What Comes Next

The nerdiness of the second book.

What Comes Next

The novelist and memoirist Wayétu Moore and I were on a panel about teaching memoir last February, and in the flow of the discourse, she mentioned that “the difficulty of the second book is that you [the author] know all the criticism that the first book received.”

I’ve been thinking steadily about second books since then, not only because I have one coming out next March — The Opposite of Cruelty (Blair) — but also because I’ve always been fascinated by the sophomore album, the second championship, the first love after the first love, and all the ways a person “follows up” after whatever constitutes that initial breakthrough moment.

Some really fantastic second collections come to mind when I contemplate how this position moves within the work of poets. Carolyn Forche’s The Country Between Us, Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon’s Open Interval, and Robert Lowell’s Lord Weary’s Castle, to name a scant few, each (in different ways) represents how their author grew in craft, shifted their interests, and breathed in the phenomenon of American poetry.

It’s fair to quibble a bit with the idea of how a poet “grew” in craft, as it suggests a weakness solved or some linear progression of perfecting. And a word like “adapted” maybe invites other kinds of polemics, but I’m trying to account for the pleasurable difference these authors, between their first and second works, created for me as a reader.

Granted, I sometimes read poets’ second books prior to their first, and I can’t discount the prevalence of primacy bias in my tastes. Even so, how a poet manages to wrestle with the angel of the first book as the second is in search of a new name, or a new style, or a renewed aesthetic is one I think provides insight into the inchoate processes poets often have difficulty describing.

What can it mean, Moore also asked, to consider “the criticism that the first book received”? Here, she was speaking specifically as a novelist, and no one would disagree that poets receive fewer reviews and less attention from critics than novelists do. Poets have, of course, their sales as a metric, understanding that the average book of poems published by an indie press sells about 250 copies. I certainly want my second book to sell more than my debut, The Understudy’s Handbook, which was released during the covid-19 pandemic and faced many of the same challenges other books that debuted in 2020 faced.

Poets can also look at the number of readings offered, award stickers collected, or a host of other metrics, but I wonder if they ever consider the anecdotal, specific comments readers make about why they enjoyed — or didn’t enjoy — a book. Even seemingly offhand comments form a matrix of expectations in the mind of the poet: “Am I being true to my voice and style?”; “How am I advancing?”; and “Who are these poems for?” With a first book, these questions are a bit amorphous, as the poet is simply trying to break into the literary conversation. But in the second book, they are specifically attached to the reactions of a real audience.

In some cases, that reaction might largely be the silence of obscurity. If first books inevitably carry the scent of “coming of age,” second books are the places where a poet often risks more, writing to, through, or against the reactions that have built up over the course of the first book’s life. True, some poets don’t get a second book, and that should humble us all. But many of us do, and what we make of a second chance is magic I want to see again and again.

What’s on your list of favorite second books?

Steven Leyva’s poetry collection is The Understudy’s Handbook.

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