Sunday, 20 October 2013

Editing for The Rialto I

The autumn issue has just arrived. This time it felt different: my name is on page 2, as one of the Assistant Editors (note the capitals), along with Abigail Parry.  We have got this job for the next two issues, winter and spring, under The Rialto’s Editor Development Programme, which is being run in conjunction with the Poetry School. We are helping Editor Michael Mackmin choose the poems for the winter issue.  Then we will have 15 pages of the spring issue to edit ourselves. 

I’m going to write here about the experience.  Part of that is, of course, the poems – what it’s like to read unpublished poems in large numbers.  Panning for gold.  Hoping to find a nugget the size of my fist.  And what it’s like to turn the chosen poems into a magazine.

Team: Helen Mitchell, Michael Mackmin, Nick Stone. 
Photo by Denise Bradley in Norwich Evening News
I’ll also write about other aspects.  I knew that a poetry magazine is much more than the sum of its poems.  Design, money, online presence, publicity and marketing, distribution, associated activities such as readings and competitions, money again....  But I didn’t realise the complexity of some decisions.  We went to a meeting of The Rialto’s advisory board in Norwich, and were impressed by the quality of the discussion, and the people Michael has got supporting him – staff members Nick and Helen (listed on page 2 and here), and the ‘local heroes’, as Michael calls them, who act as advisors. 

It won’t be possible to write about everything.  There are some subjects that poetry magazines tend not to discuss: their subscription numbers, for example.  But the larger ones, including The Rialto, are registered charities, so you can read their accounts on the Charity Commission website.  For the avoidance of doubt, Michael made it clear at the start that the secrecy of the confessional applies to individual submissions.

He was generous to name us in the new issue, for which all we did was proof-reading – our first serious task because we started at the end of the magazine production cycle, when it was about to go to press.  

Not that proof-reading is easy.  Contributions to The Rialto have to be sent by post.  This is not an electronic-age anachronism.  Printing out poems and posting them, with SAE and covering letter, takes a little time and thought.  Time and thought is good, for submitting to poetry magazines.  At least it is good from the editor’s point of view.

So: every time there’s a new issue, Michael has to type out around sixty poems from the paper copies.  Near impossible never to miss out a word, or a line, or even a stanza.  Or change something slightly.  Get indentations wrong.  When reading through the proofs, already corrected once, I was haunted by the memory of reading a poem in another poetry magazine which had been republished from the previous issue, with an apology: it had been attributed to the wrong author. 

The subconscious can take over when copy typing.  Michael asked us to check the two poems by Les Murray extra carefully.  Once, Les Murray had written in a poem for The Rialto, ‘God exists’.  Michael transcribed this, rather excellently, as ‘God exits’.     

Anyway, I did find mistakes, which, perversely, made me pleased – that such a nerdish activity had real purpose.  No missed stanzas or wrong names.  Mostly the occasional missed-out or mistyped word (not the sort of mistype a spell check would find), and wrong spacings, and one mis-spelt name.  I made a few layout suggestions, most of which weren’t valid because the magazine looks different when it’s three-dimensional, with a spine. 

The number and names of poets listed in the contents page matched those on the back cover, but the biographies were one short.  One poet has reason to be grateful.… 

I’m not that good at it.  I actually read two sets of proofs, with a tricky conversion process done by Nick in between, from word document to properly laid-out and paged pdf.  I picked up things in the second set that I hadn’t noticed first time round.  Already I am thinking that poetry magazine editors have superhuman powers.  And hoping someone isn’t, right now, contacting Michael to point out a mistake.

While an issue is being finalised, reading of submissions has to continue.  Michael let us in gently.  He gave us each two fat yellow folders, containing photocopies of around 30 submissions.  After a couple of weeks the three of us met and went through them, to calibrate reactions.  Then we went through the same process again, with another 30.  We marked them No and Maybe, with the occasional Yes. 

I think we were all surprised that our No’s and Maybe’s matched so closely.  One poet’s work got a unanimous Yes, and the only decision needed was which poem(s) to take.     Otherwise, the discussions centred on which of the Maybe’s could make it to a Yes – with one exception in the first round, where Michael was the only person to notice a short and intriguing poem.  He persuaded us easily. That submission had been the last in my pile.  Lesson for me: don’t read too much at once, and learn to notice when you’ve reached capacity.  If you read the submissions twice (which I’m doing, so far), change the order you read them in.      

Michael has now given us each around 50 submissions, not photocopied.  We are to read these and shortlist the ones we like enough to bring to a meeting, where we will all read each others’ and make decisions.  No Michael as a safety-net for the rejection of poems not shortlisted.  Our intention is to reduce the backlog of poems to be read.  We are just starting on poems sent in July. 

Next time I’ll write about the experience and process of reading the poems. 

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Forward Prize event: actors or poets?

The decision to have actors, not the shortlisted poets, read at last night’s first ever Forward prize-giving ceremony on the South Bank certainly got everyone talking.  Mostly, in the poetry world, negatively.  I wouldn’t have gone, had I known at the time we booked.  It’s such an unusual thing to do that no-one would have thought to check whether it might happen.  I don’t think the poets had the decision communicated well to them either.  (They all read at an event in East London the previous evening, which wasn’t very well publicised or (I believe) attended, and I couldn’t go anyway.)

I tried to put aside prejudices, partly because any organisation that promotes poetry deserves respect, and especially when I learned that the actors were giving their services for free.  But it was difficult.  Actors do have a tendency to put too much expression into a poem.  Actors and playwrights get recognition and sometimes celebrity status: in a line-up of thoroughly modern muses, Theatre is all glammed up while Poetry haunts the sidelines in rags. 

If the motivation was doubt as to whether poets can read their own work well, that’s outdated.  One only has to go to a TS Eliot prizegiving or a major magazine launch to understand that most good poets are somewhere between competent and excellent at reading. 

It was an interesting evening, but didn’t really work.  One poem was read  for each shortlisted poet; each actor read one or two poems.  Actors included Juliet Stevenson, Martin Jarvis and Helen McCrory.  There was hardly any hamming-up.  But most of the actors just didn’t inhabit the poems effectively.  I think it was harder, hearing most of the poems for the first time and not knowing several of the poets’ work, to ‘get’ each poem than it usually is at readings.  I don’t mean the ostensible subject, if any, but the motive force and the magical something that might make the listener/reader connect with the work.  Quite a lot of poems passed me by, and I realised around half-way through (the whole thing only lasted around an hour, which was good) that I was bored. 

Also a bit embarrassed – the whole arrangement felt awkward.  The winning poets didn’t have a voice at all.  Each winner was announced at the end of each section and invited onstage, where he/she was handed the prize but not allowed to say anything.  Three pale, ghostly, voiceless poets... though at least not in rags for the near future.  It was somehow humiliating, infantilising, patronising.  As for the other shortlisted poets, they got no attention at all.

Also annoyed.  Glamour and rags – poetry and poets hardly get any moments in the public eye.  And cheated: of Hannah Lowe – first time a friend of mine has been shortlisted for something, and she’s a fantastically good reader.  Of Patience Agbabi, supreme example of fusion of performance and page poetry, who would upstage any actor.  What an irony that she was off-staged.  Her shortlisted poem is here. 

Ultimate test: would they have done this, had Seamus Heaney been still with us and on the shortlist?    


Meanwhile, Rob Mackenzie has looked up the male/female ratio of Forward main prize winners: it’s 22:4.  Which is 5.5 men for every woman.  He’s also done the publishers: Faber & Picador get 6 each, OUP gets 3, Cape 2 (Cape published yesterday’s winner) and there’s a 1-each tail including Carcanet, Anvil, (Irish) Gallery and Chatto.   But then the major publishers (apart from Bloodaxe and Seren, which have never won anyway) publish two or three times more books by men than by women, see statistics for 2010 onwards here; and the ratio may well have been higher in earlier years.  NB: I doubt anyone would deny that Michael Symmons Roberts’ excellent Drysalter is a worthy winner.