Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Proofreading poetry

In my undergraduate days, I had an editing job on the college literary magazine. Like so many things from that era of Right and Wrong Answers, I thought I could apply copy-editing guidelines to our poetry submissions.

A guy named Randy (I think) became frustrated and shouty when I tried to edit a poem following my favorite rules – consistency, grammar and proper spelling. The poem was an allegory for life and shooting craps. I wanted to spell “dice” the same way throughout the poem, getting rid of the poet’s alternate “dies,” clearly a mistake.

I don’t even remember what Randy said, something along the lines of “that’s not how poetry works” and “you can’t mess with the poet’s words.” My comma rules ruined the pauses and flow and and and. He gave an exasperated explanation that the spelling of “dies” played with the theme of death.

D’oh. And duh. And light bulb.

My brain exploded.

In that pissed-off moment, he taught me more about poetry – reading and writing it – than I’d ever learned in school (before or after). In that moment, I learned about word choice and line breaks and climbing inside the writer’s head.