So I’m flicking through poetry magazines, old and new.
A pile of them on the floor at my right and I’m dipping in and out, out and in. I’m half interested, half bored.
I’ve read this one before at least twice. How come I don’t remember this page? How come I don’t remember this poem, the one I’m reading over and over, startled into absolute attention? Good grief – what a poem, what an astonishing thing in 15 lines! And it stays with me all day, that experience made of words, while all the other poems settle back into a blur, like the grounds in a cafetière after the coffee’s been poured out.
If I go back to that magazine another day (I may or may not, the pile’s still there on the floor) I’ll go straight to that poem, go back for a fix. But maybe there’ll be another one I didn’t see before. There probably will. It happens like that. Poetry magazines are odd things. They don’t read logically. They never do what I expect. Often not what I want either, but that’s okay. They’re stubborn creatures, made by editors who are poets. They’re meant to wake me up, not calm me down.
But I’m thinking in particular about magazines after reading Jo Bell on her method of sending poems out. Which I admired and shared, not least because as a publisher I’m always telling poets to get on with the business, send the poems out, get them into the best magazines they can. Why? That’s the thing. Why?
There are many reasons and they accumulate. There are poets who leap into publication without a previous ‘track record’, but it’s rare. I like the magazine (and sometimes ezine) route. Here are ten (which are not all) of the reasons.
1. Peer validation. If a prospective publisher suspects your poems are good, they do like to have this confirmed by other editors. (It sometimes happens that poems I think are brilliant don’t get into good magazines, but it’s rare). Also publishers do read magazines sometimes and notice the poets in them and nod and note down a name. But this is not the most important of the reasons.
2. Once printed in a magazine, the poems are out there finding readers, which is what poems are for. Someone, somewhere is sitting up in a chair astonished, and thinking ‘Good grief! What a poem!’ That’s one reader. Two readers thinking the same is a readership. Which is what poets need to sail in.
3. In magazines, the poet’s name is bobbing round the waters gathering momentum and recognition. We buy or borrow books (eventually) by people we’ve heard of, not people whose names mean nothing to us (I know there are exceptions, there are always exceptions).
4. The poet who works at getting the poems out there is a member of the community of jobbing poets. It’s part of the apprenticeship, if you like. It’s an honourable striving. If the poems aren’t accepted, the effort is no less praiseworthy. Besides, you’re going to stick at it. You’re going to send them somewhere else. There are many publications for your messages in a bottle to float away to.
5. When you do have a poem accepted, you find yourself between the covers with other poets. You read their work carefully then, especially the ones on pages near you. Most especially the one on the facing page. You feel almost as though you’ve met those poets in person. And sometimes you do. You go to a magazine launch and blimey – there you are sitting next to your facing-page poet. It’s a bond that can last, with luck, a lifetime. We need these bonds.
6. Most magazines (not all) have a bit of bio somewhere or other about authors. If a publisher has offered to do a pamphlet of your poems next year, you can flag the imminent publication in the bio, which is great. It’s another tiny cog in the great wheel of promotion. It may eventually sell a couple of copies.
7. Once your poems are published in book or pamphlet form, the publisher wants the book reviewed as widely as possible. Magazines that run reviews (not all of them do) will generally review poets they’ve published themselves. If they haven’t published your poems (unless your publication is prize-winning or PBS-recommended) you can forget being reviewed. And reviews are another cog in that promotional wheel.
8. Just as a magazine is a creative work made by the editor(s), so a publishing imprint is a creation, and the proud creator wants it to be well-regarded. Publishers work tirelessly for a good reputation, because a good reputation brings the best poets and the best poets strengthen the reputation. Recognition and momentum. Each time one of ‘my’ poets has work in a leading magazine and the bio mentions HappenStance, the imprint's reputation is enhanced.
9. Your first collection is in print. You are still, aren’t you, the jobbing poet, stalwartly sending poems out to the magazines? Someone reads your latest sestina(!) in a magazine and loves it. They look up the bio. They see you have a book in print. They buy it! Yeay!
10. It's hard graft, this regular sending out of poems, but it strengthens you. Yes, rejection of your favourites is demoralising. But there are at least three key aspects to the poetry business. One is the best bit – the making of poems, the joy and excitement and fun of that. Two is getting those poems as good as they can be, which means exposing them to strangers and learning from feedback (rejection makes you look hard at your loved-ones, and sometimes change them for the better). Three is determination. Stickability. Doing the boring business of getting the poems out there. Earning respect because you don’t give up. Paying your dues. Standing up and being counted. You wanna be a poet? This is your job.