Poets in Solidarity with Refugees: selecting anthology poems

The task was to select around 100 poems from 204 submitted. The poems that didn’t qualify because they were too long or submitted after the deadline had already been eliminated. It really does pay to read submission guidelines and, no, you don’t get round them by saying “I know my poem’s too long or too late but I thought I’d send it anyway.”

The first part of that task was straightforward: read each poem and select the best. There were three of us on an editorial panel and we each read through all the poems and made a selection independently of each other. The best poems generally selected themselves.

  • They had something to say without preaching.
  • They said it without telling the reader what to think.
  • They said it in an engaging way that demonstrated the writers’ understanding of poetic craft and form and it was hard to take anything out or put anything in without substantially changing the poem.
  • They were also poems that hadn’t jumped on the first, obvious response to the topic.
  • They were poems where the poet had thought around the subject and picked a fresh approach.

We had a remit to select poems that shed new light on the refugee experience, writing that was specific rather than general and which was not unremittingly gloomy, harrowing or preachy. We wanted a variety of work to produce an anthology which would interest, engage and surprise readers.

To ensure that variety, we didn’t impose any arbitrary limits, but to include a second or third poem by the same poet, those second or third poems would really have to work to justify their place. This meant some good poems were excluded simply because their author had entered more than one poem and we were trying to ensure a variety of voices, viewpoints and topics.

Selecting the best was the easy part. As the best were selected, they were grouped by theme and an order of contents began to emerge. There was a core of around 90 poems which all three of us had independently agreed on. When we met we discussed the poems that at least one editor had selected that the other(s) hadn’t. We read poems aloud as well as silently from the page. After discussion, some of these were selected. If we were putting together a magazine or blog, we could have stopped there.

However, we wanted a coherent anthology where poems covered all aspects of the refugee experience: their journey, why they’d left, where they were hoping to go and why, compassion and the media reaction, and the poems worked well alongside each other. Some good poems didn’t fit with others selected. There are times when a brilliant soloist has a voice that doesn’t blend with a choir. Without deliberate intention to stand out, when the choir sings, the soloist’s voice can still be heard and it doesn’t feel to the listener as if the choir is singing with one voice. I know I’ve had some poems published in magazines that don’t fit easily into a collection unless I create a separate section just for one poem which undermines the intention of a collection. Again, some good poems got put aside.

At this stage, we’d selected 101 poems. We went back through the ones we’d put aside to check we hadn’t overlooked a poem that was worthy of inclusion and to ensure that we hadn’t excluded one that we could have made fit. We were happy with our initial choice and went back through our selection to check we were happy with the order. We then gave ourselves a couple of days to independently read through our selections again and check we were happy with the order.

We’d met on a Tuesday evening and by Thursday were in complete agreement over our choices. Emails and letters informing those who’d submitted poems were sent out on Friday evening so that everyone would hear at more or less the same time. The anthology is currently being typeset in preparation for printing.

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One Response to “Poets in Solidarity with Refugees: selecting anthology poems”

  1. “Over Land Over Sea poems for those seeking refuge” launch 7 December 2015 | Emma Lee's Blog Says:

    […] paused here to talk about editing the anthology which I’ve already blogged about. The poetry readings […]


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