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.

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

“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).


  1. May 12, 2008 at 11:25 pm

    Enjoyed witnessing this dialogue between editor and poet. Great way to do it! I would have liked more of this kind of dialogue where I used to work as an editor, but we tended, as an editorial committee, to accept the poem with a suggested change, and let the poet decide whether to accept the change, and the publication offer, or not. I think in part this was because it is so hard for a “committee” to agree in the first place! Some poets said yes to the suggested changes, and some did not, withdrawing their poems. I respected either choice, of course.

    I have, as a writer, been edited in this gracious and respectful way. Kevin McIlvoy at Puerto del Sol is a wonderful fiction editor. With my first story ever published for national distribution, he accepted my story first, then engaged me in a gentle dialogue about possible changes. I took all but one of them, explained the risk I was taking with the one holdout, and both of us were satisfied. I felt respected, encouraged, and improved by his manner and guidance!

  2. May 13, 2008 at 12:39 am

    I remember the first time I was “edited” for the undergraduate college journal THE UT [University of Tampa] REVIEW. It was a shock because our work had never been scrutinized like that before–it was always just chosen by committee. But the issue was much more professional-looking and consistent with a single editorial vision.

  3. July 27, 2008 at 3:01 am

    For the most part, I “accept the poem with a suggested change”, as your committee did, leaving the decision to the poet. But sometimes I call or write, with the result that there’s some back and forth dialogue about a particular change. I sometimes invite the writer to let me know what they intended by a line or word choice so that I better understand the intention. This blog site allows for some of this dialogue to be captured for others who might be interested in reading about the process.

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