Peter Fallon: ‘I see the relationship between editor and author as less a duel than a duet’

Authors and editors: ‘Sloppy editors say yes to everything; good editors take the harder path, and get stuck in’ – Vona Groarke

Vona Groarke’s collections include Shale (1994), Other People’s Houses (1999), Flight (2002), shortlisted for the Forward Prize (UK) in 2002 and winner of the Michael Hartnett Award in 2003, Juniper Street (2006) and Spindrift (2009) and X (2014), both Poetry Book Society Recommendations. Her prizes include the Hennessy Award, the Brendan Behan Memorial Prize, Strokestown International Poetry Award, the Stand Magazine Poetry Prize, and runner-up in the Times Literary Supplement Poetry Competition (2003). She teaches in the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester.

Peter Fallon was 18 when he founded the Gallery Press, which has published more than 400 books of poems and plays by Ireland’s finest established and emerging authors. His own collections of poems include The Speaking Stones (1978), Winter Work (1983), The News and Weather (1987), Eye to Eye (1992). News of the World: Selected and New Poems (1998) and Strong, My Love (2013).

Sarah Bannan is the author of Weightless (Bloomsbury Circus).

Peter, what made you want to be an editor? How does it sustain you?


PF: As in, when I grow up I want to editor? I don’t think so. That was never part of a plan. In fact, there wasn’t a plan. If I can pinpoint a moment that I began my own course as a writer it was when I made a change to something I’d written at school, at Glenstal. Maybe you start to be a writer when you start rewriting. A couple of years later, when I was responding to submissions to a little magazine called Capella and, soon afterwards, to manuscripts that would become the first Gallery books I followed an instinct to question if this was the word that was most apt, if this rhythm was “off”, if this image was clear... And in the intervening decades I’ve grown certain that there isn’t much writing that mightn’t benefit from an attentive, supportive reader’s response.

As a publisher I want to praise what I believe is outstanding work. As an editor – and I suspect if I have a gift it is an as editor – I hope to help, through a process of what I call “invisible mending”, that work into being as its best self. However much I contribute to a book it remains the author’s work. If I’ve been a help, that’s enough for me.

Vona, what made you want to work with Peter?

VG: When I first submitted an MS to Gallery Press, it was 1992: First Language was in the air. Marconi’s Cottage and The Yaddo Letter were still fresh, young things. There was a party going on in another room, and it looked like the liveliest party in town: I wanted, I suppose, to be in that room, if only from a spot behind the door, looking at it all. Pretty well-dressed party too: the books were beautiful.

That year, my then boyfriend, Conor O’Callaghan, and I had organised a series of readings in Newman House, where I was working on a Fás scheme. Primary Colours ran for five weeks, as I recall, one reading a week, featuring one new poet alongside a more established voice. There was music and there was food, (the Commons Restaurant sent up wondrous trays of goodies from the basement that may well have accounted for more of the audience than poetry did), and the room was the Physics Theatre, with its long windows and copious shadows making a party of their own. As I recall, Peter came to all the readings, sat at the back and sold books when there were books to sell, listened otherwise. We were moonlighting, Conor and I, starting out in poetry, feeling our way into a life. Peter was a real help: encouraging, but careful too; reserved, but never standoffish. You could see how he’d have marshalled those great books into being, how his earnestness and wit and taste had allowed them come into their own. He rejected (but very kindly) my first knock on the door. That made me even keener, of course. I worked on a group of poems I called Shale, which Peter accepted in 1993 and published in September 1994. That was a whole other party, a bright red letter day.

Peter, you’ve published Vona for over 20 years. What drew you to her work initially?

PF: I like to think that I keep an ear to the ground – so I’d read and taken note of a number of her poems in magazines. Then, when she and Conor O’Callaghan presented Primary Colours, I made a point of attending. I remember the posters they made – primary colours – and the fuller glimpse I got of the poems that she and Conor were writing, of their sense of commitment and of their purpose. They were the two who stood out for me. (I’m trying still to forget some of the others.) But I saw also something of the pragmatic, no-nonsense, get-on-with-it energy that I’ve valued increasingly in Vona as a writer and as a contributor to our art in other ways.

Often it works something like this – at the core of a manuscript I’ll identify a number of poems that strike me as distinctive and essential and my nominations accord with the author’s. Then we build on this common ground towards a first book. If I remember rightly, on the brink of our agreement to publish, Vona won a prize and an English publisher got interested. There was a brief worry that she’d go with him. I’m glad, more than glad, that she didn’t, and there are poems in that first book, Shale, that still cast a spell. I can see what drew me to them though, as a book, Shale is something of a stepping stone on the route to ampler, more satisfying collections. You can’t drive on the main road without going through first and second gears.

Vona, how do you approach putting a collection together? Do you send Peter a few poems at a time, or do you wait until you have something quite substantial? Would you send Peter poems before you submit to journals?

VG: I wait until I have what seems to me to be a full book. I’ll have been publishing individual poems in magazines since the previous book, and Peter will likely have seen them and will have some sense of what to expect, but then one morning, there’ll be an A4 envelope from me on a doormat in Loughcrew, with the proceeds of four or five years’ work inside. That’ll be the starting point. He sees it when it’s more or less a grouping, with its own lines of connection and palette and gist. I wouldn’t send instalments. I don’t think Gallery operates a hire purchase scheme, and anyway, I need to be able to think of the poems as a collection before I’d ask anyone else to. That doesn’t mean that what I send is what gets published: there’s a process involved, guided by Peter’s sense of a poem and of a book, and also, I suppose, of mine. Which don’t always exactly line up, but that’s part of the give and take of the process, listening to what someone with a fine ear and poetry sense has to say about it. The final collection is what we agree on, what we can both live with.

Peter, in what way do you make your edits? Do you send a long letter or have a long chat? And where do you feel most comfortable in the editing process? Line by line? Or tackling more over-arching issues?

PF: I read carefully, keenly, slowly. I re-read. I think carefully, keenly... I make marks on a typescript. What you’d probably call a printout now. Insert a comma? Cut a line? A squiggle here to question the rhythm, syntax or sense of a passage. A kind of shorthand the authors seem to learn to read, bless them. No, no long letters. I’m useless at that. But we meet, we sit with my hieroglyphs and I try to elaborate my response and ideas – in general and in detail. I know I often have to play the devil’s advocate – and it’s important to remember, and sometimes to remind, that all of my suggestions, questions, quibbles exist within the realm of commitment to the work and enthusiasm for its possibilities, because it can be intense and it could appear like an assault on the work. It’s uncanny, though, how often I’ll point to a word or a half line and the author will nod, “I know, I tried, I was hoping…” They take away my marked copy and return an updated version. This can go on through several stages.

There’s no one way to describe this process. There’s no formula. How do you break a horse? Depends which one you’re talking about.. Some people have a sure sense of a poem and – a quite different thing – of a book. Some give me poems, we work together on them, and I end up proposing an order of them. Vona’s got a clear sense of both. I suspect we learn. We teach each other. Some writers have little sense of visual art and few ideas about what image might work on a cover. This is something that interests me greatly, the whole look of a book, the enhanced pleasure you might accord to the contents. Vona’s perhaps equally interested in painting etc and we agree to a point. Sometimes she’s favoured images for her covers that mightn’t have been my choice and that I’ve been uncertain about. It’s a small price to pay.

Vona, do you and Peter ever argue? Has he ever suggested or questioned something that you’ve really resisted? Or have you ever taken an suggestion or question and later regretted it? Or vice versa?

VG: To be honest, I’d say it’s been more vice versa. There’s a couple of poems in the first two books I dug my heels in over and now I wish I hadn’t. It’s not that I’m ashamed of them, it’s just that, looking back on the collections, I can see they don’t quite fit. Usually because they’re a bit pat, a little bit obvious, adhering to their surface only, when I should have been working the layers underneath, which is what I want to be doing. Once only do I regret taking something out: a line in my poem White Noise (from the collection Flight) that originally read: “between a murmur and a murmurous crowd”. We ended up leaving out the adjective because it made the line too long (long lines don’t suit the Gallery format, without making bits of themselves), but without that adjective, the line lags. I think it needs the tacit, in-the-wings rhyme with the word “murderous” for effect. Over the past 21 years, I’ve learned to trust Peter’s editorial instincts: he doesn’t dive into opinion but neither does he mince words; he’s careful and he’s honest, and if he’s definite about something, I take his attention as a compliment to the work. Sloppy editors say “Yes” to everything; good editors take the harder path, and get stuck in. And if, when I was younger, I found this sometimes a challenge, I learnt over years to be hugely grateful for his editorial nous and his forthright and rigorous help. My books are better for his suggestions, I know that for sure.

Peter, Vona’s latest collection, X, has had incredible critical success. The New Statesman hailed it as an “outstanding collection by a poet at the height of her powers”. Were you aware that the collection would be received this way? And were you both conscious of the subtle shifts and new directions that this collection represented for Vona as a poet?

PF: First, I’m wary of this phrase, “height of her powers”. I have hopes she’ll do even better, exceed herself. Why not?

I couldn’t say that I was surprised by the response to X. It has emerged from the other collections. I’ve been watching the work as it continues to evolve. One step forward. Another step forward. But, yes, as a cheerleader – and that’s part of my role – you hope for the “success” of the team, and delight in it – for the team. And of course you always want more...

Vona, a huge part of the poet’s life now involves readings, public performance and interviews. Gallery Press has done a number of tours to literary festivals across the country to promote the work of its poets. How crucial do you think these events and public performances are, and how comfortable are you with them? Do you and Peter talk about how and what you might read and discuss in advance?

VG: I like the Gallery Goes readings. I like going to festivals and events, not alone to represent my own work, but also the work of Gallery Press. The readings always remind me that I’m one of many poets whose work lives there, and I get a kind of energy from that sense of community, as well, of course, as from encountering people who are interested in reading / listening to the work we do. Different communities, and sustaining ones. Friendly ones too, in the main, which isn’t insignificant, when one works so much alone. It’s also useful for me to witness how varied the poets’ work tends to be: if anyone were to think there is such a thing as a “Gallery poem”, I reckon a Gallery Goes reading is likely to fix that. Plus, I imagine the readings help sell books, and in an increasingly dispiriting marketplace, it’s important to do whatever we can to help that side of things for the press. Another thing about the Gallery readings is that they’re a good reminder of all that goes into the making of the book, not just what we poets do, and what Peter as editor (and poet) does, but also what the Gallery team does, Suella and Anne and especially Jean, shepherding the books from a gaggle of overwritten A4 pages to when they’re there on the sales table, ship-shape and mannerly, clean-faced and bright-eyed. The readings remind me that this doesn’t happen as if by magic, that there’s a team of hard-working, smart people involved, keeping the show on the road.

No, we don’t plan content in advance: I don’t think Peter has ever once said to me to read this or that, or not to read this or that. He leaves it up to the conscience of the individual, which is fair enough, I’d say. And he’s very well-mannered during readings – I’ve rarely seen him wince!

Peter, as well as being an editor, you run The Gallery Press. It’s a small operation with a global reach. And you’re also a poet yourself. How do you balance all of these hats? Is it a happy combination or a fraught one?

PF: How do I juggle these callings? Most of the time, I’d have to say, badly. I know that most people are more interested in the Gallery Press than in Peter Fallon’s poems – and that’s fine – but whatever I do, the editing, the publishing, the preservation and promotion of other people’s writing, grew from my own impulse to try to write poems. So I’m aware that if the centre isn’t healthy the rest won’t stay whole indefinitely. On a bad day I think I’ve given my life away. And it’s true, it’s not easy (why should it be?) to maintain a small press, any business, in hostile times. I never, for example, imagined myself as an employer. How adult is that?

I tend not to look back. And it’s a fact that I’m always behind in what I want and need to do – and I have to apologise for that. Inevitably that knowledge takes the shine off what might be some of the satisfactions. Something ahead is looming. But there are excitements within the responsibilities of having exceptional authors entrust their work to my care.

That “global reach”? What we try to do isn’t tied only to spatial ambition. There’s a sense of publishing books to be read and re-read and of putting them on the record for another time as well.

Vona, you teach creative writing in the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester, you’ve taught at Villanova in the US, and you’ve been writer in residence at NUI Maynooth and NUI Galway. Can you tell me how your teaching influences your writing? Is it a help or a hindrance? Sometimes a bit of both?

VG: Honestly, I think of the two as separate slipstreams running alongside. They coincide at moments, but graciously (I like to think). There are different sightlines involved, different pulls and sensibilities, different energies. Teaching relies on preparation; a poem gets to where it needs to be by very different – more instinctual and surprising, less reasonable – routes. A crude distinction might be that whereas teaching takes you out of yourself, writing poems shoves you back in. I’d say teaching is a very practical help to my life more than to my writing (money tending to come in handy when you’re stood at a checkout). But maybe more than that too: I like doing close readings with my students, taking a hard, close look inside poems, hearing them notice things I might not. I like how, between us, we help each other pay sustained attention to the ways in which poems work. I think I’m able to give my students help and insight when it comes to improving individual poems and thinking about poetry as a discipline and as an art, and maybe some of that’s acquired from my practice as a poet, though maybe more from what I read. You always learn from good poems, though, whether by students of the craft or by poets of a lifetime’s experience. But I also know that if I had to teach every day of the calendar year, I’d never write poetry. For that, I need privacy, silence and time to let my thought process unravel so words can, if I’m lucky, occur to me in some kind of unforeseen, unaccountable way.

Peter, finally, what’s the best thing about working with Vona?

PF: It would be too easy to say “the books” but of course that’s part of it.

I remember an author with whom I used to work saying, “You don’t like me” and my responding, “I don’t have to like you. We just have to do good work together.” That was a unique situation, I’m glad to say. When I start to publish someone, when I accept his or her work, I have a hope that we’re beginning a long collaboration. There’s one case that’s lasted already since 1972.

The bonus of my involvement in Vona’s publishing history has been a friendship. No doubt about that. I like and admire her tremendously. In the middle of all the work we’ve done together we’ve had fun too. That’s important. Soon we’ll start arm-wrestling about the contents of her Selected Poems. I look forward to that, knowing that it too will be a constructive and instructive experience. Pistols for two – breakfast for one! Hardly. I’ve said before that I see the relationship between an editor and an author – and it is a special, private relationship - as less a duel than a duet. Let the music begin!

And same question for you, Vona….

PF: Peter knows poems. He reads well and widely, and he reads carefully. He can source a power outage quicker than I can hit “delete”. He has a hawk’s eye for a misplaced comma. He can spot a dud poem like it smells of fish. But he’s generous too when one strikes home, and you need that sometimes. He allows me to have an opinion about the cover, and even when it’s maybe not what he’d choose himself, he’ll run with it, just to see. He has taste, good taste, and I count on it. As an editor, he’s not bossy, but he’s usefully definite. He’s scrupulous, good at business and careful that that side of things doesn’t get shortchanged. He keeps faith with his poets, accommodates gear-shifts and changes of tack, so the press doesn’t falter or stall. He still gets a kick out of publishing books, and if he doesn’t, he doesn’t let on.

That’s several things (as Peter would, undoubtedly, point out). Let me boil it down to two: as an editor, he doesn’t define me by my worst work, and I believe absolutely he’d try to stop me publishing a lousy poem. That’s an important safety net, and it means a great deal to me.