Putting Your Poetry in Order: The Mix-Tape Strategy

Katrina Vandenberg
From the May/June 2008 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

The first poem in a collection provides an entry point for the reader, an invitation into the work. The selection in the number two slot is just as crucial in that it shows your reader (or listener) how you make patterns. "Poets sometimes put poems that are too much alike too close together. I like those chimes to have more of an echo," says Jeffrey Shotts, poetry editor of Graywolf Press. This might be especially important at the beginning of a book; you don't want the contract you've made with the reader to be too tightly written. By putting some space between the most obvious matches, a poet can create even more space for herself to move around in.

The first three poems in Tony Hoagland's Donkey Gospel (Graywolf, 1998) are "Jet," "Mistaken Identity," and "Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet." You'd think that "Jet," a persona poem from the point of view of a plane, would be followed by "Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet." But if Hoagland had done this, the reader might happily shout, "Oh, I get it! Poems about planes!" and, perhaps, put the book down.

Instead, Hoagland follows "Jet," which ends, "We gaze into the night / as if remembering the bright unbroken planet / we once came from," with a poem that begins, "I thought I saw my mother / in the lesbian bar," and the reader must work harder to forge connections. They exist: When the male speaker of the second poem says that watching the women dance together makes him feel as speechless "as the first horse to meet the first / horseless carriage on a cobbled street," we remember the jets feeling nostalgic and out of place in the previous poem.

"Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet" is far away enough from "Jet" that it creates resonance in the way slant rhymes do at the ends of the second and fourth lines of a Dickinson ballad stanza. They aren't so close together that they risk becoming singsong, but the second isn't so far down the road that you've forgotten about the first.


Sections are often the building blocks of good books, and Pattiann Rogers was the first poet to teach me a way to make them. Each section of a book needs its own theme, she said, but obvious ones are out—"love poems" can't be a single group. Within sections, something from the last poem has to link to the next one: an apple, tulips, yellow flowers, flying. When I couldn't get the hang of it, Pattiann had me go through my poems and write a list of the images and themes I noticed in the lower right-hand corner of each manuscript page.

I soon realized that even though I had most of my poems memorized, I had no idea of how each one related to the others. And because I couldn't keep my mind on all my poems at once, I had to break them down into clusters of three poems each. Then I started putting those clusters together, rearranging the order of my mini-groups each time.

Pattiann was patient. For four months I visited her every other week, sitting in her living room, watching her turn the pages of my manuscript. Each time she turned a page, she looked up, and I had to justify why that poem followed the previous one and how it had earned its place in that particular section. If she was satisfied with my answers, she nodded and continued. If she turned the page sideways, I knew I was coming back in two weeks.


Tim and I always kept a few short songs on hand in case we were stuck with an odd last minute or two of tape on a side. Tim favored the Pixies' "Brick Is Red." It wasn't his favorite song, but it was a useful one.

Sometimes poems that would not stand alone in a magazine can work in a book. Search your archive for poems that initially seemed too short, playful, or slight to send out on their own. They might provide needed texture and contrast, or provide links between sets of longer, more challenging poems.

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Thanks for the good techniques. I'll be sure to try them out in my future works.

Great Stuff!

I like this a lot.  And it comes to me at a perfect time: thesis manuscript season for me and I'm sure a bunch of other MFAs out there.  Thank you.

Listing order

How about listing poems in alphabetical order?