[originally posted on Kickaction.ca]
Karis Shearer is a scholar of Canadian literature (she currently teaches courses on masculinity in Canadian literature, pedagogy in and pedagogy of Canadian literature at Concordia University), reviews editor for Matrix magazine, as well as an editor at Snare Books. She worked with Helen Hajnoczky (who was interviewed for the series in October) on the poetry collection, Poets and Killers. I spoke with Shearer this week about the role (and the qualities) of a good editor – in all senses of the word.
We often hear from authors, but editors are another story. What are the necessary qualities of being a good editor?
I think that depends on the context – on what you’re editing. For example, in one of my roles, I’m an editor for Snare Books, a Montreal small press that publishes avant-garde poetry and prose. In this case, I work with living authors who are in the process of developing manuscripts. I think a good editor asks a lot of questions — What’s this book trying to do? How does it work? Why X rather than Y? What motivated the writing of this work in the first place? – and then listens carefully to the author’s answers. Editing’s not the ‘correction’ of a manuscript; editing is a process, an ongoing dialogue, so it’s important that the author and editor feel they’re on the same page (pun intended).
What are the differences between working as an academic editor, and an editor for a small press working with emerging writers?
With my work at Snare, getting on the same page is usually easy enough – the author and I will have a running email correspondence throughout the editing process. We’ll talk on the phone. We’ll Facebook. We’ll instant-message. Unfortunately, none of that’s possible with the editing of modernist authors I work on in my scholarly editing because they’re no longer living. I wish I could send Louis Dudek a text message when I have questions about his letters to Ezra Pound (which I’m currently editing); since I can’t, I have to rely on other sources – his published journals, essays, archived documents, etc. – to help me find answers.
Aside from editing Canadian authors’ books, you’re an academic specializing in Canadian Literature. How does this affect the way you approach editing other authors?
The academic background means I’ve read pretty widely in the field of Canadian literature and criticism, which is a helpful context to bring to editing Snare manuscripts that are probably going to circulate primarily in a Canadian market. When I’m editing, I’m thinking about questions like: what are some of the precedents for this manuscript? How does this one work differently? Beyond that, a lot of my academic research focuses on the history of literary production in Canada – especially small-press publishing – so I can draw on that background to help situate a manuscript too.
How do you find the work-life balance – as someone who seems to be involved in many projects, including teaching, research, and editing other creative writers?
It can be a challenge to balance everything, but I don’t think I could give any of it up because each of those jobs you mentioned (plus, of course, reading and writing) is part of a kind of literary life I find really energizing. Each activity reminds me why I do the others. But I think that’s probably true for most literature professors who are, by definition, engaged in writing and teaching. Here’s an example of how these activities can be related to one another: Jane Tolmie and I recently co-authored a chapter on “Masculinities in Canadian Literature” for a book called Canadian Perspectives on Men and Masculinities that’s forthcoming from Oxford University Press later this year. Writing and researching that chapter with Jane was an experience that inspired the course “Masculinities in Canadian Literature” that I’m currently teaching at Concordia University. So you could say I get to continue the conversation started in our chapter, this time in the classroom with a whole new set of voices and perspectives.
You are the reviews editor for Matrix magazine. How did you get involved with the magazine in the first place? And for readers unfamiliar with the magazine, could you briefly discuss the magazine’s focus?
When I came back to Montréal a few years ago, the first thing I wanted to do was reconnect with the literary scene(s) here and see what was happening. I did that by going to as many book launches and readings as I could; one of those readings was the Pilot series where I met the then-reviews editor for Matrix, Darren Bifford, who asked me if I wanted to send him a book review. I did, and eventually when Darren moved on to other projects, I became the next reviews editor. It’s a job that lets me stay on top of what’s hot off the (small) press in Canadian literature each season and I also enjoy the challenge of making what I hope will be good matches between books and reviewers.
Matrix publishes a lot of avant-garde, experimental, mix-genre work and each issue of the magazine features a “dossier” of work selected by guest-editors on a specific theme. For example, Melanie Bell and I recently co-edited the “New Feminisms” issue, which included some very provocative work by Sina Queyras, Gillian Sze, Lydia Perovic, Christine Sy, T.L. Cowan, Erin Wunker & Emily Carr, and Helen Hajnoczky, among others. One of the upcoming Matrix issues will be a “Translation” issue – keep an eye out for it!
What projects are you working on at the moment?
Right now I’m finishing up an edition of Louis Dudek’s correspondence with Ezra Pound. Dudek, for those who aren’t familiar with him, was a Montreal poet who was very influential in the Canadian literary scene, as a poet, editor, critic, publisher, and professor. He was a mentor to a lot of young poets, including Leonard Cohen whose first book, Let Us Compare Mythologies, Dudek published as part of the McGill Poetry Series he’d started. But before that, when Dudek was still a graduate student in New York, he wrote to Ezra Pound, beginning a correspondence that would continue for more than a decade. For a variety of reasons, Dudek’s letters have never been published before and they’re fascinating stuff for anyone interested in the Montreal poetry scene or the relationship between Canadian and American modernism.
I’ve also just returned from a fall semester at Vanderbilt University where I began a new book project on Canadian modernist poet-professors and their interventions in the teaching of literature in the university. The idea of the poet-professor is linked to my interest in the intersection of different forms of labour (creative, intellectual, etc.), and being a scholar-teacher-editor myself helps me think through how these poets might have negotiated multiple roles.