Monday, May 12, 2014

Declaration: Writing a Poetry Chapbook

Last week, after over a year of working on poetry, I published my first collection, titled "Declaration."  After looking into several different options, I used Amazon's CreateSpace self-publishing option.  Several other options exist, and I have no reason not to recommend them.  For poetry, though, an up-front investment makes little sense to the unknown self-publisher, whose dream is to have people read what he writes, and perhaps make dozens of dollars without quitting his day job.  Amazon allowed me to create a cover, load my book file, and put the book up for sale without any investment beyond ordering a physical proof (more on this below) and ordering author copies.
While all of the production tools made it possible to put something out there, none of it matters if the poetry doesn't work.  So writing poetry, and writing a chapbook, represent the focus of this post.
What Is a Chapbook?
A chapbook is a small collection of poetry, usually organized around a specific theme.  They may be loose- or spiral-bound, or they may be bound in a more traditional book form.  They may be anywhere from fifteen to sixty pages of poetry, with most in the twenty to thirty range.  The key, then, is to focus on the poetry and the theme, and let the page count work itself out.
Building a Theme
So how do you create a theme?  For me, the theme arrived in two stages.  From the beginning, my concept was the "inalienable rights" that the Declaration of Independence delineates.  I separated the chapbook into three sections: "Life," "Liberty," and "Pursuit."  These categories cross over each other.  Life contains a breadth that includes liberty, and liberty is in turn a necessary component for one to pursue one's bliss, as Joseph Campbell famously urged.  And therein lies part of the point: we label and separate pieces of ourselves and what we do, and I strive in the poems to show the ways everyday life falls both between and across those categories.

As I began to arrange the book, am underlying theme revealed itself: music.  Some of the poems approach music overtly: "Chasing Music" and "Symphonic Suite for a Traffic Jam" rely openly on musical concepts, while "Stolen Guilty Moments" and "Messiah in Waiting" carry music in the text.  Working through, though, the natural music of language pulled at me: ebb and flow, noise and silence, accents and harmonies.  My cover design and subtitle, "A Poetry Chapbook in Three Movements," provide a call out to this theme that came only after I looked at a physical proof of the completed collection.
Revision and Cuts
I completely cut eight poems that I wrote for "Declaration."  Writing sprawls across every emotion, from despair to exuberance.  This, though, hurts the most.  Every poem took work, and represented something that matters to me.  But poetry isn't my soul or my feelings; it is merely an attempt to convey those in a way respectful to my desired audience.  Some poems, I hope and believe, achieve this.  Others, most often the poems born of the rawest emotions, failed, and after trying to find ways to save them, I thought it better to excise them from the collection.
Other poems simply didn't work within my theme, or were such blatant attempts to be clever or discursive that as a reader, I didn't feel right about including them.  Writing for myself is one thing, and I found catharsis or egotistical delight in some poems.  But publishing represents a shift away from this and toward writing for others.  I made decisions to include or exclude accordingly.
Final Product
In the end, this collection contained 24 poems, divided into three sections of eight each.  All are free verse; I worked on a villanelle for weeks, but I found myself writing for the form and losing substance.  Lines and structure matter, but I was able to shape the form of each to the individual poem rather than try to imitate canonical writers.  And all drive through with the overarching themes in mind.
Writing a chapbook means more than writing several poems, and I tried to maintain and revisit periodically the concepts I put in play when creating and ultimately publishing "Declaration."  My goal was to carefully craft parts that fit that whole in a way that lifted the collection above the sum of its component parts.  As with any published work, though, my readers must decide whether I actually achieved this.