Demystifying poetry editing

by Ryn Yee

Last month, Wellington’s Fringe Festival had plenty of New Zealand poets showcasing their talent. This month, poets around the world are participating in National Poetry Writing Month (based in America), where each day a prompt is uploaded on the site and those participating respond with a poem.

Despite the popularity of these events, poetry is still not as popular as fiction or non-fiction. Bookstores and publishers alike often report that poetry doesn’t sell as well as other genres. As a result, there are more editors of fiction and non-fiction than there are of poetry.

It’s easier for us to name classic poets — those who existed in the 1800s or possibly earlier — than to name contemporary poets. Poetry can often feel inaccessible to readers of fiction or non-fiction; whether this is due to poor experiences in school or lack of exposure can depend on the person. Maybe it’s both. But for those who do wish to learn how to edit poetry, first you must do one thing: read. Read a lot. It may sound obvious but reading deeply and widely within poetry helps you refine your understanding and appreciation alongside developing your skill for finding trends and voices that align with your own ideals or with the publishing company’s mission. Some call it refining your intuition.

Sound, rhythm and imagery are incredibly important in writing and editing poetry. Resources are out there to help with these things. One such resource is an interview and collection of helpful PDFs discussing how to approach working with an editor. Another resource has seven tips for editors revising poetry and it discusses strategies for doing so successfully: re-reading, being fearless, identifying themes and patterns and playing with punctuation.

It may seem obvious to say, but be familiar with the different types of poetry, from prose and freeform to sonnets, haikus and villanelles. Each has particular rules and functions and even, dare I say, tropes, so it is immensely beneficial to know these rules not only to help the poet succeed but also to help the poet upon breaking those rules.

Be familiar with punctuation: it’s a time-honoured tradition to play with punctuation and line breaks within poetry. This lends itself to also considering how the words are displayed on the page, not just in stanzas, but in form — for example, dialogue, using space to strengthen the meaning and reading of the poem.

But overall, in its advice to authors seeking a poetry editor, Reedsy says it best:

A poetry editor refines artistic voice, message, and structure in order to make your poetry as effective as possible. They’ll consult with you on word choice, line and stanza length, mood/tone, clarity of message, and more to ensure your poems achieve what you want them to achieve.

If you’re putting together a poetry collection, an editor can also weigh in on the order and formatting of your poems. If you already have a vision for your body of work, they’ll carry it out. And if not, they’ll help you develop it in the first place!

For those who want to know more, here are some other sites about poetry, editing and editors:

  1. an interview with freelance poetry editor Mary Harwell Sayler
  2. an interview with poet and editor Raymond Hammond
  3. a piece from Penned in the Margins on editing poetry. You may have to scroll a bit to see it.

Ryn Yee, EdANZ Newsletter Organiser