Tuesday, 17 April 2012
Editing notes, 3
Things are at the stage that I can say a little more about the editing process at Poetry Review. Another of my avatars behind desk.
The three main parts of the magazine are the poems, the reviews and the centre spread. The reviews are just as you'd expect. There are the books on the shelves, a good number of them, and you try to get as many reviewed as possible. This means bunching the books and finding the right reviewer. There are, of course, those who have reviewed before and done it well. One can go to them. But it's nice to find new people, and, in some cases, the perfectly appropriate older people who might not have reviewed or even appeared there for years. There is limited space so you try to calculate how many words per page and set that as the task. If you review a lot each book gets less space but on a one-off like this I was concerned that more should be reviewed. There are, beside the new books of poetry, books of criticism and history that I have not sent for review, and new editions or translations of major figures from the past that I have. Not all. That was impossible.
The Centre Spread
The centre spread is a more open question. My idea has been to try and map territories that don't appear too often in the magazine. Fiona Sampson was a very good editor so the contents of PR were far from narrow, but no one can get everywhere, so I wanted to find poets and critics who could write about major figures, or particularly interesting figures or developments. That doesn't cover everything either but it does enlarge the map a bit. The editor also has to bear in mind that this isn't an academic magazine or the magazine of a particular range of poetry, so the task of the writer on specialist areas is to familiarise the reader with what might seem difficult if talked about one way, but is far less so when talked about differently. In effect it is a request for writers to champion that which they value and consider important - not to talk amongst themselves but to the readers of PR. If this is half as successful as I hope it will have been worth doing. If some of the poets they want to discuss have recent books out, all the better, but it's not vital.
As to the poems themselves, there are hundreds on hundreds of them. There are also the poems the last editor left behind but did not reject or have time to reject or accept. Some will be from poets already well known, even very well known, others will have published a book or two, some less, some nothing at all. Only in the last two weeks of so have serious numbers of poems arrived addressed to me.
The editor can also ask poets to submit poems. These can be from poets he or she particularly admires or those who might not have appeared in the magazine before but in whom the editor believes. One guiding principle for me and I would guess other editors - it is not a rule, it is not written in stone - is that if someone has appeared in a very recent issue they should give place to those who have not appeared in the period. I would like to think that if Eliot had offered us Prufrock one quarter and The Waste Land the next I would not have turned either down, but might have considered holding back the second for an issue or two unless I felt the whole think was so hot it absolutely had to appear. A delay can help a poem create an audience. Waiting can be good.It can make things even hotter. The difference, of course, is that I am editor for only one issue and cannot hold things over. I can merely make a folder, hand it over to my successor and suggest that it might be good to look at some.
One tries to choose the best, that goes without saying, but there is a lot that is good and many that are more than good enough. If an editor has invited poems, there is an obligation to use at least some of them. Then there are the poems submitted independently by those the editor knows in one way or another. Some may even be acquaintances, which in the world of poetry, is almost unavoidable. Friendship is not, and cannot be, an issue. The related question of who the editor considers good or underrated is more difficult. Editors will know some work better.
One more factor in choosing. There isn't a theme at the beginning, but a theme, or themes, may arise, so that of two poems of roughly equal virtue one may become more attractive because it fits so well. I have always believed that there is a kind of story or trail in books and magazines, a natural sequence of reading. That may be a personal quirk but I feel entitled to it. One has to choose on some principle and when dealing with many hundred there isn't time to weigh small differences in merit. So some very good poems are there instead of other very good poems because they seemed to me dead right where they are.
The best are easy, you just have to spot them. And I have spotted a very good number of excellent poems some by people whose names I know, some, to my great joy, by those I have never heard of, or only distantly. The great joys are an outstanding new poem by an outstanding writer, the chance to print someone who has not had their due despite outstanding work, and discovering outstanding work by the unknown. I think I have done all those three things.
There are some other issues on which I'll post in due course, but I thought it worth explaining what seems like a mysterious process. It is tough work, tougher than editing a book. It is long and tiring. I have occasionally tried to tell sceptics that the greatest pleasure for any editor is in discovering the new. That much should be obvious - there's no great credit in taking what is already known to be good. One wants the known good, very much so, precisely because you know it is good. It would be a coup to have a new poem by MacNeice, say, but to find a new MacNeice is, in some ways, better still.
Next time back to the art school. It has been a very long day and I write this at the end of it.