Editing poems: John Glenday and Don Paterson
There’s a lot of talk about editing prose: a writer can employ a professional editor for a novel before querying an agent, then it may be edited again by their agent before it lands on a publishing house editor’s desk for another go.
I was recently asked if there is a similar process for poetry. The road between laptop and published page is often shorter and straighter with a poem. You don’t need an agent, to start with. I’ve had poet friends suggest changes as a poem evolved. My work has been published in magazines, the majority with no tweaks at all from the final draft I sent.
Publishing an entire poetry collection is different. Because I haven’t yet reached that stage, I questioned two far more experienced people (ok, a bit older) to illuminate the process:
Don Paterson is head honcho of the Picador poetry list, as well as collecting a frankly embarrassingly large hoard of gongs along the way for his own writing (published by Faber), including a couple of TS Eliot prizes, a Queen’s Medal and an OBE.
John Glenday has published three collections, while until recently working full-time as an NHS addictions counsellor. Grain, his third, was published by Picador and edited by Don. Grain was a Poetry Book Society recommendation and shortlisted for the 2010 Ted Hughes Award and Griffin International Poetry prize. They are currently working on his fourth collection, to be published in 2015.
Isabel: Can we kick around the subject of poetry editing?
John: Writing poetry for me is completely solitary, single minded, unilateral, autocratic, monotheistic, whatever. But there comes a time when the poem needs to be floated out there, and a good editor will help make sure it doesn’t sink without trace. I don’t think there’s enough editing going on. My first two collections had no editing at all, to the extent that I also was expected to write my own blurbs.
Isabel: John, at what stage will you show a poem to Don? Does it have to feel finished, or do you sometimes want a steer?
John: When he asks for them, but usually when it feels finished – by which I mean when it feels finished to me.
Don: In John’s case – usually when Don pleads and drags it out of him. The poem will arrive a year later, towed by a team of snails, and accompanied by a long apology for its total inadequacy. Usually the poem is wonderful, which I’ll tell him, and which he’ll then strenuously deny. When we have enough of them we sit down for a couple of long sessions and go through everything very slowly. I do a line-edit, and usually have plenty of suggestions. I’d never insist that a poet take a single one of them, however. (That’s a lie but that’s what it says here.) But it’s really just a conversation about the poem, and the potential slippage between what it’s saying, and what the author thinks it’s saying. Poetry is close-in work, and we all lose perspective, so it’s an important conversation for the author to have, I think.
Isabel: Has there ever been a poem that started one way and got transformed after Don’s suggestions?
Don: JG’s call – though I suspect ‘transformed’ would be too strong. I dare say I’ll have made the odd radical suggestion – to cut a stanza, or swap things around, and so on. But I think the editorial stage is just part of the author’s own composition process, and they should build it in as seamlessly they can. It’s an opportunity to get some perspective on your own work by using someone else’s eyes – eyes that aren’t blinded by your own sentimental attachment to the work. All an editor should see is what works and what doesn’t.
John: Don suggested quite significant changes to several poems in the collection, which I thought was a Good Thing. It felt a bit like getting your car tuned – it’s still the same vehicle afterwards, but everything just runs a bit quieter and smoother. And I’m sure the mpg has increased too. Which poems? Well Don suggested quite dramatic changes to the structure, specifically line breaks, in At Innernytie which transformed the poem. There were excisions and substitutions in other poems too, and a very supportive overall feeling for the collection.
Isabel: Was there a particular poem that caused difficulties? (that’s the classic ‘have you ever argued?’ question)
Don: None that I can recall, but JG may remember differently. I think there are always minor pieces that the two of you agree should perhaps be left out for the good of the collection, though; my aim is that the author produce a book of great poems, not fill a 64pp extent. But I know from my own experience that there’s nothing more deflating than an editor’s lack of enthusiasm, and that can negatively influence your opinion of your own work. And sometimes that’s as it should be.
John: We were surprisingly in accord over the Poems to Leave Out. No, we never fought over poems. As I mention above, several were cut, amended etc, on every occasion for the better: Yesnaby; At Innernytie; Tin, and a few others were all changed to some degree after our meetings. I particularly enjoyed discussions over punctuation – I think when an editor is discussing the use of commas with you, you’re on to a winner.
Isabel: Who has last call?
John: Both of us and neither of us.
Don: I’d like to say the book does, but that’d be silly. Technically I do, I suppose, because that’s the way publishing works – but I’d very rarely, if ever, go against the author’s wishes if they really feel passionate about something.
Isabel: How do you decide the order of a collection?
John: I’m a lay-them-all-out-on-the-floor-and-see-what-shape-they-make kind of guy. I’m pretty laid back about order. Being left handed, I usually start poetry books at the final page.
Don: While many poets are concerned with this, very few readers give a toss. A great deal of time can be wasted by finding this exquisite argumentative shape, all these cool juxtapositions and what have you. Nice for the reader to discover, but not worth wasting a great deal of energy on, I’d say. Architecture generally just isn’t one of the main pleasures of a book of poems, in the way it might be with a novel. A few good ones at the start, few good ones at the end, stick that boring long thing about 2/3rds of the way through, and avoid poems which are either too similar or violently different in tone following each other – and Bob’s your uncle. Unless it’s a sequence, of course, in which case it’s a sequence. But there’s no point in designing a brilliant arc for your book if the poems weren’t written to that structure in the first place. Take as much trouble as you would arranging fruit in a bowl. No more. I think about half of poetry readers just look at the first one, the last one, then open it in the middle somewhere. I know I do.
Isabel: Don, how does the way you work with John compare with some other poets on your list? Do you have different editing styles for different people?
Don: Yes, entirely so. My job is to divine the author’s intentions, the poem’s ambitions, and then look at the poem itself – and say in what way the author’s intended meaning has not come through, or to what extent the poem has fallen short of what it wanted to do. As far as I’m able I keep myself – and the kind of poem I’d write – out of the picture. It has nothing to do with me. Editors shouldn’t edit poems into ‘the kind of poems they like’. Besides all the poets I work with know what they’re doing. All I really do is remind them of that.
Isabel: Don, does your job as an editor change the way you react to being edited yourself?
Don: No – not really. The amazing thing is the speed with which you can ditch the edit-y hat, the one with the little green visor and the fake ear with the blue pencil behind it, for the author’s hat. The author’s hat is usually a knitted garment with a lop-sided pom-pom of the sort you’d see on a two-year-old, covered in snot and tears, and very dirty from having been thrown out the pram a lot. I can get into that one pretty quick.
Isabel: Do you do it face-to-face, or online?
John: Some email but the main work is done face to face, where he can see the whites of my line breaks.
Don: Always prefer FTF but I’ve been known to Skype.
Isabel: Do you laugh? Do you swear at each other?
Don: John swears at himself so much, there’s not much room for me to join in. Not that I would. I swear at John for writing so FUCKING SLOWLY. But I wouldn’t change him.
John: Definitely laugh and definitely swear at myself, but my main memory is of gin and tonic. Seemed to help.
Huge thanks to John and Don for taking the time to do this. I hope you found it as fascinating as I did to eavesdrop on their working relationship.