Writing a poetry book is not as glamorous as I anticipated it to be. I’ve been writing poetry for decades, verses jotted down when emotions run too high. Poetry comes to me in fits of rage, holes of depression, fleeting moments of lust, times of loss, sorrow, self-reflection. Most of the time, inspiration comes during the night, when the darkness sparks creativity buried within. I sit on my wooden staircase while everyone sleeps, armed with my journal and just a hint of light, emptying my mind onto paper until I can breathe again.
Sounds pretty romantic and glamorous, and it can be. But there’s writing poetry, and there’s publishing poetry. The publishing side is what I was not at all prepared for.
As a closet poet for so long, I rarely ever revisited the poems I conjured. I would write them, hide them, or flip right by them without a second glance. If I did read them, generally in moments of boredom or organizational spits, I usually found myself embarrassed or shocked, ultimately disgusted by my inner thoughts.
I’ve ripped more poems in half than I can recall, torn pages out of diaries that I deemed unacceptable and inappropriate to reveal to the world. But now, it’s a different story. When I decided to work towards publishing my poetry a few months ago I realized something terrifying–I had to re-read my poetry. Read it, edit it, analyze it, format it…and not throw it away. Yikes. These are the challenges I’ve faced so far.
Poetry Book Challenge #1: Acceptance
Is there anything more terrifying than reading some of your most personal thoughts? Confessions that you thought were gone, out of your head, never to be spoken of again, are now painted in word form before you.
The first time I started reading my poetry with intentions to publish I thought, What is wrong with me? How am I going to release these words into the world? How is anyone going to understand them? That’s it, I’m going away—they’re going to commit me.
The truth is, maybe people won’t understand my poetry. There’s a chance that many will read my book and chalk it up as nonsense, a cry for help, or junk that belongs in a fire. Some deem it too complicated or too simple; too long or too short. There’s a chance my family and friends may reach out and say Hey…was that about me? How dare you! I could be ostracized from get-togethers and never invited to anything ever again. But the more poetry I read and the more I networked with fellow poets, the more I thought, Or…maybe the opposite could happen.
Maybe someone will see themselves in my words and discover that they aren’t alone. Maybe they’ll find solace in the idea that someone out there feels the same as them. My words could give someone the courage to speak up or spark a change. I could make new connections, find more creatives like me. My family and friends might be genuinely proud.
Accepting what I had to say as a poet and releasing my poems into the world was difficult. So I started small. A few poems here and there on Instagram, a few entries for poetry contests online, a submission or two to an anthology. Once I got on board, the magic of reading my verses KNOWING someone else was going to read them too was intoxicating.
Poetry Book Challenge #2: Editing
Editing a poem is similar to editing a manuscript in some ways. You have to read your piece over and over and over again. Your thesaurus is ready to look up words that better fit your message. You may think you’re done, put your work away and come back two weeks later thinking it’s all hogwash. Editing sucks, for most writers anyways. But with poets, the editing process is a little different.
My MWW poet friends often tell me poetry is more of an autobiography, a snippet of a diary. You don’t have to look for plotholes in a story or even make sure your grammar is on point. Poetry is about self-reflection, style, art with words. Each poem must be strong enough to stand on its own. This is no easy feat when you have a collection topping 50-100 poems, all of which must stand on their own two feet.
When I read poetry, I like to feel that punch in the gut. The realization of who the writer is and what they are trying to say and the power of their message making my hair stand on end. When I read a piece that moves me to the core, I mouth the words, again and again, orchestrating with my fingers as if I’m conducting my own spoken word performance.
That is what I want my readers to feel when they read my poems. But making your poems speak that passionately can be so much harder than it sounds. It takes a lot of work, tons of time getting lost in your mind, and stepping back out to determine how to put these overwhelming emotions into words. This has undoubtedly been the hardest part of my writing journey to date.
Challenge #3: Collection Theme
I can’t speak for all poets, but I know that my poems are typically all over the place. I write about my kids, my family, my expectations, my dreams, observations that sparked epiphanies, or moments that insight rage. Everything.
When I first decided to put together a collection, I looked through all of the poetry I already had to figure out which poems I wanted to use– seemed easy enough. I had tons of poems to choose from, books, and journals stock full. This will be a cinch, I thought. All I have to do is pick a bunch, edit them and slap them in a book. What lies I tell myself as a new writer.
The fact is, not all of my poetry goes together, and when you are looking to create a collection they have to complement each other in some way. After reading everything I had, I knew I had to write more. I had to pick a direction, choose the poems I had that fit, decide how many more I needed and get writing. But for the life of me, I could not choose!
Every direction I went I felt like I was pigeonholing myself. Each time I picked a collection topic, my mind would go blank when it came to additional pieces. I would freeze. Writer’s block. Nothing. No words.
Eventually, I stopped. I couldn’t think about the collection anymore. I decided to take a break and just keep writing poetry that came to me, hoping a theme would show itself. It took a while, but it finally did. Now the poetry is spilling out of me faster than I can catch it.
BREATHE Poets, You Got This
While writing poetry is second nature, the steps to take in producing your poetry book are not so much—just breathe. There is a solution ahead.
The best thing I ever did so far on my journey is to find a group of poets you can connect with. I have found a group that is supportive, encouraging, always ready to help in whatever way I need. Poetry is not the same as other writing forms, and while it’s necessary to get feedback from all types of writers and readers, fellow poets are the ones to go to when times get tough.
I now believe I’m in the final stretch of discovering what my first poetry book is going to look and feel like. I have a lot of work left, but the spark that motivates me to keep going is there.
About the Writer: Shell Sherwood is a poet, fiction writer, freelancer, and creator of silly children’s stories, who could live on coffee, pastries, and romantic tragedies. She lives in Hudson Valley, NY with her fiancé and three boys, and aspires to own a small writing getaway in every climate. Learn more about Shell and follow her writing journey via her author blog, Instagram, and TikTok.