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Featured article in A Fine Line -- "On editing the NZPS poetry anthology"

I would like to thank Ivy Alvarez for publishing the following article in the Feb 2018 edition of a fine line:

On editing the 2017 NZPS anthology after the cyclone

by Gail Ingram

At the beginning of August, a pile of poems around two hand-spans high arrived in the post. My job: to select around 100 of the 1285 poems entered in the annual NZPS competition, lay them out in an 124-page anthology all ready for printing by October’s end.

There are four sections – Adult Open, Junior Open, Adult Haiku and Junior Haiku – and the four judges had already chosen the winners from each section for inclusion in the anthology.

Yes, Probably, Possibly, No

I spent about four days reading the Adult Open section, sorting poems into piles of Yes, Probably, Possibly and No — I got this idea from Canterbury’s father of poetry James Norcliffe.

The largest piles were the middle two. At times, I would get a string of what seemed to be poorly-written, clichéd or old-fashioned rhyming poems, and I wondered if I was judging too harshly, but then I’d have an ‘oh-oh’ or a laugh-out-loud moment, and I kept on.

It was my first time editing alone. The downside of this was I couldn’t bounce my choices against someone else. The upside, of course, was I could put my own stamp on the anthology.

After the strange first hours of doubt, I got into a rhythm, a more instinctive style than the analytical up-close style I ordinarily use for poetry reading. I tuned into the feeling of the piece, noticing techniques if they leapt out either to help or hinder.

I judged blind but, as a member of the poetry community, I recognised a small number of poems. I selected most of them. They were good poems, though I was aware I might have been influenced precisely because I had seen them before, and also because I knew the poets were well-respected. I suspect this latter bias cannot be helped, though, like other editors in this situation, I trusted in my intent not to choose a poem if I didn’t think it up to scratch.

On the flip side, it was a thrill to discover later that I had selected other poets I knew along with those to be published for the first time. Also, I felt assured that any familiarity bias might have been flattened out along the way, since I read almost every poem at least three times by the end of the process. I used this same process of sorting for each of the other three sections. As you would expect, reading the haiku and senryu was much quicker.

How many gems?

The next step I took was to work out exactly how many poems I could include. I decided to base this on the percentage of entries for each section. Thus, the section that would make up the largest portion of the book would be the Adult Open since there was a far greater number of poems entered in this section — a little under half of the total.

This was where the re-reading of poems came in. I went through all piles again to check I hadn’t missed any gems. Of course, one woman’s gem is another woman’s gravel.

I wanted the poems I chose to connect or resonate with the heart, all through the cunning and craft of the poet. I wanted there to be an awareness of language as a tool, for it to rise above mere description. I also wanted the poet to treat everyday or common subjects with an original or surprising arrangement of vocabulary, lines or form, or alternatively, to capture new subjects.

The poems in the ‘No’ pile didn’t do this. Some might force words into unnatural order to fit the rhyme scheme, for example, or a haiku might describe an interesting action, but without the necessary break in meaning to give the reader pause to reflect.

Chaos to order

Finally, I had the poems I wanted. Laurice Gilbert — the real gem of the whole process, my NZPS go-to when I had any questions — emailed to ask for the title of the new anthology. This was traditionally chosen from a phrase in one of the prize-winning poems. I’d been playing with a couple of ideas but kept coming back to the title that won the Adult Open, “After the cyclone” by Alexandra Fraser.

Cyclones and global warming were in the news, plus Alexandra’s poem was brilliant, capturing, I felt, the zeitgeist of these turbulent times. Having a title helped me to sort the poems into the order they would come in the book.

The first poems were chosen quite mechanically by their placing in the competitions, but still, I placed poems together that complemented each other by topic, tone or feeling when I could, a process I’d practiced in one of Joanna Preston’s outstanding workshops. After that, I laid out all my selections on the lounge floor, choosing the first and last poems of each section to hook into the title-theme, after the cyclone. Then, I slotted each poem into its designated page.

Final details

The last month of the process, I spent mailing the poets to give them the good news, formatting the poems, sending the poets proofs for checking, and finally sending the PDF to Laurice and my daughter Rata Ingram (who also designed the cover) for proofreading.

There were many little mistakes, but Laurice assured me this was normal. Two days before the final print, Rata spotted one of the poets’ names spelled as ‘Cathering’. Man, I’m glad we got that one!


Three things I learned:

  1. At some point during those first few days, I realized what a huge privilege it was to be able to see what preoccupied a relatively large group of individuals from this land and in this time – and not just any individuals, but poets – people who, through the act of writing poetry, must observe, reflect and care enough about the world to write it down.

  2. I also got a sense of what it was that might distinguish this group of mainly NZ poets from others. You cared a lot about our landscape, the sea, our genealogy. Your observations were often wry or humorous. Amongst the Open section, there was a sense that you are older, concerned with personal histories, but also outward-looking with the world, and concerned for the people in it.

  3. The last thing that stood out (unrelated to the first two) was that the Junior section seemed under-subscribed, with the selections seeming to come from a handful of schools. Teachers sometimes set the class the same task, which potentially eliminated poems that were too closely related by form or content. This means there is a huge potential for younger writers next year to get out there, enter, and be noticed!

I would like to say thank you NZPS for this awesome opportunity. I’m back next August, so I look forward to reading your gems.

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