John Glenday, Don Paterson and Isabel Rogers on editing poetry
Over on Isabel Rogers’ blog there is a lovely conversation between the wonderful poet John Glenday and poet-editor Don Paterson. (Disclaimer: I was a fan of Glenday’s writing before he became one of the A Bird is Not a Stone poets). It’s a delightful testament to the depths of a good writer-editor relationship: this is one of my favourite passages:
Isabel: John, at what stage will you show a poem to Don? Does it have to feel finished, or do you sometimes want a steer?
John: When he asks for them, but usually when it feels finished – by which I mean when it feels finished to me.
Don: In John’s case – usually when Don pleads and drags it out of him. The poem will arrive a year later, towed by a team of snails, and accompanied by a long apology for its total inadequacy. Usually the poem is wonderful, which I’ll tell him, and which he’ll then strenuously deny. When we have enough of them we sit down for a couple of long sessions and go through everything very slowly. I do a line-edit, and usually have plenty of suggestions. I’d never insist that a poet take a single one of them, however. (That’s a lie but that’s what it says here.)
As well as being a funny and moving read, the interview/conversation is also a good illustration of the significance of editors – and the dangers implicit in the notion that they can be dispensed with. In an age of self-publishing and personal websites, the idea of some kind of external quality control, someone to guide and advise a writer, seems to be seen as an extraneous cost and/or an unwelcome imposure on a writer’s creativity. Maybe I’ve been lucky with my editorial experiences – David Castle at Pluto, Maisie Fitzpatrick at Bradt and Robbie Guillory at Freight – but to me, a good editor is an indispensible part of the process of creating a book, helping to shape and refine the writer’s material. Maybe there are geniuses out there who can produce without the help and support of an editor – but the horrible quality of most self-published material attests to the fact that they are few and far between (and fewer and further, unfortunately, than many writers recognise).
Thanks for linking to it, Sarah. I too thought it was a fascinating conversation, for all the reasons you mention. I’ve seldom shown a poem to any other poet or writer without it becoming a better poem.