How can I make a book of poetry from this mess?

When I was working on my MFA thesis, I faced the problem of organizing several years of work into a coherent collection of poetry. I sought the help of my advisor, the renowned poet Alberto Rios, and did some research on my own.

I found there were many ways to organize poetry. These strategies will work for you whether you are creating a chapbook, a full-length poetry collection, or an anthology of poems from diverse sources. But before you can choose a strategy, you need a process.

Space: The Vital Frontier

While you are deciding how to organize your book, you will need some space in which to spread out poems and look at them. I used the desks in my high school classroom, and walked around muttering and looking at poems during my prep hour. More athletic writers have used their stairs; others have taken advantage of library study rooms or spread their papers all over the floor at home. Whatever you decide, give yourself plenty of space and time to try different approaches.

Don’t Just Use Your Eyes – Use Your Ears

You can also record yourself reading the poems out loud. Listen with your eyes closed, and notice how the poems speak to one another. Listen to the collection more than once.

Study the Wheel – Don’t Re-Invent It

As part of your research, choose a few books of poetry that you admire, and re-read them. What strategies did this poet use? How well did they work? Can you use a similar method for organizing your book, or do you need to make changes? Does this book inspire you to try something you’ve never done before? Awesome! Go for it!

Adverbs: Less Is More

It’s common advice in writers’ workshops that adverbs should be replaced with active verbs whenever possible, and that you shouldn’t use too many adverbs.  But how many adverbs is too many?  I decided to find out.

My Methodology

I went to three respected literary magazines and randomly selected the following three stories:

Bogdonoff, Nathan. ”Indoor Animals.” New England Review, Vol. 39, No. 4 (2018).

Li, Yiyun. “All Will Be Well.” New Yorker. 11 March 2019. 

Roth, Philip.  “Goodbye Columbus.” Paris Review, Issue 20, Autumn-Winter 1958-1959.

I copied and pasted the stories into Word, searched for “ly” and highlighted the adverbs in blue.  Then I copied the phrases or sentences in which they appeared into a separate document, and counted the number of occurrences (no, I am not always this OCD).

Then I averaged the three to find a good target number (okay, maybe I am always this OCD).  In all three instances, the number of adverbs represented less than 1% of the total number of words in the story.

What I Learned

Adverbs should represent less than 1% of your total word count.

When you do use an adverb, it should be to describe an action for which there is not a better verb.  Examples:

  • “I never called ahead, and rarely had to wait” – we don’t have a verb that expresses waiting as a rare occurrence.
  • “I may say it a bit too ringingly, too fast, too up-in-the-air, but I say it” – again, there’s no particular verb to express this particular style of speaking
  • “The fawn is peeing, steadily and unabashedly, all over the floor.” – I don’t mean to be gross, but we don’t have a polite verb for sustained or shame-free urination.

Sometimes, adverbs are used deliberately for effect:

  • “these were my most tiresome traits, and I used them tirelessly”
  • “They looked like two lambs, impeccably prepared by their elders as sacrifices to appease a beast or a god.”

Sometimes it seems to be about characterization or voice:

  • “She dove beautifully”
  • “The darker it got the more savagely did Brenda rush the net”
  • “I wasn’t entirely free from the demands of stating my opinions”

Adverbs also appear to be commonly used to express time:

  • rarely
  • finally
  • suddenly (which should be used sparingly, BTW)
  • recently, etc.

Click here to see the data set.

Tombstone Vigilettes

As part of the ongoing Spotlight on Speakers series, the Huachuca City Library invites you to come and see The Tombstone Vigilettes. This Tombstone re-enactment group includes six ladies and one gentleman. Each member wears period clothing and explains how his/her garment reflects Tombstone life during 1860 to 1915.

There will be a mini-fashion show, including a “tea” dress and gymnasium attire! Vintage objects will also be displayed.

Information obtained from Huachuca City Public Library flier.

Mark your calendars for this event: Thursday, March 14th at 10 a.m. at the Huachuca City Town Hall, 500 N Gonzales Blvd. For more information, you may call the library at 520-456-1063.

San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area

As part of the Spotlight on Speakers series, Gabrielle LaFargue will present an historical overview of the land designated as the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area by the Bureau of Land Management in the late 1980s. The 1880s silver boom was significant to the development of this area.

A slideshow presentation will include historical photos as well as flora and fauna photos of this important natural habitat.

This event will be held on Thursday, March 7th at 10 a.m. at the Huachuca City Town Hall located at 500 Gonzalez Blvd.

Local Lit Mag: Rain Shadow Review

I promised my friend KL that I’d give this journal a local shout-out, so here’s some info on this unique publication and reading opportunity.

Rain Shadow Review is the brainchild of Arizona poet Richard Shelton, whose involvement with prison writing workshops goes all the way back to 1974.  The writing in the magazine comes from current or former inmates of the Arizona prison system.

The last three issues of Rain Shadow Review have been edited by UA professor Erec Toso.

Online, you’ll find intriguing poems, truly stunning artwork, and a gripping prose piece about SIDS by Steven P. Arthur.

If you stop by the University of Arizona Poetry Center Library, you can pick up your latest copy of Rain Shadow Review – you should, it’s free and it’s good reading.

If you’ve ever been in jail or prison, you could become a contributor to this magazine.  Visit online at https://rainshadowreview.com/ or mail a COPY of your best writing to: 

Rain Shadow Review
P.O. Box 85462
Tucson, AZ  85754-5462


Author Brian G. Phelps

At 10 a.m. on Friday, February 15, 2019, Brian G. Phelps will be a special guest speaker at the Huachuca City Library which is located at 506 Gonzalez Blvd.

The author will share the highlights of his “white-knuckled” solo adventure of cycling 4,000 miles across America and Canada on his yard-sale bike, lovingly named Fanny.

Brian’s recently published book “Fanny and Me” will be available for purchase and signing.

Seating is limited, so call 520.456.1063 to reserve your spot today.