I’ve been thinking about the law over the last couple of weeks. Not that I’m in any trouble I hasten to add – apart from the usual one that I’m sure some of you have also been quizzed on by other members of the family: “Yes this poeting is all well and good, but when are you going to become a lawyer?” Sorry Mum, not quite yet*.
No, this particular rumination was prompted by some recent attempts to try and argue on behalf of a particular poet and their poems. I’ll explain.
English law has this rather wonderful way of working that’s known as ‘the cab rank principle’. Simply put, it means that a barrister has an obligation to accept any case that might turn up on their doorstep, whatever the case might be, and whatever views they might have formed as to the character, reputation, innocence or guilt of that person. Unpopular people are represented, and those representing them are not criticised for doing so. A small blow for equality is struck.
It doesn’t take too much by way of evidence to see how I made the analogous leap from the courtroom to the folders of poems. After all, it often feels like the main principle that operates in the world of the folders is: you never know what is going to turn up next.
It is, of course, what makes the process wonderful, maddening and maddeningly wonderful. Some folders are studded, positively littered with gems. Others are as parched as the rapidly drying Aral Sea, and leave you feeling as enervated. At the moment, I’m still mostly unfamiliar with the names I come across; now and again there’s a sliver – and a shiver – of recognition, that a poet whose books I have on my shelves is submitting, and in a small way you recognise the threads that bind all us poets together.
Then of course you have the poems that refuse to fall one way or the other: good, or bad? Working, or not? Like, or hate? Here’s where the cab rank principle kicks in. This poem has arrived – it might be a squib, it might not be very good, it might be the next ‘Digging’. Do you know? Can you construct a case for it? Do you want to – is the poem giving you enough for you to feel that you can risk putting it in front of three other pretty demanding judges?
Candidly, I hadn’t realised at all the degree to which I would need to become an advocate for poems that were on the cusp in this way – not yet (and maybe not ever) yielding up their qualities, but still worth a punt, whether that’s because of a phrase, a title, an image… I won’t disclose my current success rate in the editorial court, but suffice to say I think I’ve helped some poems appear that might have been on first glance to be late bloomers.
Which naturally leads on to mention of what you, dear poet, might do to help your case if – when – it might become my case. I’m tempted to say, apart from the obvious, not much. But please make sure that you’re doing that: is your poem as tightly drafted as it can be? Have you spellchecked? Have you submitted six poems when we asked for six, not 11? Have you included any notes or translations that a reader might need?
Of course the ideal is for the poem that, in every sense, speaks for itself, with no need of silver-tongued persuasion of any form. They do arrive and hopefully I am becoming more adept at spotting them – or letting them find me. But in the meantime, to bring Jerry Maguire almost unnecessarily into this: “Help me, to help you.”
*I jest. I think Ma would have preferred me to be an accountant.
Poets Rishi Dastidar and Holly Hopkins are working closely with The Rialto editor Michael Mackmin on a programme designed to teach them about the process and philosophy of poetry editing. Each month, on a new series we’re calling Re: Drafts, they’ll share their findings on CAMPUS.