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Is There a Poet in the House? The Publishing House, That Is

by Alice Day

When Lindsay Edgecombe was studying at Barnard, she was an editor at The Columbia Review. A year out of school, Lindsay is an enthusiastic editorial assistant at Levine Greenberg Literary Agency. Although working in publishing wasn't a life-long calling—not like "the feeling of knowing that I wanted to write," she admits—there's no doubt she's passionate about her work. A number of her friends, also poets, who toiled along side her at Columbia University's literary journal are, as well, working in publishing, among them Alex Young at Overlook Press and Sal Robinson at Harcourt. Poets have historically been attracted to publishing. Not only are there an unusually high percentage of poets who work in the front lines of book publishing, but poets such as James Laughlin, Laurence Ferlinghetti (who was recognized this year by the National Book Award), Douglas Messerli, and Matthew Zapruder founded publishing houses. Many, many more poets are editors of literary journals. And there are numerous poets, such as myself, who no longer work for publishing houses and have become independent editors, working directly for writers or hired by publishers as book doctors.

After graduating from the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop, Jill Bialosky1, poet and editor at W.W. Norton, considered going on the academic job market as many MFA candidates do, but as she hadn't yet published a collection of poetry, she didn't believe that trying for an associate professorship was realistic. She was right: today there are one hundred fifty-four schools that award creative writing MAs; one hundred and nine schools that grant MFAs, and forty-two that offer PhDs2. With so many young, talented poets and fiction writers armed with terminal degrees, the odds are very slim of being hired for a full-time teaching position fresh out of graduate school. Bialosky knew that she wanted to work with books, stick close to the word. She decided to try for a position in publishing as a way to keep her writing life afloat. She was hired as an editorial assistant working for Starling Lawrence and Carol Houck Smith at W. W. Norton. Today she is a Vice President and Executive Editor at the company. As an intern at the Ohio Review when Bialosky was still an undergraduate, she remembers her initial response to seeing piles of envelopes filled with poetry and fiction. Bialosky recalls recognizing that the texts sent to the literary journal were "inscriptions of heart, mind, and imagination waiting to connect to a reader." She viscerally understood the profound relationship and trust that exist between writer and editor, and she immediately took seriously the responsibility attached to publishing endeavors.

Deborah Garrison2, poet and editor at Pantheon, similarly to Bialosky, first ventured into publishing prior to graduating from college. She knew even before she began working at the New Yorker—a distinguished career that started in the "typing pool" as summer help—that "the magazine must be a place where the mysterious business of good writing was transacted" and she wasn't at all disappointed when she'd see the "rarefied personalities and talents who roamed the halls and smoked in their little offices." For her "it was the beginning of a love affair with editorial life and particularly with the magazine." After graduating, Garrison accepted a full-time position and soon became, then editor-in-chief, Robert Gottlieb's assistant. From the start, Garrison felt right at home at the New Yorker. She was promoted to work in the fiction department; and under Tina Brown and David Remnick she was appointed fiction and nonfiction editor. Five years ago Garrison was invited to join Knopf and Pantheon.

For Garrison, the transition between editing magazine articles and books was not as thorny as one might imagine. Editing is editing, Garrison feels, though, "what's very, very different between the two is that as a magazine editor [she] never had to think in terms of the marketing of a certain project—whatever [she] did went into the magazine and was sold as part of that larger package. Each book, however, is its own little business proposition, with its own profit and loss and its own unique possibilities and problems." Although Garrison loved her work at the magazine, she is pleased to be learning something new and she is still, every day, learning "about what we can do to help the books we love."

Bialosky grew attached to editorial life, also, though for her it was not love at first sight. She describes her early encounters with publishing as flirtations, which have developed over twenty years into a devoted and passionate marriage. Unlike Garrison, Bialosky was not convinced from the start that she could meld her life as an editor and an artist. She worried that making a living as an editor would not allow her time to write or the downtime that writers sometimes need to enter into the quiet realm where impulses for poems often begin. She questioned whether she "would be able to fully identify as a writer if the world knew [her] as an editor." As Bialosky began to build a list of authors whose work she loved she grew more drawn into the life of an editor—debating with her colleagues about potential projects, discussing book jackets, blurbs, reading tours—the "either / or" conflict that she had struggled with early in her career—what had felt like a double life—resolved itself and Bialosky discovered she was living both as an editor and poet concurrently.

Garrison is a practical, upbeat person, who thrives on the pandemonium of managing a home with kids and working as an editor at two publishing houses. Her poetry is a reflection of everyday demands and she doesn't experience a disconnect between the stuff of her job and that which makes her poetry. She does, though, admit that like most poets, she harbors "an impulse to exist or dream apart from it all." The subjects in Bialosky's poetry are drawn from an interior world and do not necessarily reflect her life as an editor.

My first full-time editing position was at Henry Holt and Company during the publishing house's literary heyday. Michael Naumann was president. "We" were publishing Salman Rushdie, Paul Austor, William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, John Fowles, and so many other brilliant, groundbreaking novelists. There is a glamorous side to publishing. I fondly remember phone conversations with Mr. Gaddis and attending a publishing party for Salman Rushdie. Though finally, what makes editing profoundly meaningful is the day-to-day working on books—the making of books. That's where the true excitement is found. Bialosky agrees. "After all these years in the profession," she says, "I am still filled with awe the day a book arrives from the printer."

The editor acts as a galvanizing force for the manuscript that she acquires for the publishing house, pulling together the strength and support of the various departments, and that's not always an easy job because—editorial, publicity, marketing, sales—everyone who works at the house has seen a lot of books come and go and has witnessed countless financial failures. Everyone at every house knows how tricky the business of publishing is—so it's the editor's job to excite belief. Bialosky says that "As an editor you have to stand behind your convictions. You have to defend your choices—first to colleagues in-house, then to an audience of readers."

I love walking through the Strand Bookstore and passing shelves with books which I've worked on—some that I have edited, some which bear my anonymous jacket copy, and some that I have "transmitted" from manuscript pages to first pass proofs. As an editor I'm in the world with words. It's a behind-the-scenes type of job, unlike the writer whose name is printed on the spine for the world to see. Rarely are readers aware of the editor. Bialosky believes that "the talents one brings as an editor to another writer's text is finally about letting ego go. It's about paying service to the author's vision. And then once the book is edited, positioning the book for an audience." There's a magnificent awe that an editor experiences in having helped an author find his book's true form. I've heard some compare an editor's job to that of a midwife—a fitting comparison, I think.

I wonder if poets have a natural inclination that draws us to publishing, even though at first glance, because of the inward nature of poetry, one might imagine that poets wouldn't be inclined to work toward such worldly pursuits. Poets are wordsmiths. We focus on detail, sound, subtle implication. During her interview, Garrison couldn't help but comment that she "cares, deeply, about individual words, about writing line by line." All poets adore language, and publishing is the place where language is made public. Poets who work in publishing are unmistakably in their element.

The books we write—our thin, soft volumes of poetry—are housed at the far end of the shop, not up front near the entry doors. We involve ourselves in the doings of the heart; we nibble at the margins of the story. I generalize, of course. But I can't help believe for many of us this is true. It's true for me. And yet working with texts that will be housed throughout the bookstore, in all sections—in the front, middle and back—using my skilled eye, ear, and mind for books that are not poetry—political nonfiction, thrillers, and literary novels—is not only personally satisfying but somehow feels morally gratifying.

Why might a poet go into publishing? It seems to me that the word and the world pull at us and it's within the spacious walls of publishing that the word and the world abut. As Ezra Pound, poet and editor wrote, "With one day's reading a man may have the key in his hands." As editors we help make the book that holds the key.

 

1Jill Bialosky is a poet, novelist, and Executive Editor and Vice President at W.W. Norton. Her collections of poems are Subterranean (Alfred A. Knopf, 2001) and The End of Desire (1997). She is also the author of the novel House Under Snow (2002) and co-editor, with Helen Schulman, of the anthology Wanting A Child (1998).

2These statistics are taken from The AWP Official Guide to Writing Programs, compiled in 2004. Some institutions offer more than one type of degree.

3Deborah Garrison is a poet and Poetry Editor of Knopf and Senior Editor of Pantheon. She is the author of the collection of poetry A Working Girl Can't Win: And Other Poems (2000) and The Second Child (2007).

 

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