A chat with Kirsten Porter, editor of the upcoming The Collected Poems of E. Ethelbert Miller
Choices. Please do not ask me if I want Chinese take-out or pizza. In a crowded movie theater, do not tell me to choose where we will sit. Packing for a trip, I will throw in my suitcase six blouses in different shades of purple and end up wearing only one. I can teach a course on indecisiveness.
But now I must master the art of decision making as editor of a book of collected poems. How do other editors navigate through so many choices? As I mentioned in my previous post, I turn to my own bookshelves for ample research to answer this question. My home office becomes the site of a new building project as I make towers of books—the collected poems of Walt Whitman, Gwendolyn Brooks, C.K. Williams. My floor disappears under a stack of selected works by William Stafford, Maya Angelou, and Dylan Thomas. My Pomeranian narrowly misses knocking over the leaning tower of poems by Elizabeth Bishop, Langston Hughes, and Louise Glück. When I finish building, I begin to research the collections to understand my editorial options.
And then I breathed. For me, the art of decision making for this collected poems project was rooted in the knowledge that there were many choices to make but no set rules for the blueprint of my book. For as many collections as I pored over, no two editors followed the same arrangement. This was a relief—I had freedom to make my own choices. This was a small moment of panic—I had freedom to make my own choices.
So, I began making decisions, one choice at a time. An epigraph to start off the collection? Sure. How about using two? Quotes by artist Andy Warhol and author André Gide were strong openers for Ethelbert’s Collected Poems. Acknowledgements at the beginning or end? Let’s start the book with gratitude, thanking those who have supported this project and are eagerly awaiting its publication. (Note to self: don’t forget to thank your parents here.) And now for the arrangement of the poems.
I had to take special consideration on many of these choices based on the project at hand. With such a large body of poems spanning over forty years of work, I needed to create some organizational features. The book was demanding sections—fourteen sections, to be exact. The first section would be called the Early Poems; this was work dating back to the 1970s when Ethelbert’s career as writer and literary activist was just beginning. These first poems, many of which few readers have seen before, were pulled from Ethelbert’s personal collections and from his archives at the Gelman Library in Washington, D.C. The next twelve sections would be from already published collections, both hard-copy and online publications. The last section would be called the New Poems. Like the early poems, this final assemblage of new poems would be a gift to those familiar with Ethelbert’s work and new readers alike as most of the poems in this section were not published before.
Choices. Many to make, and these were just a few editorial decisions I needed to sift through, weighing out the pros and cons while holding tight to the vision I had created for this project with Ethelbert. In the end, maybe I’m not as indecisive as I thought.
Okay, let’s do pizza tonight. Deep dish or thin crust? Which toppings? Extra cheese?
Oh, you decide.
Join me next time for some archive diving. Like Adrienne Rich, we’ll go “diving into the wreck.” Scuba gear optional!
*Coming Spring 2016: The Collected Poems of E. Ethelbert Miller