A Poet and Her Editor
By Kimiko Hahn on 5.06.10
What does it mean for a poet to have someone edit her collection? I am not sure what that might involve for other poets—aside from having some lines cut or stanzas rearranged—but my own experience has been extraordinary. On a panel last year, I spoke to a room of emerging writers on this topic; seated beside me was my editor at Norton, Jill Bialosky. This column feels like an appropriate place to relate some of my comments.
Mosquito and Ant was the first manuscript I submitted to Jill, who was familiar with an earlier book of mine, The Unbearable Heart. She found the new book intriguing but not quite ready—that was the gist of her response. A year later, I tried again and she returned the manuscript with a few comments on the parts that felt most compelling to her. She suggested I add a prose section (what I’d been calling zuihitsu, a Japanese genre) that would give the dominant sequence some kind of backdrop. I love assignments, and so I wrote two zuihitsu: “Reflections Off White” (a sort of catalog of weddings) and “Morning Light” (a more narrative piece on a wife’s leave-taking). If memory serves, I already had two other such zuihitsu: “The Downpour” (written in response to a Sei Shonagon millennium celebration at The Poetry Project) and “Sewing without Mother” (a prose elegy). I saw that Jill was right: these changes added some backdrop and the manuscript felt richer. After about another year, I sent this new version. At that point, the collection resembled the finished book—except for arrangement. Given that Jill is a writer herself, I’ve often wondered how she finds the time and energy to offer such guidance. Even with no guarantee of publication, I was intensely grateful.
With this latest version on her desk, Jill made a radical suggestion, what I call her editorial magic really. I had arranged the poems in a fairly rigid and predictable manner: the epistolary sequence in one section, the rest in others. She suggested I take the epistolary section and fan it throughout the book, giving its themes and concerns a kind of narrative force. This editorial reordering completely changed the sequence itself—making it fuller as it absorbed the other works, rather than merely living side-by-side.
Having learned this lesson from Jill—who has been as much mentor as editor—I applied it to my next books. When I began compiling The Artist’s Daughter a few years later, I wanted to add zuihitsu “as a kind of backdrop”: considering all the poems I had on monsters and the monstrous, I wrote “Exhume” on necrophiles and two others on “characters” (Daphne and Blue Beard). Jill pretty much took the manuscript as it was. Similarly, when I was compiling The Narrow Road to the Interior—a collection of over ten years of zuihitsu and tanka sequences—I fanned the sequences throughout the collection, á la Mosquito and Ant, creating a kind of narrative with two chronologies. This proved to be a good way to go as well. (Not that Jill so quickly took either of these without sending back: “needs more work.”) [Listen to Hahn read “Sparrow” from The Narrow Road to the Interior]
But such was not to be the case with Toxic Flora. With three collections so neatly arranged, I felt I should continue to repeat this kind of success. In an early submission I had three zuihitsu “as backdrop” with varied topics: sexual cannibalism, metaphor and research, and a fabricated journal on monarch butterflies. When the collection was ready for final comments from Jill (after a send-back), she suggested I think again about these zuihitsu because she felt they weighed down the more delicate lyric poetry. She proposed I take one of these and use excerpts as section dividers. Frankly, I was a bit unhappy to eliminate the zuihitsu because I liked the feel of the collection. But I was fascinated by the suggestion and very much trusted her judgment. So I took the manuscript with me on a family holiday and sat in a sunny hotel room every morning, cutting and pasting pieces from the sexual cannibalism zuihitsu (of course). After fanning them throughout, these “dividers” became a kind of narrative through-line. Jill’s editorial magic again at work.
We will see how I proceed with future collections. Meantime, what I learned from all this, I find I am immediately applying in mentoring my own advisees at Queens College. How so? I might reveal some of Jill’s magic, but I’ll wait to divulge my own.