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Carmine Starnino: The power of a light touch

The editor of Richard Greene's GG Award-winning book of poems, Boxing the Compass, on the importance of not mucking around too much.

image-carmine.jpgAn editor's greatest pleasure is to sit on his hands. This isn't to say we get no satisfaction from wrenching knock-kneed words into place, but nirvana comes from being struck helpless in front of perfect words. Such poet-editor partnerships - where manuscripts hit your desk in Moses-tablet readiness - are rare. Don Coles and David Solway are the only two poets I've edited where my end of the work was to do zilch. Among the small group of names whose poetry required minimal fussing, Richard Greene stands out. In the three years between the acceptance and publication of Boxing the Compass, Richard sent me a steady stream of keepers. The poems had been worked and reworked, revised and retouched. They wanted nothing more. In the end, I proposed a new arrangement, tweaked the wording of one line, recommended cuts in title poem. Basta. Editing doesn't get any easier. 

One poem, however, niggled. "Apparations" begins with the speaker dropping by his crowded parish church on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. We soon learn that, at that very moment, his seven-year-old son - estranged from him by divorce or separation, it's not clear - is having a birthday party. His "pang" at being cut off from the celebration is lessened in that church-going company. It seemed to me that Richard found the right channel but the image was fuzzy:

as each of us holds a taper in wet hands.
I see in these faces a flickering grace
that will not separate longing and hope,
and glimpse my son wishing on his day's candles
across unmeasured distances of their lives.

A sweet notion, but it's also a soup of abstractions ("grace,' "longing," "hope," "unmeasured distances of their lives"). Richard and I emailed back and forth about it. He seemed stumped, and I didn't have the heart to start mucking around: the answer was surely right in front of us. And I've often found that easiest fix is to cut. Indeed once I flensed the dud lines, the ending emerged:

as each of us holds a taper in wet hands.
I see in these faces a flickering grace
and glimpse my son wishing on his day's candles.

We stop on a sharply seen image, and let the poem flood it with associations. Nowhere near Ezra Pound's scissoring job on Eliot's Waste Land, but the result is something I think about often as an example of not overthinking an editing issue. "Very nice," Richard said to me in conversation weeks later, "less is more, right?" But I don't quite think that's right. There are two rules to editing. First, do no harm. Second, leave things a little better than how you found them. And the answer to every problem is always found in the middle.

Carmine Starnino has published four critically acclaimed volumes of poetry, for which he has won numerous awards, including the Canadian Authors Association Prize and the A.M. Klein Award. He is the author of A Lover's Quarrel, a collection of essays on Canadian poetry, and the editor of The New Canon: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry. His last collection of poetry, This Way Out, was nominated for a Governor General's Award for Poetry. He lives in Montreal, where he is poetry editor for Vehicule Press and senior editor for Reader's Digest Canada. 

Read Richard Greene's entry in the Writers/Editors series here.

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