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Editing Poetry


Thoughts after editing Anne Kellas’s The White Room Poems

Written for the Society of Editors (Tas) Inc. newsletter, 2016.


Cover photo © Giles Hugo

I’ve been editing since 1992, but helping Anne Kellas with her recent collection of poems was my first experience of editing a poetry book. I saw the manuscript at various stages over a period of two years and when The White Room Poems was launched In December 2015, I nearly burst with proud and delight!

As the editor I was one of the support team that helped bring The White Room Poems from Anne’s inner world into the world of public readership. It was a particularly satisfying job with some interesting challenges, and after my initial doubt (how on earth do I edit poetry?) I realised I had the skills and experience to do it well.


Mysteries of poetry

We all know a poem when we see one. It looks different to prose. The lines are often short and there may be no capital letters or full stops. The text spreads out over the page in characteristic ways. A poem looks different to a list, though it may be similar. A poem is usually not justified margin to margin on the page.

But recognising the form (poem) isn’t the same as understanding it. People are often anxious about poetry, in the way that people are anxious about forms of visual art where the impact of the work does not depend on explicit understanding. One may look at a painting and be left with feelings or impressions, but not be able to describe exactly why.

Poetry uses imagery, rhythm and rhyme to accentuate and arrange language in patterns. Modern poems tend to be less fixed and overt in their use of pattern. Individual poets use individual forms of patterning.

And so imagine being presented with poems to edit. How does one edit mysterious works like these? How does individual expression interact with excellence? What is good expression in a poem? Where does one draw the line between trusting the author’s artistry and one’s editing sense?


The role of intuition

I felt confident about my ability to help Anne with her book, not least because she is an experienced and accomplished poet and I knew the quality of her writing would be extremely high.

Anne had developed her manuscript into an organised whole with parts and sequencing mostly complete, and so minimal structural editing was needed. My main tasks were to copyedit, proofread, and advise on layout.

I edit mostly by intuition. My goal is to make the writing I am given accessible and clear. When in doubt I look up references to rules of English language usage. But most of the time, because English is my first language, because I have read incessantly since I was six, and because I have studied many forms of English literature, I edit intuitively. Rhythms are internalised, and if a sentence or passage doesn’t make sense to me, that tells me it likely needs an edit.

The same applies to my editing of poetry. My knowledge of poetry stems from in-depth study at university, reading, and from writing my own. I have internalised rhythm and have an acute eye for visual form, so I can ‘hear’ and ‘see’ when a poem is working. I do not read the poems aloud, because I hear them in my head. I like to ‘see’ as well as ‘hear’ a poem – the visual appearance is an important part of my experience. This is useful when it comes to helping with a poetry book where the audience will be mostly readers. (I say mostly, because at times the audience will be listeners, as at Anne’s book launch.)


Form and content

In written form, it’s crucial that the visual configuration of a poem fits its content. This makes it whole and harmonious. Layout of a poem therefore includes decisions about line lengths and line breaks, breaks between verses, the use and form of titles, punctuation, and typesetting.

Anne had worked on the form of each poem and made most of these decisions expertly. She revised some of these during the lead-up to publishing. I remember being struck by a particular poem with a layout that stood out from the rest of the manuscript. There were several revisions of this poem, and in the end Anne decided to leave it out of the book. The poem was exquisite in its own right, but perhaps did not fit into the manuscript well enough.

Likewise a book’s design can enhance or detract from its content. Anne chose an overall design for her book which finely complemented the content and feel of The White Room Poems. The writing is delicate, and clear as glass. The poems are exquisitely light; they pierce the soul. The subject matter is at times heartbreaking, but neither maudlin nor depressing. Anne’s selected typeface, font sizes, poem titles, use of white space, and even the page numbering, reflect these qualities of delicacy, clarity, light, and spaciousness.

I was able to advise during the design process and then help implement the layout in InDesign. We used a template supplied by the publisher for page size and margins. I made sure that the layout was applied through the book, checking for consistent use of headings, footnotes, punctuation, typeface, font sizes and the like.

Together we made decisions about whether to begin each poem on a new page, and how to make clear the beginning of a poem (easy if the poem had a title; less so if untitled, so we used initial caps for the first few words). We worked out how much white space to use at the tops of pages and at the start of poems. We tried two or three layouts for the Table of Contents. We discussed whether to place the testimonials from other writers at the beginning or the end of the book.


The cover

Anne later asked me to do the cover design. Her husband, the photographer Giles Hugo, supplied a choice of images for this purpose.

The chosen photograph fits the content perfectly. Its muted silvery shades and delicate grasses with their reaching, weeping posture epitomise the haunting, exquisite sadness I was left with each time I read the manuscript.

In keeping with the poems, I wanted the cover to be clear, clean and delicate. I used colours for the text which matched the colours in the photograph. The text on the front is simply the title and Anne’s byline. On the back I placed a testimonial with generous white space. Later another was added which I felt crowded the back, but the decision was made on grounds other than layout.


Poetry editing is still editing

So you can see that poetry editing has a lot in common with other kinds of editing. There is still the spellcheck, the checking for curly quotes, spotting the missed full stop. The same questions arise about margins, footnotes, numbering, titles, and what typeface looks best. As with other clients, Anne sometimes had doubts or questions about the placing of a word, a line break or whether to include a passage. Then I offered my opinion, based on experience, but respecting Anne’s right as the author to make the final decisions.


The privilege

And it was also unlike so much other editing. I’ve seldom worked with such beautiful writing. And to hold the book in my hands afterwards, this poignant expression of love and loss, has been an honour.

Anne did this writing over many years from a deep place and it is full of heart. It, and she, deserved care and consideration. It is a privilege to witness the genesis and ripening of a body of beautiful writing, and to assist in its production. Anne’s artistry deserved much support and I was able to offer such in terms of making sure the design, layout and details were as in tune as they could be with the spirit of her work.

And in a way I played two roles. I did the practical things an editor does, and I also stood by as an emotional midwife. I had absolute confidence in this book, because of the effect it had on me each time I read the manuscript. It’s less easy for the writer to see that sometimes, because they’re still in the woods. So I was able to offer encouragement and endorsement when appropriate.

The White Rooms Poems is 89 pages. The text is sometimes sparse. This is Anne Kellas’s talent: to pack a universe of feeling with utter precision into few words.


It’s just the contents of the psyche,
says the man in the white room.     (p.88)