Sunday, 27 September 2015

Poetry Magazines - A Personal Reflection (Sept 15)

There is a distinguished history of poetry magazines in England, which have brought pleasure to numberless readers. In one sense, poetry magazines are part of a long chain of innovation which arguably began with the radical essayists and pamphleteering poets of bygone centuries, and in their different ways, the magazines of the last hundred or so years have had considerable influence, from the pre-War formal compendiums, to scholarly anthologies such as The English Society's Modern Poetry, and Poems of Today, which provided platforms for experimental voices such as ASJ Tessimond, Dorothy Wellesley and Ruth Pitter, through the avant-garde mags of the 60's and the fiercely independent Littack - bullishly edited by a young William Oxley - to the politically charged DIY culture of the 80's, the emergence of sophisticated international journals, and the jostling for prominence between print and e-zine publications today.

My own association with poetry magazines begins around the turn of the Millennium. Home after an ill-fated few months studying English in Huddersfield, I headed to the library and turned as millions had before to the Bible of aspiring poets, The Writers' and Artists' Handbook. The book fed me page after page of potential addresses to which my naive poems, scribbled in tatty notebooks and bashed out in my bedroom on an electronic typewriter, might be sent, and as I journeyed through the rainy lanes and avenues to photocopy my poems at a newsagents and post them off, it was to journals such as Outposts, The Interpreters House and The London Review of Books to which I would entrust them. I lacked the cash to purchase any of these titles, and my submissions were always returned with polite rejections - or not returned at all.

Over the following couple of years, busy working in Mental Health, I had little time for literary aspirations, and attempts at being published were largely kicked into the long grass - give or take the occasional rejection (These seem very old fashioned: what are you READING?!)

The early 2000's, though, was a period when British poetry magazines enjoyed a renaissance, and in the summer of 2002, now working with homeless people in west London, and subsisting in a draughty east-end flat, I began sending work out again - this time armed not only with the Yearbook, but with a fat, bright yellow book I had come across on a late night shopping trip to the Charring Cross Road Borders. Edited by Barry Turner, The Writer's Handbook was an earthier entity than the W and A, and instead of lengthy sermon-style columns, was arranged in snappy lists according to genre. It is thanks to The Writer's Handbook that I first learned about magazines such as Iota, Smoke and Tears in the Fence.

In September, a letter arrived from Bonita Hall, editor of The Black Rose, and was quickly blu-tacked on my wall as a memento of my first acceptance. The Black Rose was a stylish softback, A-4 and sleeved in felty green, published in Loughton, Essex. Bonita had selected my poem The Gypsy's Farewell, which would appear in my collection Random Journeys (The Unpretentious Arts 2014), to be published in The Black Rose the following February. This was followed by inclusions in the newly devised Decanto - a glossy booklet of mystical and spiritual poetry, published in rural East Sussex and edited by Lisa Stewart, herself the author of some fine Gothic poetry, which she wrote under the pen name of Elise. The booklets featured Italianate-style cover art, reviews and interviews, and the debut edition contained a profile of Shelley. 

Unruffled by my darkening of its doors, Decanto appears to be going from strength to strength, and is introduced on the website for Masque Publishing (Lisa Stewart's press, which prints the magazine) as an independent, totally self-funded poetry magazine, who wish to offer poets the freedom to write in whatever style they wish.

Undoubtedly, had such liberal editorial policies not existed, I would have struggled even more than all poets inevitably do when making those first in-roads on the quest of publication.

These early acceptances from places like Decanto were important milestones as they helped me foster confidence, while opening my eyes to the styles and voices of almost limitless numbers of other, better poets - the list of whom grew rapidly as I began to delve further into the plethora of poetry magazines on offer - a dazzling array of attractive, affordable publications. These included writers whose works continue to interest and at times delight me - such as Liz Atkin, Miriam Darlington, and Lynne Wycherley - poets I may never have come across, or would have taken many more years to discover, if not for such splendid entities as Awen, Iota, Other Poetry, Parameter, (a print zine, despite its internet-implying name), The Journal, The New Writer and Quattrocento - an elaborate, double-sleeved quarterly produced in Wales whose theme and decor were inspired by 15th Century Italian art.

Poet in the Round was an altogether different animal - one of the few poetry journals that managed to appear in A4 size without seeming cumbersome or cheaply made. On the contrary, this elegant, occasional feast of poetry and pictures was lovingly wrought by Olivia Mannion-Daniels and featured impressionistic black and white illustrations accompanying the poems, which tended on the atmospheric and surreal often printed in concrete style and, as when this happens in Burnside, in a way that mirrored the ethereal or dreamlike nature of the words and concepts.

During the mid 2000's, I racked up a sizeable collection of small magazines, established pen-friendships with editors and with poets whose writing I first found within them, and built up a regularity of submissions, rejections and occasional acceptances. Looking back at the styles of poetry prevalent in those days, there seems to have been a reasonably equal balance between the descriptive and declarative, the rural and the urban, the witty and the grim. One theme highly noticeable was the Iraq War and its offshoots - almost always in opposition, or drawing to mind the loss of life. Other than this fairly pivotal issue, the richness of the poetry magazines during that decade must surely be in no small way attributed to their thematic diversity. Emboldened by this blank canvas atmosphere, I found myself trying my luck with more established, larger journals, as well as the highly experimental, and even one or two which could afford to pay their poets, which ultimately meant widening my scope in the direction of three magazines in particular. The first with which I was to have any success in terms of placing work to be published, was Birmingham's Obsessed with Pipework, an eclectic little bundle of top quality poetry.

OWP was edited by Charles Johnson, a somewhat elusive, intriguing poet whose characteristically minimalist, at times dark, poetry is represented only by a few slim volumes, and whose editorial policy traversed the spectrum: edgy, erratic, sometimes surreal - all these words might apply to the poetry he chose for his lo-fi, stapled editions of Obsessed with Pipework. Spring 2004 featured a startling poem by Cheshire-based Pat Winslow - Man Carrying a Pig, inspired by the Peter Coker painting of the same name. Coker's picture shows a smudge-faced man in butcher's smock, with an abnormally sized hand, trying to uphold or maybe lift a pig hanging from a hook. He is recalled in the poem by his apron glowing with blood, and the scene is compared to

the moment when a dancer

hoists his partner onto his shoulder,

this is more about him than her.

A "vegetarian" since the age of 16, I had around this time grown lazier in my resolve, and in my twelve hour stints on psychiatric wards, where the only food available was that served to patients from a penny-pinching catering firm, I had begun to allow certain morsels of meat to pass my lips. As might be expected of one of Jewish background, I had rarely tasted pig skin, but this powerful poem - like Liz Atkin's Tongues - pulled me up and forced me to review my blase outlook on eating dead animals, hitting me hard with unflinching, punishing truths, as when Pat gruesomely tells us, A murderer loves his victim eyes closed. It was genuinely life-changing - among the main triggers for my renewed abstention from dead flesh.

Pipework introduced me also to such powrful poets as Geraldine Green, Jessica Harman, Rhiannon Hooson, Rowena Hulton, Ruth Smith and Louis Bourgeois. In those days, wanting to somehow pepper up my letters with something that might cause an editor to remember me, I would habitually add a short note to my submissions saying such pedestrian things as "I would love to learn more about the magazine," or, in the case of Obsessed with Pipework, enquiring after the meaning of the name. To this last question, Johnson told me that he "may touch upon the title in a future issue."

Rejections came in thick and fast from OWP, and Johnson proved a fastidious editor - paying close attention to my poems, rebuking me for casual mistakes or sloppy grammar, and remarking of my six-poem sequence Dream Sequence, composed around this time, that he was "dissatisfied" - it hinted but never went anywhere, the different dreams were neither sufficiently autobiographical, nor so strongly focused on their subjects as to detract from an authorial clunkiness. Exactly the kind of constructive criticism that is helpful to a poet. I followed his advice, and a decade later Dream Sequence was published as a print copy.

Finally, I hit the jackpot with OWP. In a handwritten note from August 04, I note with a smile his typical hard-to-please, bathetic congratulations: Thanks for persisting with us, he says in loopy purple - and after an almost grudging acknowledgement that the poem he chose to print was "good", he goes on to list his thoughts on the three unsuccessful poems I submitted in its company: interesting (underlined), okay, and for the final poem a simple, unequivocal no!

Vegetability, which appeared in Obsessed with Pipework 31 (summer 2005) is as yet unpublished elsewhere, but I hope to find it a suitable home in a future collection. Suffice to say, though, that visions of trees as wicked stepfathers and reincarnated Hippopotomai seemed to fit the bill for OWP. Though Charles Johnson never did enlighten me on the origins of his magazine's improbable name.

Acumen is of course one of the strongest and best established poetry magazines in existence, and its editor Patricia Oxley is well known for her broad-church policy. Patricia Oxley is not herself a poet, but her husband William, with whom I established a brief but very helpful correspondence some years ago, is a well regarded man of letters: a poetic agitator and innovator, a rebel who became an unlikely traditionalist, a champion of free expression, and to date the only English poet to have given a reading in Kathmandu. In the 1970's, Oxley had been a contrary figure, who having begun his own output with fairly unthreatening works, used the small press and magazine scene to champion what he saw as the outsiders of poetry - his self-produced magazine Littack ("Literature-Attack") gaining fame (and infamy) far and wide. "This magazine is pleased to acknowledge the NON-ASSISTANCE of the Arts Council," its header would proclaim, with Oxley arguing that accepting money from State-sponsored bodies would leave any artist to some extent dependent on, and in consequence an agent of, that State. Littack aimed to do away with outmoded forms and concepts, and to lionize the confrontational or strange. At the same time, he refuted - and refutes - the wilful ignorance of poets who ignore the heritage of poetry, and the time-honoured and long-crafted forms and metres of former generations - whether or not they choose to use them. On his website Lynx, Douglas Clark recalls how Oxley was notorious for his controversial and anarchic editing of his 70's magazine ... he is somewhat shunned by the London Poetry establishment. Himself shunning genres he considered bordering on irrelevant, such as the Martian Poets ("poetry reduced entirely to metaphor"), realism ("a celebration of the obvious") and most political poetry ("a second rate subject given first rate treatment"), his Littack endeavour was a seminal episode in the history of English poetry magazines, and is still fairly available via sources such as ebay. It is fair to say that Acumen, in which the poems are selected entirely by his wife, could hardly have been more different.

I had several poems in Acumen, and one of them was Closing Quarter. I will republish the poem in full below, because for me it represents the kind of personal triumph that can be gained by patiently ploughing on with magazine submissions. The poem was originally written in the autumn of 2001, when I was composing the earliest of my Little Creatures poems, but remained unpublished and difficult to place. It had been scribbled down one evening while sitting with my family eating tea with some soap opera or another in the background, and hovered around in my consciousness the whole of the following year - somehow surviving in a small, bedraggled notebook.

One evening in late 2002, working in a hostel for the homeless on a terraced street near Wormwood Scrubs, I returned to the poem. It was bitter cold, and I sat in the office during a break from my duties, which usually consisted of lengthy discussions and debates with residents on subjects ranging from pop music to politics - and indeed poetry. I rewrote the poem as it then stood. Inwardly pining for home turf, my loneliness seemed to crystallise into the line which floated into my head, like a leaf sailing to the ground in autumn wind. But it was, I knew, a Northern wind that I was thinking of, it was the Northern winter, and the North, that rattled through my memories on that dark, chill night. Miles from home, amid the crowded maze of London, it was the poem's Northern origins, then that supplied the missing link, the line - as hard as any northern winter - that completed the puzzle. As such, the poem was newly finished, and again did the rounds of submissions for more than two years, eventually being accepted in the summer of 2005. It appeared in Acumen that September, and was featured on their website in November as one of their Poems of the Month.


Watching stray leaves fall,
sliced yesterdays buffeted by wind
hard as any Northern winter
to die upon a concrete bed;

the true spirit of late autumn:
farewells to days deceased,
pondering next year under smoky sky
curling thickly through the alleyways and fields.
Other Poetry was the first magazine to pay me for my poetry, in late 2005, and this seemed a vindication, as we headed into the second half of a decade whose exciting literary scene showed no sign of fading. Many of the other magazines I read during the 2000's, including the Welsh periodicals Planet and Seventh Quarry, the incredibly helpful The New Writer and the Liverpudlian Smoke - in which avant-garde or even erotic line drawings accompanied some of the poems - played important parts in my writing and reading development, occasionally publishing my efforts. Another tool at my disposal would be Light's List of Literary Magazines, brainchild of retired scientist John Light. Joseph Hemming's Dial 174 was a jamboree of cluttered pages - poetry which ran the gauntlet of amateurish greetings-card style to the confrontational and advanced, essays on environmentalism, and photographs of Joseph's cat lounging on his desk.

Inevitably, the width of my perusals narrowed over time, as the necessities of choosing small numbers to regularly read were imposed by time and finance - but in any case, as the decade neared expiry, I was beginning to find that the anticipation which greeted me on unveiling some new arrival on the scene, was fading. While the established magazines still flourished, depressing numbers came coated in Arts-Councilized respectability - and the poetry within them was often predictable, or even dull. A lot of the poems finding favour at this time, as mentioned earlier, related to continuing hostilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and other troublespots. Sometimes these veered towards the lazy, with limericks and silly rhymes about Blair and Bush that failed to centralize their authors' ire on any specific target, or to honour the subject's importance with suitable seriousness.  Instead, they were trotted out dutifully - hackneyed rhymes of "Tony" with "phoney" and "baloney," together with a predictability which no doubt sat well with the consciences of those who wrote, and many who would read, these polemical bulletins, but which did nothing, in a poetic sense, to stimulate debate, breathe new ideas, or even pay significant homage to older ones.

Many of my former favourites began to topple into nonexistence. I remember certain magazines being subject to continual price rises, due not to proprietorial greed but the simple problem of rises in the price of paper. As letters pages, and even sometimes editorials, became more and more predictably full of complaints about the lack of inclusivity in poetry - the general implication being that, as poets, we were failing to do our jobs unless the work we produced was as commercial as possible (and presumably helped increase the marketability of their struggling publications) - so, I felt, did the general sway of poetry magazines grow increasingly social and politically minded. It seemed an insoluble problem - on the one hand, editors and correspondents proclaimed "the poetry scene" was too elitist, and failing to attract a wider audience; on the other, it was said that many editors lacked the risk-taking nerve to publish the unfashionable or cerebral.

I recall with sadness the lamentably short lifespan of Ely's Inclement (whose editor Michelle Foster would send xmas cards to all published by the magazine that year), the perfect-bound, bookish Seam and Smiths Knoll, and to a beautiful entity that glimmered for brief moments before fizzling into the ether - the West Midlands quarterly Amber Silhouettes, published by Vicky Stevens.

Like so many of the former friends described above, all traces of Amber Silhouettes evade pursuit. However, this all-but forgotten gem gathered up for me my first encounters with the sublime poetry of Vivien Steels, which is widely available online, and the enchanting retrospection of Mervyn Linford - described in the magazine as a "romantic renaissance poet." Indeed, trends such as Neo-Romantic, Pagan, Gothic and spiritualist poetry by such that by Pauline Charlton seemed to drip from the pages of the magazine and small press market in those days - Upon Night's Pewter Wings; Beneath Orion's Shadow; I am a captured, spellbound, enchanted thing!

The highlight of Amber Silhouettes, though, was the inclusion of the editor's own poetry - simply crafted haiku sparing in their detail but rich in empathy and feeling:

On bonfire night

The stars play hide and seek

Behind smoky clouds

and the startlingly simple Bombs, following the Madrid suicide bombing in March 2004:



Cries tears of blood.

At the time of writing, the future still looks bright for poetry publications that have weathered the storms of the financial crash, recession, and the ebb and flow of poetry's popularity. Undoubtedly, a challenge remains in the form of online zines, but personally (and as perhaps evidenced by the existence of this site!) I have never seen a reason to abandon one in favour of the other. Online publications provide an instantaneous proximity to poems, but for as long as they are printed I will always seek magazines of poetry as a means of discovering new poets, for something to read on the train or on a lunch break, or to become lost in on a rainy afternoon. Nothing quite comes close to the peculiar intimacy offered by a poetry journal - be it a newspaper sized pull-out, a hard-spined anthology style compendium, or a stapled A-5 chapbook that will slot into a pocket. Perhaps there will never again be a poetry magazine "scene," but the poetry magazines in print today are as innovative and rewarding as ever, parts of a rich tapestry of literary heritage stretching hundreds of years, and integral to our reading, understanding, and love, of poetry.

September 2015.

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