5 Things You Should Know About Finishing a Book of Poems by Ian Haight
ABOUT MAGNOLIA AND LOTUS: SELECTED POEMS OF HYESIM
Enlightenment as a process: what might it have been like for a Korean Buddhist monk who lived hundreds of years ago?
If enlightenment is an unfolding of wisdom, what progressive awareness is suggested by that unfolding?
Imagine, then, this same monk becoming the leader of the nation’s most important Buddhist Order: the Chogye. Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim suggests what Hyeim might have valued in life; as a monk; and as an early founder of Korea’s largest Buddhist sect.
Despite his achievements, this collection asks, did Hyesim eventually relinquish his position? If so, why? What were Hyesim’s thoughts in his final years?
Each of the translated poems, attentive to the nuances of Hyesim’s Buddhist and Confucian background as well as the landscape of Korea, posits the point of view of Hyesim, his voice, and his time.
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5 Things You Should Know About Finishing a Book of Poems (For Beginning Poets)
1. Know when you are finished with the poems individually. It’s difficult to determine this but having a system helps. I have peer editors (my friends who are poets) look over the poems I am working on. Based on their comments I decide when a poem is done. I usually won’t send poems to them unless I am: a.) stuck and can’t decide what to do with a poem to move it forward and I don’t want to abandon the poem or b.) think the poem is done. Normally I have the sense a poem is done after I can’t think of anything to do with it, put the poem away for a week or two, come back to it, and I still can’t find anything to revise or change.
2. Determine if you’re in the right range for a collection. A collection of poems for a book will typically be a minimum of 48 pages in length, excluding front matter (table of contents, introduction, title page, etc.) and back matter (acknowledgments, notes to poem, author bio, etc.). Chapbooks, or shorter books of poems, usually have a range of between 15-27 pages of poems. Deciding whether you have a chapbook or regular book of poetry will help in deciding how the poems work as a unified collection—or if they don’t really work together at all.
3. Decide how the poems are working as a unified piece. It’s commonly taught in MFA poetry writing programs that a collection of poetry should have a narrative arc—in other words, a story to tell. One way to find the story is to lay the poems out on a floor and see how they go together in sequence. Move the poems around to find how they speak to one another—a poem’s meaning might shift depending on whether it comes before or after another poem. Sometimes through this process you’ll find a gap in the arc; you’ll realize there are more poems to write that could complete the story your collection wants to tell. Sometimes in finding the arc you realize it has an inherent pacing—sequences of poems are working well together as isolated groups. In this case, consider giving the groups their own sections in the collection.
4. Consider that there might be no arc. Sometimes when you lay the poems out you’ll find that there isn’t really an arc or that none of the poems appear to be speaking to one another in any particular way. A different generation of poets thought this was normal. If this feels like your collection, don’t shy away from it. Do try to place your best work at the beginning, end, and middle of the manuscript. A collection that doesn’t tell a story still needs pacing, and it’s good to begin and end a collection well.
5. Think of a title. To my mind, this is a little easier if the collection has a narrative arc. In that case, ask yourself what emotions your narrative arc deals with, and how those emotions are dealt with. Then ignite the poet in you: ask yourself what metaphor or image communicates those emotions and/or the treatment of those emotions. Consider what you arrive at for a title. If there isn’t a narrative arc, another approach is to consider the best poems in the book. You could simply take the title of the book from what you believe your best poem is. Another approach is to take a line, stanza, phrase or image from a standout poem and work with that for the title. Whatever approach you take, it’s not a bad idea to Google the title you come up with or check it at Amazon. Being original helps people track your work.
ABOUT IAN HAIGHT
Ian Haight was a co-organizer and translator for the UN’s global poetry readings held annually in Pusan, Korea, from 2002-4. He has been awarded 5 translation grants from the Daesan Foundation, Korea Literature Translation Institute, and Baroboin Buddhist Foundation for the translation, editing, promotion, and publication of Korean literature. Ian is the editor of Zen Questions and Answers from Korea (2010), and along with T’ae-yŏng Hŏ, the translator of Borderland Roads: Selected Poems of Kyun Hŏ (2009) both from White Pine Press. Ian’s translations, essays, poems, and interviews have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Writer’s Chronicle, Barrow Street and Hyundae Buddhist News, among many other publications.
For more information, please visit ianhaight.com.
His latest book is Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim