A Style Guide for a Poetry Anthology

Anthologies are some of the hardest books to edit, all the more so when we’re not technically the editors. From the freewheeling, unscripted barbaric yawp of the modern poetry slam, we aim to create a professional, printed book that can hold its own with any other anthology out this year.

That can be a tall order when some of the poems our editors have selected for us never were written down to begin with. The printed word is always an imperfect analog for what happens on stage. Think of how sheet music attempts to use paper and notation to explain how a piece of music; how much faith the composer must place in the unseen conductors and concertmasters who will interpret her melody.

Add to that the near-allergy many poets outside of “the academy” have to anyone or anything attempting to impose order on their poems, and you have a recipe for trouble. It’s not a new problem, or even an unwelcome one. Here, then is the

Bicycle Comics Style Guide for Tandem, Volume 2

Overarching goal: to create a book that is readable. Imagine a curious, reasonably-intelligent reader. He or she is not a poet, a professor, or a cryptographer. Neither is he or she a doting, patient parent. Our goal is to put art in front of this reader without require him/her to work too hard to suss out the meaning.

Rule 1: The book has rules. Basically, The Elements of Style. Prominent features:

  • Oxford comma: A, B, and C.
  • One space after periods. Like so.
  • Periods and commas inside quotes, most other punctuation to follow logical syntax.
    David said, “Hello,” when he saw Mike.
    Mike responded, “How are you?”
    Did you tell him you were “kind of sick”?
  • Capitalize proper nouns: “Arizona,” “Mt. Vesuvius,” “God,” “Mr. Rodriguez.”
  • Commas before conjunctions that join two clauses: “I wanted to go to sleep, but he kept reading stories.”
  • zero, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten/10, 11, 12, 13, 14…
  • Hyphenate compound adjectives. “your hair-trigger temper,” “my Sunday-best suit” “a get-rich-quick scheme”
  • Commas between two adjectives in series…most of the time. “her invisible, unbreakable anger,” “my delicious, gluten-free dinner.”
  • Words should be spelled correctly, pronouns should be in their proper case, etc.
  • Use subjunctive mood for expressions of wishful conditions that run counter to established fact. If I were your muse, you would write your poems in red ink.

Rule 2: The poem can have its own rules. These rules often take precedence over the book’s rules.

  • A poem needs to be consistent unto itself. Many poems treat a mid-sentence line break as an implied comma. That’s fine, but if some line breaks have implied commas and some have explicit commas, then we should pick one guideline for that poem.
  • Some poems don’t capitalize anything, or don’t capitalize first lines, or only capitalize the word “I.” That’s all okay, so long as there is consistency within the poem.
  • Some poems use italics for dialog. Some poems use quotation marks. Some use italics for unspoken or interior monolog, but quotation marks for things said aloud. All of these options are permissible.

Rule 3: A speaking character can have his or her own rules. These rules often take precedence over the poem’s rules.

  • If it is clear to the average reader that a poem has sections of dialog, the dialog is permitted some maneuvering room for syntax and style.
  • If it is clear to the average reader that an entire poem is spoken or requires colloquial speech patterns, the poem may use them.
  • Proper spelling is still required beyond adjustments for slang or idiom. “It’s your problem, ain’t it?” is fine. “Its yore problem, aint it?” is not.

Rule 4. Rhyme can have its own rules. But really, if you’re making huge sacrifices in clarity or readability for prosody or rhyme, you’re doing it wrong.

Rule 5. Poets get to see their work before we print it.

  • We owe it to our contributors to show them their work as we will publish it for our readers. Our contributors should have a reasonable, though limited, opportunity to voice their opinions.
  • We owe it to our readers and to our deadlines not to get bogged down in unending battles over small issues.

Rule 6. Above all else, produce a readable, enjoyable book. The audience is always more important than the artist, and the production team is less important still.

Tandem Volume 2, an anthology of poetry from 2013 season of The Lit Slam, will go on sale Tuesday, November 19. The book release party will be in San Francisco on Monday, November 18th.

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