Thursday, 26 January 2012


Any idea what this word means? There have been an array of editors appearing recently at the Leveson Enquiry. What do these people do? Do they go through texts with blue pencils removing that which they do not like? Or are they primarily selectors – the ones who read through the stack of submitted material and decide what’s worth using and what is not? Maybe they are commissioners of the material to be used in the first place. The ones who ask for stuff to be done.

On the other hand they may just copy edit. Correct loose grammar, bad spellings, difficult punctuation, imprecise word choices, remove ambiguity, check facts. Nope, from what we’ve all seen on TV they certainly don’t do too much of that.

I got into literary editing at an early age. I had no idea what I was really supposed to do. The editor was the one who chose. That’s how I decided in the end to pitch it. I was running a small poetry magazine at the time – second aeon. The name was all in lower case. Spirit of the age.

Poetry magazine editors, I soon learned, might be well able to decide what went in and what did not. What they could not do, however, was change anything. Correcting text was absolutely forbidden. The editor was not allowed to add or subtract punctuation or suggest stylistic alterations possible infelicities of thrust or meaning to his or her writers. This was mainly because these creatives were poets rather than prose writers. When a poet put it down then there it stayed.

I once tried to remove an expletive from a poem by Chris Torrance and was told, very firmly, no. The poem went in with **!**!! included or it stayed completely out. I’d already had a few run ins with the PostOffice who were on the verge of stopping me from using Her Majesty’s Mail anymore if I continued publishing linguistically offensive stuff. “We have women working here,” the supervisor told me. “We can’t have you pushing such crude through their hands.” “But they won’t be able to read it,” I protested. “The magazines all go out in sealed envelopes.” “Doesn’t matter,” the man said, hat pulled hard over his forehead, “the fact that the words are there is enough.” Shades of Marcel Duchamp, I thought. Deep Modernism at work in the GPO.

So I let the Torrance poem stand. And in the event no one noticed. Lucky that time.

Later I heard how other editors operated. The famous tale of the compiler of an early anthology of Anglo-Welsh poetry who by mistake left off the second page of a poem by Glyn Jones. The book went to press (and stands uncorrected today) with half the text missing. No one noticed until the poet himself got to see it. Glyn was upset but nothing was done.

Nearer home I learned how the newspaper trade did things. Differently from the literary trade that’s for sure. “It’s all copy,” John Osmond told me. “Copy you cut to fit the space. Usually you just slice a bit off the end to make the text fit.” A bit like sawing a bit off the leg of a table to make it balance. In action this boiled down to stories being sliced up as if John Cage was authoring them. If you work in the newspaper business then you learn to live with this. But I didn’t. And when it happens to pieces I’ve written – and it still does - then I find it hard to manage.

But I have emerged with a sense of the text being text. Once it leaves your hands then it’s gone. The best work is always the latest work. The past work is in the past. But poetry, of course, is full of echoes and has a Zen-like staying power. It’s always there, as it were. You can abandon it but you can never let it completely go. It can come back to you when you least expect it, snarling at you in its unadulterated from for the long past, last week, or wherever else it’s been.

Anyway, editors are a dying breed. In these days of access and digital over supply who needs them? Everything is everywhere for everyone every time, as Gertrude Stein might have put it. I once believed this. But now **!**!!

You are the man, Torrance, of course, you always were.


Anonymous said...

If I were an editor, I would sure as hell feel entitled to correct actual spelling or grammar errors, and if the poet didn't like that, I wouldn't print it. Also, if I liked a poem but hated one line, I would suggest they look again at that - and, again, if they didn't want to, fine, but I would then reject it. I've only known one editor, Kevin Perryman, who actually did work that way. He would suggest alterations to mine, sometimes I'd go with them and sometimes I wouldn't. - Sheenagh Pugh

Anonymous said...

With spectrum ( lower case like second aeon) we never altered the poet's words. Chris hated "typos"-and we tried not to make any. When I had 2 poems in the Anglo-Welsh Review-one without a title-they were put together as one! It was quite surreal-no one noticed-but I only got payment for one poem. - Sue Moules

Anonymous said...

I had half a poem printed -allegedly to save space - in a quango glossy. but I do occasionally suggest alterations to poems if it is a line or two and I otherwise really like them, and would otherwise print them. I remember Les Murray once saying Most editors dont edit. - Sally Evans

Anonymous said...

but the thing would be to ask them to rewrite the lines, not do it for them - Sally Evans

Anonymous said...

Sign on a notice board in an English journalism college:
Stronger than love, stronger than hate, is the desire to change another man's copy. - Nichola Whitehead

Anonymous said...

True in the difference with journalism - in newspapers, your copy so rarely appears exactly as written that it's surprising when it does (the worst, I think, is when they get an extra last minute ad on the page, and cut a piece by a third by hacking out a para at random to squeeze it into the newly reduced space: happens quite often). Poetry/prose, in a literary context, I'll make suggestions and invite resubmission of the work at a later point if I feel changes are needed. Minor typos and punctuation I'll check with the authors if there's a possibility they might be deliberate, but otherwise silently correct them. I've had the Glyn Jones thing of lines being accidentally dropped off the ends of published poems, line-breaks missed or accidentally added, all the usual can only shrug and get on with the next thing once it happens, I suppose. I don't think magazine editors edit enough, sometimes: and I include myself in that - it would be nice to have the time to work in a more hands-on way at the edit stage with some of our contributors. - Wayne Burrows

Anonymous said...

The aberdare leader used to print my poems and cut them to pices or change bits they didnt like..Jan Price

Gwil W said...

I think good editing is more to do with nudging than judging.

I recently edited a poem for Poetry 2012* working with, as opposed to against, the author. The end result was an improved poem from both our points of view.

I expect many magazine editors don't have time to work closely with their poets. I imagine that's it.

*contributions invited :)

Mario F said...

editing is a form of censorhip.