Friday, June 12, 2020

Structuring a Collection of Poetry


Whenever I decided to write a collection of poems supposedly written by the protagonist of my last two science-fiction novels, Temporary Planets for Transitory Days, I knew that organization would be a big challenge.

First, I had a lot of poems I had already written over the years. But ever since I started writing novels I had gotten away from poetry. (Poetry was my “creative escape” during my busiest years of teaching.  But I much prefer writing novels now.) These were poems on a number of topics, and I felt that I could easily adapt them to this new project. I based my protagonist, Mykol Ranglen, a lot on myself, so I didn’t think it would be difficult to make them fit this new persona. But the poems did go in many different directions, and I needed a few organizational subjects to group them under. 

Second, I also knew I’d be writing a lot more poems directly connected to Ranglen’s futuristic world of space exploration and planetary adventures. Would these be separate or hooked up with the others? How would I manage to blend all of them together? 

Third, I also had the two novels published now and I wanted direct connections to incidents or characters in both of them. This involved both writing new poems or adapting old ones to fit the situations. 

This sent me off on a binge of creating organizational schemes, several lists of sub-topics under which I could put the poems. The task involved a lot of “pondering” time—and a large number of repeated attempts to come up with just the right “list.” My desk was littered with various approaches on flurries of scrap paper, and one file on my computer was nothing but wildly off-beat phrases for the headings. 

Finally, I came up with the following, and it wasn’t easy. Indeed, the list kept changing during much of the writing of the new poems and the editing of the old. So, out of the 90-100 poems I finally aimed for and selected, here’s the ultimate list of seven categories:

1.      “Nights on Alchera” – poems related to the people, places, and events of the planetary setting from In a Suspect Universe, my last novel written. Reading that novel isn’t required to understand the poems, but someone who has read the book will probably see some connections (or maybe not, for they are sometimes obscure).

2.      “Rocket Punk” – where Ranglen delights in the imagined outer space created by the popular science fiction of the past. He makes comparisons between the hopes for space travel as seen in the SF of the twentieth century and the attitudes toward space in his own day. (I had a great time writing these—“Loving the Spaceport” is a real favorite.)

3.      “Planetary Romance” – poems about Ranglen’s past loves, especially Mylia from In a Suspect Universe and Mileen from The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes (though you might not be sure which poems refer to whom). One long poem dealing with Mylia originally was meant as a chapter in the novel. Feelings for other characters too, some obvious, some not so, and some purely “fictional” (in this world which is already fictional).

4.      “Tales of Old Earth” – the forsaken and yet beautiful planet of humanity’s birth, its legends, its stories, its settings, its myths. Some of these are based on my own travels and interests, but I imagined Ranglen as growing up on Earth and loving its landscapes, as well as its history of popular culture. (You can tell he loves figures from old comic books.)

5.      “Riley’s World” – an imagined life for an admired character, now lost to him, from In a Suspect Universe, especially creating (or maybe imitating, it’s hard to tell) a possible child she gets to watch grow up. These poems suggest strange connections between multiple universes, since Ranglen’s imaginary life for Riley oddly mirrors what really happened.

6.      “Dark Galaxy” – frightening secrets and imagined scenarios of the stellar past, of the warring civilizations in the galactic dawn, and the dark hints of current interstellar doings. These were meant to be Ranglen’s commentary on the present state of his galaxy, and especially of how its earlier races have influenced it, for better or worse. It’s the most cynical, and biting, part of the book.

7.      “Sanctuary” – an autobiographical self-regard, with personal hopes revealed, longings expressed, and a final somewhat settled conclusion: Ranglen in his most sensitive and revealing mood, about his hopes and fears for himself and his future. A fitting closure to the entire book.

As said, this particular choice of topics did not come easily, and it went through many variations. Among the headings that were discarded are:  “Adventures on Other Planets,” “Nightsounds,” “The Man From Reality Maintenance,” “Borderlines,” “Solitudes,” “Suspended Revelations,” “Exiles of Space,” “Safehouse,” “Existential Aloneness,” “Nights and the Galaxy,”“In Border Spaces,” and “The Affected Earth.” (Hmm, I think I can make a poem out of just these phrases alone.) In writing, you often discard as much as you gain. But these titles give you some idea of the moods and directions of the poems themselves. 

Know that I was very happy with this final assembly. In some ways, an entire collection of poems makes for one long poem itself, arranged with structure and cadence, development and suspense. And I think this carefully wrought organization provides an almost latent “plot” to the book, or at least a “movement” or “arc,” from recent events he’s still dealing with, to a final calm acceptance of his past.

I hope you enjoy it. Pre-orders are available here, and not only will they come early but they’ll have a free insert that points out a connection between a prose segment in the novels and a specific poem in this book.

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