About Revelations: Unedited
For each issue, we will invite a different poet to reveal trade secrets or pet peeves or whatever else he or she wants to say. By “Unedited,” we mean eactly that—there will be no run-through in the test kitchen. The poet will have total freedom, but, of course, with that will also come total responsibility.
UneditedPoets and Editors: Some Thoughts about Both
by Marian Olson, New Mexico
“It takes two to speak the truth—one to speak, and another to hear” —Thoreau
Early on when I first began submitting work to editors, I considered them formidable and alien. They either honored my work with acceptances or they dishonored it with rejections. Poems I thought were good, they rejected. Poems I wasn’t sure of, they took. Their responses were unpredictable. I received their opinions personally and sometimes with puzzlement, but always with the idea that they were the unassailable arbiters of good, great, and bad poetry. My poetry failed or passed according to some mysterious absolute that they were privy to, and I wasn’t.
Time and experience changed my perspective. For a while I co-edited The Writer’s Block, the poetry journal of Antelope Valley College. I learned on the job about the work involved, as well as the arbitrary and subjective choices an editor makes. It was not an easy task to wade through piles of poems and choose which ones would make the cut for the upcoming issue and which ones wouldn’t. It wasn’t easy to assuage damaged egos or temper the occasional self-importance of some whose poems were accepted. Working with poets and their poems was only a part of our responsibilities. We also had the task of layout and design while we labored to meet deadlines—all this in addition to our professional and personal lives.
Thus, I learned that the job of editor has the heart of a tyrant, ignoring personal needs for relaxation—space to play, ruminate, or write. It has no tolerance for sloth or error, demanding accuracy with detail. It offers no monetary reward for all the time and effort involved. Its motto would seem to be serve me, slave.
Why, then, would anyone choose to become an editor?
Some editors are invited into the position and accept the role because they feel a responsibility to continue the legacy of a respected editor. Some step into the role because for one reason or another, it becomes available, and someone must fill the position. Some simply want to create a new journal with a new voice, offering a different view among the many. Some take on the role because they seek control, power, or influence. Whatever the motivation, most are discriminate and able to say no to a poem even when it comes from someone well known, culling submissions until they have a good selection of poetry to present in their respective journals. No matter the reason for the decision to assume the editorship of a poetry journal, all of these editors have a passion for poetry.
Every poet who has published—even those who haven’t published yet—has had a variety of experiences with editors. I have worked with some of the best and some of the worst, real nightmare editors, editors who are rude and egotistical; editors who are sloppy with the submitted material, losing submissions and making unbelievable excuses; disorganized editors who are unable to locate a submission when asked; editors who take an inordinate amount of response time, thereby denying the poet a chance to seek another outlet for the work; editors who have a compulsion to rework the poet’s poem (one who did that to me failed to notify me of the changes before publishing “his poem”); and editors who feel compelled to make stabbing remarks when nothing more than a canned rejection slip would have been necessary.
On the other hand, I have known editors that seem to have dropped out of editor heaven, men and women who selflessly work to create the best journal of poetry available. I can think of at least five in my lifetime of publishing. Of those, one was a vigilant protector of his stable of poets, a conscientious and fierce watchdog of his poetic turf. Once, he sent back a batch of poems with a short and humorous comment that he felt he had to protect my reputation, and thus regretfully had to reject the submission. I loved the comment, which made me laugh and mentally thank him, even though I didn’t agree with his assessment (later, some of those very poems were picked up by two different editors, something poets discouraged by rejections may like to remember). Another editor actually writes kind notes in response to the accepted and rejected poems. This is far and above what any poet expects, especially considering the massive work each editor deals with, but this poet became a loyal contributor to his journal as a result of the practice.
I know another editor who carefully hones his journal until each issue is a polished gem. How does he get such quality material from journal to journal? He is efficient and organized, a person with a sensitive nature and keen intelligence who has carefully pulled together a likeminded team. He takes time to know his poets, and he is respectful. Another of these five outstanding editors is a fine poet himself—actually, all of them I’ve mentioned write venerable poetry. Working to make his journal the best, he seeks feedback; then incorporates workable suggestions. This is the kind of editor that poets want to support with their best work. Out of all the editors I have worked with, one became a mentor, a role neither of us would have imagined in the beginning of our relationship, nor a role either of us consciously sought
Elizabeth Searle Lamb, later dropping her middle name and referring to herself as Elizabeth Lamb, was Frogpond editor from 1984 to 1991, and then once again for one year in 1994. Before taking on that mantle, she was one of the original small band of haiku pioneers in the United States who helped shape the haiku movement in the West. Although an outstanding poet, she was a natural editor, cut out to do the exacting work demanded by the job. She didn’t know the meaning of rude or arrogant because she was by nature self-effacing and polite. Nevertheless, she had a perceptive editorial eye, passing over any poem that didn’t meet her standard of excellence. She took time to correspond with poets who submitted to the journal and sought her comments. A rejection slip from her became a teaching tool. She wrote short notes and sometimes longer ones that revealed who she was and what she expected, so that little by little poets came to trust her and appreciate that she had their interest at heart. More than one of us have known the power and warmth of her pen, and remember with a smile her concluding words “In Haiku joy” before she sealed an envelope or added a stamp to a post card and slipped it into the mailbox at the end of her drive.
The day we finally met face to face, we sat under the green shade of a gnarled apricot tree in her comfortable adobe patio. She served ginger cookies and tea that hour, the first of many we would share through the years to come. We talked about haiku, New Mexico, ourselves. She was a good listener, a sounding board for all the questions and ideas I had never shared with the other editors. I talked so much I embarrassed myself and told her so. With a wave of her hand she dismissed my comment, saying, “No, no, no. You make me feel good.” She made me feel good too. It was on that visit that I told her about my passion for chickens and roosters. “That’s a book, Marian,” she said, “You must write it.” I returned to California and wrote Songs of the Chicken Yard, a poetry book that has achieved some acclaim. I wrote two haiku books and one haiku manuscript with her encouragement.
Several years later after moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico, I visited Elizabeth whenever I could. She lived in the historic area of the small capitol city, down a twisty road shaded with giant elms and cottonwoods, a road cut by early trail horses and wagons. It was a short walk to her blue front gate, softened with whorls of blue morning glories in summer and snow in winter. Her blue door would swing open any time of the year, and her large blue eyes shine with welcome. (I was one of many haiku poets who made a pilgrimage to her unpretentious adobe home to meet her and visit.) She prepared Earl Gray tea then and served it with a small plate of cookies before settling down to visit in her small living room with its oversized low teak chest topped with books and magazines and writing pads.
We studied the latest haiku journals, discussing the essays and poems. We wrote some renga together. We shared poems of others we loved, and sometimes offered a draft of a haiku we were pulling together to get a candid response. She sent me home with rare poetic treasures to study, classic out-of-print books and volumes of the first haiku journals. Little by little she was shaping me without intention or goal. I learned to trust my muse because of her.
She had become a mentor. To think of herself as a mentor would have amazed her. Free-spirited, intuitive, and generous, she shared her genius with me, as well as with hundreds of other poets in her long and productive life. Elizabeth Lamb was unique, and remains to this day, my idea of the quintessential editor.