Janetta Otter-Barry: Making Poetry Books – an Editor’s View

Making Poetry Books – an Editor’s View

I love editing the Otter-Barry Books poetry list – it’s probably my favourite of all tasks. It feels like a huge privilege to immerse yourself in a poet’s carefully crafted collection, written over months or even years, and to be possibly the first person to read those poems other than the poet.

Generally I don’t actually ‘edit’ the poems much at all. I feel quite strongly that a poem is what it is and stands on its own terms. Occasionally I will suggest deleting a verse to tighten things up a bit, or, if I feel a poem isn’t working in terms of level or tone for the current collection, I’ll suggest taking it out. Though if the poet feels very strongly and has good arguments for its inclusion I will usually defer to the poet! Trust and respect in both directions are absolutely vital.

Punctuation – well, that’s another matter! Some of our poets like writing verse completely unpunctuated and in many cases that’s great – and gives a real sense of freedom from constraint to the reader. But I have to admit to liking punctuation – and I think it can also help with pacing and comprehension – and just keeps you on track with a longer, more complex poem. So a balance is always good. Again, I hope I’ll be sensitive to the poet’s view.

Gradually the collection emerges into a beautiful entity, with an opener that’s not too long or super-demanding – something to whet your appetite – and then moves to more challenging poems as you get into your reading stride. Surprise and humour are vital ingredients and, though this may sound banal, making sure there’s a balance of shorter and longer poems. It can be great to turn a page and find just one very short poem. Giving poems ‘space’ is really important. And then end with a satisfying conclusion or maybe look to the future with a question or a big idea…

So how did it work with our CLiPPA-shortlisted titles, A Kid in My Class by Rachel Rooney, illustrated by Chris Riddell, and Dark Sky Park by Philip Gross, illustrated by Jesse Hodgson?

Daydreamer, from A Kid in My Class, 2018, by Rachel Rooney, Illustrated by Chris Riddell

Both books were true collaborations. Rachel and Chris had already decided they’d like to do something together so the book came to us that way. Our team just loved the poems and we knew we had something special in our hands. At our first meeting with Chris and Rachel – straight after CLiPPA 2016 – we agreed there should be a gallery of portraits of all the kids in the class running through the book, and that the class hamster should also be present, though he doesn’t get his own poem till the very end. We felt strongly that this book should be generously illustrated so we allocated a double spread per poem and came up with the idea of the blue wash throughout as a special effect. We’d probably imagined illustrations in classroom settings but Chris quite rightly leapfrogged this brief and I’ll never forget the excitement of seeing, with Rachel and our art director Judith Escreet, the amazing full-size drawings on Chris’s work-table.


Fidget, from A Kid in My Class, 2018, by Rachel Rooney, Illustrated by Chris Riddell

With Dark Sky Park, the collection came to us through poetry guru Pie Corbett, who knew Philip and recognised that these poems had huge cross-curricular science potential as well as being creative masterpieces. Philip had the idea to give each poem an accompanying ‘info-tweet’, providing fascinating facts about all the creatures and topics in a fun way. We chose the brilliant young Bristol-based artist Jesse Hodgson to illustrate, after seeing her brush-and-line drawings of tigers.

Tardigrade, from Dark Sky Park, 2018, by Philip Gross, illustrated by Jessie Hodgson

She was perfect for the natural history aspect of the book as well as portraying the sense of time, space and wonder that the poems create. A meeting between Philip and Jesse to discuss his visual take on the poems was an inspiring start to the project and Jesse took off from there.

Snow Leopard, from Dark Sky Park, 2018, by Philip Gross, illustrated by Jessie Hodgson

Editing and punctuation? Well, I can honestly say I hardly had to change a single word or comma in either book! These two poets are truly masters of their art.

Janetta Otter-Barry

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Janetta Otter-Barry is the founder and publisher of Otter-Barry Books, an award-winning independent children’s publisher with a focus on diversity and inclusion. Otter-Barry publish picture books, young fiction, graphic novels and information books as well as an acclaimed poetry list. The first books were published in May 2016, since when six poetry titles have been shortlisted for the prestigious CLiPPA award.

Otter-Barry Books.

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