Friday, September 18, 2009

"Good title!"

“Good title!” says the young William Shakespeare everywhere he goes, whenever he hears a bon mot, in Tom Stoppard’s witty movie, Shakespeare in Love. Out of ideas, short of cash, Shakespeare is adept at pilfering – mostly stealing ideas from surrounding life. His own titles are abysmal, for example, “Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter.” We all know how that one turned out. According to Stoppard, it wasn’t Will who came up with the right title.

I felt a little like Stoppard’s young Shakespeare (but not in a good way) when I worked with poetry book editor Bryan Roth of Red C Services on my new manuscript, Gods of Water and Air. “Good title!” Dona Stein said on her radio program, Poetry Show, on which they discussed Bryan’s editing of my book.

My manuscript’s current title was one of my devising, but not as a title. It was buried in the midst of a poem. I didn’t notice it until Bryan pointed it out, after convincing me that Artist House, the title I had been using, didn’t get there. It took some work to get me over that hurdle. I had been clinging to it harder than young Shakespeare to his Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. The title was given to me, in a similar way as the imagined Shakespeare derived his titles, by a friend who commented on my manuscript. I will be forever grateful for that title, as it formed a bridge to the new one and a way of thinking about the themes in the collection. But, as Bryan said, it’s essentially a “label title,” carrying no poetic resonances, just flat and accurate. Flat and accurate doesn’t win contests.

We worked on many of the poem titles in the same way. We often started with a faintly sardonic editorial note: “Best title?” I quickly learned that this did not mean it was possibly the best title. Then we mined good lines from poems for title possibilities. Suddenly, where I had been a title pauper, I had a wealth of choices. Some were good enough for books or book sections, others just for the poem from which they emerged.

I once wrote an essay for Avatar Review on the art of selecting a good title. To research the subject, I thumbed through the many books on craft in my library, and found just one that had a chapter on titles, Michael Bugeja’s The Art and Craft of Poetry. Michael had this to say about label titles: “A descriptive title depicts content, a suspense one sparks interest, and the label variety is just that -- a word or two as on a can of vegetables: ‘Beans’ or ‘Creamed Corn.’”

Perhaps I should go back and reread my own essay. I need to work harder to find good titles. I will also listen more carefully to my editor when I get that question, “Best title?” When he says, “Good title!” I’ll know we’re there.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Editing a book of poems: structuring a manuscript

For those who are interested, I'll be getting a sound file of the half-hour radio program on which my poetry manuscript was discussed by Bryan Roth, a professional book editor of poetry and prose. When I get it, I will post the sound file here, so if you want you can listen at your leisure.

Following the experience of hiring a professional editor, I'm thinking a lot about this process. I have another manuscript in development, and am evaluating what I learned from the editing of Gods of Water and Air. One of the big questions we considered was the structure of the book. I've considered two basic ideas for structure: grouping sections around themes or interweaving all themes into every section and using a different organizing principle than thematic for sections (formal or technical dimensions, chronological sequence, etc.)

The suggestion I resonated with the most was the idea of thematic grouping. It's immediately clear to the reader, a tried-and-true structural device. While it might be tempting to try a more subtle approach, when you have to make it past harried screeners to even be a contest finalist, subtle structural approaches might not be your best gambit.

Within each thematic section, getting the poems to talk to each other, relate in some sort of fluid sequence, was then the challenge. An outside editorial eye can be invaluable for this, by spotting abrupt shifts that break the flow, suggesting rearrangements, deletions, even places where new material might be beneficial. I actually wrote some new poems to expand one section because it wasn't quite large enough to be a section, but the theme was a strong one.

More fine-tuning remains to be done on this aspect of my manuscript. And how that relates to the question of titles. Stay tuned for talk of titles.