Recently, I reached out to six of the most amazing poets on the Nigerian literary scene at the moment: Sillerman Book finalist Nome Emeka Patrick; Brittle Paper Award winner for poetry and author of Sky Raining Fists JK Anowe; the editor and curator of Memento: An Anthology of Contemporary Nigerian Poetry and author of The Arrival of Rain Adedayo Agarau; winner of the 2019—2020 Hellebore Poetry Scholarship Award Michael Akuchie; author of Gospels of Depression Pamilerin Jacob; and CAAPP finalist Wale Ayinla. Considering that editing poetry is not an easy task, I asked them questions on how they edit, how they deal with rejections, and what books they’ll recommend.
What’s the process of editing a poem like for you? Is there a process?
Pamilerin Jacob: For me, the editing process entails a lot of free writing, rephrasing, experimentation with form, letting the poem lie fallow for a while, and reading aloud (to an inanimate object: chair, mirror, or moon). In my poems, half the work is in finding new mental pathways for language to wobble through. And this comes with its own frustrations, which is why I relish the fallow period and free writing sessions. Often, amidst all these, I step away from the computer to go gaze at the banana trees in the backyard, even tracing the leaves with my hands. It helps center myself.
There’s no precise order to the process though, but these are the major components.
Wale Ayinla: Writing is an art, and editing is the disruption of the art. It is the most important, and most tedious, process of making a poem look like the poem it is. Editing involves all senses to be at work. The nose to smell which part should be replaced, the ears to hear a word that does not fit, the eyes to see through the lines, the brain to serve as the blade that opens the poem and puts it back after the writer (editor) chooses to take a break. Editing never ends. It is a continuous process. You edit till the draft reads like a poem. Just like writing is an atmosphere, editing is an atmosphere of chaos. You show no mercy, but pure artistry.
Michael Akuchie: Well, this question happens to be timely. At the moment, I am editing a packet of poems written between January and March this year. The packet contains twenty nine drafts. It’s not safe to address them as poems especially when their direction is highly uncertain. That, my friend, is the purpose of editing. Whenever I have my heart set on editing, I usually have music playing softly in the room. I eat a lot so snacks have to be available. I question the structure of the draft. I visualize what I must have felt, the kind of feeling(s) I harbored as I drafted, and I begin work. Last year, Wale Ayinla, a loving writer friend, showed me how to make the middle line the opening line and vice-versa. He showed me how to make my poem anything I wanted as long as it appeared a perfect fit. Now, while editing, the primary goal is not to check punctuation or spelling mistakes but to make clearer an idea, a line, an expression. I like to think of editing as an activity that pimps the draft and draws out a clean, fluid piece of writing. I am by nature a loner so I don’t have to worry about anyone walking in and disrupting my thought process. The music is my recognized company. Nothing else.
Adedayo Agarau: My editing process is to edit as I write. Not every writer has mastered the concept of patience, to give a work the time it needs. I actually go back to works when they have been rejected. Sometimes, I do not touch them. The miracle of poetry is that it bears witness with our spirit upon perfection.
JK Anowe: Is there? I’m not sure there is, at least not in the conventional sense of the word. I’m not a very deliberate poet. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m deliberate in my reading, whether of books or of the world around me, & there’s a certain level of control I imbibe when I write, or rewrite (I do agree with the person, whoever they’re, that said much of writing is rewriting) but this isn’t at all encompassing, this deliberateness. I call to mind the child-genius in the movie “The Kindergarten Teacher” & how one minute he could be building LEGOs & the next he’s pacing about reciting remarkable poetry that suddened upon him from within himself. I relate to that character because that is how poetry, which is for me something akin to a calling, happens to me. I do not write with a linear stream of consciousness, something I’ve come to refer to as “Schizo-Poetry”, i.e. moving rapidly from one thought process or train of thought to another without finishing or expanding on the one prior. And because my work is obsessed with the existential as it relates to the psyche, to the self & everything else outside & between, not to mention my own struggles with mental illness, it seems rather appropriate, doesn’t it, this unlineal rendition of my thought process? Which is to say, most times, the editing is in the writing, the editing is just as continuous as the writing itself. I spend months making notes & waiting to stumble on that junction where language meets experience. And since I’m primarily an autobiographical poet, much of my writing, & rewriting, is accomplished in waiting; long, sometimes tiresome bouts of waiting.
Nome Emeka Patrick: I believe editing has a process. Normally, editing can be a conscious examination of the syntax, semantics, and aesthetic flaws of a poem. I think one of the steps towards editing, for me, is leaving a draft for a while before going back to it. It helps me identify the loopholes in the form, the style, the tense, the application of metaphor, imagery e.t.c.
Editing, like many say, is hardwork. But for me, it all just depends on what I am working on. Some poems come out just great without changing anything; while some others take a day, a week e.t.c. And, I must add this, some get deleted.
How many times is a piece rejected before you give up on it, or do you keep polishing and sending it out still?
Adedayo Agarau: I don’t know but I think I stop sending a set of poems out once I have new sets. But if I believe in a certain work so much, I will keep sending it out. And yes, rejection sometimes reminds me to polish the work.
Nome Emeka Patrick: Honestly, if I don’t trust a work, I’m never sending it out. One thing I do is send works that have gone through rigorous editorial process. Though, not at all times—especially during contests. I also make simultaneous submissions; it is rare for five different magazines to reject a pack of poems, but when this happens, I know there is something that needs to be done.
I hardly polish rejected poems. Did I send them as drafts? NO. Which means they are already polished works. For instance, my work on POETRY magazine got rejected six times elsewhere. I should have withdrawn it right? But I just felt, a polished work is a polished work. No need polishing what is already polished. The magazine doesn’t like it, that’s why they rejected it.
If a magazine wants your poem, they would accept it. Then they’d point out errors they notice(d) before they go ahead to publish it.
If I believe in a work, I’d keep sending it out.
Michael Akuchie: Well, say four to five times. You must note that different magazines have varying aesthetic tastes and some poems will not find a place, not because they are bad poems but because where they are submitted to isn’t the right place. Editors’ tastes are subjective. Though I tend to revisit a poem if it is rejected four to five times. I tend to look for loopholes, a loose end, something I didn’t quite do justice to. I like to look for what appears to be hidden. It takes patience and wit to deal with some rejections. Especially the ones you were certain to receive an opposite response for.
Pamilerin Jacob: Not going to lie, it depends. Wary of over-polishing, I only ever adjust titles or the poem’s form after a rejection. Rejections are super exhausting, but they also instill endurance. So I don’t really fall out of love with a piece even if it gets rejected multiple times. By the tenth time though, I leave it in the unpublished stash, for the time being.
Wale Ayinla: Writing is subjective, and you cannot determine which journal or editor will love your piece before sending. If only we know, there will be less rejection emails. But it is not so. I believe that most times, rejection of a particular piece doesn’t devalue you or your work. Some journals would even drop several notes and suggestions to make the piece work. For me, the first thing I do after getting a rejection is look back into the batch of poems. I’ll read and read again with an open mind. If it needs a little more polishing, I do that. Art is timeless. Writing is an art.
JK Anowe: I think the day I give up on a poem just because it was rejected by a publisher or literary journal is the day my hands should be severed, albeit figuratively, from writing altogether. And this I can say because I am greatly aware of & have determined the kind of poet I am. I believe to be able to write a poem, one must first become the kind of poet that can write & be worthy of said poem. I mean, most of these journals do not even offer concrete feedback, mostly due to the number of submissions they deal with on a daily basis. They tell you it’s not a good fit & that is that. Now, that’s an awfully sorry reason to give up on a piece, don’t you think?
Recommend some poetry books (you could also include some on writing poetry).
Nome Emeka Patrick: I would always recommend old poets. And these: Memento: An Anthology of Contemporary Nigerian Poetry, edited by Adedayo Agarau; 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, edited by Ebenezer Agu; The January Children by Safia Ehillo; Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar; Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky; Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong; Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds; Unfortunately, it was Paradise by Mahmoud Darwish; There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker.
On writing/understanding poetry: In the Palm of Your Hand by Steve Kowit; The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux; The Art of Daring by Carl Philips; The Sacred Wood by T.S Eliot (I haven’t been able to finish this since I started because of its complexity).
Michael Akuchie: On writing poetry: In the Palm of Your Hand by Steve Kovit; The Art of Daring by Carl Philips; The Poet’s Guide to Life by Rainer Maria Rilke; Long Life by Mary Oliver. Poetry collections: Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic; Chris Abani’s Sanctifictum; Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf; Logan February’s Garlands.
Pamilerin Jacob: Ok, I think these are lovely lovely books: Red Bird by Mary Oliver; Memento: An Anthology of Contemporary Nigerian Poetry, edited by Adedayo Agarau; The Heresiad by Ikeogu Oke; The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief & Healing, edited by Kevin Young; Here is Water by ‘Gbenga Adeoba; The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets by Ted Kooser; The Arrival of Rain by Adedayo Agarau; Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke.
Wale Ayinla: Letters to a Young Poet by Reina Maria Rilke and A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver. When it comes to books that I like and return to often: Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong; Kingdom Animalia by Aracelis Girmay; Bestiary by Donika Kelly; Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky; Pastoral by Carl Phillips—among others.
Adedayo Agarau: My current read is Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic, which is an amazing read. Gripping, urgent, yet subtle in the way it drives you through.
JK Anowe: Contemporarily, I return to Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf and Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds. These books, especially the latter, literally saved my poet life. I’ve been reading the works of Franz Wright (and also the works of his father, James Wright), currently on his Pulitzer-winning collection, Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, & it is nothing short of glorious. I love Hala Alyan’s The Twenty Ninth Year, she’s such a wise poet, & everything by Ilya Kaminsky. I think every poet should be a disciple of Mary Oliver. Any poet who can capture language at the barest minimum as she did is a genius. She was a genius. Less contemporarily, I’m obsessed with Rilke, The Complete Works of Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel & Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil) which I was introduced to in my undergraduate years studying French. As for books on writing, there were aspects of Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer that I found helpful, even though it limited its scope to prose writing. Carl Phillips, whose style of poetry I greatly admire, has a wonderful book, The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination, on the craft of writing poetry. Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry was and is still a wonderful read. Finally, Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous are prose works that I return to for their elevation of language.
You’ll definitely enjoy reading:
JK Anowe, Igbo-born poet, is author of the poetry chapbooks Sky Raining Fists (Madhouse Press, 2019) and The Ikemefuna Tributaries: a parable for paranoia (Praxis Magazine Online, 2016). He’s a finalist of the 2019 Gerard Kraak Award. He lives and writes from somewhere in Nigeria.
Wale Ayinla is a Nigerian poet, essayist, and editor. He is a Best of the Net and Best New Poets Award nominee, and his works appear or are forthcoming on Guernica, Ruminate Magazine, McNeese Review, Waccamaw, Poet Lore, Palette Poetry, and elsewhere. In 2019, he was a finalist for the Brittle Paper Award for Poetry, and his manuscript, Sea Blues on Water Meridian was a finalist for the inaugural CAAPP Book Prize. He is @Wale_Ayinla on Twitter.
Michael Akuchie is an emerging interviewer/poet of Igbo-Esan descent who lives and studies in Lagos and Benin-City, Nigeria, respectively. He is a final year undergrad of English and Literature in the University of Benin, Nigeria. Michael is a recipient of the 2020 Roadrunner Review Poetry Prize and The 2019-2020 Hellebore Poetry Scholarship Award for his chapbook manuscript, “Wreck”, forthcoming Fall/Winter 2020.
Adedayo Agarau’s chapbook, Origin of Names, was selected by Chris Abani and Kwame Dawes for New Generation African Poet (African Poetry Book Fund), 2020. He is a human nutritionist, documentary photographer, and author of two chapbooks, For Boys Who Went & The Arrival of Rain. Adedayo was shortlisted for the Babishai Niwe Poetry Prize in 2018, Runner up of the Sehvage Poetry Prize, 2019. Adedayo is an Assistant Editor at Animal Heart Press, a Contributing Editor for Poetry at Barren Magazine and a Poetry reader at Feral. His works have appeared or are forthcoming on Glass Poetry, Mineral Lit, Ice Floe, Ghost City, Temz, Linden Avenue, Headway Lit, The Shore Poetry, Giallo and elsewhere. Adedayo was said to have curated and edited the biggest poetry anthology by Nigerian poets, Memento: An Anthology of Contemporary Nigerian Poetry. You can find him on Twitter @adedayo_agarau or agarauadedayo.com.
Pamilerin Jacob is a Nigerian poet whose poems have appeared in _Barren Magazine, Agbowó, Poetry Potion, Ghost City Press, Elsieisy, Feed Lit Mag, Rattle_ & elsewhere. He was the second runner-up for _Sevhage Poetry Prize 2019_, co-winner _PIN Food Poetry Contest 2018_. His poems also appear in _Memento: An Anthology of Contemporary Nigerian Poets, 2020_. Author of the chapbook, _Gospels of Depression_; he is a staunch believer in the powers of critical thinking, Khalil Gibran’s poetry & chocolate ice-cream. Reach him on Twitter @pamilerinjacob.
Nome Emeka Patrick is a blxck bxy; he graduated from University of Benin, Nigeria, where he studied English Language and Literature. His works have been published or forthcoming in POETRY, Poet Lore, Black Warrior Review, Strange Horizons, The Malahat Review, Beloit poetry journal, The FIDDLEHEAD, Notre Dame Review, Puerto Del Sol, McNeese Review, FLAPPER HOUSE, Gargouille, Crannóg magazine, Mud Season Review, The Oakland Review, Up the Staircase Quarterly and elsewhere. A Best of the Net, Best New Poets, and Pushcart prize nominee. His manuscript ‘We Need New Moses. Or New Luther King’ was a finalist for the 2018 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. He writes from Lagos, Nigeria.