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The journey from a collection of poems to a complete book ready for readers.
Once a year, The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective runs a poetry prize through which they choose three poets with full-length poetry manuscripts to mentor over the course of approximately a year. During those months, the poets work with two editors – a winner from a previous year and a founding poet from the collective – on their manuscript. From late summer 2017 to early winter 2018, I edited my first collection of poems.
Though the book bears resemblance to the manuscript I submitted to the prize, four rounds of robust edits have resulted in the removal of many poems, the writing and inclusion of new poems, re-ordering, re-naming the book, and more.
The editors, Subhashini Kaligotla and Shikha Malaviya, and I worked on the edits on and off alongside work, academic, and other commitments. I started with a manuscript of 59 poems divided into five sections titled Rain, Skin, Thread, Fur, and Milk – they weren’t imaginative titles, and they did not adequately represent the poems within them, and it was one of the first weaknesses the poet Subhashini Kaligotla identified. When I had first ordered the manuscript, I had been overwhelmed by the number of themes (related but different) that the poems contained, and the sectioning was a way to make sense of that for myself and for the (future) reader.
In retrospect, the names I originally assigned to those sections were also a way to impose a header on those poems, an explanatory note for what I wasn’t certain the poems could communicate on their own. It wasn’t till close to the end of the process, when I had arrived at a place of confidence in the order and organisation of the sections, that I swapped the section names for roman numerals.
Making a story
The editors’ early reading of the manuscript showed the ways in which the order of the poems wasn’t following a narrative or emotional arc. Though the beginning and the end haven’t changed very much, (the introductory poem is now second in the order, and the concluding poem is now last-but-one) the rest of the poems were shuffled several times till we reached an order that told the collective story of the book well. Experimenting with different orders clarified for me that there were certain poems whose material or tone overlapped to the extent that retaining only the stronger of the two didn’t take away anything from the manuscript – instead it made for a less cluttered collection.
Another outcome of the re-ordering exercise was that once we’d started to put together a different, more coherent narrative arc, it became apparent to me what was missing – poems about a certain aspect of an old relationship, poems about a key member of the family I’d simply been too afraid to write till that moment, et cetera. During this time, I often thought of what Nikki Finney said about a debut poetry collection being an origin story – several of the poems that are in the final version were conceived during this process and written to present the most nuanced, complex version of this story. I wrote the last one in February 2018 and it became the poem the book ends with, “Let Us Pray”.
Interrogating the words
The editors went through the poems line by line in each round of edits. One of the questions they asked me was: Are the titles of your poems working as hard as the poem themselves? The titles I’d considered sparse, they pointed out, were often only functional. The titles I’d considered interesting were obscuring the poem’s meaning, they added. These suggestions only worked because they were offered on a case-by-case basis – not every poem title needs to be explanatory, not every one-word title needs to be done away with.
Sometimes, the edits were around inconsistencies in punctuation or tense, or the use of incorrect prepositions. Sometimes, the poem would be a particularly image-laden one, and they’d suggest I “pare the poem down” to the most evocative ones. I would work through the images one by one and choose the ones that conveyed the essence of the poem while making the writing crisper. Other times, weaker or superfluous lines and stanzas would be identified, and if I couldn’t edit them or they weren’t necessary to the poem, I’d remove them.
The edits we considered were different in each cycle of edits. The editors or I occasionally changed our minds after reading the manuscript for the second, third, or fourth time. At times, we’d bring back a poem or an ending we’d previously scrapped. There were edits that became clear only to us months into the process.
One day before we submitted the file for printing, I removed two instances of the word “habiba” from a poem where I use it numerous times – on what must have been at least my fiftieth reading of the poem, it became clear to me that the refrain had been used excessively. Should I ever compile these poems afresh someday, I expect new edits will continue to occur to me.
Facing the feedback
It was challenging at times to engage in an intensive editorial process – I had been working on these poems for about eighteen months before I submitted the manuscript. I wasn’t averse to editing the poems, the order, and even the title of the manuscript during my time in The Collective, but it was harder than I imagined receiving an entire manuscript’s worth of appraisal, comments, and suggestions.
I was accustomed to working on a poem or a few at a time. Each poem was a self-contained unit that had been rewritten several times, sent to friends for feedback, and taken months (and in some cases years) to complete. There was a real fear that I would break these poems in the process of revamping them or break the manuscript by taking out poems that I had once believed were key to it.
But I trusted my editors to offer sensible edits that would strengthen my poems and the collection as a whole. Their suggestions were always relayed along with reasoned arguments, and I had to decide for myself which ones I was convinced by and what feedback I was willing to take on board. I accepted a majority of the edits suggested to me, and for the ones I turned down, I did it after some contemplation and with reasons I could stand firmly behind.
The goal, to me, was clear – the poems needed to be their clearest, most concise, and most compelling versions, and also the manuscript needed to feel like it still came from me. We disagreed, amongst other things, on whether to retain one of the oldest poems in the collection, written in 2014. I was aware of the fact that my voice had evolved since then, and I questioned whether I was holding on to the poem for sentimental reasons.
Much of the editing process has required me to apply a mixture of training and instinct. I chose to keep that poem because I still believed in it, and because the poem had connected with readers when it was first published.
One of the final stages before the book went to print was typesetting. Line-breaks were important in most of my poems – especially ones where couplets (two-line stanzas) and tercets (three-line stanzas) were used. But fitting the lengthier lines became a technical difficulty because of the dimensions and required margins of the page. I was accustomed to typing and formatting in A4, and the typesetting process meant that I had to rework how the words appeared on the page – at times minimally removing words to ensure the line fit or changing where the line-breaks and stanza-breaks were.
Of the fifty-nine poems we started with, we removed twenty, after writing eleven new ones. The editorial process concluded with a more fully realised manuscript of fifty poems, new titles for some poems, roman numerals instead of section titles, small and large changes within the bodies of the poems that range from the barely noticeable to ones that left the poem unrecognisable, and a name that better represents the book: Terrarium.