Questions to Ask a Poetry Editor: An interview with Ruth Daniell

Interview by Marta Orellana; copy edited by Claire Majors

Over the course of two days in January 2022, poetry editor Ruth Daniell will lead an Editors BC online seminar entitled “Questions to Ask a Poem: The Basics of Poetry Editing.” Attendees will explore the best ways to support poets and will learn the four key questions to ask any poem.

Let’s meet Ruth Daniell!

Hello, Ruth! Can you tell us a bit about yourself? Where do you live? What do you love? And if you could transport yourself anywhere at all, where would you go? 

I’m a writer and an editor. I’m also a speech arts teacher. From a young age, I’ve been fascinated with poetry and storytelling and the ways that we connect to others through our words, whether onstage or on the page.

I live in Kelowna, BC, and I have two small children who also love words. I spend a lot of time reading to them—and now they’re starting to read to me, too! What else do I love? Ice cream, sunshine, snow, and listening to the birds around the pond nearby my home.

If I could transport myself anywhere at all—assuming I could instantly transport myself home to my children anytime I wanted to, or, better still, bring them with me—I would probably visit Europe again.

I’d like to spend more time in the places from where some of my favourite stories come.

While I was working on my first book, I was lucky enough to spend a little bit of time in the Hesse province of Germany, where the Grimm Brothers lived, and to also visit Paris and London, and those places and their connections to the development of fairy tales still fascinate me.

Can you tell us about your collection of poems The Brightest Thing? What moved you to create such a collection?

The Brightest Thing is a collection of poems that tells the story of a young woman who is raped by her first boyfriend and her attempts afterward to rethink her fairy-tale ideas of romantic love and “happily ever after.”

Alongside this contemporary narrative, there are also monologues that dramatize the voices of women from fairy tales, voices of which we don’t usually hear first-hand—including Rapunzel, the Little Mermaid’s sister, the princess who feels the pea beneath those twenty mattresses, and the woman who is widowed when her giant is outwitted by Jack and falls down the beanstalk. 

By putting a personal narrative alongside an engagement with the history of fairy tales, I am hoping to contribute to something I’d like to think of as a community of storytelling.

As I once told Rob Taylor for Read Local BC, I think that many fairy tales—whether they’re the folk tales we receive (via other, often women, sources) through Grimm, Perrault, or those literary ones written by writers such as Hans Christian Andersen—have been the most useful, and the most personally transformative, when they were offered as part of community-building.

I was moved to write The Brightest Thing because of a lifelong love of fairy tales and my increasing frustration, as a feminist, with the patterns of contemporary society and the limits of “happily ever after,” who gets them and why, as they are portrayed in media and in life. 

The Brightest Thing arose out of the simultaneous desires to explore fairy tales and to explore the ways in which present-day stories mirror and diverge from fairy tales—to connect to a community of storytelling.

Most of all, I was moved to write the book out of an interest in love and the need to expand definitions and celebrations of love.

Are you currently working on any projects? If so, can you share any details?

I’m working on a collection of poems that is, among other things, about birds.

It began through my research into fairy tales and noticing the ways birds fly in and out of human storytelling cultures, which led me further to an interest in a more biological investigation of birds, their habitats, and the ways in which we share the earth.

Alongside mythological and biological explorations of birds, there is a personal narrative about a couple trying to have a baby.

Among environmental concerns, I am looking to find consolation in the shared reproductive desires of humans and animals. I want to grapple with the guilt and grief of knowing that humans impact the ways that birds survive and mate and raise their young while also exploring my own desire for children of my own.

What is the writing process like for you? 

The writing process is exciting for me! But, of course, it can also be boring.

But usually, writing is not a slog for me. I get an idea for a poem (or essay or story) and I jot it down immediately, and I attend to it as soon as I can (since parenthood, this is increasingly the most difficult part of the writing process: finding the time).

First drafts usually come fairly quickly to me once I do sit down, though. And poems, either they come out pretty much fully formed and feeling complete or the complete opposite: they will need time in revision.

I just finished a poem that I began over two years ago but couldn’t quite get right. It turned out it needed an image from my life that I only just lived a couple months ago, it was the missing piece of the puzzle.

It’s thrilling when that kind of thing happens!

Are there any authors or poets who have inspired you profoundly? 

Recently, I’ve been inspired by writers who juggle parenthood and a writing career, and those who write well about parenthood, but not exclusively so.

I’ve been reading work by Fiona Benson, Carrie Fountain, Caroline Bird, Mary Ruefle, and Rachel Zucker, and I’ve been going back to read Louise Glück, Phyllis Webb, and Bronwen Wallace, who have definitely inspired me.

I love the work of Joelle Barron. I’m immensely enjoying Elise Marcella Godfrey’s Pitchblende. Rob Taylor’s most recent book, Strangers, is excellent, and I also loved his The News. I loved the poetic memoir A Ghost in the Throat by Irish poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa, and I’m looking forward to going back and discovering her poetry collections now.

What particular qualities do you think poets may look for in an editor who will be helping them with their work? 

I think poets are looking for an editor who is willing to attend to the poem as it wants to be, not how the editor would have written it if it was their poem.

I try hard to see what the poem is trying to do and help the poet bring that out, through a combination of line edits and conversations about the balance between what is said and unsaid.

Being both a writer and an editor, how do you feel the two crafts complement each other? What important skills have you learned that help you succeed in both of these professions.

Editing and writing complement each other in many ways, but I think an awareness of craft and content is key. Being an attentive reader of others’ work certainly supports my ability to gauge my own work better than I used to as a younger writer—but then, I’ve always loved workshopping, editing, and reading other writers’ work. It’s a joy. 

I think understanding narrative context has been important: especially when writing from autobiographical material but also from other perspectives.

It is important to know what needs to be said for the sake of the reader and what can go unsaid. Sometimes a poem needs a bit more grounding because practical information is left out—it needs to be there because the reader doesn’t live inside the speaker’s head and doesn’t have those shared references and images.

And sometimes a poem needs to be … what’s the opposite of grounded?

Sometimes a poem needs less, needs to trust the reader more. I’ve found that, often, a poem can be nudged into its final form by looking at the balance of concrete and abstract language.

In your upcoming Editors BC seminar, what do you hope attendees will take away?

I hope attendees leave the seminar confident that they have some good tools for approaching poetry. I want them to gain new insight into the balance of abstract and concrete language and the power of metaphor, of playfulness, and of sound.

Mostly I want them to walk away feeling excited about the potential of poetry!

Thank you, Ruth. We look forward to meeting you and learning from you.

Marta Orellana lives in North Vancouver, BC. She is a copy editor, translator, and proofreader, specializing in Web writing and editing as well as academic and technical writing. Marta is also a French Immersion teacher and a polyglot, whose love of language is what has driven her appreciation for the written word.

Claire Majors is a freelancer who loves writing and editing creative text, especially non-fiction and poetry. She works at FOLKLIFE magazine and is one of Editors BC’s professional development co-chairs.

Image provided by Ruth Daniell

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