Matthew Stewart confronts the dangers of moving too fast from poetry pamphlet to full collection, or from first book to second.
The process of preparing a second collection of poems is renowned for its traps and pitfalls. It’s often compared to that ‘difficult second album’ in musical terms. However, the transition from pamphlet to full collection shares many of the same perils. And of course it has others all of its own.
Let’s start with an obvious point in common: if a first collection is lukewarmly reviewed and has weak sales, publishers aren't likely to enthuse about a second. Of course, the same's true for a pamphleteer who wants to place a full collection.
In other words, the achievement of getting a chapbook into print is not a goal so much as a point of departure for sales via readings, blogs and so on. The next pitch is so very much easier if the poet can say the previous book sold out.
Nevertheless, one is not out of the woods even if a pamphlet or first collection has been a resounding success. Timelines are key. Marry at haste, repent at leisure is a useful proviso.
Social media (witnessing the frenetic activity of others) and associated peer pressure (so-and-so only brought out their pamphlet when I did and they’re already promoting their first collection) encourage many to rush to publication. What’s more, if there’s an unexpected offer of a full collection from a publisher on the back of a well-received pamphlet, who has the confidence to turn it down? Another chance may never come along. In terms of a second book-length collection, meanwhile, there might well be pressure from a publisher to follow up and strike while the reader is hot.
And so poets – far too often– hurry their writing. I sometimes read tweets or Facebook posts from people who are furiously working away at new poems to meet their publisher’s deadline. I’m sorry, but this is just wrong. Put those drafts away in some dark drawer for six months till you fall out of love with them sufficiently to revise meaningfully. And then put them back again afterwards. For a further six months. And so on….
There's only one chance to publish a 'first collection', as the name makes self-evident. Not uncommonly, readers and critics can be seen bemoaning the fact that someone’s first collection is a let-down after the pamphlet, that the collection is more uneven, falling down from the chapbook manuscript instead of building on it. I’ve even heard poets confess they included stuff that didn’t make the pamphlet, all in a fevered struggle to make the length of a full collection in time.
And then there’s another question that only affects the jump from pamphlet to full collection – how many poems from the original manuscript should be included in the new one? All,or none at all? Put too many in and the reader could well feel conned if they previously bought the chapbook. Go for entirely new material and you’re kissing goodbye to some of your best work. My personal preference tends to reside in a halfway house of about a dozen pieces common to both books, but there’s no hard and fast rule. I’ve seen successful solutions at both ends of the spectrum.
Oh, and one final thing – sales. Not just commercial reality but reaching a reader. Don’t forget a full collection costs roughly double a pamphlet. It’s a tougher sell. Most potential customers (beyond your best friends and family) won’t fancy shelling out on a new book from you every year. Make them wait!