Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Poetry Journals

One part of my website is called Clot [edit: now removed] - a place where I've collected together details of over 120 North American and British/Irish poetry magazines and put them on a database which people can search through in various ways. I haven't updated the information I hold on these journals for over a year (for which I apologise), yet Clot remains one of the most popular sections of my site - in some months receiving more hits than even the Gvekuu pages, whose popularity with Danish football supporters remains a complete mystery to me.

Why am I talking about this? Well, partly because of a post by Lorcaloca on his reluctance to submit too many poems to journals (and in particular to journals where he "knows" the editor) and the comment stream the post generated.

Now, I rarely submit my poems anywhere. I don't see the point: I've got a website, and I have some favoured online workshops which I infest with poems every now and again. I've got no fears of posting poems to the newsgroups. All this activity seems enough to me to get a bit of recognition from people who enjoy reading poetry like mine, and thus all must be well with the world.

Why ruin this rather comfortable setup by doing something silly like submitting poems to journals, attending (and giving) readings, networking, etc, etc, et-sodding-cetera?

I never used to be like this. Right at the start of my serious poetry-learning career (round about when I hit 25) I was desperate to become the bestest poet ever. I was as keen as Colonel Mustard to send half-baked poems out to magazines big and small across the length of England. And I got hurt when the rejections started to flood back in.

Somehow, the message got through to the rational bit of me, which understood that the reason I was getting so many rejections was because my poems were utter crap. Rational Rik made a decision at that time to spend a bit of learning on getting a proper poetry education (courtesy of an evening course at The City Lit run by Laurie Smith). There's no arguing that it was learning well spent, and some of the later poems I wrote for those evening classes are still included in my poetry archive.

Then after a few years I started sending out poems to journals again. And the rejections came back in floods. I talked to some of the other regulars at the evening course, and found out that they, too, were getting nothing except rejections. Well, something about all this smelt a bit iffy to me, a bit conspiratorial.

Because whatever you may be thinking as you read this, Laurie Smith's classes weren't a waste of money. There were a number of extremely talented poets in those classes, people whose poetry deserved to be published and celebrated. And in my view I wasn't far behind them!

Rik was on the case! I decided to go and visit the Poetry Library at the Royal Festival Hall and have a really long, hard study of the journals which were so eager to reject my friends' work and my own. There, in the confines of the small library high up in that concrete monstrosity by the Thames, I had a revelation: most of the poems that almost all of the magazines were favouring over our work, were shite. Bilge. Mind-numbingly mis-judged, overwrought, badly scanned and rhymed, childish, sentimetalistic, boring.

This made me very angry. It was also making my friends - friends like Vicci Bentley, David Boll, Laurie Smith, Mick Delap, Helen Nicholson, John Stammers, Martin Sonenberg - pissed off in the extreme. So, angry, so pissed off, that we did something very selfish.

We started our own magazine.

Magma Magazine has been going for over 10 years now. Some of the escapades of the early years were distinctly hairy (I still shudder when I recall the 4 hour argument over the cover design for Magma 3), and a number of times the magazine stuttered due to a lack of funding to produce the next issue - Magma 6 (the issue I edited) was only printed through goodwill and overt bribery! I left the management board as Magma 7 was was being printed, after which the magazine has gone from strength to strength.

We had no choice to start Magma. Nobody was interested in printing the poetry we were writing. Nobody gave a shit that we existed. We weren't part of this favoured group or that circle of friends; we didn't go to the right readings at the Poetry Society; we didn't network with the appropriate degree of worshipfulness. Instead, we did what we had to do to change matters.

But it all left a nasty taste in my mouth: when I gave up Magma, I gave up poetry - and only came back to poetry when I discovered the poetry newsgroups a few years later. I'm more than happy for people to play the publishing game if that's what turns them on - maybe for a few it really will be the road to riches and ruin. But I know that there has to be a better way, and maybe my little website and my little blog and my little self-published book could - just could - be that better way.

There's too many maybe's in this post. Maybe it's time I ditched Clot.


  1. Rik - you are quite right in what you say. Of course, I bet John Stammers won't gather quite so many rejections now! But equally, it seems wrong that someone of his talent wasn't being published then just because people didn't know his name.
    I do send out poems to magazines, but at a slow rate, and nearly always to magazines I know and like. I still get a hell of a lot of rejections though.
    I have a poem "Sketching the Moors" that I workshopped at Pffa and Erato. I revised it. It's one of my strongest poems. But it has already been rejected three times, including a rejection by Magma!

    A few years ago, I might have assumed there was something wrong with the poem and tried to revise it again (sometimes, of course, there is something wrong with a poem). But I know I have published poems in similar magazines that were worse than 'Sketching The Moors'. It all seems such a lottery and such a lot of postage.

    However, I'll probably try again, at my usual slow rate.

    Another problem may be the magazines I submit to. I don't submit to anything below the quality of Magma certainly. Perhaps if I submitted to poor-quality magazines, I could get more poems published, but there hardly seems any point to that.

    I'll just have to live with the frustration.

  2. Rik,

    I think I'm just too damned lazy to submit anywhere. Just reading your entry, what with the starting a magazine! and getting off your ass and stuff, that's beyond me.

    Also, I have to admit that the people who read poetry mags are probably not my audience. I think my audience, the group I'm addressing when I write, is the literate non-poetry reader.

    Yes, I know. I couldn't be more stupid than to have an audience of people who aren't interested in my writing. It is my burden. *sniffle*


  3. Hey, you don't allow anonymous comments! I had to sign up as a blogger on blogspot just to reply. Pbbffft.

    It's a conspiracy. Rik's only letting the people he knows comment. The rest of us aren't worthy.

    What I'm getting at is - there is always a certain degree of nepotism with any publishing organization, be it online or in print, for novels, essays, poetry, fiction, or anything else. It happens in life, all around us, for everything. We trust and like what we know more than what we don't. Period. It may piss you off, but I have no qualms in saying that I'm sure you do it yourself.

    Certainly the people who edit poetry publications will favour the work that they themselves are generally comfortable writing. If those editors come from a certain MFA program, then they've been taught to look at poetry a certain way, and that influences their decisions. No one is unbiased, and most publishing groups rejection 99% of what is submitted. Getting shitloads of rejections is the name of the publishing game unless you self-publish, in which case you don't have the marketing machine of bigger publishing houses behind you and less people read your work. Six of one, half dozen of the other.