Yesterday I received Jan’s (Jan Fortune-Wood, who runs Cinnamon Press) first edit of my manuscript for Out of Breath.
I think this will be the first report of several on how the edit progresses. Although I’m experienced as academic editor, and editing Antiphon, of course, this is my first experience of putting a collection together, so have no real sense of what’s involved. Choosing the cover was trickier than I thought it would be, for example. So I’ll document some of my experience. Maybe it’ll be informative for other – what do we call ourselves? “emerging poets”? – wondering what the experience of getting from ms to first collection will be like.
The prior stage, of course, was putting the ms together. To do this, aiming for a volume of around 56, I gathered something over 100 poems, published and unpublished, and tried to judge their qualities. Some were easy to exclude. I now thought they had major textual problems, or the subjects were uninteresting, or the poem unexciting, unoriginal, slight. Some were quite easy to include: they had special significance for me, or I felt they had a particular impact, or worked especially well. This left 60+ hovering somewhere in the middle. On bad days, I felt they all had weaknesses, so all should be left out: they seemed trite, unoriginal, flat. On good days, every one of them seemed to have something to offer, and I couldn’t discriminate between them.
So I used a range of tactics to help make the decisions. While I aimed to do this systematically, the systems tended to break down. For example, I tried a scoring system, giving marks for their relative merits, in the hope that this would give me a rank order so I could decide on a cut-off point. This was useful, as it forced me to think about what I was really looking for in “a good poem” (of my own) and how such things as musicality might balance against imagery, or subtlety of idea against emotional impact. But what seemed to happen was that I’d settle on a score, then find that I preferred that poem to another with a higher score. So the scientific approach wasn’t that useful.
I asked other people what they thought. My wife, especially, looked through a large pile of possibles, and gave me her opinion, so that, at the very least, I had a potential reader’s view I could dispute.
I also looked at the pile as a whole. Were there too many poems in particular forms? Did I want to show a range of different types of poem, perhaps a degree of versatility? Or would variety mean that some of the weaker poems crept in, especially if I’d been trying something new and not quite got it? Were there too many poems on nature, or love, or loss – common subjects, so likely to feel ordinary to readers? Did I care about how readers reacted? (Yes, I did – I can see that certain collections are entirely about the integrity and coherence of the poems as a whole – but this is my first collection – it’ll be seen and read as the best I can do, the clearest indication of my “voice”, my interests, my concerns, so what gives it coherence is me, and what will be judged by readers is Noel Williams the poet, his potential, and his limitations.
I also wanted to represent different elements of work that I’ve done over the last five years. This includes, for example, a large set of poems on women and warfare, some of which have been particularly successful, but many of which turned out to be rather cliched. So how many of these should I include?
Finally, I worked out a tentative order of all the poems that might go in. By doing this I learned something about how different poems might connect with or work against each other. For example, I saw that there were several love poems that held similar sentiments. If you put them all together in the book, they seemed quite similar, even using similar imagery, so that suggested a need for excision.
Carrol and I went away to the Lake District for a week, and spent it treading a carpet of poems with intervals of birdwatching. When we came away, I had 66 pages of poetry which went off to Jan.
Jan only had two major notes at this point:
- she listed the poems she wanted to cut. I’d deliberately sent more than she wanted, with this in mind, so she had opportunity to excise any she really didn’t like. In the event, she chose to exclude mainly the more sentimental poems, which, I think it’s fair to say, were heartfelt but also relatively simple lyrics: approachable, but not that rich.
- a couple of poems gave formatting problems on the page, through the length of lines. Jan suggested changes to lineation or wording, or both, to cope with this. Now, if I was a stickler about every detail of my poem I might object to these suggestions, but I know from my own editing experience that the poet is not always the best judge. In fact, her suggestions were sensitive ones, and at the very least didn’t damage the poems and in at least one case, improved it.
The only issue for was that Jan excluded my one prose poem, “Planting Dorothy”. I’m particularly pleased with this poem. It’s also about Dorothy Wordsworth at Grasmere and Rydal, having quite specific associations for me (I’ve read at the Wordsworth Trust and it was on a walking tour of Wordsworthia that Carrol and I took our first holiday together). It also uses the flowers “Lockety Goldings”, which I really enjoyed as a phrase.
So this is something to resolve by my next post.