Robert Lee Brewer is the editor of Writer’s Market, Poet’s Market and WritersMarket.com, in addition to maintaining the blog Poetic Asides. Brewer has published poems in several print and online publications, including Barn Owl Review, Otoliths, and OCHO. He was kind enough to answer my questions on editing poetry…
How do you work your way through revisions? Do you have any tricks or theories to removing commas, words or lines?
First off, I try to avoid revising (as much as possible) during the first draft. This is sometimes easier said than done, but I find that revision can distract from completing the actual poem. Or it can drain the poem of its energy. After I complete a poem, I try to determine if the poem is saying anything significant. Sometimes, I think we write just to clear ideas out of our heads—that doesn’t mean those words are actually worth revising.
If the poem is worth revising, I first look for signs of any structure or poetic form. Sometimes, I’ll naturally write poems in which most of the lines have the same number of syllables. When I notice patterns, I try to make them consistent across the board.
I also look for abstraction and clichés. Plus, I go through word-by-word and line-by-line to see if there are any words that should be cut or changed to improve meaning and/or sound. There are also times in which I’ll try experimenting with the order of lines and even trying to force them into various traditional forms to see if I can find any new ways of visualizing the poem.
Finally, I think it makes a lot of sense to read your poem aloud multiple times. In fact, I’ll even try reading in multiple voices (loud, soft, twangy, etc.). It may seem silly, but it’s helped me catch problems.
Robert Lowell wrote that “Revision is inspiration.” To what extent do you think that’s true? How would you rewrite Lowell: “Revision is __________”
I think there is truth to this, because revision provides poets with an opportunity to create something new out of what they’ve already written. If you come at it from the correct angle, revision is a poetry prompt that says, “Take this poem and make a new one from it.” Sometimes, a poet may only need to change a word to make that new poem, but revision is basically an opportunity for the poet to write a new poem.
So I guess if I were to revise Lowell, I’d say, “Revision is a prompt.” But yeah, I think Lowell nailed it.
Do you feel any difference or make any distinction between editing a single poem all by its lonesome and editing a series of poems for a collection?
I don’t. I think poems in a collection can work together, but I think it’s up to each individual poem to be unique and worth reading. The only reason for editing a series of poems as a group—that I can imagine—would be if the poems share lines and refer to each other. Actually, I have a series of poems I’m currently revising that do this, but I won’t include poems in that collection if they can’t hold their own.
Do you have any pet peeves when it comes to editing your own work or someone else’s?
There are certain words I scan for like “that” and “it,” which I try to eliminate or replace. I don’t like to see lines break on prepositions or articles.
Are there any lines from an early draft of a poem that you’d like to share? What ideas, principles or gut feelings guided you through those changes?
I once wrote a sestina that was an experiment on repetition. While it was a fun exercise, the sestina just wasn’t any good. However, I loved a line in the poem, and it eventually ended up becoming the opening line of a free verse poem I wrote titled “Solving the world’s problems,” which you can listen to here.