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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Poetry Insights from The Poetry Editor of vox poetica

The Poetry Editor blog began in hopes of helping poets to become their own best poetry editors, and with experience and practice that will indeed happen, but the New Year offers a timely time to take another tack and revise the initial intent. Therefore, in this article, and, hopefully, others to come, The Poetry Editor will bring you interviews with real-live poetry editors to give you a realistic view of the editorial work that goes into poetry-making and poetry publishing. If you’re a poetry editor who would like to participate, I’d be glad to hear from you. At present, I'll start with poetry editors I’ve worked with – ones who accepted my poems for publication (thank you very much!) and, preferably, ones who write their own poems in addition to editing ours.

This naturally brought to mind Annmarie Lockhart, whose words appear in fine journals, online and in print. She’s also the founding editor of vox poetica, an online literary salon dedicated to bringing poetry into the everyday, and the founder of unbound CONTENT, an independent press for a boundless age. A lifelong resident of Bergen County, NJ, Annmarie lives, works, and writes two miles east of the hospital where she was born, but her creativity and innovative work on behalf of poets and poetry is, well, unbound.

Annmarie, how did you get started with vox poetica?

I think the same way a lot of editors get started with journals: I was looking for something that didn't seem to exist. I wanted to read a journal that published daily poetry content and that spoke to a wide variety of readers. I was reading amazing work on personal blogs, so I knew there were tons of good writers looking to be read. I wanted to create a space where those writers and others like them could come to share their words. We are lucky to live in a technological age with few barriers to entry. Creating the website was simple, sending it out into the world was exciting, and watching it grow has been a creative life source beyond my expectations.

That’s wonderful to hear! Sometimes expectations limit us, for example, when poets expect or, perhaps, fear that revising and editing will ruin their poems. As a poetry editor, how would you help poets to see the value of good editing?

Editing can be the difference between a good poem and a great poem. At the very least, it can help ensure that the words are all spelled correctly and that any unconventionalities of grammar/ usage/ punctuation are intended for artistic merit and not mistakes. Sometimes editing reveals where a writer might have gone off point or, inadvertently, composed a second poem somewhere within the first. Or it can clear away the redundancies that many of us build into our poems because we're so focused on words and not meaning. It's hard to learn to cut mercilessly. Sometimes it's easier to let someone else do that, but whether it's oneself or another set of eyes, an edit stage is crucial to all poems.

A great example of this is a work-in-progress at unbound CONTENT where Alice Shapiro's manuscript Saltian became a living editing experiment. Alice wanted to explore the idea of there being many views of the same poem, so we assembled a board of editors and assigned them all individual poems from the manuscript to critique. We then posted those at unbound CONTENT's blog to open the poems and the critiques up to readers. After that Alice took the work back and revised each poem based on the collected feedback. As the author she reserved the right to make any, all, or no changes to her original poems, of course. But the result is a collection of work and a sampling of other ways to render that work. It really speaks to the creativity and wonder of the editing process. I would encourage writers to have fun with editing and definitely not to fear it.

Does a poetry edit or revision risk any loss of the poet's voice?

It shouldn't. If the voice fades in the editing process, the editor failed the work. It's very important for the editor to hear the voice of the narrator within a poem. That voice may or may not be the poet per se, but it is the teller of the story in that particular poem. If anything, voice should be stronger at the end of the editing process. For writers who edit their own work this can be difficult as sometimes a writer hears a different voice when editing than when writing. This is where the ear and the gut really matter in the process. Read the work. Listen to it. If it doesn't sound right, chances are it isn't.

What about the spontaneity of a poem? Do revising and editing mar the lyrical impulse or emotion initially captured?

That's a great question. Many poems come from a very in-the-moment inspiration and seem to write themselves. These poems are often quite complete in a first draft. I know several writers who use this technique exclusively. But again, editing shouldn't change the inherent energy of any poem. It's still important, though, to read for spelling, inconsistency of image and voice, word choice, and tone. Many writers who work this way find the editing phase useful for minor revisions, a word here, a line break there. Editing doesn't have to be extensive to be effective.

How important is style or form?

Style or form is as elemental to a poem as voice or selection is key. Certain poems lend themselves to formal construction, while others fight against rules. It's important for a writer to know the difference. Sometimes a phrase within the poem is the determinant. It calls for language that fits a sonnet format possibly, but it seems stilted and undirected in a free verse format. Sometimes a writer is using a form as a prompt or a creativity challenge. When that works it's great, but when it doesn't, the writer might try applying a different style or form to it to see if that alters the viability of the poem. I've seen great results when a writer steps back and alters the construction of a poem just to see what happens. Trying something new is good for creativity essentially all the time. The worst thing that could happen is if you don't like the results. So you scrap it and you keep the original structure as it is. You have nothing to lose in trying.

True! And experimenting eventually helps poets to improve the literary quality of their work. What else can poets do to take their poetry to the next level?

Improvements in writing can only come from two things: reading and writing. You want to write better? Read more and write more. Discipline yourself to do both of those things. Read with a critical eye, absorb what you're reading, write just for the sake of writing, apply techniques of craft to your work. Above all, mimic what you like and experiment.

Excellent advice! Before we close, is there anything else you would like to say to poets who want their poems to be published?

If you want your poems to be published, you have to submit them. Often. You will get rejection notices. Embrace them. Use them as an opportunity to take a fresh eye to the work. Sometimes the work really needs some revision. Research the outlets you're submitting to. Don't send Goth poetry to a romance poetry journal. It will not be accepted there. Read what a journal publishes. Does your work fit with what you read there? If not, try another journal. But be persistent. If the guidelines say send 3-5 poems, don't send one. Don't send ten. Send five. Give an editor a chance to see something she likes. Send your best polished work, not your first drafts. Keep track of where your work is being considered. Be respectful of your work and the editor's time. Apply yourself to the task of writing and the goal of publishing.

Thank you so much, Annmarie, for giving poets a better understanding of poetry, the work of a poet, and the vitality of the editorial process.


For more articles on poetry writing and information on how to get a poetry edit or critique, visit The Poetry Editor website.

© 2012, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved. Please do not use without permission. Thanks, and may God bless you and your New Year!


  1. Great article Mary. I've been submitting for years but was not aware to send the most poems asked for. Really good to know, Annmarie!

  2. Thanks, Alice. Annmarie had such helpful things to say, I hope other poetry editors will be game for future interviews.

  3. Wonderful interview, great content for all writers of poetry. Annmarie's tireless effort to promote poetry is awesome. And I love this website!

  4. Thank you all so much for your encouragement - for this blog but also poetry in general. And, as we say in the South, Annmarie is a peach. :)

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