The E Project: Take Your Pick (But Choose Wisely)

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

The E Project: Game Plan Notes—Research + Insight

A chat with Kirsten Porter, editor of the upcoming The Collected Poems of E. Ethelbert Miller

Ethelbert. Who is this man really? As a son, brother, husband, father, friend? As poet, writer, literary activist?

Thanks to years of raiding the poetry sections of used bookstores, much of the preliminary research I needed was pulled from my own bookshelves.

Thanks to years of raiding the poetry sections of used bookstores, much of the preliminary research I needed was pulled from my own bookshelves.

I am standing in front of yet another first year college composition class. Most of my twenty students just graduated from high school and are learning lessons that are crucial to their survival in college and life beyond: Yes, ramen noodles can explode in the microwave. No, it is not a good idea to wash a red t-shirt with a load of whites. This is a time of information overload. How can I explain all the details of their first essay assignment and still convey to them that writing can be enjoyable.

I go over the essay requirements. I talk about thesis statements and supports, tense-switching, using parenthetical citations. I repeat the sentence “your essay must be at least 5 pages” in case they missed it the first time because they were texting under their desk. And then I throw in a warning:

“Plagiarizing is punishable by death in my classroom.”

“Any questions?”

Silence. Even the girl texting heart emoticons to her boyfriend has stopped to look up. I am instantly aware that I have failed to be encouraging and inspiring. I change tactics.

“I know it seems overwhelming, but I promise the writing process can be fun. If you follow a few basic steps, your paper won’t feel like something you have to do, but rather something you enjoy doing. Start by doing some research so that you get to know the topic you have chosen. Next, join the conversation—what can you say about your topic that hasn’t been said before? Finally, write your paper by blending the research you found with your own unique insight.”

I decided to take my own advice when I signed on as editor of The Collected Poems of E. Ethelbert Miller.

  1. Do some preliminary research. This was two-fold for me. I began by researching other books of collected poems. I was especially interested in looking at the arrangement of the collections. Just a few of my considerations: What parts of the book (preface, intro, bib, etc.) did the editor include? Regarding ordering, should I put acknowledgements at the beginning or end? Should the poems come in the order they were written; should I include the dates? On structure, should I create chapters or sections, or should the poems have no containment? I quickly realized there really was no prescribed method for editing a poetry collection. So many choices to make, most of which were simply left to the editor’s discretion. I heard Ethelbert’s voice echo in my ear: “What do you think? You’re the editor.”

Then there was the research on my specific topic—Ethelbert. Who is this man really? As a son, brother, husband, father, friend? As poet, writer, literary activist? I needed to read his eleven books of poetry, his two memoirs, his essays, articles, speeches, and daily blog posts. It was important that I listen to his talks, readings, and interviews. I became familiar with the articles, essays, and literary criticism surrounding his work. At times it was overwhelming; after over 40 years on the literary scene, Ethelbert’s name is everywhere! (Note to self: write a future post on an editor’s challenge to cope with stress and maintain balance.)

  1. Join the conversation. What can I say? Part of my research is based on my experience with Ethelbert as his editor, as his friend. I bring to the job my memories, my stories, my knowledge of the craft, my own perceptions. I knew Ethelbert years before this current project, and we have been in daily email communication for the year-long editing process of the collection. I have talked with him at length about each of the sections of our book, probing the origins of his poems, his beliefs, his language. I have interviewed many of his friends, family, and colleagues. I have a lot to say.
  1. Blend research with your own insight. Ah, this can be tricky, but so much fun. And this is the step I’m currently working on in the project as I write the introduction to the book. Balancing what is known with what I know.

As the editor, I am collector, organizer, proofreader, and reviser. I am researcher and writer. I am storyteller.

Thanks for reading. Next month I’ll tell you the specific choices I made on the structure of the book. How many sections of the book did I create? Hint: more than the number of innings in a standard baseball game!

*Coming Spring 2016: The Collected Poems of E. Ethelbert Miller

The E Project: The First Challenge—Tackling Self-Doubt before You Can Play the Game

A chat with Kirsten Porter, editor of the upcoming The Collected Poems of E. Ethelbert Miller

I’m on the phone with Ethelbert Miller. It’s back in early November, a few weeks after he asked me to edit his book of collected poems. The first day he asked me I was elated. You know that scene in the movie Singing in the Rain when Gene Kelly is so over-the-moon in love that he shrugs off his umbrella and dances through the street in the middle of a downpour? No matter that his smart-looking suit is getting soaked, that he risks catching a cold only a miserable week of tissues and chicken soup would remedy. He is bursting with good news; the consequences of rain are of no concern. Yes, that was me. Downright giddy, (I don’t think I’ve ever used that word to describe me and probably will never use it again). Really, there was still rain all around me…a stack of never-ending essays to grade, a vet bill for a doggie dental that made my own dental bill look cheap, oh…and an upcoming appointment for a root canal on that left molar I could no longer pretend was just a little toothache. But in that first moment I had just been asked to edit a book of poetry, I was Gene Kelly-Singing-in-the-Rain exuberant. Editing, poetry, my dear friend Ethelbert—this was cause for joy. And then it rained a different kind of storm. Several weeks of rain. Not real rain. Not even the rain of life’s expected bills and unexpected flat tires. This was the kind of rain that falls when you let your self-doubt get the best of you.

Why are we so hard on ourselves? So many of my artist friends—writers, dancers, singers—are so full of self-doubt. We are the first ones to rain on our own parades. As much as I wanted this editing job and appreciated being asked, I let myself only have one moment of song before I sat down in the rain and asked myself, but why would a writer want me for their editor? Surely there were others in Ethelbert’s circle with an eye for what looks good on the page and an ear for what sounds aesthetically pleasing. Certainly he had a colleague who could run circles around me when asked to speak on issues of race, jazz and spiritual music, loneliness and discontent—all of which can be found in Ethelbert’s poetry. But he chose me. What could he have possibly seen in me?

“Because you have something no one else has, a voice and discernment that he is looking for to ensure his work is well-represented,” a Marymount colleague and mentor told me when I finally confessed to her what was bothering me. I was restless, skeptical, downright irritable. My self-doubt had taken up a membership at Gold’s Gym and was building some major biceps. And then she added this, “You just don’t see what Ethelbert sees in you. Maybe that’s the problem. Start seeing yourself the way he sees you. He’s a pretty sharp guy. Trust that he made the right choice by choosing you.”

Which brings me back to that phone call. It had been a few weeks since Ethelbert asked me to edit his book of collected poetry. I had some time to process it all. After weeks of sitting in the rain without an umbrella, telling myself I was the wrong choice, I had stopped for a moment to let the words of my mentor soak in. And then a break in the rain. I stood up, soaked and grinning, maybe I was the right choice. And then I started devising a game plan for the book.

Hello, Ethelbert? I was hoping you had a minute to talk about the book.

I had a vision for his collection, but I wanted to run my ideas past him. No point in developing a game plan for the book if he wanted something completely different. So as the Queen of Multi-Tasking, I held my cell phone in one hand and four dog leashes in the other and walked the stretch of road that extended for a block of quiet houses and well-manicured lawns. While my dogs took their afternoon walk, I told Ethelbert some of my plan.

Poet & Editor, a good match

“Well, what do you think? You’re the editor.”

Ready to hear about my game plan? Join me next month and we’ll start talking about developing the vision for a book of collected poems and breaking down a game plan into manageable tasks.

*Coming Spring 2016: The Collected Poems of E. Ethelbert Miller