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How Do Poets Choose a Title For Their Books?

How Do Poets Choose a Title For Their Books?

A title is a tricky thing — trickier still for a collection of already titled things. For a collection of poems, can an individual poem’s title speak to the entire book? What about one piece of one poem — can that speak to the whole? Should a title say what hasn’t yet been said by the poems? Should it focus one’s attention? Should it capture a tone or mood? Should it be long or short? What makes a title memorable? Why does a title fit, and how do you know?

The four books featured here are books I’ve been anticipating for years, and I so admire their titles. obscenity for the advancement of poetry flirts with the technical and leaves you wondering, Will it really be obscene? (The answer is, Yes, it really will.) Some Beheadings shakes the gravity of beheadings with the offhandedness of some, telling you instantly that the ground ahead will be uneven and arresting. Some Say the Lark suggests a communal speaker at odds another communal speaker, and so also suggests, an ambiguity towards truth, and towards knowing itself. Beast Meridian collapses the space between the locality of a border and the vastness of a meridian — well, maybe not before you’ve read some of the poems, but once you begin the book, you will not be able to read the word meridian on the cover without considering borders.

And these are only my thoughts on these titles. In this sampler, I’m thrilled to present the authors’ thoughts on their titles, alongside a poem from each of these books — the poems where their titles appear.

9781938584664_abc93Some Say the Lark
by Jennifer Chang
Alice James Books, October 10

Jennifer Chang: The title is from the aubade scene in Romeo and Juliet. Act III, Scene V.

I had long thought I was writing about discourse. To write a poem in English—or to write an American poem—involves entering into existing discourses while trying to make new ones. Plus, so many poems grew out of conversations I’d been having with lifelong friends and friends in passing, with strangers and teachers (formal and provisional), and most of all with women. Conversations, like poems, arise out of inquiry, deepen with detail and story, and digress. For me, conversation is one of the ways I think and can be remarkably creative. Rarely does a good conversation resolve, but it often leads to clarity, shifts in perspective, or a new language for thinking through an old question.

When Juliet insists it is the nightingale and not the lark singing, she isn’t merely engaging in erotic discourse. She’s conjecturing a different world, one where her love is not illicit and she is free to determine her fate. She explains: “Some say the lark makes sweet division, / This doth not so, for she divideth us.” This is a critique, and that “some” pivots on a fundamental doubt about conventional thought. “Some” people make a lot of decisions that curtail our freedom. “Some” people have decided all the rules before we’ve had our say.

As a title, then, Some Say the Lark highlights Juliet’s romantic imagination as a critical imagination. There’s a lot of freedom to her willful misreading of birdsong. It’s a powerful creative act, and it’s an expression of her authority.

Episteme 12

two radish leaves tell me spring has come

I sat in the nightfield
to better articulate
the stars I pretended to hate the stars

now rain
reading me well

pine quills on the western path

the hemlock clarity
of the grove the first

radishes of the season
distant traffic

outpacing my thoughts
I have one thought

a Socratic question
why jack-in-the-pulpit

in the tyranny of ailanthus trees

I bite the bitter root
of love

I unstitch rain
from waxflowers
monkshoods if loving were

the august truth
white rage hard flesh the skylark

is more hardy than the nightingale

9781934819654-Beast Meridian
by Vanessa Angélica Villareal
Noemi Press

Vanessa Angélica Villareal: Beast Meridian took many forms before it became what it is. Part memoir of the traumatic experiences of racism and assimilation from my childhood and adolescence, part ancestral bestiary, part reclamation fairy tale, one comment I got was that this book was over-ambitious, was actually two books, wanted to do too much (“too much” being a note I’ve gotten my whole life). But I knew it had to stay together the way it was, that the cohesion of these three parts was important to its arc, to its way of writing its way out of trauma and confusion, consulting family and ancestry for stories and guidance, and finding its way back, if in an unexpected way, to wholeness. I wrote this book with my intuition, which is to say I would enter a sort of trance and let the language pour out of a dark, churning center in me where I felt something was being stored—a memory, a presence, an image, a place. The language that emerged was a kind of somatic dream language, which I would find later to uncannily line up with stories about my family I’d never heard before, or indigenous words or concepts, or images I’d long forgotten. The original idea I had for my book cover was an elementary school photo of me, torn down the middle to reveal a dark ocean of stars in the tear, symbolizing trauma, the border, the feminine and indigenous practices of looking to the stars for guidance during difficult times. The title poem, “Beast Meridian,” aims to illustrate and give language to that starry place I was writing from: the tear that trauma and borders make in the body that is also the way into intuitive memory, into inherited survival, into suspended temporality to find consolation, wholeness, reunion, return.



pringle-Obscenity-cover-300x450obscenity for the advancement of poetry
by kathryn l. pringle
Omnidawn, October 2017

kathryn l. pringle: The title of the book was born in a workshop led by Stacy Doris several years ago. She asked us to “write the obscene.” When I took this on the only way I could convince myself to write to the obscene was to take it on faith that Stacy was fostering my work by not only challenging my relationship to obscenity but also my relationship to poetry. At the time (and maybe most of the time?) my work was more abstracted and focused on systems and agency than narrative, and I wasn’t sure how I could fit the obscene into it and evoke a reader’s emotions on the gut level (which I think is pretty critical to obscenity). Thus, to remind myself that this was to further my work as a poet and also that it was an assignment and therefore very much like a prescription from my doctor, Obscenity for the Advancement of Poetry became the title for my obscenity work.

So, obscenity for the advancement of poetry: 3 is literally the third poem in a series of sketches interrogating the obscene. Each poem in the book works towards the notion that obscenity is in the eye of the beholder. Personally, I think obscenity: 3 is one of the more disturbing poems in the book. I’m an animal lover and very shaken by the mistreatment and abuse of animals. But more than that, I think this poem questions the reader’s relationship to otherness: other creatures, other humans, and other ways of being in the world by introducing gender fluidity. Some readers might find the dog’s name to be more disturbing than its condition, which I also find incredibly disturbing.

See Also

obscenity for the advancement of poetry: 3

of the 4-legged:

he had over 150 engorged ticks covering his dog body by the time they found him. ticks with half-an-inch of puss covering their black bodies. they were sucking him to death. the dog was a boy named Sheila. he could no longer move without wanting to die. snout covered with pus covered ticks. long german shepherd snout. they were sucking the life out of him. he lived in the basement. his mother lived on the 3rd floor. it was queens. or flushing. she didn’t notice anything was wrong. he was 30% underweight. he was living in a basement that in california would be called a crawl space. he had fleas. he was going to die. the dog named Sheila. they found him. they had to remove every tick with tweezers. they put them on butcher paper and they butchered the ticks of Sheila. the blood of Sheila popped out of their asses.

Sheila moved to the village after that.

51uY8kDJlEL._SX356_BO1,204,203,200_Some Beheadings
by Aditi Machado
Nightboat Books

Aditi Machado: I like short, stark titles that are nevertheless intrepid—sometimes brazen: by Of Things (Michael Donhauser, tr. Nick Hoff & Andrew Joron), do you mean to write of all things? Do you mean to tell us the fundamental thingness of things? Such titles—Etel Adnan’s Sea and Fog, Brian Teare’s Sight Map, Paul Celan/Pierre Joris’s incredible coinages (Breathturn, Threadsuns)—imply grandeur, amplitude, seriousness of purpose. They (Geoffrey Hill’s The Triumph of Love!) might even invite scorn. But for me the titles do more because the books do—less. What I mean is, the books themselves are humble in their desire to articulate. It’s impossible, they seem to acknowledge, to write monographs and theses. But it is possible to witness, to make these curious attempts at study, comprehension and comprehensiveness held in tension. The grandeur of which is, I feel, an erotic gesture.

Maybe all that’s behind my hope for Some Beheadings. Practically speaking, I picked the phrase from one of the poems in the book (kindly included here by Sarah). I learned this method from one of my teachers, Carl Phillips—a method that endures as a way of reading. As though the poet were offering a lens through which to read the text, which would be very different had they chosen a different word or phrase (my other options: “Prospekt,” “Overthistle”), and which, as fragment, could easily be ignored. Later I found that Some Beheadings realizes a number of connections important to me—allusive (“Ozymandias”), philological (c.f. “to capitulate”), political (what we bear to witness), and philosophical (the notion of displacing the head as the seat of the intellect). Someone (I don’t recall who) told me the word “some” was cruel in the context of beheadings and I agree. So that’s the other hope: many possibilities.

The Speech:

I spoke as in a wheel

Supported the curvature, I
supported the ongoingness,

the goingson, some
beheadings, I

& the fascist in I
on the dusty road


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