Greg Bales

On a Manuscript for a Poetry Collection

I find it difficult to say aloud that I edited a book of poetry last weekend, though in fact that’s what I did. Something whispers to me when I open my mouth, Only poets edit poetry. Like the paintings of masters or the films of auteurs, poems carry with them the cultural baggage of appearing to be the singular work of The Poet, that artist who has managed to crystallize her very perception in a flock of white chickens. White chickens! Or their scratches in the dust, anyway.

The crystal poet doesn’t exist, of course, not in the past nor in this day when lichenous MFA programs and poetry workshops spawn new assistant professors of creative writing adjunct writing instructors poets with each passing year.1 Poets have always been born of community. In workshops they share their work with each other; at readings they receive and respond to feedback from those who attend. I don’t know how many poets hire editors to review their manuscripts (perhaps Mary Sayler has an idea), but it makes sense that they would. Editors and poets have a lot in common: they thrill in a good turn of phrase, delight in a precise verb, appreciate crafting language to convey something poignant and true.

The circumstances of my review of this particular manuscript aren’t strictly professional. The poet is a good friend, and I have been reading and responding to his work for fifteen years.2 We met in an upper-level creative writing class in college in the spring semester of 1996. I was a freshman, cocky at having finagled my way into the class and timid for having nothing to show for it but cockiness. I don’t remember how it was that he and I were grouped together then (were we in a portfolio writing group, two “poets” and two “fiction writers”? I really have forgotten. I do remember that the professor dismissed one of my stories as melodrama because it featured infanticide), but it was in that class that I first read his poems. That reading has continued through graduation and marriage and graduate school and careers and kids, and in all that time he has amassed a body of work fine enough to collect his poems in a manuscript.

I will be writing more in the coming days about the experience reading and commenting on editing the collection, but to end this, I want to take a moment to marvel at this poet’s accomplishment. He has shown a real perseverance to continue, off and on for fifteen years, working on what has been essentially been a side project. Some writers do write, and write brilliantly, in the flash of life they have, but most succeed by working soil year after year. The ground may not produce much with any one season, but some part of it is always producing something. Eventually, enough will have grown to take to market. I don’t know whether, before this year, this poet ever believed he would be pulling his work together for a book, but he has, and what he has collected is good.

1 Rembrandt, surrounded by apprentices laying down base coats, and Kubrick, with editors and cinematographers putting on master classes, don’t exist, either.

2 Long-time readers will know about whom I’m speaking, and, since he knows I’m writing this, I fully expect him to turn up in comments here or in subsequent posts. However, I’m leaving his full name and details about the manuscript out of this post. I don’t want to invite unwanted scrutiny about the manuscript when he submits it to publishers. (Though I’m happy to invite scrutiny in other places!)

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