Working with poets is near and dear to my heart. I’ve been writing poetry my whole life, and it is the kind of writing that most deeply resonates with me.
One thing I know: Poetry is perfect for this precise moment in time. Poetry transports the reader, creates a world, embeds a feeling, does all this in a moment and, while we are all busy people, we all have a moment. A moment to heal, to reflect and to wonder, and to appreciate the beauty of language.
Arrangement is a skill completely unique to poetry, and one I have a lot of experience doing.
I start by identifying poems that need work, fall flat, and/or have potential but need attention. For these poems, I ask that the poet consider removing them from their collection so that every poem in their book shines. Poetry is such a concise art form, there is no room for mediocrity . . . That being said, sometimes a poem is especially meaningful for a poet, and they want it published, and I fully respect that choice.
Whether I am arranging from scratch or within an existing framework, I read out loud. This is very important for poetry. I read out loud to see how one poem ends and what the next sounds like to follow it. I decide if it feels jarring or natural.
ARRANGEMENT WITHIN AN EXISTING FRAMEWORK
A poet sends me a collection they have arranged themselves, but they desire a professional review of their arrangement with suggestions for changes.
While respecting their natural sense of arrangement, I keep myself keenly aware of the sections and ordering. I note poems that are oddly placed within a section that doesn’t suit them, when another section would better suit them. I might realize a new section ought to be created. I might see that a truly amazing poem has been buried somewhere in the middle, and I suggest it is highlighted by being better placed.
I discuss with the poet my findings and professional input, and we move forward from there.
ARRANGEMENT FROM SCRATCH
A poet sends me their collection without any arrangement. I read through the collection, noting theme and connections. Maybe there are a couple or a few that I feel should be together. I find the one that could start the collection. I find the one that could end it.
I use an intuitive sense in developing sections, perhaps based on theme/time of writing/process/style. "Process" poetry is similar to telling a story; there is a progression to the poems. Examples: trauma to healing to enlightenment; birth to life to death; heartbreak to healing to new love. I also suggest potential titles for the sections.
At this point, I share with the poet the sections I've created and the poems included in each section (without any specific ordering yet). We have a discussion, and I note any poems that the poet would like switched into another section. They will also approve or reject my suggested poems to remove at this stage.
Then I begin the real nitty-gritty, magical process of ordering! I'm basically building a story or a conversation, allowing the poems to speak to and about each other based on where they are placed. Again, this is an extremely intuitive process. Therefore, it is difficult to define. But one thing I can share is that ordering poems in a collection is similar to musical composition, if the song was many hours long. Within each section that is thematically grouped, I strive to create a melody of building and falling . . . a movement that is never stagnant nor repetitive; it should be varied yet never chaotic.
Finally, I share the ordering with the poet, and usually, they are either completely overjoyed with it, or there are just a few poems they want rearranged. I save a little time at the end to make any final adjustments.
Every word in a poem is integral to the poet’s art. Therefore, no word should be changed by the editor; it must be done by the poet.
Instead, I work on highlighting lines/words for rewriting and giving commentary, such as: Were you thinking of this other word? This line is illogical, is this what you intended? This is what this line means to me; is that what you want it to mean?
And don't worry, I will give my artistic input as well! If I know a certain word would be perfect for your intended meaning and the line would flow better with that change, absolutely, I will say so. The difference is that I'd never go ahead and change the word without clear approval.
I comment on imagery, flow, rhythm, narrative, emotion, and mystery.
Naturally, imagery is an essential component in poetry, as much of the poem's narrative is told through imagery. When I'm assessing imagery in a poetry collection, I'm thinking about three main things.
First, that the imagery in itself is strong and elicits a visceral reaction. I want to make sure that based on the words alone, I can imagine and feel what the poet intended, and the words don't fall into the domain of the cliché.
Second, that the imagery is varied even if the emotion behind it has a thematic cohesion. Readers won't want to see the same imagery presented in the same way throughout the collection.
Third, that the imagery throughout the collection calls upon all five of the senses. It's okay if as a poet, you particularly like writing about visual imagery or auditory imagery, for example. I'm just looking to zero in on your primary sources of imagery, and then encouraging you to be more dynamic by incorporating some secondary sources too.
FLOW + RHYTHM
My primary focus with flow is to understand the poet's flow before I try to comment upon it. Flow is very unique, and I don't want to just impose my own sense of flow. Once I immerse myself in a poet's flow, I can see spots where they deviate from the flow . . . It really comes down to awkwardness. Maybe a word or a line just interrupts that good flow you had going.
Flow is like a dance. There are many kinds of poems with set guidelines for metre and rhythm, which in itself create a set flow. So if you create a limerick, it will have the flow of any other limerick. The poets of today are mostly creating their own flow through free verse. My goal is to define the flow of your free verse and tweak spots where it is not optimal for the flow your poetry is otherwise exuding.
Poems tell stories, but in a different way. There is certainly description, yet there is also character, plot, and even dialogue sometimes. It's just that the whole story is contained within one scene, or perhaps the poem jumps around, much more freely than prose could, to other times and places in the story.
Editing a poem's narrative is very different too because plot holes in a poem are not comparable to those in prose. See mystery section below. I focus on pointing out when something in the poem's narrative is so mysterious as to negatively impact the reader's experience and/or will be widely misinterpreted. I also comment on classic narrative elements so that the poet can understand how their character/plot/dialogue is being received.
I think poetry is equally about what is unsaid, what is implied through omission. This ties in to the narrative section above because I believe poems should be mysterious, at least a little bit. I can't think of a great poem that is totally transparent.
Poetry should be universal, able to be interpreted in countless ways. Yet, it is a fine balance between mysterious and unintelligible, and it's a balance that is probably impossible to achieve without outside input. A poet knows the depths of their own soul and heart when they write their poetry, yet a reader cannot know this. Sometimes, what is on the page becomes too much mystery and not enough clarity. Or, the opposite problem occurs, and the poem is too on-the-nose, and that's worse!
Using only a relatively small amount of words, a poem should absolutely make a reader feel something. I love to guide a poet on the emotional journey they are creating in their work. Sometimes, this is praising poems that are emotionally poignant, so that they may recognize when their poetry is hitting that right mark. Sometimes, it is encouraging them to dive a little deeper and get a little messier in order to achieve that emotional truth.
When it comes to editing, poetry is a special case on every level. Poets have a unique privilege to circumvent certain grammar rules because poetry is a much more flexible form of writing. Of course, spelling still matters, but let’s look at a few examples of the choices available to a poet:
1. Capitalize the first word of each line and every proper noun.
2. Capitalize proper nouns only.
3. Capitalize nothing.
4. In conjunction with the above options, capitalize words or phrases as a way of highlighting them.
1. Use no punctuation.
2. Use punctuation to create natural pauses (similar to the function of punctuation in prose), but do so within the framework of a poem. A line break already creates a pause similar in timing to a comma. A new stanza already creates a pause similar in timing to a period.
3. Use punctuation to create unnatural pauses or to deny the reader a natural pause.
a list of words that would normally require commas presented without any commas because it creates tension:
blossoming perfect colourful sweet nice changing loving, I was
multiple periods breaking a sentence into fragments or even single words:
I. just. want. you. to. stop. and. read. this. slowly.
A poet can also subvert grammar rules when desiring to keep “sentences” on the same line, or wanting to break a “sentence” into two lines.
Examples below are written out with generic sentence structure, and then using an example taken from three lines of my own poetry.
/ is equal to a line break
independent sentence, independent sentence /
independent sentence. independent sentence /
independent sentence independent sentence /
independent / sentence independent / sentence independent sentence /
independent sentence / independent sentence /
An example from a poem I wrote entitled "all":
the sky still seems beautiful
I read a story written in the clouds
no one else sees it
the sky still seems beautiful, I read a story written in the clouds
the sky still seems beautiful. I read a story written in the clouds
the sky still seems beautiful I read a story written in the clouds
the sky still seems / beautiful I read a story written / in the clouds no one else sees it
the sky still seems beautiful / I read a story written in the clouds
Any and all other variations are correct in poetry.
If you are pursuing traditional publication, I will format your manuscript in the standard way for a submission to a publishing house.
If you are self-publishing, then formatting can be another avenue for your creativity in presenting your poetry!
Some examples of formatting options:
alignment of poems and poem titles
font type and size
page numbering (top or bottom, centre or right)
style of table of contents and/or index
section title pages (font, alignment, image)
When it comes to copyediting poetry, I take three important steps:
1. I take note of how the poet has been using punctuation and capitalization in their poetry. This is key because the poet’s instinctual choices are worth valuing.
2. I present the poet with the various options they have at hand. Sometimes, a poet doesn’t realize their full freedom, and they may choose differently given these options. Maybe they’ve been conditioned to use punctuation in the proper way (and unless you’ve taken poetry writing classes, we were all only taught in school how to punctuate prose, not poetry).
3. I move forward with a standard copyedit while also editing to maintain the poet’s personal choices around capitalization and punctuation.
Personally, I love to only capitalize proper nouns, meaning that every line begins with a lowercase letter. I love sparse punctuation, only punctuating my poetry when it's necessary for comprehension or as a conscious choice to stretch/reduce pauses.
I always proofread every poetry collection I am copyediting!