I may be an outlier here, but one of my favourite parts of working with poetry is editing. It’s always been the aspect of my own writing process that I relish the most, and I love working with other writers to edit their work in preparation for publication. I particularly enjoy puzzling out how to publish the transcripts of spoken word poems on the page in a manner that conveys some of their energy and tone from live performance. So when Carly Brown, a spoken word artist, historical researcher, and novelist whose work I’ve admired for years, requested that I edit her new pamphlet with Stewed Rhubarb Press, I jumped at the opportunity.
We spent several days over April working together intensively on the pamphlet and I’m excited to share it’s now complete! The title is Anastasia, Look in the Mirror and the official release date is July 2nd. Last Friday Stewed Rhubarb revealed the (gorgeous!) cover and opened pre-orders, so I wanted to take a moment to share my experience working on the pamphlet. Below are some brief reflections on the process and some basic suggestions for editing poetry collections. Hope you enjoy!
I think there’s a common misconception that the role of an editor is just proofreading: fixing typos, making small changes for clarity and consistency, etc. Certainly that’s part of it, but editing a poetry collection encompasses a lot more than minor grammatical adjustments. Carly is a very accomplished writer, with a first pamphlet, novel, and PhD under her belt: it’s not that she doesn’t know how to spell-check! The editor’s chief role is as a second, well-trained pair of eyes able to perceive trends and issues in the work that the writer can’t see simply because they are too close to it. Every writer needs an editor, no matter how accomplished they are. (This also goes for people with experience editing: when I publish my own poetry, I need an editor with distance from the work who can be more objective and critical). Editors can point out where the material isn’t clear, identify the central themes and ensure the collection is cohesive, help in re-arranging the order of pieces and re-formatting poems, suggest wording changes, even assist in deciding on the title. And, importantly, we can encourage the writer to keep pushing their craft and ensure their work is the best it can be before committing it to print.
One of reasons I admire Carly’s work so much is her breadth of writing abilities and interests. In addition to her spoken word practice, she also writes poetry for the page in a range of styles and tones (from the comedic to the austere), and she writes historical fiction novels. It’s so exciting to get to work with a writer whose work isn’t one note but a whole heckin’ orchestra!
Anastasia, Look in the Mirror contains a wide range of poetic styles, from looser, more narrative spoken word transcripts to tight, more abstract page pieces. It features ekphrastic poetry (poems inspired by paintings by the Scottish Colourists), dramatic monologues in various voices (including characters from fiction and the literary world), and pieces which feel autobiographical to Carly. In terms of the settings, we jump from the Salem witch trials to a Texas high school sex ed class to gardens in Paris. There’s even play with different languages! While this breadth of material is fantastic and makes for a dynamic reading experience, it does present a challenge: to weave wide-ranging work into a pamphlet that feels cohesive. The book had to hang together as a whole, with the pieces working in harmony, rather than feeling mish-mashed.
Luckily for me, Carly had already done much of the work of determining what the glue binding the pamphlet together would be. The poems are unified by common intersecting themes: of femininity; sex and sensuality; performance, recognition, and self-creation; and danger. Each of the poems, however stylistically disparate they may be, negotiates one (and usually more than one) of these themes.
Through several discussions between Carly and myself identifying and clarifying these themes, we whittled down the pieces in the draft manuscript using adherence to the themes as our criteria. That entailed cutting several pieces that for various reasons no longer worked in the context of the pamphlet. Importantly, they were all fantastic poems, and we removed some of our favourites: but when you’re putting together a pamphlet, the strength of the body of work as a whole needs to be prioritised over the desire to keep in any shiny yet distracting nuggets.
The next step was to determine the order of the poems. Several facets had to be taken into account here:
- Which poems were best to bookend (start and conclude) the pamphlet?
- How best to spread out poems that were stylistically similar (i.e. not grouping all of the spoken word pieces together but sprinkling them through the pamphlet).
- How to create an emotional and narrative arc. (We eventually settled on loosely using the stages of a relationship for this: the poems progress from desire to love to settled relationships to the dissolution of relationships to moving on.)
- How to cleanly transition from each poem to the next (i.e. whether it would work to have a silly poem immediately following one about grief; managing the reader’s emotional journey).
There was a lot to consider, and we went through many versions before settling on the final pamphlet order.
Finally, the last (and most time-consuming) step of editing Anastasia, Look in the Mirror was making the sentence-level changes to poems. These ranged from checking spelling (Carly and I both being Americans living in the U.K., we had to triple-check to ensure there weren’t any z’s where there should have been s’s!), to fiddling with wording, to changing formatting and lineation, to completely deleting and/or rewriting sections of poems. Each editor-writer pairing will have their own way of working together, and it’s important to establish ground rules at the beginning: for instance, some writers may consider the poems finished and just be interested in the editor proofreading, where others will be more flexible in wanting the editor to aesthetically shape the work. Carly was open to all of my suggestions and actively requested my ideas about lineation and formatting, so we underwent a fairly thorough editing process.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the unique joys of editing spoken word material is figuring out how to translate the energy, pace, and tone of spoken word pieces in live performance to the page. Carly is a very dynamic, expressive performer, so we had a tall order conveying that in the printed text. “For Lack of a Better Word” is one of her signature spoken word pieces which appears in the pamphlet; check out this video of her performing it at the Loud Poets Fringe show in 2015:
As you can see, Carly uses variations in volume and tone, plus plenty of body language, to accentuate the poem when she performs it live. Since obviously those factors aren’t present on the page, we used lineation, punctuation, and typography (bold, italics, caps, etc.) to convey some of the energy and meaning. Formatting decisions were also helpful in breaking these longer pieces up on the page, adding spacing so that poems with long lines and large stanzas didn’t feel so dense. A good starting point when you’re formatting spoken word poems is to use white space as you would use pause and breath in performance. An isolated word on the page gets more attention, just as a word spoken between pauses does. Carly and I played around a lot with the formatting, and I’m quite pleased with how the poems now appear.
At some point I’ll need to do a separate blog post about this, but another consideration when editing spoken word material for the page is whether to significantly rewrite the poems so that they function better as ‘page’ poems or whether to just publish the transcripts untouched. Different poets will have different approaches here; in my PhD interviews with spoken word artists, some revealed that they completely retool the work for the page while others preserve it. There are pros and cons to each approach. Aspects of spoken word pieces which work well in live performance—such as repetition of refrains—can read as simplistic on the page, so some poets choose to pare down the written text. However, if your audience is buying your book after a show, they probably want to read the exact piece they just heard you perform onstage, rather than an adapted version. There are many more nuances to this decision, and ultimately it’s up to the poet and their editor to determine what works best for them. Carly and I ultimately left most of the text of her spoken word material untouched, particularly for the pieces she’s memorised and accustomed to performing in the same way for years.
In the end, after Carly and I had worked through all of these decisions on which poems to include, the order of the pamphlet, and the sentence-level edits, we passed the manuscript on to James T. Harding, Publishing Director at Stewed Rhubarb, to typeset and design it. This is the final stage, in which the pamphlet is put into InDesign (or similar publishing software) and arranged on the page in preparation for printing. At this point, a lot more precision and playfulness is available to the typesetter in terms of how the poetry is laid out on the page: lines can be curved, for example, or made to run vertically up the page. James made some wonderful typesetting decisions on Anastasia, Look in the Mirror which really enhance the energy and inventiveness of the poetry.
All together, working with Carly on this new pamphlet was a wonderful experience. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to shape this work, and I learned so much from the process. I can’t wait for you to read it!
Anastasia, Look in the Mirror is now available for pre-order from Stewed Rhubarb Press here. You can read Carly’s blog post about the pamphlet on her website here. You can also read back a great blog post Carly wrote for this site back in 2017 on acting and spoken word here.
Thanks for reading! If you have a body of work that you’d like me to provide editorial feedback on or that you’re interested in preparing for publication with me, please get in touch. -K