren’t in it for the money but for standing behind work they believe in. This means that chapbooks can take risks, reinvent what it means to be a “book”, and do something that hasn’t been done before. While I’m not suggesting that every chapbook should test the boundaries of a physical book, it’s cool to know that we as small press poets have that option.
Here I have a series of poems from a published manuscript. I’d like you to try to put them in the original order. This might sound like a strange task, but the poet has put the poems in an order to create a flow of ideas and to create a certain effect. After you’ve tried putting it in order, check out the answer here.
Were you correct? Which poems weren’t in the order you expected? Does it make sense, looking at the actual order, why the poet put them in that order? Or are you confused? Be honest, and use the discussion space to reflect on this experience.
Take 5-8 poems from your manuscript in progress (these can be the same poems from last week or different ones) and put them in an order that makes sense to you. Feel free to include an explanation or rationale for why you put the poems in the order that you did.
Once you’ve submitted your assignment, please respond to at least one of your peer’s submissions. How does the ordering work for you? What effect does it create? Do you recommend a different ordering? If so, why? As always, make sure to have respectful, encouraging and specific answers.
Use the space below to reflect on the ordering exercise. What was the experience like, ordering someone else’s poems? Do you agree with the actual ordering, or not? Why or why not? What factors did you consider when putting them in order? Feel free to use this space in whatever way you’d like to reflect on this experience.
Meg Eden’s work has been published in various magazines, including Rattle, Drunken Boat, Eleven Eleven, and Rock & Sling. Her work received second place in the 2014 Ian MacMillan Fiction contest. Her collections include Your Son (The Florence Kahn Memorial Award), Rotary Phones and Facebook (Dancing Girl Press) and The Girl Who Came Back (Red Bird Chapbooks). She teaches at the University of Maryland. Check out her work at megedenbooks.com.