Say you have a large pile of stories (or poems, or comics, or essays) that you want to cobble together. And the first thing you think about when you think about putting them all together into a single cohesive chapbook or manuscripts is some sort of gutteral noise, like “BLUGGH” or “SNNNUGRRT.” This post is for you.
To me, making an anthology is kind of like maxing a mix tape. The order is important: it needs some kind of logical flow, plus a solid opener and a lasting final track. There are totally rules to a good mix tape, even if there is debate as to what those rules are. But in any case, no matter how you order your poems, there will be some kind of message communicated, and it’s probably best to make sure you know what the overall impression your collection is giving off. Otherwise you might end up in a situation like this:
I mean, Princeton did actually get his message across, but perhaps not in the most effective way.
However, this song does bring up a key facet of anthologies: Side A/Side B. Note how I’m not talking about a mix CD; I’m using the mix tape metaphor because in my mind, the midpoint is really that important, especially in a longer anthology. If there are more than ten or so poems/stories/essays, it’s useful to have a strong piece in the middle that either embodies the collection as a whole, or is the something-est in the collection (darkest, most lighthearted, strongest embodiment of a theme). If you’re making a stapled chapbook, this will be the literal centerfold piece, i.e. the thing people see when they let the book fall open to the center. If you’re in the land of perfect-bound (paperback) books, then your midpoint needn’t be so exact.
Here’s a few examples of midpoint stories/poems/essays that I see:
- In the middle of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics comes the story “Games Without End,” which is a story about the creation of the universe/multiverse through these oddly-named entities playing games. That’s a pretty good theme statement for the whole book.
- Haruki Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes seems to have a single character narrating maybe two thirds or more of the stories; it’s never really clear. There are certain recurring themes, characters, and voices. One of the recurring characters, who in my head at least is the key to the entire collection, is named Noboru Watanabe. The midpoint story of the collection, “Family Affair,” is the second time Noboru Watanabe has come up during the book and for me, anyway, the point at which the stories began to gel together.
- In David Whyte’s poetry collection, The House of Belonging, the poem “The Journey” falls in more or less the middle. Whyte divides his collection into four sections, and “The Journey is right at the end of section two. It’s a good thematic encapsulation of the collection as a whole, ending with the lines: “someone has written/something new/in the ashes/of your life//you are not leaving/you are arriving.”
Sections are another powerful tool to use when arranging an anthology. Essay collections do it frequently; Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses uses the five senses plus synesthesia as her sections. She has smell and touch first, though, and only later gets ’round to the perhaps more talked-about senses of sight and hearing. Poetry collections often use sections, either titled or untitled. And even short story collections can make good use of headings. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s collection There Once Was a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby is divided into four sections suggesting what type of story they contain: Songs of the Eastern Slavs, Allegories, Requiems, and Fairy Tales.
Overall, though, I find it important to let your pieces come together with some kind of arc. Everyone talks about arc: screenwriters, poets, novelists. “Arc” can mean a sort of simplified form of the hero’s journey, or glomming on to a pre-existing mythic structure in order to give your stories (or whatnot) some sense of progression and flow. In my thesis anthology for Goddard, I started with a story called “The Boy Who Went Forth To Learn About Fear and the Girl Who Knew Perfectly Well What It Was”…which I realize is one helluva mouthful. Still, it’s a story about going on a quest, and seeing things from multiple perspectives, which sets you up for a lot of the perspective shifts I do later in the collection. The stories get progressively darker and more depressing until my midpoint tale, “The Juniper Child,” which is perhaps my darkest piece, but ends with a literal resurrection (of a dead child). My stories get happier and/or more redemptive after that one, and the collection ends on another “Boy Who” tale (“The Boy Who Lost His Soul”), this one with a mysterious ending that’s not entirely happy but not entirely sad, either.
“Arc” can be simpler, too…ordering your poems in a vaguely chrological way to track your movement from childhood to adulthood…ordering your essays about the Pacific Crest Trail on a way that shows your journey from start to finish…putting your stories in thematic groups and then doing all the “loss of innocence” stories first and the “gaining experience” stories second…y’know. Something to give your anthology a shape.
And finally, because no discussion of a mix tape would be complete without it, this discussion of the importance of the first three “tracks”:
“The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.” -Rob Gordon, High Fidelity
No, but really. The first piece has to be strong. The second needs to blow you out of the water. The third can calm down a little. The weirdo pieces that are breaking all the rules need to go partway between the beginning and the middle, or the middle and the end. The last story should be resonating with the feeling of the anthology as a whole. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber is a great example of this “perfect mixtape” type ordering.
Really, the best way to learn how to order your pieces in an anthology is to a) try a bunch of stuff out and b) look at anthologies you love and steal their tricks. And yes, like Rob Gordon says, it does take longer than you think.
Do you have tips/tricks/great examples particularly in genres I did not represent well here? Post ’em below.
Happy Anthologizing, everyone!