As I move towards publishing my second poetry book, which will come out in January in the University Press of Kentucky’s New Poetry and Prose Series, I'll be sharing a bit about the behind-the-scenes process of writing and publishing. 🙂
Today, I want to tell you about how I came to the book's title.
When I wrote many of the poems in the book, I wasn't yet thinking of them as part of a collection. Though I was widely published, these were intimate works, and I thought of them primarily as a personal encounter with voice and spirit; I wrote many of them early in the morning when I woke before other members of my family.
Only after I had a large number of poems and after an initial condensed writing period did I start to think about gathering the poems together. First I printed them. Then I read them chronologically. Then I sorted them into three piles: almost done; in need of more work; not worth keeping.
I noticed many themes came up again and again, and I sorted the poems into those themes.
Then I took the poems I wanted to keep (culling even good poems that seemed repetitive) and experimented with different ways of weaving those themes together. I put the poems in order, shared the manuscript with a few friends, and then re-imagined the order. By then, I'd written more poems, and I took out some and added new ones. It was a long process!
Since so many of the poems were written at dawn and play with time and with the idea of newness and repetition, my first working title for the book was First Light, Again. But when it came time to send the book out, that title seemed a bit too easy.
My friend Kasey Jueds read the manuscript and suggested the title, I Say the Sky, a line from one of the poems; as soon as she suggested the title, I loved it. (I share the poem below.)
We often think of writing as a solitary activity, but in fact, there's a great deal of collaboration and community in writing. T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland, perhaps the single most influential poem in English of the 20th Century, is one of the most famous examples of a great literary collaboration. Ezra Pound substantially edited the poem, taking out entire sections, tightening it, and bringing it into greater focus. (By the way, the poem’s original working title was “He do the Police in Different Voices”–very different from the poem’s final title!) Friends, teachers, mentors, and editors all have shaped countless poets’ work.
I’m sharing below the poem from which the title comes. While some of my poems underwent substantial revisions, this poem came out largely in this form.
The poem's title, “The End of History,” nods to one of my mentors, Jorie Graham, and I use the phrase both seriously and a bit ironically. What does it mean to imagine an end of history? My hope is that this poem has multiple meanings at once.
The poem is about what we pay attention to, about time, the earth and the body, women and children, language and imagination, how we frame our experiences, and more. It’s about the ways in which, even now, things are also part of a larger natural cycle.
The poem is, for me, a part of an ongoing question, a conversation, and exploration into mystery. It comes at the beginning of the collection, and through the volume, I write into an expanding vision of rejuvenation.
Here we are on this planet hurtling through space, a planet bound by a thin membrane of livable atmosphere that we look up to and call the sky and that protects us from the vast cold emptiness of what lies around us: what mystery–and how much bigger than any of us it all is! I hope that my title "I Say the Sky" suggests some of that mystery: our desire to find and name meaning, and also the largeness of it all.
Here is the poem; apologies if line breaks don't show up properly on some devices.
The End of History
History, I say, with its high ramparts, its engraved swords.
I say the bees are falling from the skies, the apples will not come into bloom this year
or next. The fish gorge themselves on plastic.
Or I say the sky is blue today with nimbus clouds.
I say the girl, her clothes ripped off, underneath the guard’s heavy weight,
is named Deborah. I say the child frozen at his mother’s breast has stopped
his cries. We must do something.
I say the hawk sits in the high branches.
I say the mother sits on the cold cement floor.
I say yesterday I was full of fear and today the sky is blue with nimbus clouds.
We must act quickly. The world loves itself,
falls into itself with open arms, devoured, devouring.
(first published in Salamander Magazine)
This poem is in dialogue between different parts of the self, of the world, of experience. And I hope it invites further dialogue—what does it mean to you? How do you choose titles? I always love to hear from you. Drop me a line or leave a comment on my blog post.
And come on over to instagram , where I have a reel where I read this poem aloud. Check it out 🙂
PS: This Friday, I’ll be presenting and reading at the Mass Poetry Festival in a panel called “On Birds and Being” (1:00 pm) with four wonderful poets. If you’re in the Boston area, I’d love to see you there in person–if you come, please do introduce yourself to me!