by Amanda Bell
Having been a member of AFEPI Ireland for over twenty years with a varied client base, in recent years I have specialised in editing poetry. This came about organically as the different aspects of my practice – editor, poet, reviewer, researcher, mentor and reader – began to coalesce. I thought it might be of interest to others to share a bit about what I’ve learned about poetry editing.
Clients seeking the assistance of a poetry editor occupy a wide spectrum, falling into roughly five groups:
- Established and emerging poets who have had a collection accepted for publication and want help with fine-tuning, because at a certain point we all become blind to our own work
- Writers who are putting together a collection to submit to publishers and who want help with structure as well as line-editing
- Self-publishers who may also need advice on layout, the publication process, etc.
- Groups compiling an anthology who want help with selection and structure as well as close line-editing
- Writers new to poetry who may benefit more from a mentoring relationship or joining a workshop than employing the services of an editor.
I find it helpful to have a chat up front to establish needs and parameters.
A highly collaborative process
Many of the standard editorial skills – attention to detail on a micro as well as a macro level – apply to poetry editing, but there is even more need for flexibility and dialogue when working on this genre. Editing a collection with a client involves close collaboration and a process of ‘push-back’, where the editor will point something out and ask whether or not it is deliberate – frequently it will be, but it is still a good editor’s job to ask. While it seems like a truism in editing that ‘if something’s wrong, it needs to be changed’, poetry may be the one exception to this rule. There are many reasons why a poet might choose to play with the conventions of spelling, layout, typography and grammar; however, it must be pointed out to them so they can say, ‘Yes, this is deliberate,’ or ‘Oops, no,’ or possibly consider that if the editor thought it looked like a mistake then the reader might too.
What makes a good poetry editor?
- Be a critical reader of poetry and familiar with current trends in poetry publication as well as the canon.
- Be conversant with poetic form. If it is a sonnet, haiku or villanelle, it is helpful to know whether it respects the conventions of the form or deviates deliberately. If there is a misstep in the rhyme scheme, it should be flagged in case the poet wants to adjust it.
- Be alert to the uses of typography for effects beyond communicating information, i.e. the impact of a strategic line-break or indentation.
- Be attentive to aural and visual as well as textual elements. If someone else is going to read this aloud, how will it sound, and what impact does layout have on meaning? Would a poem look better with different line breaks or margins?
- Be aware of how design components interact with content.
- Take care to diplomatically point out anything that may be open to unfavourable interpretation. The client will decide whether they want to proceed, but they need to be made aware of the pitfalls of certain linguistic usages and other unintended consequences of their words.
- Exercise empathy. This may be the first time your client has shown their creative work to anybody and a robust critique may not be the most appropriate approach.
- Above all, respect the intention of the poet. All editors need to exercise restraint, to make the book the best book by the author that it can be, and to avoid the temptation to put their own mark on the text. This matters even more with poetry. Much like reviewing, it is important to understand what the poet is attempting to do and engage them on this basis, rather than to take the approach of ‘if it was my poem, this is how I would do it.’
I have been hugely impressed by the quality of the work I have been asked to work on and by the dedication, commitment, and scope of knowledge of the poets I have worked with. Not all writers write for publication by mainstream publishers,for many reasons. This is not to say that they don’t write strong and worthwhile poetry for a private readership and want to produce it to the best possible quality. I consider it a privilege to be involved in the process.
Amanda Bell has been a member of AFEPI Ireland since 1997. She holds a Masters in Poetry Studies and has a research interest in ecocriticism. She is a member of the Hibernian Writers Group and the Pepperpot Haibun Group. Her own titles in print include First the Feathers (Doire Press, 2017), which was shortlisted for the Shine Strong Award for best first collection; Undercurrents (Alba Publishing, 2016), which won a Kanterman Merit Book Award from the Haiku Society of America and was shortlisted for a Touchstone Distinguished Books Award; the loneliness of the sasquatch: from the Irish of Gabriel Rosenstock (Alba Publishing, 2018); and The Lost Library Book (Onslaught Press, 2017), which is creative non-fiction for children. She has a pamphlet forthcoming from Wildflower Poetry Press, and a new collection due from Doire Press in late 2021.
Amanda reviews for the Dublin Review of Books, The Irish Times, Green Letters, Inis and Blithe Spirit. She is assistant editor of The Haibun Journal
, and proofreads for Hedgerow Press. She is a professional member of the Irish Writers Centre and is on the mentoring panel; she has recently been accepted as a mentor with Words Ireland’s National Mentoring Programme. <https://clearasabellwritingservices.ie/testimonials/>
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of AFEPI Ireland.