Thinking about the line: Poetry and the Art of Editing

Blog | Published on October 23, 2013

As the landscape of publishing changes, the role of the literary editor has come under increasing pressure. The swell of self-publishing and the instant connectivity of the internet has resulted in more writers looking to publish than ever before, but the way that their manuscripts are dealt with by publishing houses varies wildly across the scene. To get to the heart of these issues Nick Murray caught up with poetry editor Tom Chivers to unpeel the editing process at Penned in the Margins.

Nick Murray: At the very start, in what form do you receive manuscripts? Would you accept something especially raw or rough?

Tom Chivers: I know it sounds like a cliche, but every book I publish is different. Some writers will send me a fully-formed manuscript, others just a bunch of poems that haven’t yet coalesced into a collection. I take on books at wildly different stages of their development, which obviously requires varying levels of support and editorial commitment.

That seems like quite a risk to take on as an editor.

Yes, there is always risk with taking on something that’s not fully-formed. There’s also the risk of a manuscript that is complete, but which requires a lot of work to take it to publication. For some books I work extremely closely with the author – it can be an intimate relationship! – but with others I might apply quite a light edit. For instance: The Bells of Hope by Roddy Lumsden or The Method by Rob Stanton. These books were already very well-worked, the poems generally tight, and just in need of a few tweaks and suggestions here and there.

I guess, with something like The Bells of Hope, the poetry already has a very specific and rigid form, so it can’t be shifted too much.

Absolutely. And when you’re dealing with formal poems, as an editor you have to respect that form. Even if it’s not a traditional form, if it’s more of a concept or conceit, it’s about getting into the mindset of the poet. It doesn’t mean you can’t edit, just that you commit to a different approach.

Once you accept a manuscript, what are the first steps towards the finished book?

Assuming that the manuscript is a traditional poetry collection, one of the first things that I do is go through the book and nominate the poems that I think should definitely be included, which ones I think should be cut, and which ones are maybes. I will ask the poet to do the same thing. The overlapping ‘yes’ poems become the core of the collection, with the rest being discussed for inclusion. It’s a very simple exercise, but it gives me a clear sense of the length of the book, how much work will have to go into it, and even when it might be published.


I imagine that stage is the only part of the process where the collaboration is on equal terms. Does the driving force of the editing process shift after that?

No, I definitely consider the collaborative balance to be equal throughout the process. After that stage we work through each poem individually. From very simple things like shifting a comma, up to bigger considerations; for example, relineating a poem or moving stanzas around. One thing I see a lot is bad openings. It’s the entrance into the poem so really has to be strong, or unusual. As a reader I want to be grabbed by the first line.

Who gets the final decision when it comes to editorial choices? What happens in the case of arguments?

I am confident of my editorial expertise and will make a strong and persistent case for changes I see as vital. But I also have to be sensitive to the author’s wishes. So if it comes down to it I will not stand in the way over a semicolon or a line-break. I have to respect that I’ve chosen to publish that book and not another book that I then rewrite. Yes there are sometimes arguments over particular poems, but they are always resolved with diplomacy and, occasionally, cunning.

How important is it for you to build up a particular kind of dialogue with the writers you work with?

The rapport between myself and the writers I work with exists in very differing forms. Often it’s an intimate relationship based on numerous face to face meetings. Other times, the majority of the work is done remotely. There have a couple of instances where I have edited and published an entire book without meeting the writer. Michael Egan’s book Steak & Stations was one of those; the first time I met Michael was at his own book launch! Nowadays a lot can be done via email, phone and Skype. I’ve had some great editing sessions with Ross Sutherland over the years. The best people to work with have a combination of commitment to the work that they’ve done – they have confidence in the material, they believe in themselves and will stick to their guns – and also a degree of flexibility. They are willing to compromise and respect the editorial eye that I’m bringing to the book.

You’ve published a few books that are formally experimental, like Count from Zero to One Hundred and Love/All That/ & OK. How do you go about editing something that doesn’t play by the rules?

Good question. Because as an editor, the first things I look out for are basic things like spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax –

But haven’t those already flown out the window?

Sometimes, yes. Take Emily Critchley’s book, or Rob Stanton’s, which are more experimental with language, where the poet is writing using syntactic disruption or without punctuation or whatever, then yes, the editing process is different. But you can still discern if things are working or not in a poem. There’s this notion that you can’t edit experimental poetry, which I don’t think is true. I believe you absolutely can and in most cases should; it’s about understanding what the poet is trying to do, and to be sensitive to that, to bring a critical voice to the process. Editing isn’t just about looking at individual lines of poetry and ‘improving’ them. Editing should be about entering a relationship with the writer, a relationship in which you become a kind of collaborator. Moreover, as an editor my goal is to create a book. Many of the manuscripts I receive are not books; they’re a miscellany of poems. It’s my job to sculpt those poems into a physical object that will be read as widely as possible.

Do you utilise any technological tools to help with the editing process?

Editing is quite an unfashionable thing. It appears to belong to a different age. I know, anecdotally, that many poetry presses only edit very lightly, or don’t edit at all. They may proof-read, which is a different thing. I’m an old-fashioned editor really. I print everything out and make comments in the margins with my trusty biro. I then type up the suggested edits and send them to the author for consideration. It’s a drawn-out process, but it’s comprehensive. I don’t, I hope, miss much. Also, printing out all of my manuscripts is important as you’re dealing with a physical object. That’s what the book is going to be in the end. So to be able to see pages side by side and the interaction between poems visually is very important to me. To feel the physical effort of reading. To be turning pages in the same way as the reader will be turning the pages of the finished book. There’s a tactile connection between editing and reading.

Speaking of collaborations, you are a poet yourself and you are editing other poets’ work. How much of your own preferences or ideas come through in the work you publish?

I’m sure that if you looked through the Penned in the Margins catalogue, those books represent something of my own personal taste or tastes. However, as a publisher, I believe you have a responsibility not just to yourself and your own tastes, or even to your list of writers, but also, vitally, to your readers, and potential readers. That responsibility means that when I commission work, I’m not only looking for work that is absolutely to my tastes. I’m also looking for work that I discern to be good, and to fit the list. Good programmers of live events do the same thing.

As for the editing itself, I am aware of occasionally encouraging the poems to be more like the kinds of poems that I write. I’m aware of this, so try to avoid doing it too much. The important thing is to understand where the poet is coming from. There are some tricks that I use, just so the author and myself can see the work in a new light. For example, I often ask poets who write very raw poems, not very visually structured on the page, to rewrite a poem in couplets. I know that’s because I like writing poetry in couplets. The lovely thing about couplets is that they make you think about the line. Which is central to the form of the poem. Without the line, without the possibilities of the line, we would all just be writing prose poems. So even if the poet doesn’t end up using the couplets in the end, at least the process has asked them to consider lineation, rhythm, breath and so on.


Could you be as good an editor of poetry without being a poet?

I’m glad you think I’m a good editor – thank you! Yes, I think it’s absolutely possible to be a good editor and not to be a poet. In fact I think it would be very healthy for the industry if there were more, and specifically more publishers of poetry , who are not poets. As an editor, I think it shouldn’t matter either way, but you do have to have a wide knowledge of contemporary poetry to understand the context. I often read poets who clearly don’t read a lot of contemporary poetry themselves, and can’t spot what is and what isn’t a cliché… or what is or what isn’t new language. Ezra Pound, perhaps the greatest poet editor, famously said that poetry should ‘Make it new’. That, for me, is central to my editorial vision.

Penned in the Margins has been going from strength to strength as an independent publisher. How do you balance consistent output and a high standard of editorial content?

It’s difficult to be consistent. The books are variable in terms of subject matter, style, even book covers. I have a one year minimum lead-in for most books, which allows me to be quite scatter-gun with my approach. If I set out a five year strategy and vision for my publishing programme, I think it would be a different kind of press. Perhaps more stable, but also less responsive.

Do you set yourself a limit to the number of books you put out?

The limit is about ten books a year. I’ve put out between six and ten for the last four years. That’s the amount that I can manage as an editor and publisher. It’s also the amount that I think is good enough to go out there. If I received more outstanding manuscripts, then I would publish more.

You have recently worked with Luke Wright and Hannah Silva, who are both primarily performance poets. How did you go about transforming the more performative work onto the page?

The focus with this kind of work is on trying to recreate the impact of the performance on the page. With Hannah’s book, Forms of Protest, she agreed to cut quite a few poems because we thought they just didn’t need to be translated onto the page. They were primarily sound pieces. One approach is to use syntax and punctuation to mimic or suggest the presence of the performance in the ear. There’s a beautiful connection between the visual and the aural. Take punctuation, of which I’m a huge fan. You can think of punctuation as musical pauses. Of course they have other, more grammatical, effects, but I like to use punctuation to create a sort of musical score.

Once the poems are cemented, how do you work with the poet to choose their order and placement within the collection?

It very much depends. If it’s a miscellaneous collection, I’ll aim to ensure it has a strong opening. I tend to put longer poems after the first third. We will look for certain connections between poems and try to create some kind of tonal narrative or ‘flow’ through the book.

Quite often I work with collections that have sequences of poems within them. These are always really interesting to edit and quite helpful for working out how the collection will flow. For example in Ross Sutherland’s Emergency Window he has a series of sonnets based on Street Fighter 2 characters, a sequence written using computer generated software, and also a bunch of experimental Oulipian poems. I remember it took us a long time to feel happy with the book. Initially it felt very disordered. The poems just weren’t gelling together. Then we met up in a dingy cafe in Cambridge and thrashed it out. The moment of revelation occurred when we realised we could keep the computer-generated sequence together, but split up the Street Fighter poems, dotting them throughout the collection. As tight, beautifully-written sonnets, they serve as an effective leaven in the book. It was fantastic to discover new meaning and value just by messing around with the order of poems.

What does the future hold for your publishing programme?

I’m actively looking for collections to take on for 2014 and 2015. Poetry collections, of course, and particularly debuts, but also experimental fiction. I’m always looking for writing that exists on the level of language, that is interested in play, experimentation, and the possibilities of language, artifice, register. I’m less interested in purely representational poems, poems that merely document some personal experience that the poet found deep or interesting or whatever. I’m looking for poems that are profound, or funny, or challenging, or disruptive, on the level of their own materials. Poems that become an event, a visceral thing, when you read them.

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