Editing Modernism in Canada


March 15, 2011

The modular growth of a database

When Ruth Panofsky first asked me to create a comparative document of editorial changes to various published versions of the poems of Miriam Waddington, it didn’t sound like something that would take too long. As an experienced editor and poet in my own right, the project sounded both fascinating and right up my alley. So I said yes.

There was an existing bibliography listing all of Waddington’s poems published in literary journals almost to the end of her career—all 360 of them. Okay, so she was prolific, but the project still seemed doable. While a few poems were only published once, so no comparison was required, others were published half-a-dozen times or more. That’s a lot of poems to analyze! Sometimes the variations were minor, but other times whole stanzas were added or missing. Of course, it’s impossible to deconstruct which changes were Waddington’s and which might have been introduced by an editor implementing stylistic preferences (e.g., Canadian or American spelling), so everything was included.

As a GA, I was grateful for the support of undergrad research assistants to help track down all the published versions of each poem, as well as some other arduous tasks. After a lot of interlibrary loan requests and time, not to mention finding a few errors in the bibliography, we collected quite a pile of paper. Trying to keep everything carefully numbered and compiled was a bit of a challenge, but as long as I proceeded in an orderly fashion, it all made sense.

Then, as I was working my way through this enormous pile of paper, it occurred to me that perhaps some of Waddington’s poems had not seen initial publication in literary journals. While the bibliography I was using was generally reliable, it only listed the poems that had first appeared in journals. What if some of her work didn’t see the light of day until it was published in a poetry collection, in book form? What if it had seen subsequent publication in which editorial variations appeared? This thought sent me looking through the tables of contents of her collections. And yes, I was right! A further 194 poems had been published in collections first!

Oh. That meant that the initial daunting task of comparing the various published versions of 360 poems had grown to 554 poems. It only made sense to compile a secondary bibliography. When I went through the final poetry manuscript to ensure that my new bibliography was complete and accurate, I discovered I’d missed a lot on the first pass. I also discovered that many poems had changed titles; what I thought was a new and different poem was actually the same poem by a different name. So while some poems were missing altogether, others had been duplicated.

It’s taken a team of people working on this, with Ruth at the helm, but now we’re putting the finishing touches on the comparative document. There are still a couple of minor pieces missing (interlibrary loans have been amazing, but not quite perfect), and I’m sorting the comparative document into the same order as the poetry manuscript to make the digital apparatus optimally user friendly. While I go through, I’m also constantly checking and rechecking, looking for a perfection I know will never be complete. Although I’ve put a lot of time and effort into this project and I’ve given it my best, any editor knows that there’s no such thing as total perfection.

One Response to “The modular growth of a database”

  1. Melissa says:

    Catherine, I’m grateful for your perfectionism! I’m currently weeding out the published from the unpublished poems in material from the Waddington archive using your file of the published poems, and having it so accurate and organized makes my life much easier.

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