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Backroom talent has a muse

Vanessa Thorpe on Faber's secret weapon
IF THERE is "a still point in the turning world" of modern poetry - a lodestar for all those disparate, lonely voices, then Christopher Reid is definitely it.

As poetry editor at Faber and Faber for the past seven years he has walked a literary tightrope, working with some of the biggest names around and yet managing to develop many of Britain's most promising younger talents.

This month, he was also the man behind a headline-grabbing poetic coup. As Ted Hughes's editor, it was Reid who helped shape the revelatory new collection Birthday Letters about the Poet Laureate's love for his late wife Sylvia Plath.

And it was also Reid whose judgement was rewarded when Don Paterson, an emerging star on the Faber list, won the T S Eliot Prize for poetry last Monday.

Is Reid the consummate backroom boy then, content to hone and polish the work of others?

The answer is, emphatically, no. If you look back at the contenders for the Eliot prize last year Reid's own name was there, along with those of the better-known Faber writers John Fuller and the Nobel prize-winner Seamus Heaney. Reid's own poetry, it turns out, is central to his life and this is probably why so many poets listen to him.

"His poetry should be much more widely read," said Simon Armitage, who now entrusts all his poetry to Reid first. "He tries to get the best out of a poet, rather than just editing a book. You end up feeling very confident that it has been manicured and that somebody has taken the time to consider it."

Both Armitage, who wrote Cloud Cuckoo Land, and his friend and co-writer of Moon Country, Glyn Maxwell, have recently moved to Faber, partly lured by Reid's skill.

In a world of solitary egos, all struggling to follow their muse, Reid admits that he adapts his attitude to suit each poet. "I learn everything from my poets and I deal with them all very differently," he said. "There are some poets who want every single poem looked at backwards and forwards and others who don't want it or require it."

Reid, 48, was born in Hong Kong but was educated at boarding school in England. His first poem was published in an Epsom newspaper when he was only eight years old.

He ran the children's book list for Faber and then stood in for a while for his predecessor and one-time mentor, Craig Raine, before taking over permanently.Reid now works at Faber part-time, two weeks on and two weeks off, an arrangement that he says is ideal for writing.

His latest volume of collected work, Expanded Universes (1996), was edited by Jan Feaver, a colleague. Reviews focused on the charming tone of Reid's poetry. It is also a personal quality which may have won Faber friends.

For example, he gets on well with Faber poet Tom Paulin, someone Raine is said to have described as "an obtuse chump". The story goes that Paulin retaliated by saying Raine was "an impossibly reactionary, ignorant and snobbish megalomaniac".

He is, however, far more complimentary about the "gentle" manner of Raine's successor. "Christopher reads everything very closely and encourages me," he said.

"Everything is open to question, either the taking out of whole stanzas or just the altering of punctuation."