The Copy Editor’s Apology

When I joined the Pensters Writing Group a couple of years ago, my primary motivation was to benefit the Fairhope Public Library’s Tuesday Book Review & Lecture Series, of which I have been program chairman since 1993. I hoped to encourage more of the Pensters to attend the book reviews and perhaps also find some of the members who would be willing to present book reviews. I have been slightly successful in the former, less successful in the latter. As a copy editor, I don’t consider myself a “writer” (that is, a creative writer), but I enjoy the company of writers, and there was also a remote chance of picking up some editing work.

The Pensters meet monthly from September through May, and at seven of the monthly meetings there is a featured speaker on some aspect of writing or publishing. There is also a monthly writing contest, described as followed in the Pensters yearbook:

From September through April, contests are held for dues-paying members. Contests include unpublished poetry and unpublished prose, fiction or nonfiction. Entries are judged by the month’s guest speaker.

Prizes are awarded for both poetry and prose, as follows: $10 for first place, $5 for second place, no cash prize for Honorable Mention, but all winners are asked to read their winning entry. Only one submission in each category is permitted per month.

Entries must relate to the monthly prompts. Prose is limited to 500 words, double-spaced; poetry is limited to two typed pages, single-spaced with double spacing between stanzas.

The “prompts” are evocative phrases that the entry must address in some way. This year they’ve included “In the heat of the afternoon,” “A justifiable sin,” “In the back seat of a taxi,” “A year after he died,” “The heart of the matter,” and “A strange branch on the family tree.” As I said, I don’t consider myself a writer, but I’ve always wanted to be one, and I figured it would be good practice to push myself to enter the contest each month. So far my entries have been pretty dismal, but I’ve used the opportunity to write snippets of memoir or autobiographical fiction. I’ve found the 500-word limit extremely constricting, and it had occurred to me that, with single spacing and rather long lines, one could actually get more words into two pages of poetry. Not to mention that there are always fewer poetry entries than prose. But I am even less a “poet” than a “writer.”

Still, what I turned in last month was a “poem.” The prompt was “Motive for the theft,” which wasn’t jogging any useful reminiscences, so I had pretty much resigned myself to skipping the contest when I had a flash of inspiration the day before the deadline. I started jotting down snatches of thought and eventually was able to combine them into the following:

The Copy Editor’s Apology

I never meant to steal your smile!
Don’t look so woeful: I was only helping.
You asked for judgment, and I judged,
My edits meant to make improvements.

I never meant to steal your words,
Only to offer different, better ones—
Not mandates but suggestions rather
That would create a smoother line.

I never meant to steal your thoughts,
Only to try to read your mind.
Your meaning’s muddy here; let’s clear it up—
Replace this comma with a semicolon?

Your writing’s good but could be better:
The past of drink is drank, not drunk,
And Mary whom you mention here—
Was she not Jane one page ago?

I never meant to make you weep.
Your plot is brilliant, characters rich.
It’s just the grammar that’s a little weak,
With careless punctuation.

We work together, you and I.
To make your work the best that it can be.
We should be friends, not adversaries.
You pay me for my skill, and I respect your talent.

I never meant to steal your smile.
You should be smiling gratefully.
If I cross out a word, suggest another,
I count it not as theft but value added.

When I went to pick up my (as usual) losing entry yesterday, I couldn’t find it. In fact, I couldn’t find any poetry entries at all; they all seemed to be prose, many of them unclaimed entries from previous contests. So I thought maybe I’d at least scored Honorable Mention.

To my surprise, the contest chair announced that there was no Honorable Mention. Then the second-place winner’s name was read, and she came up to read. It was a great poem. The next result seemed inevitable but also inconceivable: I’d taken first place! I was stunned but very pleased.

I had lucked out in two ways. In the first place, there was a substitute judge. Last month’s featured speaker, Sue Brannan Walker, is “a poet, author, and editor. She is a former Poet Laureate of Alabama and is currently the Stokes Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama. Her poetry and short fiction have been widely published. She is the author of five poetry collections and numerous other books and is or has been an advisory editor for several literary journals.” But she was also a no-show: her husband was ill, so she couldn’t make it. Our Pensters president, John Woods, and author Frank Coombs (who writes under the name of Frank Kelso) filled in with a very informative talk about self-publishing and promotion. John then judged the contest entries. I figured I would probably fare better with him than I would have with Sue.

But the bottom line was that apparently there were only two poetry entries!

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