The Path to A First Collection – Roy Marshall on his way to Shoestring

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Morning folks

Today is a strange day – the day after Margaret Thatcher died.  I was born in 1981, so I was too young really to know anything about politics in the 80’s.  My parents didn’t like Thatcher – my husbands dad,  apparently really admires her – he came over her from Australia in the 70’s and has often said to the hubby that ‘this country was on its knees before Thatcher came into power’.  My natural instinct is to dislike her policies – the miners strike, calling Mandela a terrorist – but I haven’t really enjoyed seeing people rejoicing and celebrating her death.  I think every death diminishes us all – I’ve seen some footage which I’ve not seen before – I didn’t really pay attention to anything going on around me until I started writing.  My natural instinct, before seeing all the footage was to dislike her but that shot that we keep seeing when she says ‘You U-turn if you want to – the lady’s not for turning’ – I can’t help but feel a grudging admiration for her.

Then I started to think how would I feel if say, Cameron died or Osbourne? Would I rejoice then – seeing as I can’t even listen to them on the radio or watch them on the T.V without becoming enraged…and I wouldn’t.  I feel like I know much more about Cameron and Osbourne than I do about Thatcher – I’ve lived through their policies and government and followed what they’ve done..but I still wouldn’t be happy if they were dead.  There is something unseemly in celebrating death – and who said (or did I imagine it) that each death diminishes us all…or maybe I am being sanctimonious, and I’m speaking about Thatcher from a position of ignorance really…but I didn’t want this blog to not acknowledge what is going on in the world at all…but now I want to go back into Poetry World after that brief foray into the ugliness..

I’m currently working on my first collection.  Ah, that sentence.  It hides so much!  It feels like it’s going very slowly for me.  I have enough poems, but I feel that the collection hasn’t travelled far enough yet – I don’t fee like I’ve written the first poem yet – so it’s hard to get them all in an order.  When I was gathering up the poems and trying to assess where I was with the collection, I started to look online for advice on how to order the poems.  There wasn’t really much around, apart from the old advice about laying all your poems out on the floor.

So I’ve decided to start a new feature on the blog.  I’m going to be talking to different poets about their experience of putting together a first collection.  I’d like to get as many poets from as many different publishing houses as possible.  I’ve got commitments from poets who are publishing with Salt, Cultured Llama and Burning Eye Books so far and that is more than enough to be going on with for now!  It’s not going to be regular – apart from maybe being once a month and it will take different forms.  Sometimes it might be an article, an essay, an interview or something else!  I’m sticking to first collections, because I think by default, once you’ve done it once, it’s easier!

This first one is a interview, or conversation with Roy Marshall who is busy with the final preparations for his first full collection ‘The Sun Bathers’ with Shoestring Press, due out in November 2013.  You can find Shoestring Press at http://www.shoestringpress.co.uk.  His first pamphlet ‘Gopagilla’ was published by Crystal Clear Creators in 2012.  Roy lives and works in Leicestershire.  Roy blogs at http://roymarshall.wordpress.com/

Kim: Hi Roy.  Thanks for agreeing to take part in this feature.  I wonder first if you could talk a little about the general geography of the collection – how many poems will be in the book?  I know you are in the process of finalising the manuscript now – is the book divided into sections?

Roy: Hi Kim. Thanks very much for asking me to take part. I’m really looking forward to reading the other poets’ contributions to this feature.  I like the way you apply the word ‘ geography’ to describe the shape of a poetry book.
I’ve got sixty-four pieces in the current draft but this might change.  The manuscript isn’t divided into sections. I don’t see the poems as naturally falling into sections so they’re all tucked up together in one big bed, or one boarder-less undulating land mass if we’re talking geography. I do think sections work very well in some instances; for example, I loved the ‘Erratics’ part of Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch’s collection ‘Banjo,’ which came out last year. All the poems in that part were thematically linked and worked brilliantly together. But sometimes I’m not sure why poetry collections have sections as there seems to be no obvious reason to break up a book.

There is a short sequence of four or five poems in ‘The Sun Bathers’ about Leonardo Da Vinci which are grouped together, but they are not under any separate heading as there are only a few of them. And I’ve also put the poems about visiting relatives in Italy as a child together. Again, there were only four or five so I didn’t put them under a separate heading. Apart from those groups I’ve tended to mix themes and lengths of poems in a way that I hope keeps the collection flowing. So I’m happy not to have any superimposed borders on the geography of this book; I hope the variations in theme and style will make the journey interesting and surprising.

Kim: Yes, I enjoyed Samantha Wynne Rhydderch’s ‘Banjo’ too.  I think you’ve touched on the heart of what I’m trying to get at with these features – the act of physically putting the collection together.  I really like the way Michael Symmons Roberts in ‘Corpus’ has a sequence of poems scattered through the collection – actually he has two sequences – ‘Carnivorous’ which are numbered 1 to 5 and ‘Food for Risen Bodies’ which are numbered 1 to 7.  These poems seem to act as a thread throughout the collection and are one of the reasons why the whole hangs together.  How have you ensured the poems ‘flowed’ into one another, putting aside the childhood and the Da Vinci ones, which you’ve already said sat together naturally?

Roy: I’ve been relatively laid back about the order of this collection. I did the classic thing of laying the poems on the floor and seeing how they work together, and I came to a list of contents fairly easily. I was happy with it early on, less neurotic than last time. There are so many possible ways of arranging a book of poems and I was glad to settle on a running order early on and relax.

I think the experience of putting a pamphlet together really helped me. When I assembled ‘Gopagilla’ I tried link poems as much as possible so I grouped of all the poems about childhood and family together. I’ve done that again in this book, but with a full collection you have much more room to play with. It gives you more options to scattered or weave poems in and out.  So ‘childhood’ poems or ‘love’ poems can crop up in more than one place and be separated by other types of poem, for example humorous or political or third person poems; I’ve got a couple of third person poems, one about Neil Armstrong’s wife Janet and one about the cyclist Graeme Obree.

I think this collection is more about ’emotional travel.’ The ordering is slightly mysterious to me and to do with things ‘feeling right’.  But there are little clusters of thematically linked poems. For example, I’ve got two poems about being a nurse, so these two sit next to each other as one builds on the atmosphere of the other. The poem after that is ”I Dreamt Of Smoking,’ a poem you kindly posted on your blog Kim, which is another recollection poem, so I think this goes  with the nursing poems because they are similar, if not exactly the same, in emotional tone. This cluster seems to shade or shadow each other emotionally.

Elsewhere I’ve deliberately put pieces together to break up or lighten things, to change mood or direction, to stop the collection becoming too staid or predictable and to keep things entertaining. I think I got the idea to mix things up a bit from a chapter called ‘Into Print’ in Fiona Sampson’s book on poetry writing. I’m generally not too keen on reading about writing poems, I’d rather read poems, so no offence to Fiona, but it was one of the few parts of the book I of real interest to me because of its practical relevance to making a book. That’s why I think this feature is such a great idea as it will help people share their thoughts and experiences.
Kim:That’s really interesting.  I quite like the phrase ’emotional travel’!  I wonder whether this is usual, for the order to come fairly naturally.  That happened to me with my pamphlet, apart from the first poem which I couldn’t decide on.  I’ve just re-read the chapter ‘Into Print’ from Fiona Sampson’s book ‘Poetry Writing – The Expert Guide’ and you are right, it does have some very useful stuff in there so thanks for the reminder.  Could you talk a little about the link between your first pamphlet and your first collection?  I’m in the process of assembling my first collection at the minute, and I’ve had conflicting advice about how many poems to include from the pamphlet.  Some people say put the whole pamphlet in, someone else said 15 out of the 20, other people think it should be much less.  How many have you included, and how do they sit alongside your newer work? 

Roy: That’s another really good question. It is hard to know how many pamphlet poems to put in. I’ve bought collections and been disappointed if they have too many duplicated poems from the poet’s pamphlet. I started wondering if I should only put in a couple in order to give ‘value for money’.
A poet friend of mine said all I needed to worry about is getting the best stuff in there. So I took some more from the pamphlet and had about seventeen or eighteen out of the twenty-five pamphlet poems in the first draft manuscript. My editor wasn’t too keen on a couple of them so I put them to one side. They didn’t feel essential to the character of the book so I didn’t argue, and maybe they can go in another book.

Now there are fifteen poems from the pamphlet interspersed with other poems. This doesn’t feel too many to me, the balance seems about right. Some of them feel refreshed by sitting next to new poems.

I recently had a very productive period of writing; it was fairly crazy. I was writing a poem a day for a couple of weeks, so I had a lot of newer poems to choose from. But since this is a first collection I think it needs to gather up a good percentage of the poems from the pamphlet as a sort of summary of where I’ve been to date. I’m very fond of some of those earlier poems. One or two define my style and themes and have been well appreciated so it would fell wrong to leave them out. Also, my pamphlet has nearly sold out and there are no plans for a reprint as far as I know, so I wanted those poems in the book.
I think that generally people will want to see poems they know from a pamphlet because they are fond of them and it’s good to see the familiar collected alongside the unfamiliar. If you use the analogy of an album then you might say people want to hear the hits that got them interested in the first place.  I think it’s about balance and in the end only the person in this situation can decide how to achieve that.

I’m not sure I fully answered your question Kim, about how the poems from the pamphlet sit together with the newer ones. Physically, they are dotted about through the book. The first one doesn’t appear until four or five poems in which I like because I want people to have the freshness of reading poems they don’t know first. One or two of the ‘newer’ poems were actually written before the pamphlet came out but not included in that because they didn’t seem to fit. But as I said, with a book there is more room. I loved working on the pamphlet but the book feels a more relaxed, more generous affair.

Kim: Thanks for this Roy, this is really interesting.  I’m just thinking about your comment of the first pamphlet poem appearing 5 or 6 poems into the book which is a very good tip!  I was wondering if you could talk a little about how you picked which poem was the first poem from your new stuff?

Roy: As you know Kim, I haven’t finalised the running order yet. In fact I’m probably putting it off a little, either because I’m savouring the process or because I’m worried about getting it ‘right’, or a bit of both.

At the moment the first poem is an unpublished one called ‘Blackbird in Winter’.
It’s a special poem for me because, at the risk of sounding like a mystical hippy, the poem ‘came through me’ rather than ‘to’ me. I went for a walk one cold afternoon and saw a blackbird. The majority of the poem seemed to arrive fully formed in that moment. I had no paper or pen or other means of recording with me at the time, so I had to remember the words by repeating them to myself as I walked home. The poem’s arrival is a lovely memory.

The poem is short and clear. It seems to have no slack or spare words. The other reason I like it is for the atmosphere it seems to create when I read it. I’ve read it two or three times to an audience, and it seems to generate a certain kind of intensity of listening. I’m sure you’ve had this experience Kim, where you can almost feel the collective concentration deepen in response to a poem. I can only describe it as a spiritual moment.

That’s why this little poem opens the book. If I felt like I’d written it instead of ‘receiving’ it
I’d feel something like pride; I have other poems which generate a kind of pride, partly because I know how much work went into them. But this one feels different, it goes beyond that. It feels like a kind of gift, to me and to the reader.

Kim: This is a really interesting reason for selecting that poem to be first – at least for now!  I think I’ve had lines come into my head that refuse to leave, but I don’t think I’ve ever really had a whole poem.  I have had poems come out fully formed and I haven’t really done much work to them, then others which I’ve slaved over to get right.  I wonder what is happening in our brains in these two instances!  Thank you for all your answers Roy, you’ve been amazingly generous with them.  I wondered to round things off if you had any advice you would like to give to someone starting to put together their first collection – practical, spiritual or emotional?  Or all three!

Roy: Thank you Kim, I’ve found gained a lot of insight about what I’ve been doing from answering your questions.

I did wonder about showing the manuscript to other people. In the end I decided to do this and I’m waiting to see what they think. Given that both of them are brilliant poets and lovely people I think I’m on safe ground. My advice is to show your work and ask for opinions, but only from people you trust and whose work you respect. Who knows, maybe if my manuscript comes back covered in ink I might freak out and wish I’d kept it to myself!
But seriously, I don’t think this will happen. I like to think that I’m ready for this book in several ways, not least in that I have developed sufficiently to be able to consider criticism and suggestions without losing confidence in my ability to make final decisions.

I’d like to mention my editor John Lucas. He’s fantastically relaxed and it seems to have rubbed off on me a little. John is a poet himself with about fifty years in the poetry publishing business, so I feel my book is in safe hands. I understand that editors can vary greatly in their approach to making suggestions, and John was pretty happy with the first draft of the manuscript so I’m very fortunate to be working with him as this has removed any of the pressure I might otherwise have felt.

I’d like to wish anyone in the position of putting a first collection together all the best. If you are, I hope you can relax and enjoy the process and celebrate your achievements to date. Try and trust your instincts.  The work involved in getting enough poems together for a good book is something only another poet can appreciate. Thanks again Kim, I’ve really enjoyed answering your questions.

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6 responses »

      • It’s on my ‘to do’ list. I’ve got enough poems but not enough that I’m happy with, and I’m also debating the question, which you discussed above, of how many pamphlet poems is acceptable, I really like the way Jon Stone did it and only included three, but unfortunately I’m not that prolific!

  1. Thanks, Roy and Kim, for a thought-provoking interview. I’m looking forward to learning more and hearing different poets’ approaches.

    • Me too, Jayne! Next up is Hilda Sheehan who has just had her first collection out with Cultured Llama. I’m writing a review of her collection for a magazine, so I want to get that done, before putting her thoughts up about it!
      Kimx

  2. Pingback: History. And an interview. | Roy Marshall

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