Posts Tagged how to edit poetry
‘A space in which language can play and find itself’ – talking about slow discovery writing with poet Rishi Dastidar @BetaRish
In some ways, writers of literary fiction (and non-fiction) are like poets. Our materials are shapes, images, emotions and sounds; our landscape is a reader’s mind. When we start a work, we might not know where it will take us, just that there is something it wants to be. I’m delighted to have a poet here to talk about that – Rishi Dastidar, who has written two poetry collections and edited several more. He has also edited a craft guide for poets. We talk about capturing ideas without killing them, and how a process can turn a fragment of nonsense into something original, sophisticated and surprising.
Let’s start with a quick guide to Rishi.
Over-caffeinated writer for hire, residing in south London, with a penchant for supporting less-than-successful sports teams, who when not wielding a pen for brands or art tries to keep two cats happy.
How poetry start for you?
I started writing in 2007, after a chance encounter with Ashes for Breakfast, by Durs Grünbein, translated by Michael Hofmann. I had a damascene moment if that isn’t too grand – I discovered *the* thing I wanted to write. Now, I had no idea that I could write it (I hadn’t studied literature) so I enrolled in a beginner’s course at City Lit that week, and I’ve been plugging away ever since.
You’re the editor of The Craft: A Guide to Making Poetry Happen in the 21st Century – tell me about that.
That was at the instigation of my editor at Nine Arches Press, Jane Commane. She’s been publishing a series of handbooks for poets, designed to inspire and provide support on the journey to becoming a poet – a journey without a destination if ever there was one, perhaps. We felt there was space for a book for those who had been writing for a while and wanted to go deeper into writing poetry, and to consider issues of ‘craft’.
‘Craft’ in inverted commas?
It is quite a loaded term. What is it? Who is defining it? Why is it important? Why is it important to the person defining it? The word has been used, sometimes subconsciously, sometimes not, as a form of soft gatekeeping, that hard-to-speak-of space where quality and elitism are hard to tell apart.
We wanted to explore that in the book, as well as technical aspects of different forms: how to maximise the potential of your voice; how to bring digital technology to your poems if you want; the ethics of truth-telling and using real life in your work… providing poets with insights into the ‘craft’ that go beyond thinking about pentameter, but rather the full gamut of what you have to think about to make your work the best it can possibly be. The real joy of the book was commissioning essays from so many writers I love and look up to, then getting the heck out of the way as they delivered their wisdom.
You have two collections of poetry Ticker-tape from 2017 and Saffron Jack from 2020. What unifies each collection?
It’s hard, at least initially, to discern much unity between the two. Ticker-tape is more of a debut collection with all its unevenness and flaws, to go with its brio and energy. Saffron Jack can be a read as a long poem about one man’s attempt to set up his own country as a response to feeling alienated from where he is. There’s a third in the works, which will hopefully arrive in 2023.
I suppose what brings everything together is a style, or more precisely a tone. It’s one that’s quite antic, not that many moments for pauses or calm reflections. I generally try to cram my lyrics with a lot – that slightly uncomfortable feeling of the poem teetering on the edge of falling out of coherence. Neologisms abound: I’m a magpie for picking up and throwing in phrases that look and sound like jargon, and then seeing what happens when you put them in a poetic context.
Tell me more about that.
I like taking language from economics, advertising, politics and seeing what happens when you bend them out of shape. Does it reveal there is something more substantial to them? Can you find the thought that might have animated them? What does that reveal?
I’m aware that makes me sound like I live at my desk and behind my screen. While that is mostly true, there’s generally always something that snares me when I’m out walking through London. I’m very urban in that regard. The city leaks into everything I write.
How does a poem come to you?
I generally wait and see what a phrase starts to suggest to me. I’ll capture something that snags me: a hesitant attempt at describing an image; something stolen from an article, a headline, overheard; some mucking around with different words on my desk. Then I hope that something starts to cohere and make… I was about to type ‘sense’, and that’s not quite right, as I’m not necessarily interested in a sense of logic, but rather a sense of suggestiveness.
For example, I have the phrase right now ‘cardinal reminiscence bump’ in front of me on my desk. To others, I know this will appear meaningless babble. To me, I see *something* in that formulation: perhaps the hurt that a difficult memory brings back, perhaps the primary thing that I was meant to remember today; perhaps what it feels like to meet an past lover for the first time in 11 years. The point being: something around the phrase is inviting me to explore, delve further, find out what it might be saying to me.
I get that. The tweak in the soul, a primal sense of meaning.
Of course, not every poem – especially commissions – arrives like that, but broadly speaking I have to try to hold open a space in which language can play and start to find itself. I can then just be the recorder of it, at least in the early drafts. The more it gets whipped into shape, the more it bears some imprint that is recognisably me.
You’re obviously a person who travels with a notebook (or e-notebook)… but a note can look alien later. When I work with an idea I often feel I’m catching up with something that wants me to understand it, and sometimes its moment goes cold. How do you write down ideas to preserve their energy?
I actually don’t mind the alien-ness of looking at my scribbles. Sometimes reading them is enough to take me back to the moment and the energy that was there when the phrase was captured; more often than not it’s not… and that’s okay. Hopefully the phrase will suggest *something* and I’m not so concerned what that something is – I need it to reveal itself as I work, bring it together with other scribbles, say, then see what is released in those juxtapositions and collisions. I generally trust that something new will emerge from the process, and new is good for me; I can work with that, make it better.
I’m interested in the similarities of writing literary fiction and poetry, especially the long process of refining and perfecting, which I relish. Sometimes that’s about mechanics – giving the reader necessary information such as back story or character reactions. Sometimes it’s tuning the moment in a particular way. All of it is feeling the way to guide the reader’s mind. I’ll go through a scene hundreds of times when the book is rough, and in the later stages, as I understand the book as a whole, I will probably change it many more times again. Yet I never feel that work is wasted or that I’m draining the book of life. And there comes a time when it’s all done – and I know it is. I can read the whole thing and it works as it should.
Yes, absolutely. Frustratingly, I haven’t developed very sophisticated language to describe what this stage of drafting a poem is like for me. My best stab is to say, to myself and others: trust your Spidey sense.
There is a very real risk that you can overwork a poem into inertness, and that would destroy the thing that makes my poems my poems, the innate sense of energy. Of course, I’ve had to train my Spidey sense over the years, and learn to trust to it, to know when the 17th draft is a charm, but the 18th has killed the poem.
And that makes it sound like work when of course it’s not – there is absolutely a pleasure to be had in this kind of puzzle solving.
Puzzle solving! Yes.
Cutting a word to sharpen an image, changing a line ending to release a different sound or idea.
To release a different sound or idea… yes, that’s the reward. When you’ve found the right tuning.
You will almost definitely see different things on different passes, so you should allow the time for this part of the process. Poems have to live in the dark, of the bottom of desk drawers, maturing, until they tug at you, wanting to be seen again, tweaked a bit more. But then you have to intervene and tell them they’re ready, otherwise they never will be.
When you hand a collection to an editor, how does the process work?
I’m very fortunate to have been working with Jane at Nine Arches for a while now, as she gets completely whatever I’m trying to do with my voice and within any given book project.
How does one edit poetry? What kind of notes would an editor give?
You can think of it as working on two levels.
First the higher one: what is the collection trying to do? Are the right poems there to do that? What order do they need to go in to do that? Have you left enough space for the reader to bring themselves into the worlds you are creating?
Generally you have more poems than you need or some aren’t ready, so a lot of is it leaving stuff on the cutting room floor and then re-arranging. I trust Jane implicitly, as she has an excellent ability to spot the poems I haven’t yet accepted aren’t ready, though I know deep down.
And the second level?
That’s the micro-work on the poems themselves. Are your titles right? Is your syntax secure? Are your rhymes subtle or clanging, by intention rather than by accident? Is your punctuation in the right place? How do the poems sound when you read them out and they hit the air? Are your line endings surprising?
This is your second mention of line endings. In prose, I pay a lot of attention to line endings; the thought a sentence lands on, where that takes the reader next.
If the previous process was the sledgehammer, this is the scalpel – fine-grained fine-tuning which, if you do it well enough, should be all but invisible to the reader.
Invisible to the reader – that’s it. I once heard Michael Caine talk about his work process. He was asked how he gave such relaxed performances. He said: ‘the rehearsal is the work; the performance is the relaxation’. (I wrote about it here.)
And you definitely need outside help at this point, as you will have been looking at them for so long, you won’t be able to spot the faults.
How do you improve your own craft?
Boring cliche answer, but cliches have that boring habit of bring true:
First, reading – as much as I can, of any stripe style or hue. Rare is the weekend that I am not in a bookshop at some point, and I have to-be-read bookcases rather than piles. And it’s not just poetry: I think poets can learn from the rhythms of prose.
I do the other way round. I keep poetry volumes on my desk to loosen up my thinking, stop me being too literal.
I also love immersing myself in a narrative, not least because it remains a thing of wonder to me that anyone can write 50,000 words of a story and make it coherent and make sense.
The second element is experimenting – consciously trying to change things up and get out of a rut.
I hope you’ll give examples…
Can I edit this draft harder?
Can I edit this draft weirder?
What can I change to make it feel still me but not me?
What forms haven’t I tried yet? Why? Can I run towards them?
I’m finding that I need to develop that sort of intentionality to keep things fresh and shake things up. I’m writing a lot of prose gobbets at the moment, short bursts of 100-200 words. Will all the experiments work? No, but in trying I’ll find something new.
As a change of gear, you’re also a copywriter, journalist and brand strategist. Many of us have day jobs that use our word talents – I edit on a medical magazine. It’s factual, precise and pragmatic. I find there are curious ways this refreshes my creative work – unexpected sources of inspiration from the ‘real’ world, of course, but also the practicality is a good antidote to the limitless possibilities of creativity. How do your other areas of work complement your work as a poet?
Hugely: primarily at a level of discipline. I have to finish a response to a client brief by a deadline, so I can’t hang around waiting for inspiration. So I have learned to be directed in my thinking and my messing around; leaving enough space to be broad in exploring before narrowing in on what the answer might be, and doing so rapidly.
I’ve got good at knowing how to fill gaps, and that translates into a level of confidence in knowing that I can get from A to B in a poem and make it look like I know what I’m doing, even if perhaps I don’t at anything other than a subconscious level.
Also, being in the world of brands and branding is good for seeing how cultural trends, commercial decisions and organisations collide with each other. You get to see how the modern world is shaped. More than that, you get lots of insight into humans and their motivations: what people are buying, what people are wishing for, how they’re collaborating with each other, how they’re interacting with technology, how they are working. Being able to observe – and sometimes influence – some of that has been a real privilege, and must have leached into what I write about. It’s certainly more interesting than my life as a subject matter.
What should I ask you next?
Why do I have so many baseball caps, and why can’t I have a more rock-and-roll mid-life crisis?
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.
David Starkey was always a writer at heart. After a few attempts at novels he found his feet in poetry, and has published a range of collections, including one that follows the plot of a series of The Sopranos. If that’s stopped you in your tracks, fear not, we will talk about it in due course. His latest book is What Just Happened: 210 Haiku Against the Trump Presidency. We’ll talk about that first.
Roz Why did you choose the haiku form for this material?
David I initially started the series by writing one 15-line poem for each month of Trump’s awful presidency, but he did so many bad things in any given month, I quickly realized that I would have to go week-by-week. Around that point, I remembered David Trinidad’s hilarious Peyton Place: A Haiku Soap Opera in which he’d written one haiku for each episode of that 1960s TV show. I didn’t want my book to turn into an epic, so that seemed like a good model, and I decided to stick to the traditional five-seven-five syllable pattern, which forced me to be careful with every syllable. Haiku purists might have trouble with some of the poems, but my subject matter was anything but pure.
Roz Why is poetry your chosen medium?
David When I was young, I wanted to be a novelist, but although I’ve finished a couple of (thankfully unpublished) novels, I haven’t yet been able to get the hang of it—though I haven’t given up yet. But basically, I became a poet by default. I had a knack for it, and the longer I worked at my craft—it’s been 35 years since I published my first poem—the better I got. At least, I hope that’s the case.
Roz What is poetry? Is it possible to answer this? What do you look for in a poem?
David Just about anything can become a good poem—I’m open to whatever a poet wants to try. But when it comes to the poems I really enjoy reading, they’re usually imagistic, concise and alive to the possibilities of sound. I like to hear assonance and consonance in service of the phrasing.
Roz How did you arrive at this creative career? Were your family in the arts or are you an outlier?
David Both my parents were schoolteachers, and while they valued education, they certainly weren’t big into the arts. I grew up in a lower-middle-class neighbourhood in unexciting Sacramento, California—it wasn’t the sort of place where anyone is expected to write poetry.
Roz Did you enter the world of professional creative writing directly or did you take a longer road?
David I always liked to write, but before I became an academic, I worked for an insurance company for a while. That was pretty miserable.
Roz You’ve got an impressive range of credits, with poetry published in American Scholar, Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Review and many others. How long did it take to get serious attention for your work?
David I started getting published fairly quickly after I began writing seriously, but that’s probably because I was so persistent in submitting my work. This was back in the mid-80s, when you typed up your poems on a typewriter, used Wite-Out to make corrections, and surreptitiously made copies on the office copy machine.
Roz Were there many rejections? Are there still many rejections?
David Yes, I’ve been rejected countless times, and no doubt there are many more rejections ahead. I think that rejection just means that a writer, especially a poet, is still willing to take risks and experiment, to get things wrong first, before getting them right.
Roz I love that. But I think rejection is different in longform publishing. Certainly a book will be rejected if it needs more work, but it might also be rejected because it doesn’t suit the publisher’s audience.
In your poetry, what are your main themes and concerns?
David I write a lot about family, and though I’ve just called my hometown ‘unexciting’, I frequently draw on the city and surrounding farmlands and foothills for material.
Roz Have these changed over the years?
David As I get older, I’ve begun writing more elegies. And I’m always open to some odd incident or happenstance becoming the germ for a poem. In fact, if I am an “underappreciated” poet, as I read a few years back, it’s partly because my tastes and subject matter are so idiosyncratic. You get a sense of that eccentricity in What Just Happened, which mines another of my favourite themes: politics, in particular America’s perpetually disappointing behaviour, which we saw so clearly during Trump’s reign.
Roz If I could whistle up a time warp, what would Today’s David say to Earlier David?
David I hope I’m more sophisticated and more concise than I was three and a half decades ago, but of course there’s a certain jouissance any young writer has that’s inevitably going to diminish over time. That said, I think tonally my work has been pretty consistent: there’s always lots of irony in a David Starkey poem.
Roz You’ve had 11 poetry collections published with small presses. Tell me about that.
David I completed my MFA in poetry writing at Louisiana State University in 1990, and of course I was hoping I would be the Next Big Thing. I’d received a lot of praise in my graduate program, but there are a lot of graduate programs in creative writing, and more coming online all the time. So, when I didn’t win the Yale Younger Poets prize, or any of its equivalents, I soon realized that my best publication chances were going to come through small presses, which are generally more welcoming to someone like me, who doesn’t excel at schmoozing.
Roz Is it possible to sum up each of your collections in a word or two? If we put them all together, would we see the barometer of David’s life?
David I don’t know that I could sum up each book in a single word, but I’d say the arc has gone from very small micro-presses to those that are more robust in marketing their writers’ work. I think if you read the books from first to most recent, you would get a pretty good sense of what was happening in my life and my general attitude toward things. One big caveat: I write frequently from other people’s perspectives—in fact, I’d say a good half of everything I’ve written is some form of a dramatic monologue. So, the actual details in any given poem might be completely fabricated. And, again, I’m liable to write a poem about anything, so there are a lot of tangents in there.
Roz Let’s talk about editing poets. How does one edit poets? And what do poets look for in an editor?
David I think serious poets want to write the best poem they are capable of writing at that particular moment. A good editor is someone who works with the material that’s already there, who doesn’t try and take over another person’s poem and make it their own.
Roz What about teaching? How does one teach poets? What kind of guidance do they need and seek?
David What young poets need and seek don’t always match up. When poets are first starting out, as they usually are when they take a community college creative writing class, they really benefit from being exposed to lots of different writing that they probably didn’t know existed. For instance, if all you’ve read is sentimental verse celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, or on the other end of the spectrum, you think poetry equals hip-hop, and that’s it, you’re going to be surprised by how many other ways people have found to effectively express themselves. My creative writing textbook is going into its fourth edition this year, and I think part of its success is due to how keen I’ve been to seek out and share a wide variety of new writing, in all genres.
Roz I notice Wikipedia mentions your collection Like a Soprano, based on the TV series. This is such a surprising idea. How did you come to write it?
David The book by David Trinidad that I mentioned earlier was an inspiration for Like a Soprano. However, instead of writing one haiku for each episode, I went with the prose poem, which gave me a lot more flexibility to handle the nuances of the show. I was also thinking of how in centuries gone by poets would write about the gods and heroes, and yet they seem so distant to us now. Our new mythology is formed by television—and movies and video games—and Tony Soprano is a larger-than-life figure for our time.
One of the main characters in the show—Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher Moltisanti—lives in Santa Barbara and was nice enough to write a blurb, so I thought Like a Soprano would make a bigger splash than it did. But it turns out that if you make a Venn diagram, the overlap between viewers of The Sopranos and readers of literary poetry is, alas, pretty small.
Roz The unexpected combination of genres and readerships… This is also a hazard for longform writers. Anyway, tell me about another work of yours that you wish would get more attention.
David It’s the book I published just before What Just Happened. It’s called Dance, You Monster, to My Soft Song, and it contains the best poems I wrote between 2014, when Like a Soprano was published, and 2020. Like so many pandemic-era poetry books, it seems to have been lost in the shuffle.
Roz You founded – or helped to found – the creative writing programme at Santa Barbara City College. How did that happen?
David Prior to my arrival at City College, creative writing was just a couple of classes offered every once in a while. As founding director, I went through all the official curriculum development that a college requires, gave the offerings some structure, set up a reading series, instituted student writing contests, and so forth.
Roz Does this mean you have created your own ideal creative writing programme – and what does that look like?
David I don’t know that it’s my ideal programme. American community colleges are designed to propel students into four-year institutions after just two years, so there’s not a lot of continuity among the student population, but I think it’s done a lot of good over the past 14 years. I just retired a month ago, and it’s been hard to let it go.
Roz You’re a co-editor of Gunpowder Press…
David I started Gunpowder Press back in 2014 because I wanted to publish two books of poetry. The first was by my late friend, David Case, who died when he was just 49. He named me as his literary executor, and I heard from publishers that bringing out a book by a relatively unknown poet who was no longer alive to promote it was a losing proposition for them, no matter how good the poems were.
Then my Santa Barbara friend Chryss Yost had a wonderful first book that she’d been having trouble publishing. As it happened, Chryss was also a whiz at book and web design, and after I published her book, I asked her to come on board as co-editor.
Most of the books we publish are through our annual Barry Spacks Poetry Prize, which is named after Santa Barbara’s first poet laureate. Chryss and I choose our 10 favourite manuscripts then forward them, without names attached, to our final judge, a prominent poet who changes every year. We also have an anthology series, started by Chryss, that features poets of California’s Central Coast.
Roz Also you’re co-editor of the California Review of Books…
David I got the idea for The California Review of Books when our local arts paper, where I’d been publishing book reviews for years, decided to focus only on local writers. I teamed up with Brian Tanguay, another of the paper’s long-time reviewers, and Chryss Yost, and we’ve been publishing reviews since January.
Roz For both, are there any mistakes or shortcomings you see frequently in submissions from authors?
David It’s the standard thing most editors would say: some potential contributors don’t seem to be aware of the type of work we publish. But the submission chances for the two are very different, at least at the moment. Getting even a very good poetry book published by Gunpowder is really difficult, but getting a strong, 1,000-word review published in CRB is absolutely doable.
Roz What have I forgotten? Oh yes, your six textbooks on creative writing, and several other textbooks you’ve edited or contributed to. Do these represent changes or refinements to your teaching approach over the years?
David I think a lot of students, and teachers, dismiss textbooks as a not very important genre of writing, and it’s true some are pretty horrible. However, it’s extraordinarily hard, and time-consuming, to write a good textbook. As my teaching matured, I did become a better—and, yes, more refined—writer of textbooks, certainly since the first one was published in 1999. The older you get, though, the more actively you have to work to place yourself in the mind of a 20-year old student.
Roz What are you working on at the moment?
David I’ve started and stopped several projects since I finished What Just Happened. I usually have a sense after five or six pages that something has the potential to make it to the finish line, and if it doesn’t, I will quickly abandon ship. I like Keats’s thought that ‘If it come not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.’ That doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of hard work and revision, but I don’t want to feel like I’m swimming upstream—to use my third cliché of this response.
Roz You’re teaching the writers of tomorrow. You’re publishing them too, and your own body of respected work. Are you living the dream?
David I always remind myself how lucky I am to have the time to write at all. Most people are too busy trying to make a living, or simply finding edible food and clean water, to even think about writing poetry. Having the chance to sit down and say what’s on my mind is an incredible luxury. I’m definitely living the dream.
If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.