Editing and I were not friends when I started writing poetry. I wrote the poems and posted them to my blog without much concern for going back to quibble over word choice or line breaks. I was writing poems like the ones I had read, which at that time, was not very many. My exposure was limited to the GSCE English Literature anthology, and a few ‘poem for every occasion’ collections. I was an avid reader when it came to fiction, and later non-fiction, but I didn’t start picking up collections of poetry until I graduated from university.
Reading, and listening to published poets is the best way to expand your idea of what poetry is. The first poets that I came across outside of a school curriculum, were the Youtube spoken word poets. Sarah Kay, Phil Kaye, Rudy Francisco, Blythe Baird, and Sabrina Benaim. At the same time, I started attending open mics in Shropshire and meeting poets in person. Slowly, I gathered a few poetry collections outside of my English lit recommended reading.
I moved house and met another circle of poets in Cheshire, made more poetry friends, and started to seek out the authors they were recommending. I was introduced to journals such as ‘The Butchers Dog’, ‘The North’, and ‘Under The Radar’. If you are anxious about splashing out on the £10 collection by a single poet, journals are the best way to purchase an array of fantastic poetry by various authors. The level of competition to get into these publications is extremely high, and as a result, they produce these wonderful magazines that you can spend hours re-reading. Unlike a novel, poetry can be dipped into and put aside without any concern for page numbers. That isn’t to say that you will like every single poem a journal decides to publish, we all have personal taste, but it does expose you to a wider range of styles than if you just buy a poet’s book.
If you want to find a connecting thread between all published poets, it’s that they’ve faced rejection. Helen Kay recently published her second pamphlet, and her individual poems are here, there, and everywhere. She writes superbly, and has been nominated for a number of awards. However, she cannot crack ‘The North’. You start to realise that lots of poets have their white whales when it comes to poetic journals. Some will keep their rejection letters to spur them on, some have a stash of chocolate they only break into upon receiving rejections. I go back and read certain rejection emails when I feel my motivation slipping. My reasons are twofold. I’m incredibly stubborn, and bad reviews light a fire under me like nothing else. Lovely rejections, where an editor has taken the time to mention something they liked in the poem, or they have explained what made them pass this time, are like partially opened doors. They’re not shut tight with me still scrabbling at the lock to try and prise it open, I can see light through the gap and I know I’m a little closer to getting through that threshold.
At the start of this post, around six hundred words ago (yes, I really can waffle, can’t I?), I mentioned editing. As I said, initially I didn’t spend much (if any) time on my poems once they were on the page. I was also crap at taking criticism. At seventeen/eighteen, a friend told me that my poems often seemed to be the same poem over and over again. I threw a bit of a strop and thought that was entirely unnecessary, and wrong. It was one of the most useful pieces of advice I’ve ever been given, and she was completely right. It wouldn’t be the last time she was brutally honest with me, and I responded with annoyance and denial. It also wasn’t the last time she was utterly right in what she was saying. I had to learn to look at my poems objectively, and I had to learn how to step back from criticism and study how I could make use of the information.
Confident in my brilliance as a poet, I decided to pursue creative writing at university. I chose a joint degree where I also studied history. Introduction to poetry immediately set my hackles up when the lecturer explained that pretty much everything, we had all written before the course would be ‘teenage-angst-driven-drivel’. They did have a point, but I still feel it was overly antagonistic. The poetry seminars were the first time I had to consider workshopping a poem. We were split into groups, and each given a copy of the other members work to jot notes onto. This was a new experience. I had people pulling apart my poems. I was still getting positive feedback, but I was also being told where poems fell down, or where lines didn’t quite work. There were also poets visiting the university to give talks on their collections, and their writing processes. Instead of a teacher explaining what a poem was supposed to represent, I had poets telling me what the stories behind those poems were. I began to understand how much work those poems took to craft, and how sounding poetic, and being poetic were not the same thing.
After my first year, I dropped creative writing to focus on history. I graduated and started to explore the poetry scene in Crewe where I was lucky enough to find a fellow poet who liked my work and was willing to offer feedback. I began to build a process for developing and editing poems. These days I try not to send out first drafts of poems. I re-read lines aloud as I write them, and once they feel done, I read the whole piece through a few times. After a day (or a few days in some cases) I go back and read the poem again. I tweak lines here and there, then let the poem sit again. Some pieces I will send to my poetry friend to pass judgement on, especially if they are written for specific competitions or journals, whereas others I send out like a little, secret, poetry squirrel.
More often than not the poems come back to me with rejection in tow. If the journal has offered feedback I’ll work from that to redraft the piece, if not, I’ll go over the poem to decide if I’m going to redraft or send it somewhere else as-is. The majority of rejections are pretty bog-standard, but I’ve had a few where the editor has taken the time to be specific, such as one who said that my “pieces seemed […] to suffer from trying to cram too many ideas into each line.” The fabulous poet Helen Kay gave me her top piece of advice, which was to avoid mixing metaphors within a poem. If you start with a metaphor, try to draw it through the poem rather than hopscotching on to the next. These are my two key areas for improvement at the moment, and each time I go to redraft a poem I hold them in mind. There are no doubt other issues with my poetry, but you need to pick your battles to make any sort of progress.
I try not to overwrite the original poem when I save down after significant editing, as I’ve worked poems to death before and it is useful to look back at previous versions if you feel you might have edited the soul out of a poem.
But how do you know when a poem is finished? It would be easy to say that once a poem has been accepted and published then it is finished, but I made amendments to published poems before including them in ‘It’s All In The Blood’. Developing as a poet means you will often look back at old work and want to tweak pieces here and there, or perhaps scrap an idea altogether. You may realise that despite various beta-readers, you wrote half a century instead of half a millennium and your published poem is now completely out of context. Theoretically, there is nothing stopping poets from redrafting their catalogue of poetry over and over again until they die.
Side-note: requested edits from journals/magazines. It is always up to you as the poet if you want to accept suggested amendments from a journal. I cannot make a blanket judgment on these as each editor, and each journal differs. The suggestions I have received for poems have always improved the work and been minimal. For example, Hencroft Hub asked me to delete two words from my poem ‘Overgrowth‘ before they published it. If a magazine wanted me to completely rewrite a poem to publish it, I would probably have to consider the situation more deeply. Do what you feel comfortable with. In the end, it’s your voice.
It would appear that what I’m saying, is that a poem is never truly finished. They exist in a state of flux between ‘happy for now’ and ‘this needs work’. A temptation exists to mess with poems over and over, until, as I said above, you edit the soul out of them. To avoid this, I’ve started allowing myself to only edit the poems not currently out for submission, and if they get published, they can only be touched in the context of putting together a manuscript. If I didn’t do this, I doubt I’d write any new poems.
As I have once again crept over the 1500-word mark I will try and summarise this post as best I can. Editing is just as important in poetry as it is in prose. Finding someone with judgement you trust is key to helping you step outside your own poetry bubble, but it only works if you’re open to what they are going to say. Lastly, rejections are your friend (mostly), because they allow you to improve and try again. (In regards to mean or condescending rejections, refer back to my comment on last week’s post about those editors not being worth your time as a writer.) You may be crafting art, but you are still crafting and that requires skill. Practice may not always make perfect, but it can certainly make phenomenal poetry.
Check out part one of this series: Ten Years Learning How To Be A Poet – Part One: Submitting And Publishing