Click here for Barton’s working papers on a Maureen Hynes poem. The editing process of this poem is discussed in detail in this article.
In “The mystery of poetry editing: from T. S. Eliot to John Burnside,” an article that appeared in the Telegraph on January 23, 2012, after Burnside, a Scottish poet, won Britain’s T. S. Eliot Prize, journalist Sameer Rahim attempts to follow the sleights of “unseen hands behind that most personal and mysterious of literary art forms.” He goes on to “lay bare” the poetry-editing process as practised at the major publishers of poetry in the U.K.—Faber, Picador, Jonathan Cape, Carcanet, and Bloodaxe—and as experienced by some of the most successful British poets. Most of their in-house editors are poets too, no surprise. The stakes are high, Rahim contends, as he seeks to understand “the effects and risks of this little-understood practice.” What the reputation of that nation’s verse relies upon apparently comes down to something very subtle. At Picador, according to Scottish poet Don Paterson, the editing of poetry “depends upon tiny shifts of sense and emphasis, context and connection.” Matthew Hollis, a poet and editor at Faber, captures the job best when he says “an editor listens to an author tuning into their poems.”
Rahim’s article expends lots of copy on whether or not only a poet can edit another poet. However rhetorical this question may appear, the mere posing of it surely affirms most poetry skeptics’ worst suspicion that poets constitute a gnomic cult only accountable to itself. However, if poets hope to have a readership larger than their own increasing numbers, they should include among their readers adept editors who have never sprung a rhythm. To be a good poetry editor, it’s more important to be an insightful reader, I’d argue, than a practitioner. Many poets are so unable to back out of their own aesthetic culs de sac, they are of no use to their fellow sufferers.
When those of us who do edit poetry admit that we engage in this strange activity, non-poetry readers typically ask, “How can you edit poetry? It’s so personal!” Our puzzled interrogators must envision the composition of poetry to be a solipsistic pursuit and any attempt to contain a poet’s ennui or to map better ways in or out of the inward-looking, labyrinthine results of such artistic folly to be itself folly. A shadow of a shadow of a mirror on the wall. Who is the most agonized of them all? How is an editor supposed to know?
Because I believe that poetry is not a form of “self-expression” but of “expression,” and therefore something to be shared as well as grasped, albeit by its own terms, it makes room for the editor to act as a mediator of sober or not-so-sober second thought between poets’ and their readers’ conflicted understanding of what is meant. While poets have developed the discipline to anticipate how readers will experience their poems and revise them accordingly, they can benefit from an experienced editor’s awareness of how poems work.
I have assisted poets with their labours for over 30 years. In addition to editing book-length manuscripts, I co-edited Arc for 13 years, from 1990 to 2003, and edited The Malahat Review for 14, from 2004 to 2018. Plus I did my time as the editor of student journals in my undergraduate years. Being attentive to what Paterson calls “tiny shifts” is what I’d term editing poetry at the micro level. I enjoyed this close work as a literary-magazine editor, but though time happily disappeared while I’d edit someone’s poem, I never had enough of it in a workday to lose myself for long stretches. Perhaps there never can be sufficient time available because, when held before the mirror of the mind’s eye, a poem can inspire infinite reflections. Still, before any such reflective work can begin, “larger shifts” must be addressed at the macro level first, not in a single poem but between many poets and many poems. Though I never had adequate time in my schedule for these shifts either, it’s at this stage that manuscripts are identified and recruited for publication. The micro and the micro are symbiotic: you can’t edit a poem without first acquiring it.
In 2014, the Malahat received around 1200 submissions of poetry, each comprising of up to 6 poems. This means that the magazine’s poetry board and I considered up to 7200 poems, however cursorily. That year, we published only 99 poems by 55 poets, with every poem sent to the Malahat only having a 1.4% chance of being accepted. Anyone who assumes that submitting to literary magazines doesn’t involve being at the mercy of very tough peer review is mistaken. Overall, I found that the number of accepted poems in comparison to the number of poems submitted never changed substantially from year to year, and the poems needed to have weight-bearing bones in order to survive the selection process. The poetry appearing in the Malahat (and in Arc) usually was reasonably well-polished when accepted, though there were always exceptions where suggestions of a substantive nature were required. It took trial and error to know how and when to provide feedback, and while I refined what I know about managing poets at the Malahat, I cut my teeth on and broke a few limbs over the editor/poet relationship at Arc. I learned more from missteps than from any sly sleights of hand. The following example was my Rubicon.
Sometime during my tenure at Arc, a young poet submitted a very promising, multi-part poem that I felt was not yet ready for publication. I provided her with detailed comments and encouraged her to resubmit. We went through three rounds of this until a third party made me realize I had gone too far. This third party, a friend of the poet, took it upon himself to write me in order to chastise me. Apparently, my encouraging intransigence had pushed his friend close to, if not past, the brink of despair and certainly to the end of her patience because she had come to feel that whatever she tried in response to my comments never satisfied me. I was torturing her, he said, by always dangling the carrot of publication teasingly just beyond her grasp. I immediately felt remorseful, but I never heard from the poet again, so could not apologize or offer any redress. I had not kept her address on file. This was during a time when we didn’t communicate exclusively by email but by handwritten letter mail and SASEs—and mercifully before Twitter. God knows what she or her friend might have tweeted about me! After my gaff, I made the following rules for myself about giving comments:
Turning to the editing of poetry at the micro level, I found that even the best poets need an editor’s aesthetic (if not moral) guidance. I have two examples of this that pertain to the same poet I published regularly in the Malahat. In the first instance, with regard to a poem articulating a response to a musical composition, I suggested the word “awesome” might not be the most precise descriptor of the moving effect being evoked. Observations like this, if delicately articulated, must always be straightforward and posed as questions like “Are you sure this is how you want to say what you mean in this manner?” Such a change seldom involves much work, either for the editor or the poet, and, as in this instance, is easily made, maybe saving the poet from later embarrassment, if “embarrassment” is the right word.
In the second instance, I was interviewing the poet for the Malahat website about a set of poems forthcoming in an upcoming issue. The questions I asked were complicated, and, it became apparent that a small if crucial detail was missing from one poem. My proposed revision was disarmingly simple, neither altering the poem’s texture nor impinging upon the poet’s voice or authority, and it was accepted with gratitude, if not delight. My point here is that sometimes getting to the nub of what is wrong, especially when the problem does not mar the surface enjoyment of a poem, is very hard and delicate work that requires the editor to read his or her own reactions carefully before sharing the resulting observations, equally carefully and clearly, with the poet. The energy involved makes me wonder how many problems of a subtle nature are missed by magazine editors in the rush to get poems into print. I guess I’ll cede the adjudication of such subtleties to book publishers.
There do exist poets who continue to tinker with their poems long after they’ve been submitted. Truthfully, once magazines accept them (months after they were received), most poems do vary slightly from their submitted versions—an adjective’s change, or a line break. On occasion, however, the later versions deviate radically from what was accepted for publication, and not always for the better. It’s therefore the editor’s task to persuade the authors to return to versions closer to what they’d originally sent. Often the subsequent revisions between submission and acceptance are products of compulsive, anxious, or impatient overwriting, and it doesn’t take much inducement to persuade poets that the earlier versions are stronger and can be made better by a supervised transfer of a select few changes that rose to the top of overheated later drafts to what will become the cool tempered steel of published text.
All the surgery an editor performs on a poet’s work before or after acceptance must be based not only on a knowledge of the wide variety of bodies—from ectomorph to mesomorph—poems come in, but also on the diets they are fed and the ills afflicting them. It’s perhaps best I now explain how I think a poem is written.
After years of writing poetry myself, I have come to recognize that each poem is a wild animal at liberty somewhere in nature, no matter how each poet conceives of nature. I may be sitting at my desk or with my laptop in Starbucks, but in my imagination, I am a zoologist out in the field. I may have insinuated myself up in a tree or hid among the rushes at the slough’s edge, but in either case I am behind a blind of my own construction, trying not to be noticed while jotting down careful—dare I say, artful—impressions of the shy creature on the other side. As a poet-zoologist, I apply all my powers of observation, as if I were in the poetry Olympics. I keep adapting how to use my growing array of tools because the creature I am observing keeps changing or belongs to a mistakenly identified species. I am humble, if emboldened, before the enormity of the task I’ve set myself—which is to catch every verbal twitch the poem makes. It takes patience as well as skill to catch a true likeness, to put into words everything that I’ve learned through my careful watching; it may take many attempts back behind the blind, however long the time between visits, to get the poem down right. This patience can involve days, months, or years, with me climbing up into the same tree ever more limberly or arthritically countless times without scaring off the poem in order to see it in all its moods and habits. What’s curious is that however often I am up in the tree or up to my eyes in the slough, the poem is always going about its business. I may change, what I know about poetry may change, but the poem does not change, only my powers of observation and transcription. It’s these changing powers that can make the poem seem different than when it was first seen. And these differences are worth noting too, for they are part of the experience of observing it as well. Most importantly, this kind of patience—and discipline—involves something I will call quietude. I am most successful when I am most still. My presence inside the blind must seem ever more tenuous in order to catch the subtlest and most telling qualities of the poem’s comportment. It’s almost as if I have to find a way to see how the poem would behave without my presence. The poem is the transcription of all modes of observation—thematic, prosodic, musical, and linguistic—whatever filters I drop before the lens of my field camera or call up on my iPhone. I am sure none of this sounds very spontaneous, that the poem will end up being a still life of some sort, but the key to my task as a poet is to instill into my final draft the poem’s spontaneity and vitality, through my patient, selfless craft of observation and transcription. This selflessness is perhaps why I think of poetry, even the most personal of poetries, as expression, not self-expression.
So where exactly does the editor come in? The editor must find a way to step inside the blind as well, to look over the poet’s shoulder without interrupting to see the poem as it actually is in order to determine if and where the poet’s transcription falls a hare’s breath—to keep with the animal theme, I’ve spelled “hair” as “h-a-r-e”—short. How does the editor do this? First, by having read a lot of poetry. In other words, by becoming familiar with the complexity of the poet’s task and tools. Secondly, editors of poetry must be good readers of their own responses, for it’s this self-awareness as readers that will allow them to be of use to each poet with whom they work. They are up the poet’s tree or in a slough not their own, and they therefore must be respectful of how the blind functions while taking note of how it’s equipped. It may be reassuring to know that the blind remains in place long after the poet has stepped away from it, so it’s there to be stepped into by the editor. It’s through stepping inside the poet’s blind in order to quietly and unselfconsciously note their own reactions to the poem still cavorting out in the savannah, as unaware of them as they are of the poet, that the editor can, to borrow from Faber’s Edward Hollis, attend to “an author tuning into their poems” more effectively and most helpfully.
“Wing On,” a poem by Toronto poet Maureen Hynes appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of The Malahat Review. Maureen’s and my exchanges by email clearly illustrate the strategies I deploy to help poets imagine their way into “tiny shifts” that may be needed for a potentially final “open” tuning of a poem. Sometimes the subtlest of shifts can make for the most dramatic of effects, for they affirm the poet’s ability to capture and embody a poem’s liveliness. Such shifts feel intrinsic, in the same way the unanticipated leaps a panther makes make from branch to branch feel intrinsic, and they can offer the poet—and poem—authority.
“Wing On” took about five months to insinuate its way through the Malahat’s selection process. There were six members on the poetry board at the time and once a submission is flagged for consideration, it is read by everyone before being discussed at a quarterly board meeting, where poems for upcoming issues are selected from between 20 to 40 submissions screened in for final review. I’d arrange the submissions from the least likely to the best bets and, over the course of the meeting, they’d fall like dominos.
After one such meeting, I wrote the following to Maureen in early February 2015:
Thank you for your submission of August 31, 2014.
I apologize for taking so long to get back to you about your poems. You submitted just around the time we were making a transition from paper submissions to using Submittable, which visited many logistical challenges upon us. Yours in fact was the last submission received by regular mail to have survived the screening process for discussion at the poetry board meeting last week. It’s a distinction of sorts, I suppose! Let’s say you are on the cusp.
On that note, I am pleased to say we’d like to accept “Wing On” for publication in our Spring or Summer 2015 issue. It is an exquisitely written poem.
Please confirm that it is still available.
Thanks for your patience. It will be lovely to publish your work once more.
Please note the tone of my email. It’s professional, informative, and, I hope, warm. I acknowledge past connections by alluding to her previous appearances in the Malahat. I explain why it had taken the poetry board so much time to come to a decision about her work (Submittable indeed imposed a steep learning curve on the Malahat), and though I didn’t say much about the substance about the poem at this point, I did say something—that it was “exquisitely written.” Over the years I came to realize that when I contacted writers about their work, I should make a point of explaining why I had decided to accept it for publication and, in response, many later told me that I was one of the few magazine editors in the country to do so—which is thought-provoking, since I may have only said one or two words. Are magazine publishers really so overworked that they have lost the ability to show appreciation?
In her reply, Maureen writes the following:
Oh, John, what great news! Thanks so much. It’s always a high honour to be published in The Malahat. This is just a quick note to let you know that “Wing On” is definitely still available & I will fill out the required form for you and send it within a day or two.
That said, I am in the process of revising lots of poems that will be in my upcoming poetry book from Pedlar and there have been a few revisions to the poem. Can I send you the two versions, the one you got and the new version, and you can decide if you want to publish it just the way you originally got it, or in the revised form. I don’t want to burden you with editing too much, but you might prefer the choice between the two.
I compared the two versions (the first two pages in the work sheets). Maureen only partly falls into the category of tinkering with her poem after initially sending it to the Malahat. Because I was now taking possession of one of the oars from Beth Follett—the editor at Pedlar Press—in that leaky canoe called Revision, Maureen was stuck in the prow, answerable to the two of us, conducting a form of poetic, on-board shuttle diplomacy.
This is what I said in reply:
I prefer the version you submitted to us; it’s more unruly, but fresher, I think. That said, I have made some comments on the revision, which I attach. What do you think? I hope I haven’t made things worse.
In the remarks I made to Maureen about “Wing On,” as written at the time of acceptance, I did not say that I felt the dedication to the late James Schuyler, a New York School poet and contemporary of John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, was key to readers’ appreciation of the poem. While I can’t claim to be wholly conversant with Schuyler’s writing, I do know that many of his poems work in an associative, collagist way that eschews the more obvious conventions of rhetoric, with images piling up in a sometimes chaotic syntax. While Maureen’s poem doesn’t in any way slavishly parallel the construction of a Schuyler poem, it does pay tribute, which is one reason why I was very tied to preserving her question-like opening, which I proposed in my first set of comments:
You could say something like this:
What pebbles and beads to hold
through your secular jazz memorial
in the Wing On funeral home
A row of bluets to stain the stone
I like “secular” [which had been used in the submitted version of the poem, but not in the present one] because it changes the nature of the occasion’s solemnity.
Starting with a question is crucial.
Out of respect for Maureen’s craft and appreciating that there were reasons why the text had migrated in the direction that it did, I didn’t encourage Maureen to return to the slightly longer-lined, more descriptive, and more word-rich—or prolix—submitted version, which began:
What pebbles to place on the poet’s tombstone
Jiggle them in our pockets during a secular service
at Wing On, the old Chinese funeral home on Spadina
A row of bluets to stain the stone
I did not want to advocate that Maureen entirely undo the work she may have already undertaken with Beth, so I focused only on those turns of phrase and details that still rang true to my ear. Note in the work sheets that I complimented Maureen on those changes that make the poem work more effectively (“your tomb” rather than “the poet’s tombstone”) and provided rationales for my suggestions (“I propose keeping marble as a contrast in substance to the pebbles” and “Scoop a few coins into” [rather than “toss a few”] is more original, more visual”). I recommended we “compromise” on how to phrase the closing two couplets, hoping to strike a balance between the submitted and current versions that would preserve elements I preferred in the former while respecting the direction revision had taken her:
The original ending feels stronger. What about this is as a compromise:
Why don’t we add a pair of topsiders
to wear on your little floating boat. Or take
a yellow song, carefree and refined, put it on
a long stem and stand it in a tall skinny vase.
I think you need the stem reference, otherwise, it’s hard to grasp that the song has become a flower or sprig of something. And yellow [to describe a song] is better than silver because it is a floral colour. It also suggests summer or spring. Silver song makes me think of silver bells and Christmas.
Upon receipt of my tinkering, Maureen replied:
Thanks so much, John. Unruly is appealing, I think. Will fiddle around a bit more & get back to you with, I guess, version 4.
If I recall, a weekend intervened, and early in the following week, Maureen sent me “version 4” (page 3 in the worksheets) along with the following comments:
John, a thousand thanks for your edits. I now have 6 versions but I think that I will go with the attached, which is closer to the original one that you accepted.
My only regret is losing “secular jazz memorial” or “secular service.” I just think the first phrase clunks, with “secular service” slightly better, but I am hoping that “jazz memorial” will give the same message, i.e., slightly undercutting the occasion’s solemnity.
I’m really glad you like the “tiny plastic boat” and the topsiders and the original ending, not to mention the original beginning—I agree with you about the energy that starting with a question gives the poem.
Let me know if you still have concerns. Though I triple-checked, I may have gotten mixed up going back & forth between all the (unruly) versions.
Looking at Maureen’s preferred version (page 4 in the worksheets), you will see that she observed the spirit of my edit without doggedly accepting every suggestion. She instead pushed the poem to positive effect, which was all I really wanted, especially at its opening. Further, she made the two critical changes I had urged her to incorporate into the closing two couplets—“yellow” rather than “silver” and the inclusion of “a long stem”—yet she reordered them in a way that had appeared in none of the previous drafts:
Why don’t we take a yellow song, carefree
and refined, put it on a long stem and stand it
in a skinny crystal vase? Add a pair
of topsiders to wear on the little boat
I remember being entirely delighted and replied:
This poem is now reading really well. I have two more suggestions for you (one involves “secular”!).
I purposely restricted myself to suggesting only two changes (page 5 in the worksheets), rather than challenging more details of less importance to me, choosing to avoid being unnecessarily intrusive. The first of my comments pertained to the line “Let’s scoop a few coins into a busker’s cusp”:
For some reason, “let’s” undercuts its use two couplets up [“Let’s flashmob the grotto at Lourdes / Let’s fishnet the legs of all the girls”]. It makes the line feel mechanical. Why not try something like this:
A few coins scooped into the busker’s cup
to the poet a meal.
As you may noticed, “secular” (emphasized in my accompanying email with an exclamation), carried forward through almost all of Maureen’s and my exchange. I had attempted to reinsert it in my initial edit—“secular jazz memorial” rather than the “secular service” of the originally submitted version, with the rationale that its presence undercut the “solemnity” of the occasion—but as, Maureen admitted in her remarks accompanying this latest draft, she could not, “with regret,” find a place for it. I attempted one final time to shoehorn it in before “Wing On,” in the third line, making it read as “in the secular Wing On funeral home.” Its retention was not to be, as is seen in Maureen’s response:
I really, really wish I could put “secular” in this poem, but I don’t think it works in front of “Wing On,” which was an old Chinese funeral home, no longer in existence. I don’t think it was secular. I think you are absolutely right about the third use of “Let’s,” but I don’t want to switch to the passive voice, so I am just leaving it as “Scoop a few coins…” and I think the reader can mentally carry the “Let’s” over the intervening couplet to the new stanza. Hope so anyway.
Reflecting upon “secular” now, I wonder if Maureen had been humouring me all along and never had any intention of re-introducing the word into her poem! Poets and editors alike keep their cards close to their chests, even when things are going well. We had one more exchange because she had one last concern:
One final teensy question: I am really tempted to take the apostrophe away from “teenagers’” because I think of “pink-shirted teenagers” [in the line “It’s pink-shirted teenagers’ day up the street”] as an adjectival phrase rather than a possessive one but… do you think it’s egregiously ungrammatical without the apostrophe?
This was my take—
I think you should leave the apostrophe on “teenagers”; it makes them flesh and blood, rather than a descriptor for a kind of day akin to “a summer day.”
—And I then added,
No problem about “secular”; I was only suggesting placing it before Wing On as a way to keep it in. The poem reads beautifully without and no one will think anything’s missing.
When the version of “Wing On” (page 6 in the worksheet) that Maureen and I agreed on saw print in The Malahat Review’s Spring 2015 issue, I was still satisfied that she had addressed all of my key concerns, if not exactly in the ways that I had proposed.
Now is the time to put the last of my cards on the table: I often make my suggestions look and sound awkward in order not to appear too hands-on while signaling the direction in which I feel the poet should go. I don’t really care if I come across as having two left iambic feet as long as I get the result I want. And if I make a few misspellings in my comments, it allows me to self-present as someone less than omnipotent: John as Gomer not as Yahweh. I firmly believe it is the author who has most at stake with publication, not the magazine editor. For the latter, the edited poem, after it’s seen print, is wiped from short-term memory by the countless many poems by other poets to come, each with its unique and challenges to parse. The poet must be able to live with the poem as it appears in print—the equivalent of blood—because it will carry forward, as is, into the future—until another opportunity for textual change presents itself and further refinements ease—or force—themselves into the light.
I have only recently read the version of “Wing On” in The Poison Colour, Maureen’s fourth book of poems, which Pedlar published in the autumn of 2015. It turns out that the Malahat rendering of the poem survived intact with only one further subtle improvement. That tiny shift, finessed by either Maureen or Beth, pertains to the tokens left in tribute on James Schuyler’s grave in the eighth line of the poem: “Place delphinium feathers and Noxzema jars” instead of “set….” The more ambiguous “Set” in the Malahat is open to misinterpretation, for as well as “set down,” it can mean “fix” or “fix in place,” or worse “harden” (in the way concrete slowly sets). Behind “place” is the hand, or many hands, that over time had left the plant fronds and jars in private and anonymous recognition of the poet’s importance; and “place” better evokes the reverence with which such gestures are made.
I would not have been surprised or alarmed, however, if my comparison of the Malahat and Pedlar iterations of “Wing On” revealed more evidence of editorial change or were radically different from one another. After all, Beth Follett at Pedlar may have come up with many more excellent and better suggestions than mine for Maureen to consider after climbing stealthily up inside her author’s blind. The poem’s placement in the book could have led to more significant differences between our two versions. How many uses of the word “yellow,” for instance, can readers tolerate in short succession before they see red?
It shouldn’t matter if multiple versions of the same poem exist in the public record. The probing and attentive reader may well end up studying them side by side, ideally in the order of their creation, and enjoy pondering what the author’s decision process was in the course of the poem’s evolution, migrating from manuscript to magazine to book. In every instance, the reader finds a fresh opportunity to climb up into the blind and look over the poet’s shoulder as, with or without assistance, she notes down the poem’s unique, changeable, and unruly behaviour.
At the invitation of NL Editors, John Barton originally delivered “Inside the Blind: On Editing Poetry” as a talk at Memorial University of Newfoundland, in St. John’s, on November 17, 2015. Thanks are due to Maureen Hynes, The Malahat Review, and Pedlar Press for granting permission for manuscript and published versions of “Wing On” to appear alongside John’s discussion of them in the second half of this article and to allow him to quote from the conversation he had with Maureen by email and via the comments he made on her drafts during the editing process.
John Barton’s recent publications include Polari (2014), Reframing Paul Cadmus (2016), and The Malahat Review at 50 (2017). Palimpsest will publish his first book of essays, We Are Not Avatars: Essays, Memoirs, Manifestos in 2019. He lives in Victoria.