Saturday, August 11, 2007

Title goes here


I also find it sad that I read so many young poets are constantly changing their manuscripts after not placing in a contest. When everything is so oversaturated and so many contests are run by committee, taking your losing to mean anything is dangerous. Having been a screener for contests, I can say that I've seen so many manuscripts look overlabored. You need to let go of your manuscript. There's only so much you can do.

Unless you have a bad title. Here's an embarrassing confession: for years I sent out my manuscript and never placed. I called it the dumbest, dullest things! Aesthetics of the Damned was one. Hoaxes and Scams was another.

As soon as I called it Blind Date with Cavafy (all the poems were basically the same ones that appeared under the other titles), I started being named a finalist. And I won pretty quick. After many, many years of bad titles. This is my theory: most screeners, most poets are insecure in making aesthetic judgments. The mention of Cavafy made it clear that I knew something about poetry. The humor of the phrase "blind date" juxtaposed with the literary allusion signaled I was a poet. I am very embarrassed to admit this, but I think it's true. There's so much out there, and most people are tentative, they need clues that they're giving the right book the award. That isn't to say this is why I won, but I did notice that I started making it past the initial rounds much more often. Choose a smart title. Most titles suck. They're boring and pretentious and vague.

In my experience, titles are hard. I like my chapbook title (Breach) but poem titles frustrate me. As for the (soon, soon...) full-length collection, I think I know the title, but once I start shoving poems together it may not work anymore.

There are lots of ways to come up with titles:
~~use the title of one of the poems in the book (which puts a lot of pressure on that poem, eh?)
~~pull out a key (or not so key) phrase from one poem (which still spotlights that one poem, but not so blatantly)
~~title that serves as a key to somehow unlock the "meaning" of the book
~~title that names the overriding story or thread or tone of the book

How do y'all come up with titles?

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Spent a couple hours at Panera today, drinking too much coffee, eating a Dutch apple/raisin bagel (toasted, with low-fat cream cheese), and reading (Lucia Perillo and Major Jackson, to be specific). Drafted two poems, one of which may be a keeper, then had to pull over in a parking lot halfway home because another one was banging on my brain. I love it when that happens.

* * * * *

Really wishing I could make it to AWP in January, but it seems highly unlikely given the price of hotel rooms in NYC. I truly can't afford to spend three weeks' salary (or more) on a conference, even though I think it would be lots of fun. Sigh. I am, however, going to keep an eagle eye out for cheap airfares, and try to sneak out to Provincetown in the early spring for a long weekend -- March or early April or so. I really want to see a North Atlantic right whale (super endangered species; there are maybe 330-350 of them living) and they hang out just offshore that time of year.

* * * * *

Two weeks from Monday, classes begin at the university here. Much as I complain about the lack of parking, newbies going the wrong way on all our one-way streets, and impossibility of getting a table at Panera, I secretly love it when the students return. All those new young faces, all those fresh starts. It reminds me that you can always start something new if you need to. And it reminds me of how thrilled I was to arrive in town as a bright-eyed freshman back in 1979 (god I'm old), and those first months of discovering so many of the things I still love about this town.


Megan said...

then had to pull over in a parking lot halfway home because another one was banging on my brain. I love it when that happens.

Ooh, me too.

Titles are hard. I am a big fan of simplicity when it comes to them. Most of my poems have very simple, one-word titles. I like the elegance and understated-ness of encompassing a poem with an artless word or small phrase. But I guess that's how I like poetry to be, too--a simple, quiet symbol of something deep and complicated.

The title of my chapbook (the one I'm trying to get published through a contest) is "The Beaded Curtain," which is the title of one of the poems in it (not one of my favorite poems, oddly enough). I've wavered on the title...sometimes it seems too boring, or even cheesy, but I do think it's the best representation of what the collection means, so it stays.

Anyway, I like your chapbook title, too, and in case I haven't told you, I can't wait to buy a copy when it's available!

Montgomery Maxton said...

my titles just come to me. most of the time they come first, then the poem;story;blogentry; next.

if i wasnt staying at a friends in nyc for awp(weekend - i say weekend because im only going to meet people, not to partake) then i'd say we should get a room together.

two beds for those who read this and might think something is up!

Lyle Daggett said...

For each of my published books, the book title is the title of one of the poems in the book. In one instance, the book title actually came first, and I subsequently wrote a poem with that title that's included in the book.

For most of my as-yet-unpublished manuscripts (completed and in progress), the manuscript titles are also the titles of poems in the manuscripts. In one case the manuscript title is the first line of one of the poems.

I haven't even submitted to contests, but I can't imagine reworking a manuscript just because it didn't get picked.

Collin said...

My frist book "Better To Travel" was originally called "London, Paris, New York" -- a total snooze.

"Slow To Burn" was originally "What Remains"

"Wake" has been through more name changes than I care to mention, but it's the one that has stuck. I had a list of about six or seven titles and I always came back to that one. The title is the last word of the last poem in the collection.

Kelly in Nebraska said...

I love title discussions. I think titles of manuscripts should pay attention to three things. They should have a great sound, like Jennifer Reeser's An Alabaster Flask. They should be a concrete image rather than a concept (so I vote yes on The Beaded Curtain). If the image can also stand in as metaphor, I think that is an added bonus (another vote for The Beaded Curtain). A title I suggested recently, which was a phrase pulled from a poem in the manuscript, was Not Far from the Barb. Another I like (which is already being circulated by the poet so no stealing) is Impossible Blossom.

Anonymous said...

Blogger has been messing up non-blogger links, sorry. My site is

-Kelly in Nebraska

Anne said...

Megan: Thanks! I like your title -- a beaded curtain is a barrier, but one that doesn't completely block the view, and the mystery of that is intriguing to me. Although I kind of see poetry as taking something simple (or something that seems to be simple anyway) and finds the complications in it. But maybe we're really saying the same thing...

MM: Heh, that rumor would have caused the blogosphere to have WAY too much fun. ;) (Unfortunately, I snore so much that sharing a room with anyone is a Bad Idea anyhow!)

Lyle: I can't imagine reworking a manuscript because of one or a handful of rejections, but if I'd sent one out a dozen or more times with no success, I'd probably consider an overhaul. For me it's different from revising a poem just because it gets rejected; a poem exists because it needs to, but a book exists to get the poems out into the world. At least that's how I see it. I think.

Kelly: I definitely agree about the sound! A book title needs to be catchy and intriguing. "Not Far from the Barb" is a great one.

poet with a day job said...

Great entry. So, how do I title: constantly. I know they are bad. But I think I finally have one I like. It could still be sap night in sap city, but I am done. And I agree: sometimes a loss can make you rethink - but there does have to come a time when, as a maturing poet you say "you know what, it's got to be done." I wonder if creating that psychic energy and letting go can actually help it get accepted.

I can't decide whether to be appalled or just shrug (it's not like I don't know it's true) what that "blind date w/ Cavafy" guy said. It makes me want to name drop in my title just to get some attention. Grr!

As for AWP - I am so going! I have lots of people in NYC. I'm very lucky that way: permanent place to stay.

Christopher Hennessy said...

I just posted the bit about contests, and then visited your site and found it here, too. I wonder if all the first book interviews get this much interest. Cheers!

jenni said...

My poems don't have "titles." They have "labels." LOL!