The Shortest Road to the Layered Stones

I first came up with a distinct concept of how to organise a number of my poems into a book around the end of spring 2014. Of course family members and good friends had, now and then, suggested the idea in general terms. What I needed was a solid structure though, a skeleton onto which it would make sense to add internal organs, circulatory and nervous systems, muscles, skin. The way I imagine it, a book is a creature, or an abstract entity if you prefer, that must have its own internal logic – which, in turn, can be coupled up with the external logics of the world it arrives in. So a pile of randomly thrown-in poems looked and sounded unappealing to me. Then came the idea to have the poems thematically organised: love poems here, angry poems there, sci-fi-sounding poems over there, each group in its own neat drawer, all parts of the cupboard of the book. That idea felt unpleasant though. It was way too neat and comfortable.

Other things intervened. I worked on a thesis chapter, prepared for WorldCon 2014 and took part, then finished the first draft of the lyrics for a musical project I was part of at the time. Then said musical project fell apart and I didn’t feel a desire to write anything at all for a while. Finding a way out of a smelly, wet cave that makes you and all your work feel useless does not happen in a day. In the beginning of 2015, something was already moving independently through the chaos in my brain. I recognised that one way to structure individual poems in a meaningful whole is to present them as the sequences of one person’s questioning, unrestrained, free thought. But who would that person be? Me? That would be both boring and quite presumptuous. I don’t live that exciting a life. So I made the conscious choice to ascribe the poems to a character. Right away yet more external things intervened: a wedding, more dissertation chapters, a broken washing machine in the beginning of summer, a summer school (where I taught a seminar), taxes, various annoying troubles… Finally, sometime in October this year, things started to take shape. I knew I’ll have a poet and public figure who’s disappeared in the middle of a huge war; I knew that a descendant would find his work, hidden away, many centuries later; I knew that the descendant would have to work with other people to publish the poetry collection of my fictional socially engaged dissenter/activist poet; I knew that the book would be presented like a standard academically edited collection of the works of someone long dead, replete with introductions, analytical essays and postscripts; I knew that the characters who publish the poet’s collection would have no way of knowing what really happened to him; I knew that they wouldn’t even have all his surviving poetry at the beginning of their work; and I knew that they would be fallible and make mistakes in the individual ways they engage with his poetry. Now hold this strange book structure in your mind for a moment please.

Now imagine me going with this peculiar 120-to-150-page book, made predominantly of abstract poetry and presented in this convoluted manner, to a publisher and asking to be published in the current economic climate.

It’s not going to happen, not any time soon. I looked at a bunch of publishers and agents, I looked at a number of specialist magazines and websites, and I quickly gave up. Past the Layered Stones does not possess the level of smooth, homogeneous consistency and ironed-out internal unity that is usually sought — and deliberately so. The book cannot allow itself to be too homogeneous, smooth and unified because it will lose the quality of immediacy. A poet writes of disparate things over great expanses of time; a collection spanning decades cannot be excessively consistent if its past.the.layered.stones.300dpipoems are organised into a discrete, deliberate structure by the poet according to the poet’s own idiosyncratic plan, and that’s precisely what my fictional poet has done. So I needed to carefully position both old and new poems in the structure and consequently spent a lot of time fine-tuning it. I also needed to complete the project and move on, and in the process do something productive with all the interlinked poetic notions coursing through my brain. These are some of the reasons that led me to self-publish the completed piece as an e-book. Naturally, this way I lose the benefits of a large publishing machine with its solid art departments, advertising connections and book-selling proficiencies, but I gain quick global availability, a rather direct link to readers and, quite significantly, time to spend on other projects. Additionally, I receive the assurance that I can do this, with moderate success, almost completely on my own.

Because entirely on my own I could of course never, ever do this. Family and good friends were instrumental in making my little book possible; just look at the acknowledgements at the end of the book. I must say, though, that I deliberately didn’t tell anyone absolutely everything about the weird structure and the sophisticated timelines. I thought I shouldn’t over-rely on others, no matter that they are really good people, and I’d give myself a bit of a challenge to see how I fare with a complex book structure on my own. Re-reading the book now, it makes sense as a whole, the later parts work well with the earlier ones and knowing the end sheds different kinds of light onto many poems and passages. Whether it’s fun for the reader as well, that only you can tell me, reading person. Please do so whenever you feel like it.

So there we are. Despite the many twists and the sharp turns, this was the shortest road to the layered stones. I’m happy that I managed to complete the book and set it free in the digital ocean. And now a little restless part of me is already keenly eyeing the next challenge.

As to my next project, it’s quite likely to take the insanity up another notch. Or two.

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