In all the great conversations that we’ve been having about poetry this month, it can be easy to forget that the poems, collections, and books that we so adore take some serious editorial work before they ever enter the literary scene! Our editors can attest to the fact that taking poetry from raw manuscript to polished book—whether it be haikus or epic manifestos—can take hours of time, energy, sweat, and tears. But those of us on the receiving end of poetry have often wondered: how does one edit poetry? Today, our Publisher Chris Fischbach and Interim Managing Editor Erika Stevens let us in on their secrets:
ES: Well, each poet creates a world within their poetry, so when I read a poetry manuscript for the first time I usually like to read around in the manuscript to get a sense of how it’s constructed and of the different parts. I suspend judgment but I start to get a sense of how things work within the structure of the manuscript and about the way the poet uses language.
Then I read through the whole manuscript in a linear fashion. As I go, I pay attention to the rules that help govern the world that the poet has created in that particular manuscript. It pretty quickly becomes clear how a poet uses language, even if they’re bucking traditional syntax or grammatical rules. Errant capital and lowercase letters, clunky or incongruently constructed phrases tend to announce themselves pretty loudly. That doesn’t mean that a manuscript has to be pretty or that it can’t be discordant, but I do see it as my job to make sure that incongruous elements are a conscious choice on the part of the poet.
No two works are alike, and editing poetry is really about being a careful, critical reader, paying attention to tone, and making sure that the manuscript holds together both in tone and construction.
CF: In addition to everything Erika just said, I would add that something I find useful, when I’m thinking about the book as a whole (sequence, sections, spacing, white space) is to lay each poem on our two large conference tables, in order, so that I can walk around them, and think about the book spatially. I do this with prose too, but it’s most useful to me with collections of poems.