When I edit a piece, whether it is an essay, article, or poem, I latch on to a writer’s transitions and section breaks. In these leaps, I often detect the joints in a writer’s logic, hear their voice, and observe them negotiating the said versus the unsaid. I find that a strong transition leaves space for the ideas of the preceding stanza or section to bloom in a reader’s mind. It can be a stretch of quiet before shifting to a different register, time, or phase of an argument.
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Whenever I am asked to speak publicly on editing, I sense the audience’s hope for a formula or key: as straightforward as how to write a winning cover letter or as inscrutable as which week of the submission period to hit Send. However, so much of what I teach in my courses and write about in my newsletter comes down to mindset, not craft, and certainly not insider information.
Poetry anthologies are gratifying to publish. While the focus of our poetry program at Persea Books has always been books by individual poets, we have also published wonderful poetry anthologies including the recent We Call to the Eye & the Night: Love Poems by Writers of Arab Heritage, edited by Hala Alyan and Zeina Hashem Beck.
But poetry anthologies also present some particular editing and design challenges. Here are some things to keep in mind if you plan to propose one to publishers:
To capture an agent’s or publisher’s attention with your query letter, begin with the end in mind. The best queries irrefutably answer the most critical question for any book published today: Why should someone pay up to $28 for your book?
With this end result in mind, you can reverse-engineer: First identify, then highlight the key components of your book that will stop a reader (or agent!) in their tracks.
One key lesson I’ve learned from working with the Adroit Journal is that the taste of any given editor is never universal. Our team of poetry editors consists of five people, and our discussions of submissions also include the editor in chief and the executive editor. When we review the list of submissions that have made it to the final step before publication, we have active, passionate conversations about each poet’s work. We often disagree, argue, and even attempt to convince one another that our favorite work should be accepted.
One thing I’ve learned in my time as an agent is that there is only one thing that an author can truly control: the work. Editors leave, publishing houses merge, trends shift, and—in the middle of that hurricane—there’s always the work. No writer can control their reviews, how many copies bookstores order, what awards they might win. Even the best books do not always get the accolades they deserve.
Extending rejection is my most upsetting responsibility as a poetry editor; as a poet, I know rejection is daunting to face because of the negative feelings it stirs in us. Consider all that care and conviction poured into the ink: It is so easy to feel that we, personally, are being excluded, diminished, ignored when our work is not accepted—because is that not us on the page? Undoubtedly it is, and that is why we need discernment in choosing who we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with, so to speak.
Working in publishing, in my experience, provides an opportunity to think about what it means to be “independent” in a way that supports the life of the mind and of the writer. Although I’ve been an editor for nearly ten years, I still think of myself as a writer first. From both of these perspectives within the publishing industry, I sometimes think too much can be asked of writing: to make a writer’s life easier or their career more sustainable.
When I start editing a poetry or story collection, I’m immediately curious about energy and momentum. How is this writer using their unique style and craft to propel me through their manuscript? What holds me close to the page and makes me eager to read more? What causes me to get stuck?
I edit fiction, nonfiction, and graphic narrative, and what unites all of these projects that I’ve had the pleasure of working on is a really strong point of view. My job is not to interfere with that and to protect voice above all else. It’s important for the author to remember that the editor is a proxy for their future readers. Editorial feedback is the opportunity for the writer to hear an unfiltered, immediate response to the work, which reveals not only what requires revision or restructuring but also what is working. Of course, the book is the author’s work.