October Speaker Night

Chris Johnson

How on Earth Do You Edit Poetry?

On Wednesday October 17, we gathered at Christ Church Cathedral for another speaker night. This month’s topic: How on Earth Do You Edit Poetry?

After some time for networking and what were described by multiple attendees as “the best cookies ever,” Chris began by telling us a little bit about Arc Poetry’s history.  The magazine was founded in 1978, making this year it’s fortieth year!

Poetry can seem mystifying to those with little experience in the genre, but Chris made poetry seem much less foreign by assuring us that many of the skills we have from reading and editing prose are transferable.

Grammar and spelling, of course, need to be checked in poetry as they do in prose. But, like prose, poetry can also be examined for internal logic—or for a reasoning behind a lack of logic, in some cases—and poems can even be fact checked. Consistent mood and tone are also important to edit for.

To underscore the idea that editing poetry isn’t completely different from editing anything else, we need look no further than the article Chris shared about former Arc editor John Barton’s work on a Maureen Hynes Poem called “Inside the Blind.”

Barton shares his working papers in this article, and these will look very familiar to any editor familiar with Track Changes. Those of us in the audience certainly took comfort in the familiarity of comment bubbles lining the right side of the page and the discussions of word use and alternative phrasings within them.

While we can bring our prose experience to poetry, Chris does admit that editing for meaning can be a challenge. Poems aren’t always straightforward and can purposely obfuscate, depending on the poet’s motives. Chris suggested that when confronted with a poem that doesn’t seem to make sense, we ask ourselves, does this poem intentionally stop making sense? Is it trying to confuse? Is the poet railing against tradition?

Of course, there’s also the matter of poetic structure and form. Chris told us of various formats and stressed that some are easier to edit than others, since some forms have strict “rules” about rhythm and rhyme.

I’m sure many of us would have loved to continue discussing poetry, and that some would have even enjoyed getting into the nitty gritty of stressed and unstressed syllables, but—alas!—speaker night can only last so long.

But luckily, those who weren’t fully satiated and those who couldn’t join us on Wednesday, can attend the Ottawa Writers Festival w/ Dionne Brand on October 27, 2018 at Christ Church Cathedral. Since Editors Ottawa-Gatineau has sponsored the Writers Festival event, members will receive free admission!


Emily Stewart                                       

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