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What do Poetry Editors do?

STUDY-EDITOR

What DO they do?  I'm not always sure of the answer, but I know what I do. It's a place to start. Oh but — health warning: this blog entry is quite boring.

It's easier by far to talk about other kinds of editing. When you edit prose, you check for consistency of house style, regularise spelling and punctuation, remove stray spaces, sort out grammatical glitsches. It all makes complete sense.

But you can't do that in a poem, or not necessarily. Many poets don't have systematic punctuation. Some use punctuation in one poem but not the text. Or minimal punctuation in one, and then masses of dashes in another.

Quite often poets even withhold the full stop at the end of a poem, on purpose. They stick gaps between words. They throw ellipses all over the place ....

Frankly, poets are an editing nightmare!

So (when occupying the editor's role) you do your best. You work out what seems to be the system in any one poem or set of poems and you make suggestions for change, if appropriate.

You work out whether anomalies are deliberate or accidental.

You work out whether ambiguities are intended or not.

I did a workshop recently which included 'editing' as its topic, so I drew up two lists for the participants.

List one is the ordinary things editors (and typesetters) check mostly without even thinking.

List two is the point where the editor (or it could be a critical and respectful friend) gets more challenging.

All these editors, when it comes to your own work, are you.

List A (simple):

Make all the dashes the same size (m dashes): many people are confused about this.

Reduce two spaces after full stops (or colons) to a single space.

Make sure ellipses have the correct number of dots.

Consider direct speech, how it is presented (speech marks or italics), whether it's consistent, and whether it works.

Identify punctuation system (if there is one) and make it consistent if possible.

If poet uses gaps inside the lines work out what system/consistency is (if any) i.e. how many space-bar spaces makes up a gap.­­

Consider whether line length can be accommodated without doglegs or, if a dog has to break a leg, where it should do it.

Consider whether poem will fit inside an A5 page, or any page, advantageously.

Check for errors in capitalisation e.g. seasons.

Check spelling (US or English, practice or practise).

Check apostrophes.

Check for 'dumb' quote-marks and make them all curly.

Check references for accuracy – dates, places, people etc.

Simplify punctuation if it is over-complicated (eg unnecessary number of semi-colons and colons).

Italicise Latin/foreign words or botanical references.

Make heading styles consistent.


List B

Check for repetitions – if intended, do they work? If unintended, need to think again e.g. too many uses of 'then' or 'as'.

If references are difficult, consider whether poem might need note or epigraph.

Consider effectiveness of line breaks. Do any of them seem to throw up barriers, or are any too obviously 'clever' e.g. fall over / a cliff; go round / the bend.

If the poem is 'after' somebody, decide what 'after' means in this case. May need to track down the source and see what is owed.

Consider title. What does it contribute? Does it replay a key phrase from later in the poem and thus steal some thunder? If so, suggest change.

Consider the form: does it work for the content? Would change of stanza groups or lineation be worth considering?

Consider shapes: is the poet doing much the same thing in several poems: e.g. generally long and thin, generally couplets, generally even-sized chunks. And if so, does this have a cumulatively dull effect?

Individual words: do any of them feel too 'easy' or even risk cliché?

Are there too many adjectives?

Point of view: 'I', 'you', 'one', 'we', 'she': is it mixed? Is it right?

Metaphor: does it work? If mixed, does the mix work?

If the first four lines are a little flat, decide at what point reader attention is captured. If parts seem to be unduly hard to follow (or a complete mystery), try to work out whether this is intentional and necessary, or whether simplification would be a good idea.

Sometimes there's an obvious point where the energy kicks in, and that's not always the first line. What happens if we start with stanza 2?

And that's about it. I promise to be more entertaining next time and not so up my own ellipsis.


Recent Comments
Jinny Fisher
Not boring! A really helpful breakdown, the A/B lists. There seems to be some dispute over em vs en dashes. My editor pointblank i... Read More
Sunday, 28 April 2019 14:35
Ama Bolton
I'm in the midst of an editing job (someone else's poems, not mine.) I did not find your post boring in the least! There's a lot t... Read More
Sunday, 28 April 2019 17:55
Helena Nelson
Jinny, your ed. may use n dashes as house style. Ems, however, are not American. I use them in all my publications.
Sunday, 28 April 2019 18:23
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CLOSING THE WINDOW

PENCILS Sharpening pencils to death

The reading window is about to close. If you take a look at the photo, you can see how short the pencils are now but how very very SHARP. 

One is really too short to write with. I'm going to need a new packet.     

For those of you who have sent poems for feedback and haven't had them returned yet, I have about 55 envelopes stacked in waiting. I don't read them in the order they arrived. New ones are arriving faster than I can clear them. 

I tackle about six envelopes a day and each one takes about an hour. Today nine new envelopes arrived.

Most popular painter is still Hopper. Most popular Greek character Icarus. Most popular word 'heft'. Most popular window: shut!

Hurray for hardly any villanelles or sestinas. People more likely to send poems with lots of short numbered stanzas. Why do we do this again? (Don't answer that. I blame Wallace Stevens but since that gentleman died in 1955, the practice is hardly innovative.)

Yes, am getting tired, but plugging on. 

If you are planning to send work, and haven't done so yet, please regard Saturday 26th as the very last day for posting. No last minute high jinks. There is always July, and that will be here sooner than you think.

How did it start being 2019 already? I have no idea!

Recent comment in this post
Jennifer Cole
How on earth do you manage to blog AND do all those crits? Don't answer this! You're too busy.
Thursday, 24 January 2019 20:04
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OPEN THE WINDOW AND WHERE IS RUMPELSTILTZKIN?

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The reading window is about to open. Look back, look out, look forward.

On HappenStance's sister website, Sphinx review, this year we OPOI-reviewed 92 pamphlets. They came in through the front door. But we received far more than we OPOI-ed. 

The stated aim is to write about each and every one that's sent in, but it's an impossible aim. 

Besides, who will read all the reviews? Let's be honest. Reviews are not top of the reading list for most people, unless the review is of their own book.

Sometimes it occurs to me to offer authors an OPOI review of their publication provided they write one (of somebody else's pamphlet). But then some of the authors might write thoughtlessly or carelessly because their hearts weren't in it. 

Still, a mammoth number of poetry pamphlets now appears every year. Of course the authors like critical notice. But how is it to be managed? We did 92. I have 68 more pamphlets sitting here right this minute unwritten-about. I need Rumpelstiltskin.

Besides, there are more, far more. We weren't even sent copies of all the pamphlets that were produced. There must be 200-300 every year in the UK, at a guess. How would anybody ever know the real number? Many of them don't have ISB numbers. 

But the OPOI reviews are (yes, I am biassed) rather interesting to read, and writing reviews (especially OPOIs) is good for poets. I really think that. And if you've never done anything like this before, it's good training. You have a couple of kindly hands-on editors here to help. They're nice. 

This one is also currently sharpening her pencils for another purpose.

The poetry reading window is open from January 2nd to January 29th. Yay!

The window for offering OPOI reviews is open all year round.

Recent comment in this post
Helena Nelson
Making a comment on my own blog, it occurs to me how interesting it would be if a reading group took a particular pamphlet and eac... Read More
Monday, 31 December 2018 14:01
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THAT PESKY READING WINDOW

READING-WINDOW

So yes, for HappenStance subscribers, there really is an offer of detailed feedback on up to six poems twice a year. And the first window used to be December.

But look at the picture.  I believe the window is shut. That's because the reading window month has changed. It's now January, which gives you all of December and the beginning of January to think about it.

Please don't send poems early. The reading elf (see last week's blog) is knackered.

Of course, January is a cold month for having the windows open, but never mind. I have a log stove, several really warm pullovers and super-thick socks.

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CLOSING THE READING WINDOW

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July has been busy. Probably the busiest reading window ever. I think I have just about reached the limit of what it is possible to manage. I was away twice for two days, and each time the whole thing got out of hand and I returned to a small mountain. During the windows, it's necessary to be at home with several hours each day to spend on nothing else.

This window closes on Saturday 28thJuly, when I will also be at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh taking part in a pamphlet fair. Envelopes that arrive on Monday, July 31st are out of luck. I am packing and leaving. Literally.

How does it work during a reading window? The post here arrives between 11 and 12, so that sets up the workload for the day. The largest number of reading envelopes this month has been 11 in one day. It has averaged about 7 i.e. roughly 42 poems of varying shapes and sizes. A couple of years ago, during reading windows, it used to average 3 per day. So quite a big difference.

Each set takes about an hour. Some a little less; some quite a lot more. (I can't do eleven in a day. I can manage up to six if I work the whole day with no interruptions.) I sharpen the pencils, open the first envelope, read the poems carefully (starting with a short one), scribble in pencil on each one, get out my fountain pen, write a reply to the poet (lengths of this vary: some are quite short, some two sides of A4), then I log the name of the author, the number of poems, and a brief summary of my thoughts on my laptop. 

Most poets remember to include an SAE so that bit is quick. Occasionally they forget, or just send stamps, so I need to get up and find an envelope and write out the address etc. Even the ones with SAEs usually need a bit of sellotape since the quality of stickability is highly variable.

I am not reading the poems in order to find new work to publish, though very occasionally the process indirectly leads to that. I read the poems to see what's going on in them. I'm very interested in poems, their authors (I like the covering letters) and also the trends – what seems to be going on in the poetry in general. One can't help noticing trends.

This year I commented on punctuation a lot. The whole business of punctuating poems seems to be causing increasing problems. Should we do it sometimes? Always? Never? There are no absolute rules, but if I start to notice the punctuation (or absence thereof), there's usually an issue. I call this snagging and I've written about it before.

The leaning verb is not quite so ubiquitous as it used to be, I think, but I come across poets who are apparently unaware how often they use this style feature. Yes – you see it in published work too. Trends have to come from somewhere.

More 'new' subscribers sent me poetry to read than ever before. So most of those people didn't know that I don't like villanelles, hate sestinas, and would really rather not read pantoums. I am starting to find prose poems increasingly hard to warm to, as well – the more they arrive, the less I like them.. C'est la vie!

This July, certain features particularly stood out for me, because of their frequency. So I'll list them, for interest in a separate blog entry (tomorrow). There is no necessity to agree with what I think, of course, or even to read this list.

It is the frequency that is the problem. For a poem to work well it needs to sound fresh and new, and somehow surprising. If it sounds rather similar to most of the poems you read lately, well ...I rest my case.



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OPENING THE WINDOW AGAIN

WINDOWA

Sometimes the catch sticks a little. This window hasn't been open in a long time. A bit of tugging and scraping may be involved. Gently ... gently ...    

Lord knows – I don't want to break the window.                       

But what, as a friend in peril wrote recently on FaceBook, is the point? And what is this 'window' anyway?

For me, it's a publisher's reading window, and it serves two purposes.

First, I spend a lot of time in the house, producing poetry publications, editing this and that, brooding over current poetry hype, drowning in emails, trying not to be depressed by social media and so on. I want to keep my finger on the pulse of what's happening out there among the extraordinary unhyped writers. What poems are you writing and why? What's really going on?

Second, this small press (HappenStance) values its subscribers almost above all else. They are a unique reading resource. Many of them are also poets. So for the poets, it is a kind of payback. I ask them to read some of the publications I make. In return, I offer to read some of their own poems as well as I can. 

Do I ever offer to publish a person's work on the strength of six poems encountered in a reading window? Hardly ever. But that's not necessarily the reason people send them, and certainly not the reason I read them.

It's more likely that a relationship develops over time, over several windows. It could be a publishing relationship. It could be a friendship.

And in that time, the poet tests whether I am a good reader for them. My feedback is constructive and heartening for some. But there are also people who (quite reasonably) think 'what planet is this woman on?'

This is absolutely not just about publishing. Nor is it a secret and fiendish way of making money out of you (the HS subscription costs at most £12.50 and I spend at least an hour on each person's poems – twice a year).

But if you are thinking of publishing your work, perhaps you need to risk the feedback of an honest reader, a critical friend, and here is a low-risk, toe-in-the-water test.

You might not think you have any choice of publishers. Wrong. As I said in my book How (Not) To Get Your Poetry Published, 'Consider all your options – there are invariably more than you think'.

But publishing poetry is not the most important thing. It's simply a means to an end.

What is the most important thing? First: writing the best poems you can, the poems that (as Larkin said) only you can write. Second: finding a few good readers for them.

Precisely one week from now, I'm opening that window so I can see to read. 

It will be absolutely wide open. Let the light come in.

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