Hi. Hello. Howdy. Your friendly neighborhood Imposter here. On today’s episode of An Imposter Writes Poetry: an overly ambitious prose writer seriously underestimates the sheer amount of (mental and emotional) labor required in the poetry editing process.
Because, as it turns out, editing a poem is not like editing an essay. It’s not a matter of logical consistency—you can’t simply ensure that every topic sentence reflects your thesis statement, that your arguments are supported with properly cited evidence, that you avoid passive voice.
Rather, editing a poem is a relentless series of impossible, subjective, detail-oriented questions, and they all matter. Punctuation matters. Word choice matters. Tense matters. Spacing and line breaks and indentation matter. Rhythm matters. One of my mentors explained it this way: editing is like putting on a blindfold, reaching over the stove with your bare hands, and trying to figure out which burners are hot. You need to feel the heat, the pressure points. The whole process is risky, dangerous, even a little futile. And, after considering every nook and cranny of the poem, after chopping and rearranging, after locating the heat and boiling some water and making yourself a nice spaghetti meal, you have to ask: does it still flow? Maybe? Somehow? Does it still mean anything?
The last time I seriously undertook the task of editing was in Gateway, when I repurposed a couple disparate journal entries into a (relatively) cohesive 12-page theory paper. When I consider this experience in the context of poetry editing, and I’m struck by a stark difference: whereas editing prose is largely a process of filling in gaps—to flesh out my repurposing paper, I added sources, filled in logical holes, refined personal narrative, and deepened my analysis—editing poetry is largely an effort in deletion. I look at my words and ask: Where am I over-explaining? Which stanzas are too opaque? What is unnecessarily repetitive? Whereas editing prose is largely a means of polishing—tighten syntax here, refine diction there—editing poetry is an exercise in destruction. One of my mentors explicitly asked me to “fracture” my poetry, to take away the tidiness. Perhaps I’d go so far as to say: whereas editing prose requires soldering words and binding thoughts, poetry editing requires breaking language altogether.
And so, after 5 iterations of drafts and 5 mentor meetings, I now pause and consider my collection. It’s funny how 7 poems seems like such a feeble number, but the effort itself feels so significant. It’s remarkable how much time I’ve spent on each and every word. Even as someone who deeply admires and appreciates poetry, perhaps never before have I considered the true feat that is the published poem.
I look at my collection, at my mountain of discarded drafts, and realize: there’s work yet to be done.