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Poetry - Notes on Poetry Magazines

A brain-dump of thoughts on the world of the little poetry magazine.

Notes on Poetry Magazines

Poetry magazines are only as good as the poetry that appears in them, and really good poems are thin on the ground. By "really good" poems I mean ones that stop the reader in their tracks: that not only say interesting things, but that also say them in interesting ways - ideally in ways in which no one else could ever have said them.

Most poems that appear in little magazines are fundmentally competent: they say interesting things in more or less conventional ways. (I think one best regards one's own published poems, unless one gets strong intimations to the contrary from editors, as falling into this category.)

The upshot is that, in my experience, there's not a great deal that distinguishes one little magazine from another. They vary slightly from favouring the conventional (Other Poetry, Pulsar) to the experimental (The Frogmore Papers), and there are subtle differences in the type of subject matter that the editors find appealing. (Smiths Knoll favours human interest over lyricism; The Rialto seems to respond well to mental distress). But only at the very top (Poetry Review, The Rialto, Ambit, and so on) are you likely to come across anything really original - and it must be said, even there, not as often as you might think, this implying that there's always room at the top for real talent.

At any one time I subscribe to nine or ten magazines, but I can't in honesty claim I any longer read them all the way through. I know from experience that I'm unlikely to come across anything that lights up my world in the way that my first acquaintance with Auden or Larkin did. And I've no reason to expect people to feel differently about my poems that appear in magazines.

Talking about my own poems so much in the context of little magazines may seem self-indulgent, but the fact is that if I didn't write poetry myself, I wouldn't subscribe to the magazines. At first I subscribed to magazines because all the guides to writing poetry say you must read a magazine before submitting to it. Actually, that's not at all true. Most of the poems I've had accepted were submitted to magazines of which I hadn't seen a single copy. Out of (perhaps misplaced) gratitude I'd often subscribe subsequently, and here we come to the real reason for buying little magazines: if poets (aspiring or published) don't buy them, nobody else will. And obviously, a magazine without readers soon collapses. It's true that new magazines crop up all the time, but without the support of a decent readership their initially enthusiastic editors soon find themselves discouraged and, more to the point, out of pocket.

Most of the magazines I subscribe to, I've been published in, but as I've indicated, it's often because I subscribed subsequent to publication. And although some magazines look more favourably on subscribers than non-subscribers when it comes to accepting submissions, I've not found this generally to be true. (I was actually rather gratified when a magazine I subscribed to, and in which I'd been published multiple times, finally rejected some of my efforts. It reassured me that my previous work had been published, at least in part, on the strength of its own merits.)

I would suggest that writers subscribe to a broad range of magazines, including some of the most prestigious (Poetry Review, The Rialto) and some of the lesser-known and therefore needier (I retain a loyalty to the humble Pulsar for its having been the first magazine to publish my poems :) ). Often editors send handwritten notes of thanks for subscribing, so that after a while one starts to feel a personal acquaintance with them. The poetry world is a small and modest one, full of nice people wanting for money, fame or happiness. The existence of such people is largely why there's any poetry in the first place.

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