Interview by Erin Slomski-Pritz; photography by Alina Rios
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with Bracken’s founder and editor, Alina Rios, and poetry editor, Jed Myers and hear their insights on a number of writing-related topics. Read Part I here. In Part II of our interview, Alina and Jed discuss revision: the challenges and joys of evolving their own pieces as well as the collaborative revision process that sometimes occurs between editors and those who submit to Bracken.
Erin: What is your revision process?
Jed: I am a mad reviser. I mean, Stanley Plumly says—whether he was quoting Keats or not, I’m not sure—but he said, “poetry is the reviser’s art,” and I think that’s just so beautiful and true. And I think you don’t know where your poem wants to go or what it wants to become. When you just finish it, you don’t know, you can’t know.
You have to forget the poem and then come back to it. Then you see what is there, and then you can start to figure out what it’s supposed to be. And it can sometimes take months or years to become what it’s meant to be.
That doesn’t mean I won’t send it here and there when it’s fresh. Sometimes fresh is wonderful; sometimes, I send a poem out, it wins an award; I’ve already rewritten it; I’ve messed it up! That happens too. So, you know, you can mess it up, but still, all in all, gotta let it steep and ask it what it wants to be. It’s not from me, it’s through me. My life experience is a kind of distillate of life that wants to become a poem. I’m the conduit for that sort of process.
Erin: I’m interested in what that process looks like. Let’s say you’ve written a sonnet, for example, will you go back and try it in a completely different form?
Jed: Well, sometimes you write a sonnet, and six months later, you realize that it’s supposed to be [in] blank verse. You realize, it wants to be 23 lines, it was hurt by the rhyme sort of effort. It tells you what it wants to be. You get out of the way.
Erin: I’m smiling because the way you’re talking about poetry reminds me of a passage from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, “On Children”: “They come to you / but they are not from you / though they are with you / they belong not to you.” Anyways, Alina?
Alina: The thing is, I write longhand first. I don’t [initially] type things up. And so, I usually edit as I’m typing things up—quite heavily, actually. And then, once it’s typed up, I don’t edit too much, unless Jed says, “hmmm…”
But I kind of detest it. I kind of like the raw form that naturally comes out once it’s already in digital form because I have already trimmed all the things that I wanted to trim.
Right, so I have a hard time with editing.
Erin: Because you feel like your process is also editing; you’re doing it simultaneously as you’re writing.
Alina: Yes, but I also have learned because I have seen what it can do—to do some editing. Whereas, Jed will noodle with a poem obsessively and sometimes will mess it up and sometimes make it way better, but he loves this process, and I resent this process. I think I am afraid. I find that the poems—some of my best poems—are written in one breath. That’s just the way it works for me.
Jed: It’s true about her work, it’s true.
Alina: They have a few edits, of course, [but] they don’t have major edits afterwards. And the poems that require major edits, I just scrap them. I don’t think they’re right. They’re not real or something. But fiction works differently for me. Sometimes it does come in one breath—with short pieces, for sure—but I still edit heavily with fiction.
Erin: Let’s now shift to what you want from people who send you their work.
Jed: I’m often disheartened, to be frank, by receiving work that simply has not really been gone over a second or third time. If it had, it couldn’t have had these awkward constructions and typos and mistakes
Jed: Yes, grammatical. If someone wants us to publish their work, they better really lovingly develop it, and then send it to us.
Erin: Of course, there are some pieces that are just not a good fit for Bracken, for whatever reason, but what about the submissions you come across that could potentially be a good fit for the magazine but need some work? I’m wondering, when you are working with a writer to revise their piece, what are your expectations of them during that process?
Alina: Yeah, it’s interesting. I feel like the pieces that we’ve accepted that were initially not quite there, we’ve had various degrees of involvement with. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying, “Hey, we’re seeing these kinds of issues with it. We really like the story, you know, but you need to fix the language,” and the person just gets it. They just get it. And they send you the updated version, and you might go back and forth a few times with minor things, but they really just get it. And sometimes you go, oh, this is an interesting story, but it needs work. Okay, let’s see if we can do this, and you realize when you get in there that it needs a much deeper kind of edit.
Jed: It’s as if the writer has not quite seen what they have written.
Alina: It’s like the story still needs to mature, or the writer needs to mature, or both. We’ve had those cases where I would commit to a story, in a way, I’ll say, ‘I’ll work with you’ and then had to give up on a story, basically, because it was too much. It was not ever going to come together.
And then there are cases where we’ve made it come together with a lot of editing.
Jed: Yeah, we’ve gone at it, you might say.
Alina: We’ve really gone at it.
Jed: Surgery, plastic surgery.
Alina: …where just saying to the writer, ‘this doesn’t work,’ didn’t work. Where it was an actual hands-on, much-read kind of edit, but for some reason, it worked in those cases.
Jed: And what’s wonderful is in two, three, four cases since the beginning of Bracken, the writer has been thrilled with what we were able to do with it: Oh my God, now I see, oh yeah. Wonderful, good. And that’s really fulfilling. It meant that we got what they were getting at.
Alina: These days, I will only give personal feedback on a piece if the writer has really put their heart and soul into it. And it’s very obvious when that happens. And maybe it doesn’t work, for whatever reason, but if I feel like I have something to say that might affect the future of this piece, I will say it.
Erin: We’ve been talking a lot about these abstract notions of people “getting it” or “not quite,” but I’m wondering, when you ask a writer to revise something that has a potential place in Bracken, how do you hope they receive or act upon your feedback?
Alina: I think we want them to be open to it. We want them not to be defensive about it to the best of their abilities because it is a collaboration at that point. If they understand that it is a collaboration, it will go much better.
Jed: Willing and able to go back again, to reenter what’s been written. Wide awake, open, really able to see. Because you’re really there. You’re really present. You really have reentered it openly. That’s what good revision is.
Alina: The other thing is it’s also so specific to each individual case.
Jed: You know, I just feel like saying again at this juncture, it’s a little bit scary to be really open to what you’ve written and not somehow defend its existence.
Erin: It’s a manifestation of you…
Erin: It’s hard to be open and to go in willingly.
Alina: But that’s the level of professionalism that I would expect from anyone that I am working with. You know, in some cases we tried to work with a person and got quite a bit of pushback, which just means that it’s not going to happen. I think the ability to be humble, you know, [and say] ‘this is my soul, but I am open.’ Defensiveness is the killer of all editorial work.
Jed: I mean it’s so true. Why do we read stories and poems, at all? Because we want company for our souls. We want to be hearing the voices of braver souls. Inspired courageous soul who love the truth and the beauty of the world, in some way, and will scare themselves writing what they’ve written, really being in the open with us.