On Editing Americans

Editing poetry is a curious business.

Some publications state that they reserve the right to make typographical and other minor changes to published work without referring back to the author. I disagree with that. At Algebra I always refer back any proposed changes to the poet for their approval. Why? Because what I might consider to be a mistake may have been intentional.

Particularly this is true with things like capitalisation of lines and of proper nouns. My gut instinct is to capitalise all proper nouns in accordance with the normal rules, and not capitalise the start of every line unless there has been an end-stop. However, I would always want to give a poet the opportunity to say to me, no, I am aware that breaks the rules but it was not a mistake, it was deliberate (ideally with an explanation of why they chose to break the rules).

It’s possible I won’t like it because I don’t think what they were trying to do with that thing works, which may affect my impression of the poem and whether I want to publish it. But it’s up to them if it is deliberate, and up to me whether I think it is successful.

To give an example, I published a poem with an ampersand in it. It was the only symbol character used in the poem, so I therefore felt it to be a bit out of place. I suggested changing it to ‘and’ along with a few other minor amendments. The other changes he was happy with, they were just errors he had made, but he wanted the ampersand left in as it was deliberate, and just part of his style. That was good enough for me. I still liked the poem.

I also think it is OK to make up new words, as long as the meaning is clear.

Now, here is the tricky part. I accept submissions from anywhere as long as the poems are written in English. So that includes submissions from:

  • The UK
  • The USA and Canada
  • Anywhere else, where English may not be the poet’s first language.

Generally it is an Editor’s job to pick up on and try to correct spelling mistakes. I am sure you see the problem. If I get a poem from someone in Basingstoke which follows the spelling of ‘English’ English, then ‘color’ is a spelling mistake. I should point it out and ask to correct it.

If I get a poem from Philadelphia written with uniformly American spellings, then ‘colour’ is a spelling mistake and should perhaps be corrected. As long as there is internal consistency, that’s the thing.

What if I get a poem from, say, India, which is a mish-mash of English and American spellings? Should I just leave it, on the basis that English is their second language and their knowledge of the English language is perhaps necessarily and understandably an amalgam of American and British usage? What if I got that same poem from an American? Should I then suggest that the whole thing be re-cast as either purely American or British spellings?  

Differences are not just limited to spelling. There is a huge difference between the standard use of quotation marks in American and British writing. I admit that I flinch when I see American punctuation, but if it is ‘correct’ according to American usage, should it be left? Would it be wrong to shift to British punctuation rules in a poem written with American spellings?

Ultimately I have to take it on a case by case basis. I can either print a poem exactly as written, or if I want to change something refer it back to the poet for their agreement with an explanation of the changes I want to include. They can say yes or no. When dealing with international submissions written in a supposedly common language, it is hellishly difficult to come up with and apply hard-and-fast rules and approaches.


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