A Flock of Anxieties: Publishing a Second Collection

Trumpet Issue 1

The relationship of a poet to her evolving second collection can be fraught with uncertainty. As the American critic Lisa Russ Spaar has observed: ‘Accompanying the writing, publication, notice, and shelf-life of second books of poems are a flock of anxieties, expectations, and other social, cultural, economic, and circumstantial forces that can often lead to their being overlooked and under-reviewed.’ It is this very ‘flock of anxieties’ that can leave poets – not just musicians – susceptible to ‘second album syndrome’.

Unlike with a first collection, where one could potentially be a ‘gifted hobbyist’, or a synthesiser of poems which have been widely work-shopped and published over a long period of time, a second book is a public expression of intent, an open coming-of-age of its author as a committed poet. There is an implicit expectation that the apprenticeship is over, or at least at an advanced stage; the collection seeks to extend the reach of the debut book and, potentially, to move to more daring, uncharted places.

It was not until the publication of their second volumes that many well-known writers, including Philip Larkin and Anna Akhmatova, came to prominence. Some second manuscripts are stellar breakthroughs, such as Sylvia Plath’s Ariel which was famously wrought in an outpouring shortly before her suicide, or Adrienne Rich’s bravely ambitious, Diving into the Wreck. More often than not, they represent a general flowering of voice and sensibility; an ushering in of a writer’s style, stretching beyond the inklings of the inaugural book.

Since the publication of my own first collection, No Vague Utopia (Ainnir Publishing, 2003), the completion of a doctorate, my marriage, the birth of my son and the exigencies of making a living in arts management all took precedence over the hasty realisation of volume number two. In hindsight, I recognise that I was still in the throes of my apprenticeship when No Vague Utopia came out, buoyed by my love-blindness for language which gave me confidence in my incipient voice. Belying this confidence, however, was my reluctance to fully submit to the public label of ‘poet’. For multiple reasons, then – some practical, others more curious – my second collection, In Between Angels and Animals (Arlen House, 2013) was ten years in gestation.

Getting a handle on the complexity of what it means to write a second book often involves the internalisation of new knowledge. How do we cross a threshold; how do we jostle with habitual patterns of thought to break through to riskier terrain? Alongside this challenge, however, our unconscious minds need room to thrive. Making poems involves a peculiar type of agency; a poet is part active conduit, part passive receptor. Over time, loose images, impressionistic narratives, halflines alchemise.

Poetry is as much about not knowing as it is about understanding; blindness and incompleteness are as significant a part of the creative process as observation and knowledge. The challenge exists in sustaining both our ‘negative capability’, in the Keatsian sense of being fully ‘open’, while simultaneously extending our prosodic and thematic range. This is no easy task – particularly when, as Irish poets, we have the conflicting edicts of Yeats (‘Irish poets, learn your trade’) and Kavanagh (‘the poet should not care’) resounding in our ears at tinnitus level.

There is no quick-fix solution to any of these tests, especially when it is so easy to remain ensconced in our comfort zones. Many poets are in writers’ groups which can provide vital fellowship and encouragement and, if we are lucky, even some insightful critical perspectives. But these groups can also have limited impact; for various reasons, we are frequently guilty of selective hearing which can work against us while sustaining the illusion of progress. Workshop facilitators, too, provide prompts and creative stimuli useful for generating new ideas, but often these will only take one so far. How do we access information which will nudge us toward new insights about old poems we have rewritten and revised?

In her essay entitled ‘Finding the Story’, Nessa O’Mahony notes: ‘There is frequently a narrative, a dynamic unseen by the writers themselves as they are writing individual poems, but that becomes clear when those poems are assembled into a body of work. ’ Are we aware of the hidden narratives embedded in our own poems; frayed threads we could weave or upholster? The old fallback is to pass our manuscript to someone who can give it a critical read. However, this doesn’t always guarantee fresh perspectives. What does it mean to receive, and then act on, critical feedback, even if it is difficult to hear? What are the best ways we can support poets in their early careers to come into a fuller sense of their own style?

For my own part, I decided to give my manuscript to two widely published writers with divergent perspectives; one was my ideal reader and the other a completely contrasting voice to my own. This dialectic proved fruitful as the comments from both triggered threshold knowledge that offered insight to open up my thinking. Often, what writers need is a significant amount of processing time to take on board the advice they receive from other mentor writers.

The breaking down of old paradigms as we attempt to shift the ground and raise the stakes for our second books is an exhilarating experiment. I see my own second volume as a transition between states; a concern reflected in its title, In Between Angels and Animals and its recognition and articulation of growth. For booklovers, as opposed to writers, the close reading of a poet’s second collection offers a chance to position the author’s developing sensibility in the context of apprenticeship and maturation. The arc I am on now as I embark on my third volume is thrilling to contemplate; there is still so much that needs to be said.

Emily Cullen is an Irish poet, scholar and harpist currently based in Australia. She is the author of two collections of poetry: No Vague Utopia (Ainnir Publishing, 2003) and In Between Angels and Animals, published last year by Arlen House. In 2004 Emily was selected for Poetry Ireland’s Introductions Series, and in the same year she curated the Centenary Celebrations for poet Patrick Kavanagh. Emily teaches Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne.

« Return to listings