The Sword of Gryffindor and the Art of Editing Poetry
There are a million ways to edit a poem, a dozen ways to punctuate and almost anything being removed can make a poem stronger. The art of an editor is knowing what the truest shape of the poem is, what the poet most wanted from a piece.
Every editor will have a different approach to this. They are as much artists as the original poet, and when the two are of like-minds, the results are beautiful. The editor works as a second brain to bring out more of the poem, often through taking out pieces that don’t fit. However, many poets haven’t quite grasped the role of the editor.
For many poets, the editor is an authority who tells the “correct” way to write a poem, and the work twists and becomes more like the editor’s own work than the original author. It sounds nice, having a bigger name co-sign your work but I’m yet to see a collection edited this way that the poet didn’t come to hate in time. Not because the collections are bad but because they don’t feel right.
Asking friends can be tricky too. So many of us are afraid of being strict with our friends work, to really let them have it where they need. Ultimately, this does everyone a disservice. I find I learn more about poetry from pulling it apart in the editorial process than when writing it or reading it.
It’s important you find someone who knows your work and has a similar editorial philosophy to yourself. If you believe a rigorous breaking down of each line makes a poem better, then find yourself the toughest editor possible but be prepared to fight and get hurt as they break your work and rebuild it, but don’t let go of the quintessential you-ness of the piece.
My personal approach is to take out everything that doesn’t contribute to the central image, leaving behind a stark, beautiful skeleton, however for many poets that can be troubling as their extraneous words fall away like sketching in reverse. I standby the results however, and as a result I’ve become known for a particular kind of editing and the ability to turn notes into fully fledged poems. I am not for every one though. A good editor should be able to send you to someone else who fits your aim better.
Bringing on an editor is a lot like bringing on a co-writer. It’s sharing the experience of these poems in their most intimate form, before they’re safe for the real world. It’s showing all the dirty, broken parts and half formed ideas before you are ready to commit to them.
I don’t believe a poetry editor needs a lot of experience editing. Poets spend hours editing themselves already so by the time they edit another poet, they’ve sharpened that bit of their brain.
So where does The Sword of Gryffindor come in? In the second Harry Potter book, we are introduced to the sword. A goblin-forged weapon that possesses a curious quirk, not really explored until the final book. The sword will only take on the properties of that which makes it stronger. After killing the basilisk, it becomes imbued with the beasts venomous blood which ultimately gives it the power to destroy the horcruxes.
You should be the same with your editor. You are both responsible for the final product, you aren’t just ceding control of the work. You are bouncing it back to another brain, that of a poet whose work inspires you. When they make suggestions to the poems, you should only be looking to take on what makes the poems stronger.
Editors are fallible. We can be too precious of our opinions. We can fall prey to believing the way we write a poem is the right way. But editors believe what we do makes the poem stronger. We may not be right though, and it is up to you to resist changes when you believe they aren’t right. Of course, it’s possible to push too much, in which case you probably haven’t selected the right editor.
By the end of it, the editor should feel as proud of the work as you, almost as invested in it’s success.
There’s really no rules to poetry, no matter what anyone else says. Just find an editor who’s playing the same game as you.
© 2020 Connor Sansby
Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.