This weekend I’m retreating at the home of my friend and co-editor Ruby Wilson to assemble the second volume of Poetry of Presence (forthcoming, May, 2022). Without question, this is my favorite part of creating a poetry anthology.
Earlier this week, when I mentioned the approaching retreat to my mother on a phone call, she said, “I always figured, for a book of poems, you just put them in random order.”
I smiled. Knowing how much she loves jigsaw puzzles, I replied, “Do you put together the pieces of a puzzle in random order?”
She doesn’t, of course. Not exactly. So, my question led us into a fun talk about the anthology-making process. Maybe you, too, would like a peek behind that curtain …
* * *
Ruby and I will start by laying out the 140+ mindfulness poems we’ve selected for the collection. Like puzzle pieces on a tabletop, the poems will be scattered around a couple of rooms in the house. In order to include each of them in the book, we’ve had to obtain legal permission from the poets and/or their publishers, often through payment of a fee. (Our administrative costs for this one book are approaching $9,000.)
Now we’ll begin to sort. First, we’ll locate the “border pieces.” These are usually easy to identify because of their “straight edges”—e.g., this poem seems a good “first poem”; that one, a good “last poem”; the one over there, a good “transition” poem.
Once we’ve pulled out the border pieces, we’ll sort the remaining poems into sub-groups by “color”—e.g., their themes, memorable images, tones, and so on. Our “color” categories will evolve as we work.
As any “dissectologist” knows (don’t blame me, but that’s the official term for someone who does jigsaw puzzles), what comes next requires a more discerning eye. We’ll pick up a poem of a certain “color,” then start testing where it might fit. Theoretically, it could fit anywhere, but we’ll try to nestle it into a spot that seems perfectly suited. Most poems will take a lot of fiddling. Some will pop magically into place.
Only when we’ve finished the entire puzzle will Ruby and I see the complete picture. That’s when we’ll understand what we’ve been making, without benefit of a box lid to go by.
Like literal jigsaw-puzzling, this process will be both relaxing and demanding. It will involve a creative synergy among intention, intuition, and intellect. Done in the company of a dear friend, over a period of days, assisted by long walks, homemade bread and soup, laughter, and glasses of wine, it will be just plain fun.
If Ruby and I do our work well, the poems in the anthology will fit together so seamlessly that you, the reader, will scarcely detect any edges. You’ll be able to step into the flow of pages as into the stunning puzzle-picture of a river and feel its waters moving. You’ll give no thought at all to the joyful crafting that went into its making. Like my mother, you may well believe its design is random.
In short, we, the puzzle-makers, will gradually disappear even as the anthology’s poetry-picture emerges. The puzzle, in turn, will gradually disappear into you, the reader, as you immerse yourself in the poems.
Oh, but look … you’re a poem already!
YOU ARE A POEM WITH FEET
Look how you move in space,
as at home on a fresh page
as upon the lips that speak
the gift of you into waiting air.
The poem you are is more
than text that can be read.
Every line of you,
every word and syllable,
every comma and period and dash,
arises from breath,
takes the shape of breath,
falls back to breath.
What is breath born from?
Where stands its house?
You begin where you do
without knowing how.
You end where you do
without knowing why.
Between beginning and ending,
you lay yourself down
on the white ground of being
and rise up to meet the world
that wanders through.
If one of your lines breaks
in the middle
because it must.
In this life you will often change
and be changed. This is the nature
of ink being spilled, dark
upon light, that something
unseen might be seen in relief.
Photo by Gabriel Crismariu on Unsplash