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(The Other) Uncreative Writing

If poetry editors aren’t editing, what are they doing?
Illustration: Jason Novak

In a conversation I’m picturing, an imaginary American novelist named Pat is having drinks with a poet who is also the editor of some sort of poetry journal.

 This poet is named Kendall:

Pat: Does it ever happen that someone gives you a poem for your magazine, and you do a bunch of line edits?
Kendall: I loved your last book, but no.
P: What if you thought it would be better for the poem?
K: Not sure what that means.

This gender-neutral hypothetical illustrates the differing senses of the term “edit” within the respective spheres of verse and prose, or, let’s just say, poetry and fiction. I want to focus on the inaction that seems associated with the editing of poetry: If poetry editors seldom alter the work they publish, what is it they are doing? How can we square this inaction with endeavor?

One way, of course, is to view poetry editing as a form of curation. Much as curation requires that one think about a situation and a spectator, poetry editing is frequently concerned with the ordering of poems within a journal or other volume (or site) and the ways in which the journal or work can be circulated, rather than with a possible need to “perfect”—à la the workshop—a given poem. If the staidness of the museum is also lurking here, it will be up to us to decide whether we are imprisoning, petrifying, defending, or exposing the work for good, and whether we really want to be doing any of these things. As curator Maria Lind writes, “. . . art itself is perhaps what is least standardized, demanding the most ‘tailor-made’ care. . . .”

At the same time, one can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t be more fashionable to eliminate the hint of lyricism that might be present in a conversation that includes the verb “care.” To this end, I am also up for discovering an analogue for contemporary poetry editing in conceptualist strategies, what is now sometimes referred to as conceptual writing. (I am, at any rate, already borrowing the title of this piece from Kenneth Goldsmith’s recent book.) This is to say, if we do think at the organizational level in some specific and significant way when accomplishing the poetry “edit,” perhaps it might make sense to say that poetry editing is not just curatorial but, as American artist and pamphleteer Joseph Kosuth once wrote, a kind of art proposition. Such an analogy calls editorial taste to task, since it empowers us to see a given issue of a given journal as a kind of argument, whether about poetry itself or something else; permits us to regard the selection of particular manuscripts for publication in a similarly polemical sort of light; and generally dispels any lingering sense that poetry is written and read and published exclusively for purposes of apolitical pleasure. In what I have to admit is a fairly crude attempt to draw further parallels between conceptualism and how we think about the poetry journal, I have created a chart.


Poetry Editing


Taste Idea

Material sourced from [whatever]

Material sourced from contributors

Art as analytic proposition

Editorial work as analytic proposition



The death of the author


In this comparison, however, I worry that what I was calling curation’s “lyricism” is now replaced by something approaching a form of paranoia, since all the writing I am including in my conceptualist poetry editing project would seem to have become an allegory for my own originating concept or idea. But perhaps the poets themselves, at least, will not feel this way?

By contrast, it seems weirdly easy to account for the kinds of editing of poetry that went on in the 19th century. Possibly the most epic American case is that of Emily Dickinson, who, in the days of rigid delineation of a proper poetic canon (Longfellow, Bryant, et al.) and barely lukewarm reception of Melville and Whitman, managed to publish, from 1852 to 1878, a total of seven poems. This is of course just as far as magazines went: some 600 poems were mailed to friends and acquaintances. The altruistic malefactions of Dickinson’s best-known literary correspondent, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, feminist and abolitionist, included “standardization” of the grammar, diction, and punctuation for the posthumous 1890 collection of Dickinson’s verse. As Higginson had written in an 1862 “Letter to a Young Contributor,” an open recommendation to youths who liked to submit poetry to the Atlantic Monthly, iconoclasm was not so much his thing: “Have faith enough in your own individuality to keep it resolutely down for a year or two.”

It is the modernists who loudly discovered Dickinson. With the benefit of new editorial work by Dickinson’s niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, who from 1914 to 1945 brought to light material unattended to by Higginson, appraisals were forthcoming from Marsden Hartley, Conrad Aiken, Louis Untermeyer, and Allen Tate. Marianne Moore was moved to exotic remarks on Dickinson’s “Japanesely fantastic reverence for tree, insect, and toadstool,” and William Carlos Williams liked her American grain. This is a way of beginning to say that modernist reading is still doing something for contemporary tastes. As Moore wrote, in her bizarrely orientalist take on the matter, Dickinson had a way of revising the (linguistic, imagistic) commonplace by turning to objective form:

An element of the Chinese taste was part of this choiceness, in its daring associations of the prismatically true; the gamboge and pink and cochineal of the poems; the oleander blossom tied with pink ribbon; the dandelion with scarlet; the rowan spray with white.

In this carefully tinted, decorative series, Moore does not plumb meaning but rather concerns herself with a characterization of the qualities of Dickinson’s words and their placement, here a “daring” foreign juxtaposition and pure flower arrangement. In other words, for better or for worse, it is to the modern that we tend to go in order to learn a certain type of appreciation of language, which is to say, a certain thinking about language’s “choiceness.” I mention this only because when we may think about uniqueness as a magnet that might coax or deflect the interest of an editor of poetry, it is not precisely the uniqueness one associates with lyric. The voice does not exactly precede the words—and we have no reason to expect that it should do so. As another grossly famous editor, Ezra Pound, once remarked in the margin of his editing project The Waste Land, at this point still called He Do the Police in Different Voices, “Il cherchait des sentiments pour les accommoder à son vocabulaire” (roughly, “He tried to come up with feelings to match his vocabulary”).

This nearly Warholian focus on objective presence in language still, of course, suggests itself. And this is where we may have the easiest time identifying what is going on in our reading. What we will have greater difficulty thinking about and seeing are the sorts of formal or—what is perhaps a better term—relational matters that come about, as in the two experimental comparisons I made at the beginning of this piece, of poetry editing to curation and to its neighbor, conceptualism. If there is a way to speak about editing beyond saying that the work of the poetry editor is purely subjective, pure taste, it might occur here, however. It is, at any rate, perhaps the fate of writing in the digital age to be contemplated in a sort of haunted continuum between modernist “choiceness” and conceptualist election, if “continuum” is even the right word.

With this in mind, I propose a quiz:

Which Poetry Editor Are You?

(The following is intended for entertainment purposes only and should not be used to ascertain one’s eligibility for grants.)

1. You receive an emailed submission titled “Winter Tears,” a sonnet with an epigraph from Heart of Darkness.

a. You commend the poet for his use of form, but regret that the poem seems a bit academic for your publication. (1 point)

b. You print out and return (by post) the manuscript with a scathing typescript in which you refer to the month of January as Saturnus and bemoan the canonization of Joseph Conrad. (3 points)

c. You forward the email to your 16 closest friends along with a relevant YouTube clip, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=85RoDQyZpoA, and never reply. (10 points)

d. You print out the poem and submit it as your own work at the next meeting of your poetry workshop. (3 points)

e. You accept the poem. (10 points)

2. At a poetry reading, you are approached by an attractive stranger who claims to be obsessed with your magazine. This stranger hands you a 200-page manuscript titled The Sadness Will Never End, saying, “These are my newest poems.”

a. You publish a four-page selection from the manuscript. (3 points)

b. You publish a 50-page selection from the manuscript. (10 points)

c. You feel deeply uncomfortable and recycle the pages as soon as possible. What text you do read is, if not incomprehensible, certainly threatening. (0 points)

d. The manuscript is subsequently lost to posterity in a Chelsea swimming pool. (8 points)

3. At a party, an acquaintance tells you she has just completed a novel in which the central character is a poetry editor.

a. You exclaim, “How interesting! So have I!” and rush home to begin your own novel. (1 point)

b. You offer to let the fictional poetry editor “edit” the next issue of your magazine. (6 points)

c. You exclaim, “How interesting!” and rush home to compose an essay on the cultural supremacy of prose and the “crucial” lessons it has to offer poetry. (3 points)

d. You can’t think of anything to say. (6 points)

e. This person says this to you at every faculty mixer. (3 points)

4. The mission of your poetry journal is _____________________.

a. … to publish exciting, innovative new poetry. (3 points)

b. … to publish the best poetry in America. (2.5 points)

c. … to get you tenure. (4 points)

d. … unclear, though it is physically pristine and is named after a destination resort. (8 points)

e. … unclear, though all your friends are in it. (4 points)

f. … thematic. (10 points)

How to interpret your score:

0–4 points: Thomas Wentworth Higginson

It is possible that you have made an error in the calculation of your score.

5–20 points: Ezra Pound

Those who follow your tastes definitely get something out of it.

21+ points: Dr. Charles Kinbote

You see what you want to see, and you know when to see it and where.

No score: You have simply read to the end of this quiz without attempting to evaluate your own tendencies in relation to its standards. Congratulations—you are, at the very least, a modernist.

  • Lucy Ives was born in New York City and earned her BA from Harvard College and her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her first collection, the book-length poem Anamnesis (2009), won the Slope Editions Book Prize. She is also the author of the “brief novel” Nineties (2013); a poetry and essay collection, Orange Roses (2013);...


(The Other) Uncreative Writing

If poetry editors aren’t editing, what are they doing?
  • Lucy Ives was born in New York City and earned her BA from Harvard College and her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her first collection, the book-length poem Anamnesis (2009), won the Slope Editions Book Prize. She is also the author of the “brief novel” Nineties (2013); a poetry and essay collection, Orange Roses (2013);...

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