Celebrated poet Helen Moffett on how you can edit your own poetry

Necessary Questions and vital commandments as you learn to be your own best editor

By CityLife Arts Writer

Have you started the new year determined to see your poetry published? Perhaps you dream of submitting an entire poetry manuscript for publication? Or maybe you’re wondering how to improve your poetry and where to find the right audience for it?

 Fortunately, you are not alone. Noordhoek poet, academic and activist, Helen Moffett, has decades of experience in shaping the words of others. This month, she shares her terrific wisdom and insight with AVBOB Poetry Competition participants.

“Everybody needs editing,” says Helen, who described the manuscripts of some of the greatest British poets as “dense with scribbles and crossing-out, rewrites and alternative words.” Helen’s “Necessary Questions” help writers gain clarity about their purpose in sharing their poetry and her “Essential Commandments” help them sharpen their skills and find their own voices.

The Necessary Questions

Read these questions with an open mind and hold them with a light touch as you approach your work:

What kind of poet are you? Do you write for an audience? If yes, who is your audience? And how do you want to interact with them? Via performance (spoken word/slam poetry competitions) or publication (literary journals, online platforms, a school magazine)?

How do you write your poetry? What actually happens (the physical process)? Do you record yourself on your phone? Scribble on serviettes? Clatter away at your laptop?

Where do your poems come from? Do they arrive in your head, sometimes uninvited? Do you write “found poems”? Do you deliberately pick a topic and sit down to craft something? Do you weave together stray pieces of text? Does something you hear, see or smell trigger a poem?

What do you think is the purpose of poetry? How and why is it different from prose? To put it another way: if you’re writing to share, communicate or make a statement, why poetry as opposed to prose?

How familiar are you with the forms or types of poetry? Some poets say that until you have mastered forms such as the sonnet, haiku and so on, you have no business writing free verse. I am less strict, but some sense of the mechanics of poetry is necessary before you edit.

Thinking through these questions will help determine your editing approach. Some poetry should not make the jump from private to public. Bear your audience in mind, then ask yourself whether a particular poem deserves to remain in your private journal, where its cathartic value is therapeutic, or whether it is ready and robust enough to travel into the world.

You need a sense of why you’ve chosen poetry, of all tricksy genres, as your vehicle. In order to do that, you must acquire a sense of how the nuts and bolts of poems work. This, in turn, leads to the Essential Commandments.

Four Essential Commandments

1) Read! Read! Read!

If you want to write and publish your poetry, read as widely as you can. Don’t restrict yourself to poets from any particular place or background. Subscribe to the poetry journals where you aspire to be published and read them before submitting your work there.

2) Remember what poetry is

Poetry differs from prose, regular speech or conversation. It comes to us from song and was originally (and remains) a form of music. Music helps words to become more memorable. An ancient form of magic, it was part of our earliest human rituals. Poems are designed to be heard with the ear as well as seen by the eye. As you craft your own poems, think of what rhythm you want to choose for them: would you like the rhythm to be quick or slow, languid or choppy, flowing or faltering?

3) Read your poem aloud

This is the single most important editing tip on offer. It goes for everything, not just poetry. Why? Because poetry is primarily about sound. It is profoundly aural and oral. No poem can succeed unless it works when read aloud. Inevitably, the ear is a better judge of errors and clumsy phrasing than the eye. You’ll hear a problem before you see it.

Read some of your favourite poems aloud to yourself. (If you’re looking for new voices, look at the winners’ poems in the AVBOB Poetry Library!) Slowly, without realising it, your inner ear will learn to listen for the particular rhythm of each poem, including your own. It is fascinating to observe how your own work changes when you read your poems aloud to yourself.

4) Go gently, then break the rules

Learning how to be your own best editor requires a firm, yet gentle, touch. Ultimately though, if you want to be published, accept that you will need professional editing. Choose your editor with care, as writing poetry takes immense courage. You will learn when to stick to your voice, and when to acknowledge that you cannot be objective about your own writing. You never know when the electricity will crackle from your words into someone else’s brain, thus creating that moment of sharing and synchronicity. To do this, you will sometimes have to break the rules!

Follow the AVBOB Poetry Competition on social media for announcements of free online workshops. Don’t miss Helen Moffett’s generous, insightful and witty session on editing and publishing your own poetry later this year.

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