The day my first book arrived, I was heading out the door to a poetry reading at a university an hour away. I had just enough time to return from work, open the box, and run my hands over the cover of something I had toiled over for so long it seemed ironic that it could fit in my hands, a poetry collection of 80 pages. Making sure my neighbors couldn’t see me from the windows, I cracked the book open and took a breath deep in the pages. Then, I left the house, a copy of my book in hand which I tossed into the passenger seat next to me. All the drive down, Kansas fields brushing by along the highway, I glanced at the book from time to time, as if it was smiling back at me. As if it could return the same obsessive, embarrassing affection I was giving it.
At the poetry reading, I sat and listened to Sandra Beasley read from her work, grateful I made the drive down. Afterwards, I introduced myself and, of course, somehow slipped in the euphoric news of the day. Her reply was smart, resonant with what I was beginning to feel with every mile as I was driving. “Now the real fun begins. Now you have to figure out how to write your second.”
It’s a question that has been bothering me for some time: How do you navigate from your first published book to the second? Whether you are someone who has completed an MFA or not, no one tells you the next steps after the first book. In fact, the narrative is often the opposite— everyone around you seems to think that a first book will only happen if you ascend Mount Olympus and beg the mercy of the poetry gods. With this curse stamped into your soul as an early grad student, it is always: write, revise, write, write. You learn to listen to the good workshop voices, ignore the bad ones, and start to thread together a series of poems that people either pat you on the back for or else tell you to toss in the trash upon graduation. Publishing a first book is like winning the lottery. Publishing a second is like acquiring another language through dreams. And a third? You might as well sit around and wait for divine revelation.
Most of the meat of my first book was written during my MFA program, in a narrative aesthetic I had always found very natural to me. An aesthetic that fit with the kind of memoir poetry I was writing: delving into my adolescence growing up in war-torn Chad. Poems that memorialized past friendships, elegized home.
From start to finish, the book took around six years, including the time spent sending it out, waiting for bites on the fishing line of publication. When I felt that I was finishing my final tweaks on the book, I also knew that I was closing the chapter on an aesthetic that had carried me so far. As much as I love to wrestle with memory and my life abroad, I knew that I simply couldn’t regurgitate these memories ad infinitum. I realized that whereas the poems in my first book were driven by narrative, my newer poems were concerned more with expressing moods of spiritual dislocation. I’m sure my friends would tell you that my newer poems channel the same voice as my older ones. But for me, I felt as if I had crossed geographies—from poems concerned with physical boundaries and a longing for home to poems wrestling with the divine in the context of suffering, poems that breathed more the dark night of the soul.
Over the phone, I asked a poet friend what I should do. He responded that my new horizon has to be the merging of these two geographies—physical and metaphysical—that my compartmentalized poetry “worlds” needed to be collapsed.
My fascination with my friend’s insight was quickly tempered with the paralysis of not knowing how to enter into this newly collapsed world. For as much as I wanted to adopt a new way of writing, I couldn’t cast off the old poems. Each book is a “shaped utterance,” according to Louise Glück. In her essay “Education of the Poet,” she unpacks both the successes and dangers that go into the crafting of a single manuscript:
[A]s you discern the book’s themes, its fundamental preoccupations, you see as well the poems’ habitual gestures, those habits of syntax and vocabulary, the rhythmic signatures which, ideally, give the volume at hand its character but which it would be dangerous to repeat.
Just as I was growing used to my new book and its young existence in the world, I was at the same time needing to unlearn the habits, the “preoccupations,” that had led to its birth in the first place.
As I started to write new material, I found that those habits—the more prosy features of my poetry, the more defined parameters of punctuation, sentence breaks, etc.—began to break down and give way to a style more fluid just as I was beginning to stretch beyond the confines of personal narrative. Style needed to transition just as content was shifting.
And it’s here where I am now: I know only the need to reinvent myself. To rediscover the possibilities of a poem. I’ve so often reached the limits of my poetry. Sometimes I have felt as if I was just writing the same poem over and over again. At this juncture, I go off and dabble with an essay (hence what you are reading) or order a coffee at a coffee shop and trick myself into thinking that I am writing. These new poems have come in fits and have often seemed flat, empty. But every once in a while, I tap into a new language, the vein of new life; I hear a pulse and it is growing, slowly.
I can see the faint horizon of where my new poems are headed. I can feel the border crossing into that new geographical space. I have no idea how long it will be before these new poems coalesce—and that’s completely fine. Recently, I spent a whole day pasting poems into a Word document, printed it out, rearranged, cut thirty pages, then sat down to read what I had left. It was exciting because I could see the poems coming together. It was frustrating because I could see the multitude of placeholders: all the poems suggesting direction but not yet making their final arrival.
So here’s to all my fellow poets out there who are navigating the waters between the first and (hoped-for) second collection. I hope we all find that new territory—and delight in the uncomfortable, unknowing discovery of it.
Aaron Brown is the author of the poetry collection, Acacia Road, winner of the 2016 Gerald Cable Book Award (Silverfish Review Press). He has been published in World Literature Today, Tupelo Quarterly, Waxwing, Cimarron Review, and Transition, among others. Brown grew up in Chad and now lives in Kansas, where he is a professor of writing at Sterling College. He holds an MFA from the University of Maryland.