On Editing and Being Edited

There was a time when I subscribed to Francis Bacon’s credo, as related in his fascinating interviews with David Sylvester, that every work of art should have some imperfection, either intrinsic or a deliberate fouling, otherwise one would have reached a state of perfection and the game would be up. I don’t believe that notion in the slightest anymore.

As a poet, I am absolutely clear in my belief that any poem I write should be as good as I can make it; that I must query every word, phrase, syntactical unit and item of punctuation I use and then edit accordingly and thoroughly. To do any less than that would, I feel, be an abdication of my responsibility. What responsibility do I mean? Well, let’s face it: inflicting any form of creative writing – whether published or self-published – upon the world implies and demands a degree of arrogance in the implicit presumption that someone else will be interested enough to read and engage with it, so that de facto carries with it a responsibility to the reader. That responsibility deepens over time as one’s writing improves, to the point where when then has to collect the writings into a whole, whether as a collection of poems, short stories or what-have-you.

All that (and what follows) might sound as though I’m stating the bleedin’ obvious, but I’m constantly amazed by the fact that so many haiku submissions I receive for Presence, and most of the books of haiku and related forms which are sent to me for review, are poorly edited. The writer has to be their own first and most important editor, and that’s especially true for any haiku poet who may be inclined to seek to record the moment accurately at the expense of the poetry of what they are writing. For some haiku poets, the often-quoted dictum of Allen Ginsberg, of ‘first thought, best thought’ excuses any accountability on their part, or that of the publisher, to take a proper look at the work they’re churning out. In other words, they believe that any attempt at revising the wording will kill off the sense of spontaneity, of being in ‘the moment’, which their haiku is attempting to convey.

It’s true that sometimes a haiku can arrive fully-formed as the distillation of ‘the haiku moment’ to the extent that that initial draft can’t be improved by editing; statistically, though, those circumstances are rare. It is imperative to remember that the immediacy and freshness of a poem for the readers derives not from whether it fully depicts the writer’s experience, since they cannot know what that was unless they too were present, but from the power generated by the right words working together in partnership to create a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts and which is expressed in the best aural and visual form. It follows, then, that strict adherence to the exactness of the original ‘a-ha’ moment encourages laziness and a lack of willingness to reflect fully on the poetic merit of the writing and whether it fulfils Coleridge’s test of ‘the best words in their best order’.

Not though that I’m advocating the opposite extreme either, of writing haiku which have no experiential basis whatsoever: for me, ‘desk’ haiku are an absurd waste of space. When John Barlow and I invited submissions for Wing Beats: British Birds in Haiku 10 years ago, we were dismayed to receive, from a well-known British Haiku Society member of the time, a ludicrous haiku about hummingbirds which was patently, and rather comically, falsified.

I’ve written before of my belief that it’s ridiculously easy for poets to get their haiku published in specialist haiku journals. In my experience, most haiku journal editors, being by and large a kindly bunch of people, set the bar for acceptance much too low – often by accepting at least one haiku from each submission regardless of quality in order to encourage beginners, when politely making editorial suggestions and guiding them towards best practice instead would be much more beneficial for everyone concerned. One wouldn’t expect someone picking up a violin for the first time to be able to knock out a concerto. As well as not benefitting the overall readership of the journal, such a low threshold negates the need for apprentice poets to work hard at learning their craft and to build the critical resilience required to improve their self-editing ability and then their poetic output. Surely if Malcolm Gladwell’s  rule that it takes up to 10,000 hours of practice to achieve greatness is anywhere near correct, then that applies to writing haiku as much as it does to any creative activity. 

By contrast, the ‘mainstream’ poetry world – or at least my involvement with and within it, which is almost exclusively limited to the UK – is much more demanding and rightly so. Journal editors are more likely to undertake their duties conscientiously by rejecting work which they feel isn’t yet word-perfect and isn’t overall isn’t as good as it can be. To get to a level where her or his poems are more likely than not to be published by reputable poetry journals, a poet has to learn to become resilient and face each rejection with a determined and forensic re-examination of the rejected poem(s), and to read the work of other poets, both canonical and contemporary, deeply and widely in order to provide a contrast and comparison. Of course, there will be occasions where the poet may feel that the editor has ‘got it wrong’ or just has different personal tastes, but arrogantly believing that one is always right and the editor is wrong can only ever leave a poet stumbling in the dark.

In the preparation of my soon-to-be-published poetry collection, I’ve recently undergone a rigorous editing process at the hands of the Eyewear Publishing team and it has been one of the most creatively rewarding experiences of my poetry life. I entered it with enough self-belief that my collection was well-honed, over a very long time, and that every poem, whether previously published or not, had enough about it to be included (though two poems subsequently fell by the wayside for particular reasons), but also in the spirit that Eyewear, as a consistently excellent independent poetry publisher, know what they’re doing. Naturally, I felt a bit daunted and exposed by the editing process, but that was entirely as it should be. After all, readers of the eventual book will query my word-choices and some will query every comma and semi-colon, so it is incumbent upon me as the writer and upon Eyewear as the publisher to leave nothing to chance and instead shape all the poems, and the way they gel as a whole, into the best state possible.

In the event, although the wording and punctuation of many poems were rightly and understandably queried, few actually needed any substantial amendments, and we reached a consensus fairly painlessly. The sequencing of the poems was helpfully altered as a result, though, and the book now contains 62 poems in three sections, which I think work well in their range of themes, subject-matter and emotion, and in their mixture of contemporary and historical times. Obviously, it remains to be seen whether readers will agree.


2 thoughts on “On Editing and Being Edited

  1. Very thorough. I beieve editors should edit. Not just publish. Even the most brilliant writers submit some of their stuff with typos, missing words, or weakly phrased lines. Editors should read all work carefully, and if they catch something of the above, write back to writer and suggest a change.

    There are a lot of poorly written works getting published.

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