Auld Lang Syne

Monday, June 20, 2011

Editing, tinkering, trashing

Just read the Chicago Manual of Style's blog about copyediting and want to share this with you (and I quote, from Carol Saller):

Can the mere possession of a red pencil make someone so trigger-happy she loses all restraint?
H. G. Wells famously quipped that “no passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft,” and there’s something in that. Once the tracking is turned on, you’re itching to leave some tracks. Competent prose can be downright irritating when you’re young and energetic and on a mission to whip the literary world into shape. Come on, come on, you think—surely I know something this writer doesn’t! Sure you do. But it isn’t that. Or that. Or that.
You sit with a dictionary and search engine close at hand. Then why oh why aren’t they your weapons of choice? If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times:
First, do no harm.
Look it up.
And when in doubt, keep your hands in the air.

So I ask you: how does this relate to poetry groups? What happens when we excessively tinker with one another's first drafts? I don't think the answer is undoubtedly that we ought to leave well enough alone... operative phrase "well enough" which is for me the reason why writing groups are exempt in some ways from accusations of trashing. Oh sure, there are people who are not satisfied with any poem they see in group. There are those who will tinker endlessly with one minute phrase. Maybe there is someone in your group who wants everything to be literally TRUE and would not recognize irony or metaphor if handed to him/her on a platter.
But basically there is loads of room (and hopefully PERMISSION) in writing groups for healthy chatter about possibilities. It is pretty exciting really to present a poem to your colleagues and have them sit there devouring every morsel, pencils paused over the draft like rescue helicopters. And what is the harm done to have suggestions, even if they seem off at the time? I love to go home from my group and ponder every detail of what has been offered. Maybe I will not heed 90%, but find one or two things that light up the poem. Oh my, does it feel great when that happens.
I've been asked many many times if a poem that is edited, tweaked, altered, is still the poem the author intended, if it has become  someone else's poem. Truly, sometimes it seems like a wholly new poem once all the ideas for revision have been employed. But the suggested edits are not the poem. And its author is still in charge of the final product. But the bottom line is this: did the editor alter the ideas or thrust of the poem? Did your colleague change the poem's purpose or feeling? I'm not talking here of changes in verb tense that make the poem's place in time more or less immediate. I mean that the poem is more changed than tweaked, less of YOU in there than some new voice. 
I have poems sent to me frequently, authors seeking their publication in my literary zine. I love the chance to work with poets who submit, making salient suggestions such as line break, punctuation, and even verb tense. What I do NOT do, is make any kind of radical alterations. If the poem is not good enough to exist without that kind of purge/replace activity, I need to (and do) refuse the poem for publication. And my key is to "suggest," not change. I love working in concert with the poets on revision. I emphasize to each and all that these are not MY poems and they have final say. I do not ever micro-manage poets or their poems. As editor I have final say only insofar as the choice to publish or not. The rest is up to the poets. My hands are up in the air, or are clapping with happiness.

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