It ought to be easy by now. At least I have come to recognise this stage in the process, which involves spreading all of my poems on the floor, so I have a sort of poem carpet (much neater than Francis Bacon’s studio, which I show by way of illustration). If only I could keep it this way: invite readers to come into my study and walk over the poems, allowing certain words and phrases to lift up, catch the eye, create a collage – the collection as an interactive installation. Having written a whole sequence of poems on Jackson Pollock and his method of placing his canvas on the ground, this ritual makes a lot more sense to me. But I realise I need to wrestle these poems into a book that can be picked up, held, shelved.
The poem carpet is a crucial element in my ordering stage. It may be easier for others to see the connections between certain poems, but as the poet, I am hindered by having too much background information; a poem tends to get locked into the conditions of its composition – where I was, what I was doing, what triggered me to write it. The poem carpet is democratic: all poems appear at once and are not subject to my personal filing system. The links between ideas become more apparent (as do the moments when I repeat myself – I have found several instances where I have used the same imagery or syntax to express an idea, and so part of the process is to police my usual verbal ticks). Sharon Olds once made a good suggestion to a workshop group – find the word you’ve used most frequently in your last collection, count the number of times it appears, then ban it from your next collection. I’m not going to reveal what my word was (although I will admit that there were over 30 uses of it in the collection I used to conduct the experiment), for fear that public admission will make it into a quest to find it in all my subsequent poems – as I haven’t managed to ban in completely. As a matter of fact, it could be used to describe one of the central metaphors in this new book, but I am trying (with the aid of my thesaurus) to find new vocabulary.
In getting to this stage, I have already negotiated a number of other important considerations. I have written most of the poems (there are still ‘gaps’, which I will say more about later), although I am still editing / tinkering with some of them. I have the title. The title must be like a giant mouth that speaks all the poems at once and shortens them to one essential phrase. I usually have the titles for my books early on in the process, sometimes before there is even a collection, so I am writing as a way of summing up a certain idea or narrative. In this case, my title poem, ‘The Formula for Night’ came from a Hayward Gallery commission last year, and was inspired by a light installation by Cerith Wyn Evans, but it has framed a larger consideration of darkness / lightness, night / day, death / life, etc.
The order is as important as the title. I have put together a provisional, still flexible, order, so certain poems keep moving, and changing as they hook up with new neighbours. I think ordering a collection is an art, almost as difficult and challenging as writing the poems in the first place. The poet wants to create a narrative, or at least a thread, to carry the reader through the book. There is always the knotty question of where to put the title poem – do you want your reader to have the themes spelled out from the very start, or come to a conclusion somewhere in the middle, from which other ideas unravel, or do you want a summary at the end. In this case, the title poem’s location is now fixed – it is the final poem in the book, as the poem’s own finality makes it impossible to follow it with anything else.
So I have this provisional order, and it is great when a trail of poems comes together. But there is always a moment after five or six poems have naturally followed a train of thought when the final poem brings me to an abrupt halt. What follows? Perhaps a silence, but you can’t have that in the book (unless you resort to a Sternean blank page). Chapters, or sections, as in a novel? I have adopted sections in my last two books, but I want this one to be a continuous stretch, like a long night. So I have located ‘gaps’ which I must write into; that means there will still be poems to come to bridge those moments.
The book will be out next year, so there will be the inevitable cooling off period between submitting the manuscript (and then forgetting about it) and seeing the finished book, which always feels alien, as if it has nothing to do with me. And in a way, it doesn’t. It becomes the readers’, to navigate as they see fit. I know lots of people who don’t read collections in the right order; if you end up with a copy of mine sometime at the end of 2015, do remember me on the floor trying to struggle the poems into some kind of shape – and please start at the beginning …