– by P.S. Cottier
As a working poet (that is, a poet who writes, is published, and even receives the occasional $50 on what I call ‘champagne days’) I have always regarded editors with suspicion. The tired old image of the Gatekeeper in his medieval armour, asking impossible riddles of those seeking entry into the Castle of Tome, still has some worth. (The poet, in this tarnished simile, is of course a princess disguised as a peasant, bearing a Vital Message, but the door-idiot can’t see that, as he is obtuse as well as blocky as a prop.) And they wear various sigils, those control freaks.
Personally, I prefer the black cross of Sir Taciturn to the pink heart of Sir Overly Friendly; the latter will tell you that your poem is wonderful, but go on to suggest a total rewrite, so that the poem would be more his than your own. (The choice of pronoun is deliberate. Most editors of poetry journals, or the golden poetry streams in journals, are male.) Indeed, once upon a time I had an editor entirely rewrite my poem as he would have done it, and he seemed genuinely perplexed with my less than grateful response. Fortunately, I had waited an hour before responding, and had edited my response to at least be civil, taking out the ‘write your own fucking poem, don’t frig around with mine moron’ Oscar Wilde-like repartee. I do hope he is reading this. There is a limit to civility.
My least-favourite thing is to receive a note telling me that my poem ‘almost’ made the grade, that it made it through to ‘the very last stage of selection’. Like being the fat kid no one picks for basketball, except that one day she would have been chosen as the last fit kid was away, but she had fallen over on the way to the court because she forgot to tie her shoelaces properly, because it was too hard to bend down, being fat and all. I’d just rather be told no. No publishy: no excusey.
So when my friend Tim Jones (who had previously edited a book of New Zealand science fiction poetry called Voyagers with Mark Pirie, and who I had befriended totally by running on the cogs of the Difference Engine) suggested that we co-edit an anthology of Australian speculative poetry, I had to have a bit of a think. I agree that the speculative (to put it crudely, science fiction, horror, fantasy and magic realism) is an area too little explored in poetry anthologies. There is a tremendous snobbery in some circles to anything speculative, unless it be magic realism from Elsewhere. (Elsewhere is strictly defined as South America or Japan.) I love science fiction and fantasy, and I love poetry, so it should have been a no-brainer. Yet…
…did I want to don the armour and break people’s hearts? For I understand how, particularly at the beginning of a writing life, rejection can be a painful thing. Perhaps because of the association of poetry with deeply held emotion, which is a view of what poetry is to many people, rejection feels like a personal insult. It’s hard to see it as a marketing decision, it’s true, when one is writing in an area where no-one makes much money at all. So many poets slip into the response they might have if rejected by a friend or a lover: caught in a big ‘R’ Romantic net of what poetry is, they have a small ‘r’ romantic response. Pathetic people, many poets…
You do learn, though. I now try to see the submission process purely in sporting metaphors. But I knew that I would be doing the equivalent of slapping people’s brains as an editor. (If brains are popping up a lot in this piece, please remember that I have recently read dozens of zombie poems. The great Australian zombie cricket poem has yet to be written, incidentally. There’s a free betting tip, punters. I only expect half your $50, should the poem result in a Champagne Day.)
I’m afraid that I was arrogant enough to think that I have the runs on the board (see?) in terms of knowledge of literature to step up the the crease when I donned editorial whites for the first time. I wrote a PhD in literature and I have, many years ago, helped edit a government produced book on what they called ‘family violence’, which always struck me as a particularly funny term. And done some editorial work on a book of legal theory. Plus I have dealt with editors, as noted above, and have a few books published.
So how hard could it be?
I said yes to Tim, and Interactive Publications of Queensland will be publishing the book next year. Between those two moments though (one of which is still in the future, as the more sensitive reader will notice), we have both read hundreds of poems submitted to us and thousands revealed through research. I read just on 1500 poems containing the word ‘ghost’ for example, looking for the best poems. Best in terms of historical interest in some cases, as well as best in terms of my aesthetics (defined widely). I have read humorous ghost poems and really disquieting ghost poems and a few disgustingly racist ones. I have read poems by both the dead and the living, about the living dead. I have despaired at the length of some really good poems; an anthology needs to represent as many different voices as possible, and some ghosts just unwound themselves over too many pages…
But it’s the people who submitted who haunt me, particularly the poems that almost made the anthology; and we had to be brutal in our culling; lots of stakes through the heart. I understood, for the first time, that mistaken urge to let someone down gently; to explain why they were just not selected. Of course, we didn’t do that, as it’s like poking a caged animal with a sharp stick with a jaunty feather tied on the end, but I can see why some people do make that gesture. In trying to make themselves seem nice, they act cruelly. Our own rejection letters went out, and then the far fewer acceptances.
Tim and I had ‘a bit of a chat’ over his suggestion that we ask a couple of poets to change their poems in very minor ways. In the end I agreed, as it was far from a major rewrite being suggested. Plain simple surgery, rather than a Frankenstein refiguring of the whole, and the poets expressed no angst. Perhaps some poets are more reasonable than others, after all…Bang goes another cliché, just like a large bangy thing.
We have made our decisions and are about to enter the lovely world of permission chasing, which is not at all exciting. The last fun bit is nearly upon us now, which is deciding how best to arrange the selected works; thematically? Bringing out recurring concerns over decades? Making sure that there was enough horror? (Because horror poetry seems to be either very very good or simply not horrid enough, or totally horrible in a poetic sense.)
The dark side of the desk becomes addictive for some, I know. Some people spend more time editing than writing their own work. This happened to me during this process, and I resented it. My next editing gig (already about to start) will be far less time consuming.
On the other hand, it is lovely to shape a book of other people’s work, to produce something which I believe will be unique. I have gained a better understanding of Australian poetry generally, and we have found surprising links between poems and poets.
I have spent a lot of time working things through with an intelligent and thoughtful person. And Tim is quite bright, too…
The ‘not-so-quietly arrogant’ P.S. Cottier has been anthologised, chewed up and edited from time to time; most recently by the totally vicious people at Blemish Books, who published Triptych Poets Three. The Stars Like Sand: Australian Speculative Poetry will be released by Interactive Publications next year, and contains poems by Australians all over the world, including a few who exist here in Canberra and environs.