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.

Preview of Albatross #20

I just finished finalizing the PDF file for Albatross #20 and will be sending it along to the printer.  I like to print 100 copies so that there are some in print out there in the world.  I guess I’m still stuck in the age of print literacy.  But I’ve seen too many poetry websites (and too many of my published poems) disappear when the website becomes a dead link.  This way, the poets, a handful of subscribers, and a few university libraries that archive small press poetry all have a hard copy.  This way, I’ll feel like I’ve left something behind in the world, something of value, something real.

In the process of laying out the journals, I type the entire poem in and then proofread it a number of times, so I come to know the poems quite intimately.  I always have a few that are my favorites.  I posted one by Andy Roberts titled “Standoff” in my last post.   It’s not very profound; it’s a simple poem, with a simple enough message, but I chuckle every time I read the ending, and that’s been a good 10-12 times of late.  Every time I read it I have the same response, so I thought I’d write about it here.

The poem describes an encounter that the persona has with a pair of Canadian geese, who loudly defend their nest, which happens to be on the well-worn path s/he (we’ll call him or her “the poet” from here on out) has been walking regularly for 30 years.  After introducing this scene, Roberts concludes:

I will not win this argument
against pink hissing tongues.
I will not win this argument,
not in a million years.

I love this.  It’s so simple but so true.  We are at present losing the argument with nature, and it will only get worse before it gets better.

This poem could easily have appeared in Billy Collins “Poetry 180” anthologies.  In the introduction to the first one, Collins writes,

The idea behind this printed collection. . . was to assemble a generous selection of short, clear, contemporary poems which any listener could basically “get” on first hearing–poems whose injection of pleasure is immediate.

Collins developed these anthologies to try to reconnect poetry to high school students who too often experience poetry as a painful process of reading dense and opaque writing that doesn’t seem to make much sense.  As Collins demonstrates–not only in these anthologies but in his own poetry as well–this does not have to be the case.

Poetry–like many forms of art–is an act of communication, and Andy Roberts’ poem does a good job of doing just that.

Editing: Example #2

I received the following poem from Michael Lewis-Beck:


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.

“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).