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Eye to the Poetry Microscope

Eye to the Poetry Microscope

There's a lot more to writing a poem than which words you choose to use. Anything sent out to a magazine or competition has to look right too — yes, there's an irony there, a blind poet, dishing out advice on visual considerations, but the fact that I can't see the visual layout of my work does not excuse me from ensuring it's correct.

In this post I'll share a few of the things that have gone awry with work I've sent out, including things that I've sent out incorrectly and things that editors have changed in a way I didn't spot at the time but which I've later read an not agreed with.

The Funny Side of the Edit

I discovered something just yesterday that made me wince. I wrote a blog post called ‘Does Poetry Rhyme with Retinopathy?,’ in which I talk about my journey into blindness and the effect it has on my poetry writing and performance.

In my submitted document I say, ‘The one thing I didn’t want was to use technology if it was hard for the audience to appreciate the poetry. I didn’t want to be humoured because I’m doing the best I can in the circumstances, I want them to be blown away by the incredible tech we have nowadays.’ The published version went out as ‘The one thing I didn’t want was to use technology if it was hard for the audience to appreciate the poetry. I don’t want to be humorous because I’m doing the best I can under the circumstances. I want everyone to be blown away by the incredible tech we have nowadays.’ humorous and humoured are two very different things — yes, I often do have humorous lines in my poems, but being humoured is a synonym for tolerated, which was what I meant.

A second edit that escaped my notice in that article was at the end, where I include a link to two poems I read at Putney Library. The text accompanying the link was ‘Giles performed at the Putney Library in London in October 2017 where he read one poem from memory and one with a NVDA screen reader’ which makes it sound like my set comprised of two poems! I read for half an hour that day, alternating poems I'd memorised with ones I used my screen reader to perform. It may be that those corrections will be made by the time you read this blog post, but trust me, they were there.

A Sin of Omission

This one was one that I did catch. Nine Arches Press published a fantastic anthology called Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back. I have two poems in there, one being Wandering Eyes, a poem that is in my pamphlet, Dressing Up, which is a modern setting of a story from Greek myth, involving four of the gods, Helios, Aphrodite, Aries and Hephaestus. The first part of my poem starts with a scene from modern life and the Greek gods are dropped into the second half of the poem. The editorial suggestion came back to cut the second half of the poem, whilst leaving the epigram ‘(after Helios)’ intact.

The Greek elements in the poem are an unobserved presence on first reading. It is a poem that works well in performance because I introduce it with a summary of the story and the audience can then pick out the translation into the modern setting. I agreed that, for the purposes of Stairs and Whispers, they could make that edit if they also removed the epigram and, when I explained that the epigram related to the second half of the poem, they were happy for it to remain intact, albeit with a couple of small word changes.

I learned a good lesson from this: just because an editor suggests a change, you do not need to feel obliged to accept it. If you can explain why you prefer one version over another and can make your point calmly and persuasively, an editor may well agree with your preference — editors are, in general, there to work with you, not against you ;)

Eyes on the Prize

I'll share the Wandering Eyes poem with you here, the version that is in my pamphlet and which I read when I'm doing a public performance. So the story features Helios, known as ‘the all-seeing’ because he spies everything as he draws the sun across the sky; Aries, the god of war; Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty; and Hephaestus, god of blacksmiths and metal work. Hephaestus is a deformed god and the gods decided that Aphrodite should be his consort to stop them all squabbling over Aphrodite's beauty. One day Helios spies Aries and Aphrodite in an illicit tryst and he tells Hephaestus. Hephaestus weaves a net of invisibly fine mesh in which to ensnare the lovers and take them back, naked, to mount Olympus where they are a laughing stock.

Wandering Eyes
After Helios
The world, at the extremities of sight
is like a rainbow
superficially flat
a slight curl at the edges
a vain cut to the cloth
songbirds in attendance
keeping dust and fingerprints off.

After all the paths
and the mazes
each one bringing you back
to the world of local councils
obsessing over speed bumps and high hedges
because we like to know what's going on next door
behind the glass and the roses ;
after the pubs,
busy from mid day to moon, turn out at closing
with cold shoulder and a whiff of hops.

Then, tiptoeing obliquely
the kiss of another morning
like the rainbow reborn
high above rock and rubble
in one house can be heard
somebody is snoring
the sharp eye spies a man
shaving back the stubble
a woman applies her face
before lifting the latch
to slip out as the world awakes;
the smell of bread freshly baked
and the fishermen bringing home the catch.
(from Dressing Up by Giles L. Turnbull, published by Cinnamon Press)

The Editorial I

The number of times my surname has morphed from Turnbull to Turnball and, less frequently, Turnbill is fascinating. I was sufficiently curious to Google ‘Turnball’ to find out whether anybody in the world really is called Turnball, and it turns out there is so I don't get quite so wound up about it anymore! ;)

Burglar Bill bounces the baby on his knee.
“So you can talk,” he says, “Say Burglar Bill.”
“Boglaboll,” says the baby.
(from a very old copy of Burglar Bill by Allan and Janet Ahlberg) that my mummy used to read to me)

My surname has been mangled in half a dozen magazine articles and blog posts. I'm always so focussed on typos and line breaks in my actual text that I often overlook the mundane parts like whether my name has been spelled correctly!

Suddenly I see
(Suddenly I see)
This is what I wanna be

Suddenly I see
(Suddenly I see)
Why the hell it means so much to me
(from lyrics to ‘Suddenly I See’ by KT Tunstall on

I also try to be a stickler for my middle initial being included in my poetry publications — it frequently gets left out. I first encountered my alter ego, Giles Turnbull when I worked for the DVLA in Swansea. My section manager told me one morning that she had read and liked my article in one of the Welsh newspapers. I had not published anything anywhere in those days so I was curious who this other Giles Turnbull was. It turns out he writes on computer topics and, at the time, lived fairly close to me, in Bristol I also discovered he produced a small newspaper called Bad Transport Poetry — I only know this from Twitter, there's no results when I search for it now, so it's little surprise that the two of us sometimes get mixed up! When I first asked a web designer to set up my website, she included a link to my Facebook and Twitter accounts at the top of the page. Thankfully I checked them and discovered the Twitter link was to my doppelgänger’s profile!

Typos and Other Traumas

It is also important to address letters and social media comments to a person using the correct spelling of their name. Sighted folk are at an advantage here if they pay attention to what they are reading. For me, names that are spelled in one of two possible ways (including the modern trend for funky spellings) usually sound the same both ways when my screen reader speaks them. I compensate for this by adding one of the variants into my screen reader's dictionary so I hear the following:

  • Gill with a G, compared to Jill which is spoken as, “Jill”
  • Vicki is spoken as “Vicki with an i”
  • Claire is “Claire with an i”
  • Kris is spoken as “Kris with a K,” and similarly for Kristian
  • and the Welsh name Huw is spoken as “Huw with a w”

No, it's unlikely that an editor is going to decline your work simply because you spelled their name wrongly, but you do yourself no favours if you get their name wrong, or worse, don't bother to try and find their name and just stick ‘Dear editor’ or, worse, ‘Dear Sir’ ... my view is that assuming gender or marital status is the cardinal sin.

Canoning into the Margins

Magazines usually expect poets to send in their submissions in Word or PDF format, using a sensible font — Times New Roman 12pt is the norm — and it is always wise to follow those instructions to the t. Once or twice I have noticed a magazine stating that all work should be in the body of the email and emails with attachments won't be opened. When that instruction appears alongside a font / font size preference that puts me in a quandary. I use Gmail in its basic view setting because it cooperates far better with my screen reading software. The basic mode has no formatting controls so I cannot use a specific font or text size, it just gets sent in whatever font and text size Gmail uses by default. The couple of times I've assumed whatever Gmail did would be ok, my poems were not accepted ... next time I think I'll query and make sure Gmail hasn't kicked my work into touch on grounds of incorrect attention to fonts!

Word Processing software can be a nuisance as much as it can be a godsend. The ability to spot typos should be used by default before sending work out anywhere. I run my blog posts like this one through Word for spell checking even though I don't use Word to write the post. Most of my submissions though do get sent in Word format. I made a curious slip in my poem, Pooh Sticks, when it made the shortlist of the Live Canon International Poetry Competition in 2016. It was only when I received my copy of the competition anthology and my dad asked me why my poem was formatted that way did I twig anything was not quite right. Apparently I had managed to fully justify the text, rather than left aligning it as I normally do. That is an easy mistake to make because the shortcut for left aligned in Word is CTRL+l, and if you press CTRL+l again it changes it to fully justified. At that time I wasn't listening to my screen reader going through each line with full formatting being announced so I totally missed this. I have a feeling I once sent out a poem entirely in bold font because I hadn't realised that Word had not turned bold off again after the heading.

The lovely thing about the Live Canon competition is that the poems have to work off the page as well as on. The shortlisted poems are all performed by members of the Live Canon group and, I am told, when I mentioned in passing to Helen Eastman, boss of Live Canon, about my mistake, she told me that the person performing my poem on the awards night had asked whether it needed to be performed a special way to recognise the full justification. I understand the decision was that it didn't need any different form of delivery — a decision I agree with entirely since I did not intend the poem to be fully justified in the first place ;)

So that's my advice: start by proof reading the words to make sure you've caught any typos, but don't forget the framework around the poem — the spelling of your name, your web links and the formatting of your poem.

#Poetry #Editing #Formatting #Typos

Published inblindnessPoetrytechnology

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