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Advice on Editing Poetry by Grace Wells

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Article by Grace Wells ©.
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Formerly an independent video and television producer in her native London, Grace Wells moved to Ireland in 1991. In 2001 she became Literature Officer with the South Tipperary Arts Centre, and for the next three years co-ordinated ‘Impressions, the South Tipperary Literature Festival’.

Her first book, Gyrfalcon, a novel for children was published by the O’Brien Press in 2002. It won the Eilís Dillon Best Newcomer Bisto Book Award 2003 and was selected for the International White Ravens Catalogue 2003.

A second children’s novel Ice Dreams was published by the O’Brien Press in 2008, and One World, Our World, a Development Education, information and story book, was commissioned & published in 2009 by Irish Aid on behalf of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Since 2007 she has regularly reviewed Irish poetry for Contrary, the University of Chicago’s online literary journal, The Stinging Fly and for Poetry Ireland Review.

In 2009 she became Writer in Residence for Kilkenny County Council, and has since then continued to work for Kilkenny Arts Office and Library Service, and for County Waterford Arts Office facilitating creative writing classes and providing mentoring for upcoming writers.

Wells has read at numerous Literature Festivals and been broadcast on RTE. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in a wide number of journals. Prior to publication of her debut poetry collection, her work was short-listed for a number of awards and took third place in the Patrick Kavanagh award 2007. She facilitates creative writing classes for adults and children and is a member of the Poetry Ireland, Writers in Schools Scheme.

Her debut collection of poetry, ‘When God Has Been Called Away to Greater Things’ was published by Dedalus Press in May 2010. It won the Rupert and Eithne Strong Best Debut Collection Award and was short-listed for the London Fringe Festival New Poetry Award.

With this background, Grace is the ideal person to provide you with advice on editing your poetry…

Poetry is composed of many different elements; one of its main foundations has something to do with expressing a maximum of meaning with a minimum of words. The distilled essence of a poem is only reached through tireless editing.

Here are a number of things I try:

1. Always keep a hard-copy of your original poem, so you can go back to your first intentions if you need to.

2. Print up a copy of your “finished” poem. Take it with you around the house. Let it live with you. Prop it up somewhere close while you are doing mundane chores like washing-up or chopping vegetables. Read the poem aloud over and again. Can your breath cope with the lines? Do you stumble anywhere? How good does the poem feel in the mouth and the lungs? Is anything sticking out and telling you it needs to be changed or doesn’t belong?

3. I always glue the poem I’m working on into a little notebook that fits in my pocket/handbag. I paste one stanza on each page. I carry the poem with me when I’m out in the world, and I go back and forth over the lines checking each word is the right one. It’s very comforting being able to work on a line of poetry in the dentist’s waiting-room, or at the motor tax-office. This way poetry breathes into your ordinary life, and even if you don’t have much time for your writing, you can still maintain a living connection with it. Improving even one word of a poem can change the whole mood of a day.

4. Explore a ruthless edit of your poem—remember you have a copy of the original that you can always go back to. Look closely at your lines and see what can be taken out. Try removing words, phrases, lines or whole stanzas and seeing if the poem is any better for it. Take risks. Don’t be precious about your words; they’re safe in the original if you really need them. Meanwhile get out the knife and go for precision of phrase. Look for the places where you can provide the maximum of meaning with the minimum of words.

5. Consider what is the ‘backbone plot’ of the poem? Are all your stanzas serving that backbone or have any of them wandered off wildly?

6. Look again at your line breaks. The word out at the end of each line will have special weight and emphasis. Are the words you have chosen to stand at the end of each line, the right ones? Are they weak or strong words, weak or strong images, weak or strong ideas?

7. Read each line in isolation holding a piece of paper above it and one below it to block your view of all the other lines in the poem. Really look at each line in isolation. Are they good lines of poetry? Is there a line you would like to rewrite totally?

8. Examine every noun you’ve used. Have you chosen the right nouns? Do you have any other noun options that would work better?

9. Examine each verb you’ve used. Have you chosen the right one? Do you have any other options that might work better? Which tense have you used? Would the poem be any better in the present tense, or in the past tense? Have you over-used the ‘present participle’ (verbs ending in ‘ing’)? If so the repetition of that ‘ing’ sound may be tiresom to hear. See if you can find ways to bring the verbs back to their pure root sounds.

10. Write out the whole poem by hand again with any new changes that you have made. Read it aloud.

11. Have you found the very best words to capture exactly what you wanted to say? What would happen if you totally rewrote the poem without any reference to your original version?


© Grace Wells March 2012