Good editors – and why they matter

When a writer, especially a poet, has the opportunity to work with interns or young editors, there is always a sense of trepidation the wobbles in the back of the mind. On the one hand, a write hopes his or her editor will be a kind of polymath, a mind that reaches everywhere and touches everything without going overboard and saying too much or trying to out-research the writer. On the other hand, the writer hopes his editors will approach the project as one approaches a fabulous undiscovered island — with a need to explore, to find new things, to see the text with wonder.

I have been very fortunate, both this year and in 2017 when Black Moss interns produced 1967: Centennial Year, to have encountered hungry minds. In the previous book, I may have given the editors a fairly shapely beast. The book was ordered into months that were arranged chronlogically. That group had a great deal of fun discovering what life was like fifty years ago. This year’s group has been different. I gave this year’s group a mess of poems and they had to sort through them. I wasn’t sure of where the book was going, what the title would be, or what they would make of a mass of material that was without shape.

What has emerged — thanks largely to the inquisitive minds I have encountered — is Grace of Falling Stars. A good editor listens. A good editor approaches the text as a set of questions. At times, I felt that I was being a bit of a sphinx with everyone, posing questions, and offering riddles instead of statements. The truth is, I had answers built intot the manuscript but from this side of the desk I didn’t know the questions. That should have put everyone at a disadvantage, but instead the effect of group-think, the ability to toss around possibilities and to offer me possibilities was a wonderful experience.

I have worked with editors who didn’t have the foggiest notion of what they wanted a book to become. I have worked with editors who had no feel for my work and tried to ram a square peg into a round hole. One such editor who was working on a baseball book had no idea that baseball has its own language, its own phraseology. She tried to turn it into a cookbook. I have the great fortune to work with Janice Weaver, a wonderful editor, on my national bestseller, The Golden Thread. In many ways, she understood the way my mind works. I have a junk shop in my head. She learned very quickly how my inventory of ideas was arranged. She knew where I kept the chandeliers and where I kept the spitoons. She did what good editors do (and race car mechanics): she got me the extra mileage I needed to win the race.

A good editor doesn’t make assumptions. A good editor says, “This is what speaks to me from your manuscript,” and builds on that by asking if an author can give more here, take away something there, expand this, or contract that. A good editor is just as curious, if not more curious than an author. There is a dialogue that resides in every book. I have worked with editors who loved to converse. Even years on, when we meet, we pick up the conversation where we left off because one of things I have come to appreciate about gifted editors: they are conversationalists par excellence.

Barry Callaghan spent four hours with me one day showing me that my lines of poetry were a half measure too long. He didn’t draw lines through the poems. He saw possibilities in them. He often saw what poem was hiding in the heart of the typescript. He chipped away. And herein resides another aspect of a good editor: they approach a manuscript in the same way Michelangelo approached a block of marble: they see what is struggling to emerge. See Michelangelo’s Slaves for the Tomb of Pope Julius II or, for that matter, the David. They see the flaw in the block of marble and engineer a way to work around the flaws so that something remarkable emerges by taking away the extra stone.

In one of my other manifestations, I am a substantive editor. A substantive editor is someone who looks at a stack of poems that sees a movie or a film score wanting to be seen or heard. A substantive editor listens to what the poems are saying. I recently edited a book where the poet had great poems. When I listened to the poems, they were saying two things: food and family. That book became an opera. Recently, a noted poet gave me a considerable stack of his work. There were poems about family (enough to make a book). There were poems about photographs (enough to make a book), and poems about hands. The family poems became one book. The photographs became another. And the hands became a third. The orchestration aspect is about knowing what should come first, what becomes a running theme in the works, and what serves as a finale. Like I said, it is like putting music together for a symphony. If you listen carefully to a symphony such as Vassily Kalinnikov’s First Symphony (a real treat if you haven’t heard it), he begins with a very clear them that is repeated in the final movement. In between, you can hear ice melting in the second movement. I mean it. You can hear ice melting! My point is that a good editor knows when to use something, not just what to use.

The student interns this year have done all that and more. They found the title for Grace of Falling Stars. I would never have looked for it in the poem from which it is taken. They spotted a development, a Bildungsroman or narrative of the growth of a mind and personality, and they ran with that idea so that the book took on biographical aspects I hadn’t considered. How was that accomplished? Through dialogue. The book was the result of an extended conversation. The key to conversation, I learned, was that as they were speaking to me as editors, it was because the poems were speaking to them. I love that. That’s the highest form of praise that can be accorded a poet. “This poem spoke to be because…” was something I heard countless times. That delighted me.

I am not sure there is a classic publishing process. I’ve worked with large houses. The large house experience was interesting and frightening. I walked into a room one morning and there were seventy-five people waiting for me who were involved in the book. At times I found that wonderful and at other times I found myself struggling against a kind of in-house zeitgeist that evolved where the people involved wanted the book to become something it couldn’t. I love working with small literary houses because the notion of conversation is strongest there. The editor bounces things off the author. The author replies. I am currently a BMO Mentor for Exile Editions and the mentor/mentee process works in this way. The book is the product of discussion, but moreso a product of caring and consideration. And that is probably the most important aspect of editing: an editor has to care about what the work is saying as much or even moreso than the writer cared, not>l because the editor is trying rewrite the book but because the editor has listened to what the book is saying.

T.S. Eliot once said that it is the duty of every editor to rescue the work from its author. I don’t think he meant impose a reading on the work; on the contrary his vision of the editorial process was to let the book be the book, to let the work say what it can say and say it as well as it can be said. In the process, both the editor and the writer discover new things. That sense of discovery is like setting foot on that enchanted, undiscovered island and exploring the place for its exotic birds and flowers. The sense of awe that emerges is truly remarkable.

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