Some Thoughts on Editing

I’ve just finished editing slightly more than 60000 words on Singapore English-language poetry. In two weeks, I’ve read and re-read more words written about local lit than I have in the past few years combined. This is for the earlier-mentioned poetry.sg initiative, and I’m very excited to be part of that team. Partially because the local academy has failed to give as much attention to local writing as I believe it deserves, and partially because I’ve learnt so much about writing and editing through the entire process.

Some things I noticed, which may or may not be significant:

A great many essays talked about poets eschewing national narratives to observe the everyday/quotidian. I suspect this is in part Arthur Yap’s influence, although I think his work does talk about national concerns, just not in the same way as, say, Edwin Thumboo.

On the other hand, some essays talked about nothing but national narratives, and whether their poet was writing towards or against them.

Our ‘scene’ is growing very fast. Several of the essays, even the ones I commissioned to be written this year, are already out-of-date because they don’t take into account new work being released at SWF.

Writers were less critical of their poets that I had hoped. In most cases, writers tended to describe what their poet was trying to do, or characterise the body of work. Sometimes, the writer went overboard in praising the poet. Rarely did I see an essay that judged the writing by the poet’s own standards, evaluating which poems or collections realised or failed to realise a vision. We are human too, and write crappy stuff sometimes!

Reading the essays as a whole will give an impression that the scene is very insular. With the exception of one or two essays (for example Angus Whitehead on Wong May), there are very few references to non-Singapore/non-Malayan poetry beyond the throwaway line (e.g. “xxx has said that she is influenced by Wordsworth and Tennyson”) (and references to contemporary poetry are even more scarce).

On the other hand, it seems like we are in fact building a literary ecosystem that can stand on its own feet. Often I come across sources with local poets reviewing and interviewing other local poets, local poets who cite other local poets as mentors, touchstones, and inspirations.

Everything is very electronic. I think at least 2/3 of all secondary sources used are online ones, from QLRS to blogs to old ST articles accessed via Factiva to personal e-correspondence.

Some essays were very ‘academic’. Those I enjoyed reading the most assumed a more literary quality, speaking directly to the reader, holding his/her hand, instead of using jargon and complex phrases in an attempt to impress. My students at Yale-NUS may find this familiar advice.

Some of our essay writers like ending their paragraphs with a quote, usually of the poet in question. Do not do that! Always explain your quotes! Again, very familiar advice.

I now know the MLA format like the back of my hand.

If asked to look at another poorly-formatted “Works Cited” page again, I will hurt someone.

Curious to find out more? Come to the poetry.sg launch!

Hao Guang Tse