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The Doers

As it is with being an editor/publisher, just as it is with being a writer, it’s important to remember where you come from. Each one of us has an entry point into poetry. We all have something that led us to a personal explosion of wonder that continues to resonate. Emerson and Whitman are two writers I’ve always found exciting and soothing. I believe that their work emanates from certain core values. These values are what I’ve intended to build on with Cooper Dillon Books. In the process of crafting a mission I found the word “timeless” apt. Joy, beauty, intimacy and also honesty shape the process I use to evaluate poems; a process not necessarily according to some perception of quality, but with a consciousness that comes from the tradition of American Romanticism, or Transcendentalism.

In Emerson’s “The Poet,” we are introduced to the Knower, the Doer, and the Sayer, who happens to be the poet. Scholarship suggests that the Knower is Emerson’s American Scholar, the “Man Thinking.” While there isn’t much elaboration on who that “Doer” might be, we are told that “these stand respectively for the love of truth, for the love of good, and for the love of beauty. These three are equal.” In the context of the contemporary poetry world, my sense is that the Doer is the small press editor/publisher. To be on equal footing with the poet (Sayer) and the individual experiencing the poems (Knower) the publisher (Doer) must be motivated by more than money, or in the case of a collective organization, using money from another source to print and promote a book. They must do things in service of the actual poems, which means they must edit.

It has been my experience that some editors look for something completely “finished” that they can smash into a design program, format, and get to print. They read a work and decide that it’s good enough, that it will certainly sell, and they jump straight to marketing. I contend that it is the responsibility of the editor to make comments on, and propose changes to, the poetry manuscript in service to the manuscript, to nurture each poem, accepting the notion that an author might not always know what’s best.

On my wall is a broadside of a poem by Ada Limón, printed by The Center for Book Arts in New York City. A designer created a textured plate of a toe making water ripples, and the last line of the poem trickles down and off the blue paper. The woman at my local framing shop recommended a subdued color for the mat, and distressed wood to frame the piece. It hangs in my dining area on an oregano-green wall. It is impossible to experience the poem without considering all of these elements together. It was built in the spirit of collaboration, each craftsperson trusting the next to represent their efforts with respect and mastery of their own craft. The editor must bring the same level of expertise to a book of poetry.

Many poets could benefit from a healthy detachment from the words that come through them and arrive on the page. Far too often a writer feels as though the work is a mirror, a reflection of some self; or that the poem is a sacred limb that should be protected from another’s touch. Neither of these attachments is true. The poem is an entity unto its own Self. How else can the poet be moved to a sense of wonder in response to his or her own work? Without it, he or she would become bored, cynical, ironic, and loud, acting out like a child. The publisher’s concern is not to make sure the poet is comfortable with the production, nor is it to give the readers exactly what they want. The editor must make decisions for the good of the poems, to compliment the poet’s process, but also nurture what the poem can be, beyond the vision of the poet. The editor then presents the opportunity for surprise to the reader. This is what editors do. 

The result is a shift away from the proud, ego-based, poem. The Knower must connect with the voice of the poem. The Knower should be a part of the event in the poem, rather than being merely told an experience has happened (and how he or she should feel about it). The event of the poem is where transcendence happens—in the transference between what’s on the page and what happens to the reader. The poem actually changes the Knower, and that change should be positive, and nutritious to the mind and the soul. It’s the Doer’s responsibility to be able to distinguish if the Sayer is giving this experience to the audience, or if the Sayer is merely reporting.

Beyond any spiritual/ethereal intent on the part of the editor/publisher, the editing process is a task in service to aesthetics—the process of making a book is, after all, the process of creating a physical artifact. Most writers seem to create in a word processing program, and envision their work in terms of an 8.5 x 11 page, which is simply not a size that will be made into a book. It’s typical for writers to use the page, and to create in this designated white space, but the editor must be able to translate the work from the larger real estate down to a bindable size, a size that will fit on a shelf, be carried by a reader, and can be economically printed and shipped. In this way, the editor is the acoustic engineer of a concert hall, making sure everyone hears each note played. An editor is like the director of a film who takes everything each actor gave and makes a final cut of the most powerful and cohesive shots. Poetry, however, is not a money-maker or a major industry. It’s often regarded as a small labor of love on the part of the writer, the publisher, and the reader. But, somehow, this love so often breeds a mediocrity and complacency. Sayers say horrible, clever, proud, ironic phrases; doers place the margins so words are lost in gutters, to get more on a page to save money, and the Knowers open an Amazon box, thumb those pages and say, “I guess it’s okay,” then file it on a shelf so others can see they’ve read it.

The Sayer said it to serve him/her self, the Doer did it to make money, and the Knower hoped for a new experience but was brought only to the threshold of his or her own front door, no further. The Knower is teased toward wonder and surprise, and begins to think this experience is the norm, and that this is what shapes poetry. This is a tragedy, and it keeps poetry in a sorry state that is constantly being lamented on AWP panels and on blogs, and across bar tables and classroom tables alike.

But we can embrace a transcendence that is part of our tradition! To do this the paradigm needs a serious shift. The focus must be on a higher intent: to serve the poem, with a love and precise application of skill, in a process where no parties are crossed: “These three are equal.” Editors must be more than judges with a few dollars. They must make investments in truth by collaborating with authors, and they must publish based on a love for the collective craft for the good of the Knowers and for the benefit of the community as a whole.  


Publisher/editor Adam Deutsch was born on Long Island, New York, and has his MA from Hofstra University (2005) and his MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (2008). He has been on the editorial staff of a number of presses and journals, including Ninth Letter and Barn Owl Review, and his poems have appeared in Anti-, Juked, No Tell Motel, and other journals. He has poems forthcoming in Forklift, OH. He presently teaches community college, and runs things over at Cooper Dillon Books. He lives in San Diego.