Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Tyranny of My Book Title

I recently announced that my first collection of poems, PRETTY TILT, is coming out from Keyhole Press sometime in 2012. I am happy and excited. I had a hell of a time finding a title for it and this is why.

The book, the bulk of which is my MFA thesis, was originally called STICK PINK. I still like this title, but a lot of people thought it didn't fit the book, especially as it evolved. One of my MFA classmates said "Why did you name your book penis?" which pretty indelibly ruined that title for me. The book  is largely about teenage girlhood and the formation of identity, so I wanted the title to be something that evoked femininity but also had a dark side. Teenage girls have some very dark sides.

Then I named the book LIKE THE LITTLE LIGHTNING, which was a line from one of the important poems in the book. I still like this title, but I think it's kind of twee and not reflective of the book's overall concerns. This is the final title of the thesis...if you ever go look me up in NMSU's library, that's what you'll see. But I knew LIKE THE LITTLE LIGHTNING wasn't the REAL title.

I haven't ever had too much trouble titling my individual poems, so people were like HEY! Just name the book after one of the central poems. But that didn't work. No one poem or one phrase or one line seemed to sum up or capture the book's whole scope. These are poems I'd been working with for years and I knew their personalities. I wanted a title that sounded good when you said it out loud. I wanted one that instantly evoked a specific image or feeling. I wanted a title that would make me want to read the book if it wasn't my book.

So the book was eventually accepted for publication, but I still had no title. I did everything I could think of to generate one, including going through the book with a fine-tooth comb, scrambling the book a full three times, soliciting opinions from everyone I could think of, emailing the manuscript to friends and teachers, and whining incessantly on Twitter. I whined a lot to myself, too; I've had a hard time adjusting to writing outside of the bubble of the MFA program and I was angry at myself for not being able to title my own book without asking a billion people what they thought.

Still, nothing seemed right or felt right. I thought, maybe, that when I heard the perfect title I would just know, like some kind of message from the art-gods to me. You know when someone has a new baby and you say Oh, how did you pick the name? and they say We just looked at her and knew she was an Anne! (Or, more likely these days, an Ella or an Emma or an Isabella). I thought something like that was going to happen. I would suddenly hear or think of the perfect title and that would be that.

But that was never that. I kept a running list of possible titles in a Gmail draft, but I hated all of them. I sort of wanted to name the book RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS, which is a reference to the 2001 Drew Barrymore movie that I watched incessantly as a teenager. Four poems in the book are titled RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS so it seemed fitting, seemed to tie the book together in a good way. But my publisher said it would fuck up Google search results and that was a good enough reason, so I abandoned it.

So, PRETTY TILT. How did it come to be? Well, it came out of the random scrambling of the manuscript, oddly enough. PRETTY TILT was one of the phrases that the automated scrambler came up with. I kind of liked it and then I asked some people's opinions (OF COURSE) and they seemed to like it, including the publisher. So I said ok. Relatively anticlimactic, right? But it fits the book and I like the way it sounds on the tongue and to be honest, I was just done hemming and hawing over the title.  PRETTY TILT is on its way into the world now. That title is going to be printed on a book with my name underneath and my poems inside. Whoa.

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