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Of Ordering Poems and Smithing Locks: Thoughts on Editing

Earlier this morning, musing on the organization of the upcoming Fall issue of Goblin Fruit, I tweeted the following:


I want to say more about this, partly because this issue’s ordering is proving especially tricky (and as a consequence, especially enjoyable), and because I don’t think I’ve really spoken much before about what it’s like to build up a Table of Contents.

Where making the initial choice of poems, it’s all very instinctive: once a poem has cleared the (increasingly high, given our submission volume) bar in terms of quality, figuring out which issue to slot it into is a matter of seasonal feel and half-memory, either thinking “this is a Winter poem” or “I would like to build an issue around this poem” or “this would match up brilliantly with this other poem we have slated for Winter.” Because we don’t read for specific issues and accept poems as far as a year in advance of the issue in which they will appear, these instincts sometimes blur together, such that I think “ah, this is a truly Wintry poem, but this year’s Winter issue is full of fairy tale mothers and snow on window panes, while this poem’s winter is all black ice and city streets. Perhaps next year’s Winter shall be more urban.”

But when it comes time to delve into an issue with both hands and build a story from it — whether that story is narrative, visual, or aural — my choosing becomes far more deliberate.

Why should this poem open the issue? Why should this one close it? Why should this one follow on from this other one? What effect do I want the overall issue to have? What emotional beats do I want to move the reader through from beginning to end, and why?

Sometimes it’s like sculpting, like giving the issue a specific shape: I feel the poems moving from short to long, from densely imagistic to dialogue-driven, from rollicking rhythm to held-breath lines. Sometimes it’s like painting, seeing the issue move through shades and tints and colours: this poem bright and gold, this poem a rich dark green, this poem a brilliant cerulean. Sometimes it’s — no, always, it’s like music, pairing poems like chords, patterning movements, threading a counterpoint through the whole.

I am no sculptor, no painter, no composer, but I play at being all of them with Goblin Fruit.

I could go on — to edit is like gardening, to edit is like cooking, like baking, like locksmithing, sequencing tumblers for the reader’s gaze to unlock. It is all of these things and none of them. It is every thing where one brings one’s will to bear on the shapeless and gives it a shape.

And when it works — when someone sees that work and is affected not only by the poems you’ve chosen but by your careful curation, giving you their blessing that an issue is more than the sum of its parts? It’s incredible. I still feel a thrill and glow a little inside when I think of CSE Cooney saying, of the 2013 Summer issue, that “it begins and ends with hollow bones.” I love when people tell me the story of the issue as they read it.

I always tell a preliminary version of the story to the artists, and having their layout, their interpretation of the issue, is often crucial to my final process. I don’t yet know what the Fall 2013 issue’s story is, but thanks in part to Orion Zangara’s art, I think that this time, editing the issue is a little bit like map-making. I am marking a path through its paper woods — through its ghosts, its photographs, its postcards, its second-person narrations and internal rhymes. I am stepping over its roots and knotting thoughts into its branches. I can see what I want this path to look like.

I can’t wait to be able to share it with you.