Blogger in Residence, Chris Kerr, talks editing with Geoff Page and Duncan Felton.
The editing process can seem opaque to writers. It lost a lot of its mystery after I had the opportunity to edit poetry magazines and a poetry pamphlet myself. Nothing reinforces the fact that editors are not infallible more than this experience.
I asked two Canberra editors about their editing experiences and practices. Geoff Page is an award-winning Australian poet, translator, teacher and author of a biography of the jazz musician Bernie McGann. He organises the Poetry at the House reading series in Canberra. He is the editor of two recent editions of The Best Australian Poems (2014 and 2015) as well as a former poetry editor for The Canberra Times.
Duncan Felton is the founding editor/publisher at Grapple Publishing, which publishes The Grapple Annual, ‘a date-based anthology of prose, poetry, comics, art and other good stuff’. You can follow Grapple @grapple_publish and Duncan @duncanfelton. Interview responses have been edited for length.
How has your approach to editing changed over the course of your career, if at all?
I have edited some specialist anthologies e.g. On the Move: Travel Poems in Europe, Shadows from Wire: Poems and Photographs from the Great War and The Indigo Book of Modern Australian Sonnets. These subject-specific or form-specific anthologies pose slightly different problems from the survey anthologies. I’ve deliberately not done anthologies attempting to survey the best of modern and contemporary Australian poetry in general over several decades. One would have to leave out too many friends. With more specific anthologies, this is not such a problem. They tend to understand why they have been omitted.
Each has always fed into each other, to some degree. But I guess I know how it is on both sides and know how it feels for other writers who submit work – the anticipation, the unknowability of how work will be received, the alternating feeling that you’re an underappreciated genius/lacklustre hack. So I try to be considerate and generous as an editor.
But it’s probably the other way around: working as an editor has made me a better writer. It made me more interested in truly developing a work as best I can. I don’t want to bother an editor with something sub-par. Seeing the variety of submissions that are sent to a journal gives you a great idea of what not to do, at the very least. I have a feeling it’s no coincidence that the year I was on an editorial committee was the year I started getting published.
What’s distinctive about the way you edit?
I try to be fair the range of poetry available but also try to do justice to my own taste and aesthetics. I prefer poems with a strong emotional impact (which can also be one of provoking laughter) and which are well-crafted (and, of course, there are many different kinds of well-crafted poems). I avoid poems which are overly concerned with their own technique and of small interest to the ‘average reader’ (who does, I believe, still exist).
I’m pretty slow! Or you could call me methodical, considerate and deliberative. I take a while and I double-check things and I doubt myself and check the Macquarie Dictionary and get distracted investigating a word’s etymology, or disappear down a Wikipedia hole when a writer mentions something offhand.
I also try to be kind, and treat almost every change as a suggestion, not a directive. In fact, I query and test and suggest a lot more than I outright change things.
The first thing that struck me about Duncan and Geoff’s responses is how unique they are. This is positive: diverse editing approaches represent increased opportunities for writers. One thing both editors share is sensitivity to the social and personal impact of the decisions they make.
I’m also interested in the different but equally vivid editing characteristics exhibited in Geoff’s sense of editing for someone (‘a general reader’) and Duncan’s absorption in chasing down the ‘offhand’ knowledge and references he encounters in submissions.
At first, there might seem to be a contradiction of approach here, between the maintenance of accessibility and the cultivation of obscure details. But Geoff’s fairness to ‘the range of poetry available’ presents a way forward: good editors will be receptive to modes of writing beyond their personal tastes and preferences, when this is appropriate.
To return to my own experience of editing poetry, one heartening fact about the editing and submissions process (unless you’re an editor, on a bad day!) is that the majority of work read by editors isn’t very good. Good, considered work does stand out, which is not the same thing as a guarantee of success, but it does serve as a reminder that editors are in search of the same thing most writers are – good writing.
Chris Kerr is a poet, reviewer, editor, publisher, former technical writer and budding copywriter. He co-edited issue 62 of UK Poetry magazine Magma and edited a book forDead Ink. Chris is an assistant editor of the April 2016 issue of Meniscus. He wrote a poem about Chernobyl that appeared in Ambit just after he’d moved to Canberra from London. He’s currently working on a series of collaborative code poems and aspires one day to write a poem about tennis that’s good enough not to bore readers who couldn’t care less about tennis. Chris is still happy that Lana Del Rey set T. S. Eliot to music on her last album. You can follow him on Twitter @c_c_kerr.