Thursday, 9 February 2012

Putting a new collection together: background

Having put in version A of a new book of poems last year, I soon modified it to version B. At that stage I knew publication would be some time off and was glad of it, because it is all very well being prolific but readers don't want to be bombarded with book after book. Even more to the point you don't want to bombard them. It's like talking all the time. A period of silence is befitting. In any case there might be a better chance of development over a decent time period.

As it has worked out the potential publication date is January 2013 though that is not firmly fixed yet so it could be a little later.

Good, I thought, keenly aware of the recent past. My publication record since joining Bloodaxe in 2000 is a little unusual. Let me quickly run over it.

The first Bloodaxe collection, The Budapest File, collected together poems featuring the Hungarian experience along with Hungarian history and its effects. These were mostly gleaned with poems from the earlier books with a few new poems at the end.

The second collection, An English Apocalypse (2001) was half old and half completely new. I had spent a term at Trinity College, Dublin intending to write a novel about wrestling, but finished up with the Apocalypse sequence, which set off other poems about England in their turn. Nevertheless, roughly one and a half out of two books were earlier material.

The first properly new book with Bloodaxe was Reel (2004) the book that won the Eliot. It was a longer book than most single volumes, but I had already written a good number of new poems by the time it appeared.

But then, after four years of no books, Bloodaxe published the New and Collected Poems (NCP) for my 60th birthday, along with John Sears's study of my work. The New part of the book is roughly the length of a normal slim volume and the lot weighs in at well over 500 pages and one kilo.

A book like that is a landmark in a poet's career. Sometimes it can be the last landmark, and I was determined that, beyond the big book, there should be new poems treading new ground, so instead of putting everything new into the NCP I saved that which seemed most promisingly new for a next book that should follow not too long after the NCP. In the meantime I had worked with artist Ronald King on the poems based on Canetti's Auto da Fe which were to form the main part of The Burning of the Books (BB), that appeared in 2009.

The book after that (the one to come, titled Bad Machine) was to explore more new ground. It wasn't that I would cut myself off from my past - what was still alive and kicking should carry on kicking, which, formally, might include sonnets and terza rima and some pick-up from the six canzones in BB - but that there would be poems and forms I hadn't tried before. 'Why should not old men be mad?' was the principle behind this, and while I am not that old nor all that mad (yet), the question remains interesting and a sound driving principle.

The other principles would be:

1. Never repeat what you already know and have said unless you see something new in it that you hadn't noticed before;

2. Don't worry about sounding like 'you'. That's just a habit and a constricting one. Make other noises if necessary. You can't help being 'you' but that's no reason to bore yourself with imitations of that 'you';

3. Do the odd ridiculous looking thing. You never know where it will take you. Never turn down an idea just because it looks vulnerable to criticism. Whose criticism? Only turn it down if you are convinced it's wrong;

4. Don't necessarily expect people to publish or like all you write, not even those who published and liked you before. The NCP is there. It's not going to go away.

5. Don't be afraid of being obscure or tricky or playful, but at the same time don't be afraid of being clear as a bell psychologically, emotionally and technically as occasion demands. You have more than one mask at your disposal as any fule kno.

Enough principles. They were never written down as such, they were simply shadows at the back of the mind, a kind of emotional route map-by-touch.

So, if that was the case, what has happened? What have I actually produced? And how does it make a book? More on that next time.


I will return to the subject of Hungary, probably rather frequently, as and when something new appears in the news or in print.


Sue Guiney said...

These are very helpful, George, and can be applied to fiction as well. As I finish my 3rd novel and start putting together my 2nd poetry collection these are all ideas freshly in my mind. Thanks.

panther said...


Guideline 2 reminds me of an exercise by Daniel Halpern the American poet : "Write a poem in imitation of yourself." Which leaves me a little puzzled, and I'm wondering what your take on that is, George ?

Am i being asked to imitate my mannerisms ? And if so, to what purpose ?