Editing: Example #3

The following poem is by a creative writing professor from Ashland University and editor of the Ashland Poetry Press.  First, the poem as originally submitted:

OHIO POEM by Deborah Fleming

Cacophonous flock
above the harvested field
spreading their sky-net

sideways falls and soars
medusoid in the pulsing
light of afternoon

under bundled clouds
neither to feed nor to mate
before migration

There was much that I really liked about this right off the bat:  the opening line, for example, starts off with a great moment of alliteration and assonance:  “Cacophonous flock.”  Notice the “k” sounds, “f” sounds, and “ahh” vowel sounds, all rhythmically “sound” (so to speak).  The next line, however, causes me to stumble a bit:  “above the harvested field.”  The -ed on harvested and “the” add syllables that slow down the quick and clipped rhythm established in the opening line.  My suggestion was to cut the “the” (though it alliterates with “above”) and the “-ed” so that it reads “above harvest field.”  Try reading the two lines together, and hopefully you’ll see (or feel, or hear, or sense) what I mean.

The other suggestion I made comes in the last stanza, where I suggest cutting the “to” before mate, allowing for the alliteration with migration to arrive quicker:

under bundled clouds
neither to feed nor mate
before migration

It’s a subtle distinction, but, again, if you read it both ways, I think you’ll hear what I mean.  The extra “to” (not necessary for parallel structure here) just does something to the rhythm of the line that throws off the potential power of the closing phrase.

I want to highlight two other notable parts of the poem:  the use of “medusoid” (I’d have to confirm if it’s a real word, but because this is poetry that doesn’t matter, ultimately), an interesting neologism that really paints the writhing form of the flock as it wheels about; and the alliteration and assonance in “under bundled clouds.”  That’s just fun to say!

So now the poem with my suggested changes:

OHIO POEM by Deborah Fleming

Cacophonous flock
above harvest field
spreading their sky-net

sideways falls and soars
medusoid in the pulsing
light of afternoon

under bundled clouds
neither to feed nor mate
before migration

Deborah agreed to these changes, so this poem will appear in #22.  I will also add this separately as a featured poem.

On Editorial Choice

I recently received an email from a graduate student asking about why I chose a particular poem.  She was okay with me putting our exchange here in the blog so that others could benefit from the comments:

Hi, my name is _________, and I’m an MFA student at _____ State University. I respect your journal and would like to do a presentation on your editorial process for my publishing class. If you have time to answer a few questions, I’d be grateful. If not, thank you for your time and for publishing an amazing literary magazine.

The specific poem I am focusing on is “Insurance” by Kim Triedman, featured on page 6 of edition 20.

1. Why did you choose this poem? It has the albatross/anabiosis theme, but what else do you look for in choosing poetry? In general, are you ever surprised by what you decide to put in your own journal?

I chose this the way I choose any poem:  there’s something about it that won’t let me let it go.  One criterion is that there can’t be anything in the poem that distracts me (an ugly word choice, for example, or an inappropriate metaphor).  Usually it’s an interesting ending that engages me.  There definitely needs to be a sense of voice, like someone is speaking from a position of authority, knows they have something to say and then they say it in a way that grabs your attention.  I accept poems that I want to read again, that–most importantly–move me in some way, engage my emotions, make me say, “Damn!” and catch my breath.

With this particular poem, I happen to know what nasturtiums are like as my wife plants them, and they are beautiful.  Not sure that has much to do with how I experience the poem–probably–in general I like poems that name things (ever read Robert Haas’s poem “Letter”  in Field Guide p. 65?  Stunning).  I liked the build-up of the ending, the list of participles (“teeming–cascading—extrapolating–luxuriating” and the image of “the little open mouths”:  something that’s coming alive while the rest of the world is at the verge of death/autumn.  And the idea of this being “insurance” against the coming winter, against the death of the summer garden, and summer in general…

This one didn’t have the powerful kicker ending some of them have, but I really liked the tone and voice throughout–that sense of authority, like I said (so many submissions come through, even ones from well-published writers, that are flat and drab).  The opening line is great and engaging:  “There is one thing I get right: every spring I plant the nasturtiums.”

I also pay attention to how the poem sounds.  You’ll notice a lot of assonance in this poem, and I find this especially appealing:

“scritch along the walk like small…”

“greenness, even the blossoms, tipped in gold, their little mouths open.”

2.  Did you receive this poem through the slush pile or was it solicited? Were you familiar with Kim Triedman before publishing her?

I don’t solicit poems directly.  It’s all one big slush pile.  I may have published her in a previous issue–that would be the only way I know her.  Here’s an interesting twist:  we are now friends on Facebook.

3. What is your reading process like? Did anyone other than you read “Insurance” or provide editorial input on the final decision?

I am the only one who reads the submissions.  I’m a one-man band.  Reading process:  every couple of months I say, “Shoot, it’s been a couple of months since I’ve done submissions, so I better catch up…” It’s hardest keeping up with email submissions.  I’m not sure I’m answering your question.  Submit follow-up questions if you like.

You should also consult the Albatross blog, where I talk about examples of my process:

http://albatrosspoetryjournal.wordpress.com/category/examples-of-editing/

I then asked her about why she picked that particular poem.  Her reply:

Thanks for responding and directing me to your blog! I just looked at it, and I especially enjoyed the entry regarding how you order poems within an issue. The way order influences structure and perspective has always fascinated me (especially the role order plays in Modernist literature). The impact of organization on a literary magazine is interesting, especially how an effective order allows the poems to stand both independently yet also in dialogue with each other.  All of the revision posts are very relevant to my class, and I’ll certainly include them in my presentation.

I was struck by “Insurance” by Kim Triedman for a fairly odd, personal reason: it reminded me of my mother. The more independent I become, the more fascinating my mom becomes as I see her as a “real” person—sometimes, almost as a stranger. The speaker in “Insurance” is probably so many things to so many people, but when she takes the time to plant the nasturtiums she is reasserting herself as a person with her own needs, fears, and hopes. As you noted, there is also some beautiful language and description in the poem. But the thing that makes me go “damn,” so to speak, is the way the poem doesn’t rely on sentiment but instead uses action and metaphor to deliver such an emotional impact. I chose Albatross in general because it takes an ecological stand and challenges humans to consider how we impact the world around us. Poetry can be such a powerful rhetorical tool, and I respect a journal that welcomes work that isn’t afraid to ask big questions.

Ultimately, editorial choice depends on the sensibility, experience, and taste of the editor, all of which results from the powerful complexity of the human brain.  This is why it’s so hard to explain!

Editing: Example #2

I received the following poem from Michael Lewis-Beck:

WINTER WOODS

Breath cold, full moon behind a gray veil,
the tree tops map the moon.

Three pairs of socks through my boots
my toes are cold still.

Three hours of hard wood in the Vermont casting
lifts the cabin from 13 to 38.

Vegetable soup and a bottle of Gigondas,
read Frost by bed candle.

Sleep to wind in the high trees.

I liked this poem a lot but had a few suggested changes.  First, I was confused by the first line of the second stanza, so I suggested adding a comma between “socks” and “through.”  This breaks the flow of the sentence and allows the prepositional phrase “through my boots” to apply to “toes” in the second line rather than to “socks” in the first.

Second, I suggested reversing “cold” and “still” so that the rhythm of the line was enhanced:  “my toes are still cold”, which allows the stress to fall on each syllable/word, whereas the original seems to de-emphasize the stress on “still” in the last position.  Also, I like the “s” sound of “toes” and “still” when they are brought closer together, yet the change doesn’t cancel the effect of the assonance (the “o” sound in “toes” and “cold”)–in fact, I think the assonance is enhanced by adding a beat (with the word “still”) between the two sounds/words.

Finally, I suggested cutting the “the” in the last line–again for reasons of rhythm.  Without the “the,” we have “Sleep to wind in high trees”–every syllable stressed, with a powerful impactful ending.  Putting “the” in adds a downbeat and ruins this effect:  “Sleep to wind in the high trees.”

These changes make the poem stronger, in my opinion, and the author agreed to the changes.  This poem will appear in Albatross #20.  I will also post the edited version of the poem as a “featured poem” entry of this blog.

Editing: Example #1

If I see a poem that I like for the most part, but there’s a part of it that I have a question about or think could be changed for the better, I will engage the writer in dialogue.  The goal is to settle on a version of the poem that I am happy to publish but that doesn’t compromise the writer’s original purpose and intention.  This will be the first post that offers examples of this give and take so that you might see how an editor (this editor, at any rate) thinks and reasons.

My first example comes from Eric Paul Shaffer’s “Of Owls and Sugarcane”–part of the submission that included “Whales at Sunset.”  First, here is the poem as originally submitted:

Of Owls and Sugar Cane

Outraged, the local newspaper reports a tragic death of pueo,
owl native to the islands, slammed from the sky
with fender, windshield, or grille.  Yet a quick study of the photo

reveals a Barn Owl, limp with wing unfurled on a roadside
where tall green stalks of cane rise behind the tidy pile

of feathers among the scattered trash.  Of course, the bird
was a Barn Owl.  They dive from the dark into headlights
to strike mice the sudden day illuminates,

and drivers, eyes vacant with fatigue and too much familiarity
with the way and humming red roads, strike pale wings

and hollow bones from the stars to the culvert.  They don’t care
what they hit and never stop to see.  We are like them.

We won’t know what’s lost until we can name what we see.
And we’ll never know what will grow if we don’t know

when or how to plant what the moon demands.  Till the wheels
stop, we and our children will see no more in the earth but sugar
and graves and the nameless grasses that cover them.

*

I wrote the following:

I am interested in publishing “Of Owls and Sugar Cane” but have a question about one of the lines/stanzas.  The fourth stanza is a bit confusing as is:

“and drivers, eyes vacant with fatigue and too much familiarity

with the way and humming red roads, strike pale wings…”

If you can explain this, or perhaps there is an error you can point out, that would be helpful.

Shaffer replied:

I am . . . very pleased to hear that you are interested in publishing “Of Owls and Sugar Cane.”  As for your question about the fourth of the lines/stanzas being confusing, I understand what you mean.  On my most recent editing sweep, I revisited those lines, and they have been revised.  Compare below.

ORIGINAL
“and drivers, eyes vacant with fatigue and too much familiarity
with the way and humming red roads, strike pale wings…”

REVISED
“and drivers, eyes vacant with fatigue and too much familiarity
with humming red roads, tear pale wings from stars

and cast hollow bones into the ditch.”

In explanation, I am saying that the drivers of the back roads on Maui are tired to the point of sleepiness when they head home.  Additionally, familiarity with daily driving the same two-lane road for decades has dulled their attention so much that they don’t have time to react to the Barn Owls that dive into the light of the car headlights to pounce on mice fleeing the sudden illumination; thus, the “wings” are torn from the sky and the bodies (“hollow bones” as in bird bones) are bounced into the roadside ditch. . .

I know “Of Owls and Sugar Cane” provides a straight-forward and stark view of the realities of other animals sharing the planet with us, and I am very happy that that approach appeals to you at Albatross because I find that this view is not always popular with the editors of other reviews professing interest in the actualities of the planet.  I hope you will welcome other submissions from me–no matter what the outcome of this submission is.

Take care.  Thank you again for your close attention to my poems.  It is a pleasure to discuss all of this with you.

As a result of this change, I accepted the poem, which will appear in Issue #20 (to be published probably late 2008/early 2009).

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