From manuscript to proof to print

What surprised me in this process of putting a pamphlet together was the amount of work that would go into the stage between manuscript submission and the signing off of the final proof. It happened over over a week to ten days, by the end of which I worried I had really annoyed the production manager, Suzannah, and the type-setter/designer, Keith, beyond repair. Maybe I now had the reputation as one of those people, those difficult customers that the Poetry Business would not want to work with again, those poets that make endless changes, the type of tiny back-and-forth amendments that send you round the bend, the slight modifications that drive other people crazy.

After I found out I’d won in early March, I opened up the Word document and the self-doubt crept in. I re-read the poems and thought: really? I closed the document. But then a fortnight later came the chance to review the manuscript and identify potential changes, and discuss them with Peter Sansom over the phone and by email. I remember I was stuck in a budget hotel in Luxembourg as I finished the edits and then spoke to Peter by phone from Paris. Thankfully, we were ‘on the same page’ as to many of my own suggestions. We went through the poems one by one, sometimes line by line, and tweaked in the odd place. All this felt like a valuable ‘tightening’ up process. Getting rid of flab to makes the poems as lean as possible.

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The first proof came through and well, anything is reassuring in PDF, isn’t it? You could print a shopping list, or an invoice for widgets in PDF, and it would look beautiful. PDF can makes poems poetic. There’s a wondrousness to it, that glossy scrollability. Without all that haphazard Word underlining in red and green virtual ink, when the computer is constantly doubting you, the proof looks sort-of-certain. Not bowl mixture, but a half-baked cake on the page, all formatted and typeset in the distinctive Smith Doorstop house style. My poems actually looked quite convincing.

But that’s when the close-up work began. Thinking back on this process, there were a number of things that cropped up:

1) Long lines and the page

One of the poems (‘Angle End’) contained long lines which meant the poem, when it was type set, ran over onto three pages. Leaving the poem to run to three pages was of course an option (and could have been a bold statement), allowing me to add in some extra lines I’d previously culled, but I decided to cut it back. This meant further editing the content of the idea-lines to fit them on just one or two page-lines, but also removing some of the weaker or least favourite idea-lines. I realised, and reassured myself, while doing this last-minute editing, that the poem in the pamphlet would be but a ‘version’ of the poem, not necessarily the definitive version. Maybe in future the poem will have extra lines, or longer lines, or even appear as a poem in one or more parts (I, II, III etc). Here, the page set-up and the margins determined the shape, and to some extent, content of the poem.

2) Juxtapositions

At three pages, the poem has knocked out all my left-right poem juxtapositions. Taking the poem back to two pages enabled me to restore how I had intended each poem to talk to the other across the page. It meant I went back and reassessed the conversations the poems were having with each other. As a series of poems, I tried to ensure the poems segued through an image, idea or word. For example; ‘coffin’ (‘Wake Up And’) and then the reference to an undertaker (‘Arrangements’); or ‘a secondary school in London’ (‘Angle End’) and ‘you are going in London?’ (‘Gare du Midi’); or ‘especially at night’ (‘Cab’) and ‘on clear nights’ (‘Telescope’); or ‘together on mute’ (Ashby-de-la-Zouch’) and then the title of the next poem that conveys a noisy interruption (‘Two Tannoys’), the latter being a poem I had originally wanted to include but couldn’t because of the 24 page maximum for the manuscript in the competition. Juxtaposition was also about ensuring variation across the page in terms of different shapes and forms. In most places I achieved this but would have liked further spacing/variation early on between ‘Arrangements’ and ‘Angle End’, where the double page is too crowded.

3) Double-page poems

Three of the 23 poems are double-pagers. I played with the idea of double-page spreads, which would mean the poem was all there at a glance, and which would aid photocopying. But I realised that I don’t like to see a poem across a double-page and that this would probably put me off reading it. The risk with two-pagers, I felt, knowing my own laziness and short attention span is that the reader would scan and skim read but not read closely. I’d be intimidated by the length and ask myself if I could be bothered. I realised that I wanted the reader to have to turn the page as they continued reading, so that they were actively engaging with the poem, wanting to read on, and at their own pace, i.e. the poem as physical paper object and the reading of the poem as a manual (digital in its truest sense) activity. So in the end, all three of my double pagers start on a right-hand page and finish over the page, on the left. Others may prefer otherwise.

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4) The end page

I knew I really wanted the last poem to be on a left-hand page, with a blank page opposite. I think that spatially and aesthetically this is quite important, as it signals and pre-empts a kind of close-down as you turn those last pages of the book. In your field of vision you are conscious of the white page over to the right saying ‘hey, this is the last poem over on my left, so read it slowly, read it well, this is all for now.’ I wanted the reader to savour that last page of print. And likewise, to be rewarded by the beauty of the blank. Also, a poem on a right-hand page nearly always leads to disappointment because you turn over and there’s nothing there. A left-hand page poem comes with a white cushion to soften the blow.

5) Blank pages

The pamphlet is printed in multiples of four, and I sought to ensure that there was a whole page (right and left sides) completely blank after the last poem. I think this is important in terms of the physicality of the book. Those last two blank pages act as a kind of paper buffer between the body of the book and the outer skin. They’re a kind of epidermis that insulates the poems, protects them even from the gloss of the cover and the outside world. They’re like insulation. I don’t like seeing a last poem on a left hand page and then immediately the back of the cover, there’s something tragic about it – it’s as if the author spent years working on something so precious and meticulous to be shared and given away (which is itself intimate, delicate and full of risk), but didn’t give appropriate thought as to how best to wrap it to ensure the poems travel safely. Poems shouldn’t be short-changed but bubble-wrapped.

6) Ethics

It was only after I won, realising that these poems would actually be going out there into the world, that I started worrying about who might read them, and to what extent – in a series of poems featuring people inspired from real life – my poems, though intended to be serious and comical at times – might offend. Even though it is all very innocent, I am a worrier, like my ‘colonels who had kittens’ (‘The Seventies’). But I comforted myself with the knowledge that nobody actually reads poetry. I asked my uncle, who also writes poetry, what he thought and he said he would be very wary of including real names. I felt he was right. So I ended up chopping and changing the names in some poems (though particularly ‘Angle End’) so that the characters became fictional. It meant I could retain the sound-flavour of the original names, but mix them up and appropriate them to other people. The names have been changed to protect the villagers.

7) Language and repetition

It was only through looking at the series of poems again and again and again that I realised how some words repeated themselves, sometimes across the page even. There was a blue seat (Round the Block) and a blue swimming float (Managing a Width), and so ‘blue’ became ‘thick’ in the final version, and for the betterment (‘k’ sounds) of the poem. Likewise ‘hang around ‘(The Seventies’) was repeated across the page (‘Those People’) and so ‘hang around’ became ‘hover’, again to the benefit of the poem. Of course, the repeat occurrence of words is not a problem in itself, but I felt that when there are two poems alongside each other, left and right, that they should vary as much as possible in terms of vocabulary/word fields.

8) Mood and tone

My poems are light and dark, funny and serious, with some things said, other left unsaid. A mix of narrative and lyrical, with sound and experiment. After a playful opening, come a few serious poems that dabble with death. But then the games begin and there’s some comedy in the mid-section. However, on re-reading the manuscript, I felt it needed to slow down a little and stop joking around. ‘Those People’ provided a transition from funny to sad, leaving behind the comedy and tomfoolery of ‘Two Tannoys’ and ‘The Seventies’. Thereafter ‘Round the Block’ is a serious poem that is in some senses in conversation with the earlier poem ‘Birthday Cards’. The pamphlet needed to stay serious, maybe even bring in some beauty. So I actually decided, even after I’d had the second proof, to add in ‘The Pull’ because it seemed to suggest both the pull of the dog’s leash in the previous poem, but also the pull of adolescence and adulthood, and the draw of foreign places for the boy/narrator in the many of the poems, beginning of course with ‘Roget’. I saw that ‘The Pull’, though lyrical, was experimenting with sound in a way that some of the more experimental poems had done, and as such it would take the reader further into the rural field and provide a further pastoral air, away from the contemporaneity ad urbanism of some of the previous poems. After some raucousness, I wanted to end quietly, and leave the reader with the sense, not of arrival, but of new departure.

So over all, I added in two new poems, which had featured in my other pamphlet submission to the competition. It means the pamphlet contains 11 previously published poems and 12 unpublished, running to 26 pages of poetry. It is odd what I noticed in the end, once the proofs were done: three mentions of rats, three of greetings cards, two of gravel and guests and pickles and jeans and cherry/cherries. Then there are drive ways, pheasants, towers and surely lots of other seemingly random (but subconsciously significant?) things that readers will notice that I have not. Now, to organise some readings.