Posted in Poet's Piece

The Joys and Frustrations of Editing, by Celia Warren

Celia Warren lives in the very south of England. We have some things is common –  we both like dogs and I also happen to know Celia likes writing poems about worms, in fact she has written an entire book about them. Celia Warren’s poems have appeared in hundreds of anthologies. But she is not only a children’s poet – she also writes teaching materials for children and edits children’s poetry anthologies. I thought it would be interesting to hear about being a children’s poetry anthologiser/editor from the point of view of a poet, and Celia has kindly written all about it.

From the minute I was old enough to enjoy words and their rhythms I have loved poetry. I attribute this initially to my mother, who would frequently recite or read poems to me. Often she read from poetry collections by single poets, such as A A Milne’s When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. Just as often she would read me verses from a wonderfully fat book called The Book of a Thousand Poems. I now own that very book and still turn to it to read old favourites. It wasn’t a single poet’s collection, it was an anthology – that is to say it contained poems by lots of different writers.

As time went by I continued to enjoy reading poetry in many different styles, old and modern, traditional and new, rhyming and non-rhyming, some written in English, some translated from other languages. And the more I read, the more I began to write my own poems. I now have shelves full of poetry collections and anthologies, for adults and for children – in many of which my own poems appear.

I am a collector. But where some people might collect stamps or ornamental hedgehogs (as I did once upon a time), I collect poems. I do this for my own pleasure. Over many years I collected poems about worms – diverse takes on the little earthworm penned by a wide range of poets. No publisher was interested in printing a book of worm poems, until I produced a book of poems about worms that were aimed at younger children and all by me! It involved writing the poems and then editing them. That is, I had to choose which to keep and which to drop; which needed revising and tweaking, and which order to put them in my book. At last it was finished: to my delight Don’t Poke a Worm till it Wriggles was published by Bloomsbury.

That is one kind of editing – picking and choosing and tweaking my own writing. But I had already experienced the joy of another kind of editing – that of compiling collections of poems by lots of different authors: anthologies. These delicious opportunities arrived like buses – two came along at once. I was in my seventh heaven! First, I had already collected dozens of poems about birds – again, this was for my own pleasure. It was when I thought I’d like to share the collection that my anthology grew. The subject matter broadened from birds to British wildlife in general. Now I had even more poems to choose from! I wanted my collection to appeal to families – grown ups and children. I wanted it to appeal to readers who lived in cities as well as those who lived in the country. I wanted to include old favourites, by poets no longer living, and I wanted to include new poems from poets very much alive and rhyming. That’s a lot of ‘wants’! I needed balance.

Finding balance

The hardest part of being an editor or anthologist – a chooser of content – isn’t deciding what poems will appear in the finished book; it’s deciding which poems to leave out. That is difficult. For instance, one of my favourite poets, Walter de la Mare, wrote dozens of poems about birds and about lots of other wildlife. If I put all of his poems in my anthology, I should upset the balance, so inevitably I had to decide to leave out a lot of his lovely poems. The same applied to many other poets’ works, some author friends, some poets I’d never met. Finally, when I had my collection and its ‘running order’ sorted, the publisher’s editor also suggested a couple of poems that she thought should appear. I loved them both and totally agreed to include them.

Of course, new poems are being written every day, and I come across old poems that I’ve not read before. Inevitably, I find myself thinking how well this or that would have fitted in to the finished book, but there would not have been room for more in my RSPB Anthology of Wildlife Poems. In this book, the ‘icing on the cake’ came with the illustrations. Every page had illustrations, largely provided by the best wildlife artists in the country – members of the Royal Society of Wildlife Artists. Illustrations are broadly chosen by the publisher, but I did have my say, too, and was thrilled with the end result.

Meanwhile (remember, I was compiling two books at once!), another book was developing. All anthologies need a theme to hold the poems together. I had the idea of using lines from a famous biblical verse, which appears in the book of Ecclesiastes, as “pegs” on which to hang poems. It begins,

There is a time for everything
And a season for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born
And a time to die
A time to plant
And a time to pull up

… and so it continues, ending with the lines

A time for war
And a time for peace.

It all began with a poem from my over-fifty-year-old copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous collection A Child’s Garden of Verses – and the poem, Keepsake Mill – “A time to keep”! Yes, again, this anthology began life simply for my personal satisfaction. Then, at last, I was able to share my favourites with others when publisher Schofield and Sims agreed to print my anthology, together with a teacher’s book, giving ideas of how to enjoy the poems in the classroom and in school assemblies. It became a huge project, and ended up with 100 poems. I started with lots of ideas of poems I wished to include, but now I had the added task of finding poems to hang on some of the trickier pegs. It was a labour of love! And I fervently hope that among so many poems, every child (or adult) who dips into the anthology will find at least a few poems that they enjoy. Oh – and the irony of the collection, that typifies the frustrations that interrupt the joy of compiling – the poem that had been the start of my collection had to be left out. Not unreasonably, the publisher pointed out that I’d already chosen this poem to use in another of their books, aimed at the same market, so they wanted to avoid duplication. Fair enough, but sad for me!

Joys and frustrations

An anthology of poetry is better than a box of chocolates. Its pleasure lasts forever. You can dip into a lovely anthology again and again, rereading old favourites and finding others that you missed first time around. My mother’s Book of a Thousand Poems that brought pleasure to my mother during her lifetime, I continue to enjoy in my lifetime and, one day, I shall pass it on to my children.

The titles of my anthologies were agreed, with the publisher having the final say, or in the case of the wildlife anthology, the charity that was supposedly advocating the book. Sadly, it is not the title I should have picked and works to the detriment of sales, particularly as said charity promotes it not one iota. Frustrating! Set against that, each of my anthologies had a foreword written by prestigious poets – former poet laureate, Andrew Motion, and poet for grown-ups and children, Wendy Cope. Joy!

Meanwhile, my reading and collecting hasn’t stopped. Already I have a number of ideas for future anthologies. The only problem is … finding a publisher willing to finance their publication. A compiler, however enthusiastic and experienced, however willing to spend however long is required to achieve perfection, is limited to a budget. That’s never going to change. But if you love collecting poems – then you, too, are an anthologist, even if your personal selection remains for your own pleasure. Never stop reading – in English and translation; old and modern. It’s a joy for life!

© Celia Warren 2017

The following are anthologies and collections edited by the poet:
Don’t Poke a Worm till it Wriggles – Bloomsbury
The RSPB Anthology of Wildlife Poems – Bloomsbury
A Time to Speak and a Time to Listen – Schofield and Sims, hardback 
A Time to Speak and a Time to Listen – Schofield and Sims, paperback
The accompanying Teacher’s Guide: ISBN 978 07217 1206 2

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Author:

Poet and owner of Lola the alert dog. Author of Animal Magic, poems and scientific facts about wildlife. I visit schools, libraries, literary festivals, and organise poetry events.

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