James Engelhardt | A poet with an editor’s lens

Guest blogger James Engelhardt will be participating in Poetry Solstice next week in Anchorage. It’s a celebration of three poets and their new work. Please join us for readings by James Engelhardt, Peggy Shumaker, and Erin Coughlin Hollowell on Tuesday, June 19 at The Writer’s Block Bookstore and Café in Spenard. The reading begins at 7 pm, and the poets will be available for a signing afterwards. 

I remember my first packet of submissions I read for Prairie Schooner. I was in a small office on the third floor of a long, low building, carefully considering each poem in each envelope, which will give you a sense of how long ago it was. I think I turned down almost all of them. Then, when I was at home at my desk and able to turn to my own work, I realized as I flipped through my own pages that I would reject all the poems I was working on.

As writers, we are frequently given the advice to “write better” if we’re going to get published. Not entirely helpful advice, but it is the phrase that came to mind when I sat down with my own poems that day and stared at the window at the old boxelder tree in the yard. I recognize that moment—when I could see my own work with a new set of filters—as one of the great gifts of becoming an editor.

There are other benefits to being an editor who writes. The first is that I understand better than most what it means for an author to send their work to you. I know the anxious feeling of sending work out, even if the practice has changed to clicking “submit” on Submittable. I know the feeling of being rejected, staring at the email in the inbox. And, when the stars align, I know the joy of having work accepted.

I also know that if an editor is interested in my work, they are never faking that interest. The secret about editors is that we tend to fall in love with the work that we like that passes across our desks. We find rejection difficult, if the work is at least promising. We are devoted to finding new work and new voices, and so we want to be thrilled and delighted every time we look at a new stack of poems, a fresh essay, an unread story.

Because of that excitement for the work, editors offer feedback and requests for revisions that are always in the service of improving the work, and I am glad to know that as a writer. As an editor, I always want to collaborate to make a piece better. I can offer my own insights—my distance from the origins of the work, my filters and experience—and I trust the author to know the poem, story, essay, or book better than I do.

The relationship between author and editor is complicated, but working together should be dynamic and fulfilling as the writing gets refined and polished. That small office and tall boxelder are both far in the past, now, but I still feel grateful to have a seat on both sides of the desk.

James Engelhardt’s poems have appeared in the North American Review, Hawk and Handsaw, Terrain.org, Painted Bride Quarterly, Fourth River and many others. His ecopoetry manifesto is “The Language Habitat,” and his first book, Bone Willow, is available from Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press. He is an acquisitions editor at the University of Illinois Press.

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