Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Notes on Editing 1

In case there should be any confusion, the image above is not me, but my avatar George S Holmes of the Alberta Weekly Newspaper Association.

I have edited before - books rather than magazines, chiefly anthologies - but this is a different kind of task. The Poetry Society HQ differs considerably from its old HQ in Earls Court Square with its grandeur, classical columns, large rooms and garden. The current arrangement is an 'above-the-shop' enterprise, with the cellar for readings, cafe on ground floor, plus floors for studio and two sets of offices. My desk is on the lower office floor, a corner on a room length wall table with shelves full of books above, a computer terminal, and boxes of correspondence and poems. The rest is box files for previous issues. It's a fluid space. On this floor, the day I am in, it's Mike, Paul and Trupti, all busy about their work, all very helpful and friendly.

My first job is to look at the books in - those freshly in and those left over from last time but still current, though it is a moot question how long a book of poetry remains current? I once saw a review five years after publication in another magazine*. A review is unlikely to generate a rush to bookshops in the case of poetry, especially these days, but a review is part of a poet's cumulative reputation and therefore influential, not to mention the sense of relief any writer, and indeed publisher, gets at being noticed at all. It is another question altogether what it means for readers of poetry, let alone the general reader, but more on that another time.

So say I am looking at between fifty to eighty books, some by well known people and presses, others less so. Most names are familiar to me but there are always those that are not. In view of the space available for reviews I am already thinking of batches in most cases. What batches make sense? Cultural, geographical, stylistic, occasional... It's not ideal since any book worth calling a book is worth thinking about in some detail, but we have long lived in a far from ideal world. Say, then, a review is about 800-1200 words, what is worth saying about how many books? (I seem to remember that 700 words is a good proportion of a newspaper page). I have done longer reviews of between 1500-2000 words for journals at times, but consider that the upper end. In any case, my first job is to make a list of what has come in and looks promising to think about. I have asked an intern due in later to make me a full list of the contents of the last three years plus the one about to appear - 13 issues. Best to know who and what has been recent. (I myself have the magazine since I am a member, but the days of orderly shelves in chronological order are gone - there is just too much of everything on the home shelves, with some proportion of them in constant movement.)

Like any editor, of course, I have come in with a few ideas of my own regarding content, balance and theme, but have also to accommodate other priorities due to occasion and date or potential sales or membership. There is no clear rubric on this, it's just stuff to bear in mind. (There is always stuff to bear in mind.)

i spend roughly half my time on the books, dipping and hoping. There are translations and books from other English language territories. Internationalism is a good thing so I bear that in mind too. Some years ago I co-edited New Writing 10 with Penelope Lively and took in translations and articles on translation. This wasn't a universally popular move but I felt it right and no one actually stopped me.


The second half of the day is spent on a very big box of poems clipped to accompanying notes and SAE envelopes. This was the way I got used to when I was a young poet. I'd send the poems out, just like this, with a brief note, and wait for the envelopes to come back, hoping they'd be slimmer on their return. Most of the time they were exactly the same with a small business-card or at most post-card sized printed notice to the effect that: The editor has enjoyed reading your poems but regrets (s)he cannot use them on this occasion. End of response. Every so often there'd be word or two of encouragement scribbled in the border, to say Not quite! Or Try again! Alan Ross of the London Magazine and Jon Silkin of Stand were particularly kind in this way. It meant such a lot. Both eventually went on to publish me but not for years. I remind myself, and the reader that I had years of this, some seven or eight years. PR does better in this respect and has a full page printed letter, plus space for comments. In view of the numbers of submissions it is impossible to do what some less-experienced poets ask for and offer a detailed critical response, but we will redraft the basic letter and look for the best ways to do it.

After an initial sort-through I see there is the usual number of the clearly unsuitable, a good number of potentially suitable but not sufficiently remarkable, a good number of genuinely decent poems, and some that are clear candidates. There are submissions addressed to me, others to the previous editor. There are poems from very well known people and those I have not heard of. I don't read the poems from the best known at this stage, but I take the possibles from among the unknown or lesser-known and put them in a box along with the well-known to be sent on to me at home. Everything must be responded to. I have to do the responding.

There are more days left for more submissions to arrive. I'll try to get down to London as much as I can rather than go entirely postal.

I can do some asking and commissioning. I can try to redress some gaps in the past. I can introduce something new, and make requests. It all has to be balanced out.

The main issue: I am here for one issue only: what worthwhile thing can I do that others might not? All this is like rolling the universe into a ball that leads to what TSE called 'one overwhelming question'.

I'm not in a position to firmly address it yet. Tentative for now. More thoughts on related matters in due course.

On the way home I read Siegfried Sassoon on my Kimble. Sassoon at best remains extraordinarily fresh and startling. Send us something, Siegfried. What news from the front?

*The book was The Noise of the Fields, by Hugh Maxton. It would have been quite a distant noise by then.


Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.

Dennis Tomlinson said...

I did once buy a poetry book as a result of reading a good review, so it must happen now and then! It was Will Stone's Glaciation (2007), and worth buying too. A bit of melancholy peps me up.