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How Do Poets Choose A Collection Opener?

Sarah Blake asked four poets about the first poems in their collections.

Opening poems establish the tone of a book. Sometimes they set up the stakes, the themes, the images that will recur. It is relatively common practice now that a poem will begin the book, set off from the poems that follow, as a sort of prologue. In a way, this offers the book two opening poems, one that acts as an overview or preview, one as the launch point. Without a prologue-poem, I find myself asking that much more of the opening poem, to cover the ground of both beginning the book and preparing me for the rest of it. And yet, I don’t want a book without surprise. I would never want an opener to give away too much.

For this sampler, I invited four poets to share their thoughts on opening poems, all of whom have prologue-poems in their new books.

Diana Khoi Nguyen’s loss of her brother drives her debut, Ghost Of, through a collection of photographs and the poems that exist in and around the spaces left in her family. Bridget Talone’s The Soft Life interrogates, from every direction, with humor and care, how a person is defined in relation to the people in their life, past and present. In E. J. Koh’s A Lesser Love, surrealism, in the tradition of Mark Strand, meets Korean-American culture, traveling between ghosts and war and Beyoncé, with love at its center. Amy Saul-Zerby offers an untitled prologue-poem to Deep Camouflage, her second book, which is an especially exciting book for its examination of accountability, to one’s self and to each other.

It’s my great privilege to share this sampler with you.

one

Ghost Of
Diana Khoi Nguyen

A Bird in Chile, and Elsewhere

There is no ecologically safe way to mourn.

Some plants have nectaries

that keep secreting pollen even after the petals have gone.

Like a flower that grows only in the invisible

the whole world of its body noiselessly shaking against the dust.

I love prologues as a way of entering into a book, how they are not only introductions, but their own separate sections: the threshold, the door and the frame as a room that leads into other rooms. The prologue as Janus, whose words are song. The prologue as preamble, before-step, or the moment just before.

It made sense to begin Ghost Of with this short commentary on mourning and its non-ecological nature: it wastes, is wasteful. In the ecology of our ecosystem, sudden loss has glitches: a flower that secrets pollen though there is nothing left to pollinate. That even the body of a flower suffers from phantom limb, phantom petal. There is so much damage the aftermath of loss.

And then, what of the afterlife? Is it where the petals bud and bloom, shedding back into bud, bloom, and shed?

One prologue that continues to haunt me, long after I’ve closed the covers of its book is Mark Levine’s “Landscape,” from Debt:

     I am caught at the end of a wooded cul-de-sac
in the glare of all light circling me.
I am holding a package tight to my damp body: the books
a friend has been asking for.
Where does he live?
Across the steel fence, across the canal that slices
the landscape in two?
—I haven’t seen him in a long time.
He says he needs these books.
I ask a group of men who speak only in numbers.
It will be hard to stay long with my friend
in his harshly lit room. I am counting my steps aloud.
It is like speaking to him.

Levine’s prologue describes a dream logic. The poem is not a dream but a reality of paradox, incomprehensibility, where something is grokked in the action and ritual. It reminds me of how we are ultimately lonely, how we can never connect fully with anyone else—because language is an approximation of what we mean, but never exactly the thing we mean. What an incredible way to enter into Levine’s collection. In this doorframe alone, we are in the whole of the world.

two

The Soft Life
Bridget Talone

In the Valley Made Personal

In the Valley of the Trash Pigs,
In the Valley of the Glorifier,
In the Valley Made Personal, I
wriggle in eely description,
feeling very close to my old life,
where I was an intoxicating child
and dandled outright, and finally
deposited in front of the mall
socks off and suddenly so old
under the glare of a monstrous
haircut I could not fix or grow out.

In the Valley of a Housedress,
In the Valley of Her Greatest Hits,
In the Valley of No Offense, But,
it took courage to be dragged
in one direction, even the im-
personal one—(the eros of
thin distance) near far-off taps
from the other side of the wall
initiated my fear of being taken
by the squirrels and chewed to
death like a silky pocket mouse.

In the Valley of Cold Horror Pie,
In the Valley Genteel or Other,
In the Valley Where You Looked
Me in the Face and Slowly Shut
One Eye and Never Tried to Flee,
I learned what it was to be a man
and the diamonds lassoing my watch
out-everythinged your dun colors
and your sadness a sadness
that lactated against your wishes,
ruining your only shirt.

“In the Valley Made Personal” is one of the oldest poems in The Soft Life. I wrote it as I was trying to come out of the feeling that I didn’t know how to write about my life. I went to graduate school a year after my father died. He’d had cancer for ten years. Losing him was shattering in many ways, but I’d somehow never considered that it would change my relationship to writing. Before, my writing had been situated within the relatively set coordinates of my life. However I found that life, it was legible to me. I felt fluent in it: tethered to the people around me and near to my experiences. That legibility disappeared with my father, and I found myself mute inside so much not-knowing, estranged from even the pain of missing him.

While the poem isn’t strictly autobiographical, its energy feels yoked to that time—a kind of building up and sputtering out, urgent and useless. It’s full of desires, and vexed by what speaking doesn’t change. Years later, I wasn’t sure if this poem belonged in the book. Maybe it was vestigial. My friend, the poet Margaret Ross, suggested that I open with it and think of it as a prologue.

Reading it as a prologue, I was able to see what preoccupations echoed across the rest of the book: an interest in address, and trying on power; bodily helplessness, sometimes struggled against and sometimes surrendered to; how these impulses arise and what language attends them. The book began to seep back into the poem. It became a record, not just of a single moment of dislocation but of how that dislocation had become folded into of my experience of writing.

three

A Lesser Love
E. J. Koh

Showtime

Something I say beforehand:
Jal butak hapnida.

This translates into, Please be kind to me,
but it suggests:

Even if I shame myself,
please be kind to me.

In the mirror, it means:
Even inside my greatcoat

of conscience, drunk and white,
please be kind to me.

The opening poem is a translation. I introduce myself as a translator; I look at the “suggestions” of words, the invisible gestures between languages. But as a translator, I am aware that even I do not directly experience my life. Rather than life as itself, I am experiencing a translation through my senses, my exterior. A true translation I think has less to do with the mind and more of the heart, the interior. In Western cultural circles, we are intensely focused on the brain. In Eastern cultures, meanwhile, the heart is central. What can the heart more closely translate? The mirror, coat, shame, kindness—these touch on the multitudinous translations of the poem, the book, the life experience. The poem invites and warns the reader about these exchanges and imaginings.

I think back to the opening poem of Mark Strand’s Man and Camel, “The King.” The king says, “I have lost my desire to rule”/… “My kingdom is empty except for you.” Throughout the book, the subject and king can be replaced, exchanged, reimagined, but the opening poem reminds me of the first hope—to hear, possibly, an unwilling, subjectless king’s words. What is left of a king without a country? In this way, the poem is also an invitation, a forewarning.

four

Deep Camouflage
Amy Saul-Zerby

at the root of it,
at the very
beginning

there was a person
who did not yet
know what

it meant or should
mean to be
a girl

who had not been
abandoned

whose spine had
not started
to curve

under this weight
who could still
look anyone

in the eye

i know the question
to ask now is not
what happened

to her but how
to rebuild

i know and i know
and i know and
still, i keep

asking

what happened
what happened
what happened

When I read my work in public, I have a habit of talking to the audience about the poems as I read them. It isn’t that I don’t want the writing to stand on its own, and it isn’t because I enjoy making the audience laugh (though I very definitely do). It’s because I want to break down the wall between myself and listeners.

I aim to do the same thing when writing. My work is very concerned with emotional honesty, and one of the most important things to me in structuring a manuscript is being as transparent with my audience as possible. I think the decision to open with this poem came from the same place as my decision to often speak directly to the audience about my work as I read to them from it.

The poems in Deep Camouflage are so much about my own experience and about myself, and that means their value in being published and shared with readers depends completely on their honesty. If anyone is to get anything at all from poems like that, reading them needs to be an intimate experience. If I am not offering them that experience—if I am not breaking down the barriers between author and reader—for me, there is no point in publishing my work at all.

With this poem, in which I reckon with my reasons for writing the book, I mean to establish that intimate relationship with my reader.

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31 comments on “How Do Poets Choose A Collection Opener?

  1. Nice writing and please follow me and like my post thanks

    Liked by 4 people

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    Liked by 4 people

  3. imlivingproof40

    Hi great post. I also write poetry and plan to publish a book of poetry someday. Great information about poetry prologues and them setting up the pathway for the rest of a poetry book. Well written!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post. It’s kind of like the opening movement of a symphony. It has to set the tone for the larger body of work.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Reblogged this on Erik Henrikssons web projekt and commented:
    Wow how koolers

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on THEO BLOGGAR and commented:
    wow how cool

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Some lovely poems! An interesting post x

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This was so informative! And such beautiful writing! Thank you for sharing! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Don’t give up unless involuntary force, the definition of life is to main in-control to lead your next generation and follow Bloomsbury for a propitiated cause.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. The written or spoken form is such a powerful object that gives way to history and fortune telling. I find that when I look back at old creative pieces of mine that I can see where they become real in ways I didn’t consider when I initially wrote them – they seem to perpetuate a future that I have since truly experienced… unbeknownst to me, I foresaw this. Then I return to old diaries and notes about my thoughts or days and thus experience an overwhelming empathy of the history in them – how it changed me, made me better, or worse or, just, I don’t know. There are indeed answers in what we write and speak. They are found upon examination, a return to them, and sometimes we are just messengers that provide the texts for others to decipher later on. It’s complex but it’s magical and it makes you think we have powers that lie dormant in most and active in some that when finally they’re fully discovered, will crash everything we’ve ever known to the ground. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. discoverwithjt

    Beautiful article, sharing some beautiful poetry. Great read!

    Liked by 3 people

  13. Amazing article, well written 😊 if you want follow my blog 😉https://uncoveredworldtoday.wordpress.com

    Liked by 4 people

  14. I just came out with my second poetry chapbook, and am working on a longer project with my son. So, it was both interesting and helpful. I like the idea of a prologue poem. That might work well for our joint project, sort of giving the overview before taking the first step in.

    On a side note, I suspect you have a few good followers who are engaged with you here, but the shocking thing to me is the enormous number of obviously spam comments. It makes it difficult to sift through and actually have a discussion with someone. Can’t WordPress do anything about this?

    Liked by 3 people

  15. Banyoebiroe

    Is great nice post

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    Liked by 1 person

  16. I also love prologues, visit my blogs at https://globalglitters.wordpress.com

    Liked by 3 people

  17. theanatomyofhappiness101

    Beautiful writing and thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Introduction may be one of the most difficult decisions like choosing titles. I guess it opes the apetite of readers.

    Liked by 3 people

  19. When I introduce a book, I always hope for a great beginning. But, there have been duds. My books are chronological, thus, I begin where I left with the last one. Lucky, the last book began with one of my best poems, but of course, everything after it, except perhaps another strong poem in the middle, or the short story about Emily Dickinson, were just as good. I chose titles too based on phrases or words that seem most beautiful or seem to embody the major theme or point. I loved the quality of poems of your writers. Very satisfying find.

    Like

  20. Very good post, I used to write poems before but this has reignited my passion for it, keep up the good work

    Like

  21. I enjoyed this… I’m not sure if I’m a poet but there’s something I do similar to it. https://yndungu.wordpress.com/2018/04/18/the-best-version-of-me/

    Like

  22. This post made me sigh a poet’s sigh. I loved the topic you chose and the article itself is exceptionally well thought-out. Thank you for this!

    Like

  23. This is a really intriguing topic! You say you want to break down the wall between writer and audience, and you have sure accomplished that in this piece. Those opening poems are wonderful, I always love discovering new works.
    Thanks for sharing!

    Like

  24. Beautifully weaved

    Like

  25. Reblogged this on No Line Left Behind and commented:
    This is great info…

    Like

  26. Beautiful writing…

    Like

  27. I am not into poetry at all, but this post makes me wonder if the same is perhaps true for magazines, essay collections, and story collections? I’m putting together my first collection but I paid no thought to the first piece; I simply planned on writing a really good introduction letting the readers know not to expect anything but to be surprised.

    Like

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