1). First of all, reduce everything you already have to raw material. Break down the barriers between the ‘finished’ and the ‘unfinished’. Put all your poems into the same font – something plain and unobtrusive, sans serif; ugly, even, like Calibri. Setting a draft of a poem in Garamond is an error (it’ll wear the clothes of a finished poem, and seal itself off). Once you’ve done this, print everything off into hard copy, and go somewhere without the internet – a library, a café, a basement, a park.
2). Separate the poems into three piles: Minor Edits; Major Edits; To Cannibalise. There is no pile for Finished Poems. Everything needs some work. There is no pile for Trash. Everything can be reused.
3). Start with To Cannibalise. Go through the poems with a highlighter, taking the most interesting lines only. Copy those out onto a separate sheet, in random order, and see how they interact. Do new poems start to suggest themselves?
4). For the Major Edits pile, put each poem through the wringer one at a time. Look up editorial exercises, and use them all on the same poem. Here are some of my favourites:
- Euphony thread – work down the poem, marking places where the sound of the words chimes together. Can you draw a wiggly line from top to bottom? If so, what are these words saying to/about/through each other? Can you use this path in an interesting or sneaky way?
- Think about colour – are you being accurate and descriptive? Too plain? Too predictable (e.g., are cheeks rosy? Are blues all sky-blues?)
- Are there real places, people, brands, days of the week, species, restaurants, historical events? Name them, and see what that does to the poem. I quite like specificity, and the anchor that real names give to a poem. What happens if you name yourself? The addressee? The mountain?
- Place a ban on adjectives, and make the nouns do all the work. What happens?
- Place a ban on adverbs, and make the verbs do all the work. What happens?
5). Start to think about the heart of the book. It needn’t be thematic, necessarily – it could be a voice, an idea, a location, a poetic form, an homage, a game, a punctum, a politics. Do any of the drafts you already have contribute to this heart? Gather them together, and work outwards from there.
6). Think about the arc of the book. Once you’ve gathered your drafts into an order, try and work out what the story is, has been. What do we know at the end of the book that we didn’t know at the beginning? Where has the majority of the information fallen? Is it topheavy, frontloaded, askew?
7). Edit roughly and adventurously – most poems can take more cutting than they can stand taking in extra material, so aim to reduce each poem down by a quarter.
8). Show it to somebody. This is the most important step. Find a poet that you trust, and ask them to read it. When they come back to you with their comments, be willing to kill your darlings.
Martha Sprackland is editor at Offord Road Books, Poetry London and La Errante. She has translated poetry from the Arabic and the Spanish, and her poems, essays and reviews have appeared widely; she has also published two pamphlets: Glass As Broken Glass (Rack, 2017) and Milk Tooth (2018). A full collection is forthcoming in 2020, as is a non-fiction book about sharks and obsession.