A Piece of my Mind | Mark GoodwinPosted: March 24, 2013
I’ve been very lucky in my encounters with poetry editors. It concerns me that not all poets have the same experience: by now I’ve heard quite a few tales of publishing horrors. I say I’ve been ‘lucky’, but that’s the wrong word – it’s much more to do with my publishers’ careful consideration, integrity and respect for poetry and poets.
For years I’ve worked as a community poet, encouraging people of all ages to speak and write creatively. I have also worked with more experienced poets and their souls. For me ‘soul’ is where mind, world and body meet. This meeting can happen in various ways; for example, through making art, or through engaging with other people or creatures, or simply through physically moving through landscapes. However, I believe that one of the most powerful locations for this meeting happens through the mystery called ‘poetics’; and often happens when humans write, read and hear poetry. Both Freud & Jung, and so many others after them, took / take so very seriously the study and care of the psyche. So, for reasons of health, it’s obvious to me (and, fortunately, to many others) that whenever we go near anyone’s poetic sensibilities we must be extremely careful regarding their soul, their psyche, their consciousness at the point where world, body and mind complete. Any negligent or cruel activity near this point can and does cause a huge amount of damage; psychic damage.
Now, this is not to insist poets are frail creatures we must pussyfoot around (indeed many of them can be formidable beasts!). But there is danger for any poet, be they a bullish Byron or a meek novice. Anything that is unrelated to the nearest a poet can get to their ‘true’ poems is dangerously destructive. Any acts that do not hold the poet’s rights to their own poems as sacrosanct are morally wrong. (And this perhaps goes for the poet themselves, denying their own rights.)
So, where does this leave a publisher of poems? How should a poetry publisher proceed to get what they want to publish whilst not following these sentiments: ‘I expect and know that the publisher [of] poetry books will be […] interventionist in approach.’
Well, it’s very simple … if not at all easy!
I believe that the two following statements should be attended to with great care:
No poet should be expected to publish what they do not wish to publish.
No poetry publisher should be expected to publish what they do not wish to publish.
If they wish to publish, this means that poetry publishers have to take risks (they of course do not have to publish, and may decide the risk is too great). If a poet and publisher can negotiate through a relationship that does not have one exercising POWER over the other, then all to the good.
When I was going through the process of publishing my first book with Shearsman I was told by Tony Frazer that I would have to cut the book down – it was too long, would be too expensive for a debutant and so would be bound to sink from the outset. It needed to sell at under ten quid and so it needed fewer pages. Simply as practical as that. He also said (and I can hear his laidback and friendly tones, although it was written in an email): ‘I tend to let the poets get on with deciding how to cut it.’ And the spell was cast – it was my problem, my charge. I was trusted, and the simple ease with which Tony delivered the statement declared to me that Shearsman had no doubts that I would deliver. I then worked very hard, sought further advice from poet friends, and even some not so friendly, and as a result I (under Tony’s spell) improved the book vastly. I hugely enjoyed the whole process! And of course, I grew as a poet.
Here’s Brian Lewis, of Longbarrow Press, another of my publishers:
It’s the editor’s job to be surprised and challenged by the poet and startled out of his/her complacency. I like to be given poems / sequences that won’t easily fit into a readymade format. It demands that I find the necessary resourcefulness and inventiveness to meet the poem on its own terms.
The poets I work with would, of course, expect me to let them know if I felt that something wasn’t working as well as it might (or at all), and to make suggestions where appropriate. This, however, is a conversation between poet and editor. Sometimes the poet will rework the poem; sometimes not. It’s not the job of the editor to demand or impose changes. Similarly, design is a conversation. I recently proposed two cover designs to Alistair Noon (for his two pamphlets). He liked the first one but felt that the second one lacked focus. I went away and designed a new one, which he and I both liked. The pamphlet was better for it. It’s the poet’s pamphlet. Why would I (or any publisher) want to publish something that the poet was unhappy with?
Yes, it is ‘the poet’s pamphlet’. And, thankfully, as a very young poet (attending Hobsbaum-style workshops) I was taken care of by the likes of Rob Hamberger and Michael Tolkien, who so often would say to me: “It’s your poem, Mark.”
Brian’s question at the end of his declaration, about why a publisher would want to publish against a poet’s wishes, begs some answers – because regrettably there are editors who do not hold a poet’s right to their work as sacrosanct.
I enjoy encouraging others to write poetry, but it is tainted for me; by knowing that should I ever help to get someone to become a poet they will very likely end up entering any of various literati-combat zones where their creative rights are far down the agenda.
I used to be a climbing instructor. I had to make sure that people learned and enjoyed themselves whilst at the same time coming to no harm. Mentoring a poet can be far more of a challenge than any climbing or outdoor pursuits session I’ve ever had responsibility for. It is a shame to say that, as a mentor of poets, it is my responsibility to help the poet shed (or at least knowingly engage with) any delusions inflicted upon them by the various cultural machines that construct and project competing notions of what poetry should or should not be. (I have no problems with debated notions of could-bes.) In some cases this obstacle has to be passed before I can get anywhere near my responsibility to help the poet dig out of themselves the only kind of poetry they could’ve ever written. As my ultimate responsibility is towards my mentee’s safety and peace of mind, I feel immensely angry towards people and edifices that threaten a poet’s right to that peace of mind.