On Editing, with Robyn Sarah
On Editing is Open Book: Toronto's newest interview series, giving us a chance to explore the other side of the creative process. Editors are invaluable in shaping a book and often reside in the background. So this summer, we are celebrating editors and the editorial process, talking with some of Canada's finest editors about the joys and challenges of the editorial life.
Today we chat with Robyn Sarah, Poetry Editor for Cormorant Books.
Robyn shares with Open Book about what she looks for when acquiring a book, how she balances her editorial work with her own writing and what's up next at Cormorant.
And don't miss the inaugural post in this series with Coach House Books Editorial Director, Alana Wilcox.
Tell us about a project or a particular piece you worked on recently that you really loved.
I love all the books I edit. Literary editing takes serious attention, time and creative energy, and it often comes at the cost of my own writing. I would resent giving these to a book I didn’t think was pretty wonderful. Some publishers have an acquisitions editor for poetry and contract the actual editing to a freelancer. I wouldn’t be happy editing poetry books I hadn’t chosen myself. I both acquire and edit the books for Cormorant’s new poetry line.
What do you look for when you're acquiring a project?
I look for poets who have strongly individual voices, who don’t sound like everybody else (or like anybody else) — if I can find them. And I look for poets who have an ear. These, too, are rarer than one might think.
What do you see as the editor's role in shaping a book, poetry collection or story?
I take my cue from the poet and the manuscript. Some poets want and need a lot of hands-on help from an editor. Others have already done most of the work themselves and just want some fine-tuning, maybe a second opinion on things they’re unsure of. I do like to be involved in selection and sequencing of the poems in a manuscript. And I think it’s important to work with the designer and typographer to make sure that the poems are presented to best effect — we usually go through four or five sets of design proofs before the book goes to the printer. I have written an essay on editing poetry. It appeared originally in The New Quarterly and is reprinted in my essay collection Little Eurekas: A Decade’s Thoughts on Poetry (Biblioasis, 2007). It answers this question in considerable detail.
Tell us about one or two of your favourite editorial experiences, from any point in your career.
I had the privilege of editing compact selections by three of my favourite Canadian poets — George Johnston, Don Coles and Margaret Avison — for The Porcupine’s Quill’s “Essential Poets” series. For many years I had had in mind to put together easily portable personal selections of each of these three — just choosing poems of theirs that felt like touchstones to me, and pasting them up in single-copy handmade booklets for my own use.
Instead I got to see my selections produced in lovely sewn editions by one of Canada’s preeminent book designers (Tim Inkster), each with my own introduction to the work and thumbnail biography of the poet. How lucky is that! These were a labour of love for me. It came about thanks to John Metcalf, who had seen an essay I wrote on the work of George Johnston and proposed me to edit The Essential George Johnston as the inaugural volume of the series.
Fantasy editor moment — of any writer, alive or dead, who would you love to work with?
I don’t have fantasy editor moments.
What are you working on now?
We do four poetry collections a year at Cormorant, all released in the spring. We just launched this year’s four in Montreal last week, and I’m starting editing next year’s, which will include a first poetry collection by Daniel Karasik (recent fiction winner of the CBC Literary Competition) and a second collection by Amanda Jernigan. I’m also still in process of responding to manuscripts and queries for 2014. Juggling this position at Cormorant with my own work as a writer has not been easy, but I keep hoping I’ll get better at it.