Monday 24 February 2014

Editing for The Rialto III: putting the new magazine together, broadening the catchment

This piece has already appeared on the Rialto blog.  I’m posting it here too, because I want as many people as possible to read how we’d like to broaden the catchment.  Also because the other Rialto pieces are on here too.  At the end I’ve included a comment we received, with ideas for broadening the catchment, and my reply. 

Last Monday at the Troubadour there was an editors’ discussion on the art of choosing, between The Rialto’s Michael Mackmin and the editors of Poetry Review and Poetry London.  There’s a good account of it by Greg Freeman on WriteOutLoud.


It’s strange to open a poetry magazine whose contents you know, down to the last comma – have discussed and selected, and then proof-read down to the last comma.  I hope there aren't any mistakes in issue 79 of The Rialto, the one that’s out now with hoopoes and a wild boar on the front cover.    

Rialto cover by Mark Hearld
When you start reading submissions for a new issue, you have no idea what shape it might take.  As the accepted poems mount up, some trends may emerge.  I found I wasn’t paying much attention to this, only to whether the poems I was reading were good, except for a couple of times when I thought Oh, this one might go well with X. 

When it was time to put the poems together for issue 79, the three editors borrowed the sitting-room of a North London basement flat.  We each laid out our own proposal for ordering on the floor.  We were well on the way to a synthesis when the door was nudged open and a small black whirlwind skittered across the room, sending paper flying.  And back again, taking a different route.  Muddy paw-prints everywhere.  It was very funny and the puppy was adorable when she calmed down.  But then I didn’t have to try to recreate a magazine.  Michael Mackmin’s thoughts may have been less charitable. 

Ordering the poems was like putting up a tent – the canvas needs to be taut everywhere, if it sags then a prop is needed.  (This metaphor won’t stand up itself when tested, but I found it helped the thinking.)  The prop might be a longer set of poems, or one especially striking poem.  Or two.  

It seems to be good to have, in the juxtapositions, a mixture of resonances/echoes and contrasts. When I did my own ordering before we met, I made mistakes, for example putting two longer sets of work next to each other that were a little similar in tone.  Not that this would always not work, but it didn’t here.  

One of the best things about The Rialto is its A4 spaciousness – there’s room for longer poems, or several from the same author, without unbalancing the magazine or making it look crammed.  So there are six short poems from Niall Campbell, plus his prose account of his own writing. Co-assistant editor Abigail Parry and I are both fans of his work (see here), and now Michael is too.  Niall’s first collection (Bloodaxe) is one of my most-anticipated books of 2014.  There are some poems from Nichola Deane, whose pamphlet My Moriarty I’ve just reviewed; several pages given to Hannah Lowe’s work in progress centred on saxophonist Joe Harriott who introduced her parents to each other; and three new poems from another Rialto pamphlet poet, Janet Rogerson. 

World War One looms, with Carol Rumens and Liz Berry in search of their ancestors.  Michael swooped on Kim Moore at Aldeburgh after she’d read ‘A Trumpet Teacher’s Curse’ and secured it for the magazine.  There are other Rialto names such as Christina Dunhill and Julie Mellor.  Then there are poets new to The Rialto, some not yet much published, such as Roderic Vincent, Alex Bell, Selina Rodrigues, Joe Dresner, Edison Dupree who I don’t think has appeared in the UK before, and Olivia Walwyn whose first published poem I think we’ve got.  (My first published poem appeared in The Rialto; that was a life-changing event.)  The RSPB/Rialto poetry competition has thrown up some new-to-The-Rialto names too, and some birds.  Michael the birder tries to get away from these but they swim, fly, swagger or display in the rest of the magazine too: magpie, peacock, kingfisher, duck.  I think bird poems have to be extra good to get in. 

A mix of the familiar and the unexpected seems to me to be best.  If I read a magazine regularly I want to see more poems by writers whose work I like, to track what they are up to.  But I also want to be surprised.  I hope we’ve got a good balance of the two.  Comments welcome. 

The Rialto, by John Singer Sargent. Philadelphia Museum of Art
So: how does the balance of the magazine compare to the balance of submissions we receive?  I’d say The Rialto is very well served by its regular poets, who between them would keep a good quality magazine afloat.   

But our catchment area for the new and unexpected is too small.  We’d like to see more submissions from the likes of the new-to-The-Rialto poets named above.  In particular, more from women.  We are seeing a narrower range of work from women than from men, and a smaller amount of the new and unexpected. 

This is surprising, given that the magazine publishes men and women in more or less equal numbers (though more submissions come from men), and Michael has a reputation, with his Bridge series of Rialto pamphlets, for supporting new women writers from Lorraine Mariner through Hannah Lowe to Jen Campbell.  And new men too: Luke Yates last year.   

Our catchment area for black and Asian poets seems to be very small.  We’d like to see more, far more work from them.    Maybe The Rialto is perceived as a white magazine.  I hope not.  But perception and reality can reinforce each other.  

One reason for all this may be the time people have had to wait to get their submissions read: Rialto regulars may be more willing to take the risk.  I know of two recent Facebook threads where people have said they’ve stopped sending to The Rialto because it takes too long.  (I’ve also been told by people that they’ve been rejected a few times… so have most poets who get into the magazine.)    

BUT: we’re now reading poems sent in late November / early December.  So for most people, the waiting time should be around three months.  If your poems are shortlisted, it may take a bit longer.  As there are three of us reading, we hope to get the waiting down to a maximum of three months for everyone.

So, calling all poets: especially if you haven’t sent to us before, please think about doing so.  If you can get hold of the new issue, have a look.  See if you enjoy reading it and think you might fit in, or provide an unexpected contrast.  If you can’t get hold of it, try anyway.

We’d like to read your work.

Comment on Rialto website from Claire:

Two things that would help you, from a for the most part fan:

Firstly, take electronic submissions. I see your argument for postal-only subs (from October: ‘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.’) but as someone who waited six months for a response, excited that I may have been shortlisted, only to ultimately never receive my SAE, I struggle to find the stamps and force of will to send again.

The fact is that requiring postal submissions IS an anachronism, and one that is suspiciously particular to the old guard of British poetry magazines. However, at this point more than enough of your competitors (and certainly the bigger fish abroad) take electronic submissions. Spending time printing out my poems from the file I could have emailed doesn’t improve the poems and doesn’t have anything to do with poems. It’s a big faff about which is unreliable and (whether this is fair or not) hints at laziness and conservatism on the part of The Rialto. 

You have options. You could keep postal subs open, perhaps charge the price of stamps through Submittable to fund the account and the cost of printing work out. PN Review at least allows subscribers to email poems. Yes you will get more bad faith, scattershot submissions. I suspect you will spot them a mile away. It’s a symbolic thing partly… you align yourself with the old ways! So don’t expect to catch a wider range of submissions when your submissions process favours the old and practiced ways of sending out work.

Secondly, ‘Michael swooped on Kim Moore at Aldeburgh after she’d read ‘A Trumpet Teacher’s Curse’ and secured it for the magazine’. Immediately one wonders if you’re attending many readings by black and Asian poets and securing their work. Also you remind me of a recent Poetry (Chicago) podcast where they talk about first encountering a poem at a reading. I’m not sure any of these fine readings are within reach of my bus pass unfortunately, do you get what I’m saying? Any swooped upon poem makes life a little harder for your average slush pile gladiator. It’s fine to have regulars. It’s even fine to simply solicit everything, if you’re honest about it: I think there are magazines that cause a lot of grief, for themselves and everyone, pretending that rusty cat flaps are open doors. But again there’s simply the fact that there’s so many journals, and some are less slushy than others. Submitters will make judgments, perhaps ones that seem unfair, about who is the most open and least troublesome. It’s also easy to say that one is forward looking, and wants to be inclusive, but the hard part and risk of taking on board more diverse and unexpected material includes genuinely challenging your own tastes and notions of what ‘good’ is. What you really want sent to you is more complaints from uncomfortable readers.

I love reading these updates, please post more!

Dear Claire – I’m sorry to reply late, I stopped checking for comments too soon and have only just found yours.  Thank you so much for engaging with the questions raised.  

First, on postal /electronic submissions.  I take your point about ‘old guard’ symbolism.  Also about needing to compete with magazines that make it easier.  These are both good arguments for going electronic.  Thank you for offering ideas on how we could manage electronic submissions, rather than just asking us to do it.  

On the other side is the extra cost, as you say, and the time.  You suggest that we’re lazy, now that makes me indignant… we spend hours each week reading submissions!  And more hours putting the magazine together!  Unpaid, like many in the poetry world.  A harrassed editor might ask: at the poet’s end, how long does it take to print off half a dozen poems and address a couple of envelopes?  

The main reason I’ve heard (which doesn’t invalidate yours) why people have hesitated to send poems to The Rialto is the time taken to respond to submissions.  We have brought this down, though there’s further to go.  You mention your own long wait.  When was this, and are you still waiting?  If so, please email us via the website.  Include the date you sent the poems (an approximate date will do if you’re not sure) and we’ll get back to you.  

Second, soliciting/swooping on poems or waiting for them to come in.  I think one of The Rialto’s strengths is that most of the content comes from the slush pile gladiators.  Michael Mackmin is based in Norfolk, which gives him distance from the pressures of the poetry world.  Abigail Parry and I have each asked a few people to send in work to be considered while we’re on the magazine, and have also asked people to spread the word that we want to broaden the catchment.  The blog extended this into a general call.  I think you’re right and there’s more we need to do, but this is just a start – it’s only now, after several months of reading for The Rialto, that I’ve felt confident enough to write about the sorts of submission we are / aren’t getting.  

As for ‘more complaints from uncomfortable readers’, that would be good.  Feedback tends to be polite, and linked to submissions.  I have yet to read a covering letter that says: Your magazine is rubbish which is why I’m sending these poems.  Not that that would be any help, it would need to say: Your magazine is rubbish because of X and Y.  And preferably: But I did like A and B. 
Anyway, thanks again for taking the trouble to comment in depth.  Your views will contribute to our own discussions.      
Please do respond with any further thoughts.   

And other readers – please come in and comment too.  Including on the new issue of the magazine.  Saying what you didn't like (and why) will not harm your chances of having a poem accepted!


  1. Dear Fiona

    Rather you than me! (Most of my work is on if you'd like to take a look.) You have clearly missed your calling as a poetry editor. There should be a vacancy at Carcanet Press fairly soon.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

  2. Fiona, if you really want to broaden the catchment to involve overseas poets, then please take electronic submissions. The need to send an SAE with international postage must put people off. It would also mean that you could all look at the same poem at the same time, rather than wait for the puppy-moderated editorial meeting. It's got to be more efficient. And, frankly, the competition can handle it - it is rare these days to have to post poems out by snail mail. It may also mitigate against poems getting mislaid on a desk somewhere!

    1. Thanks Judi. People don’t need to send an SAE if they are posting from abroad, we reply by email to overseas submissions: see our guidelines, here: Also, we have just amended our guidelines to make exceptions if people have trouble posting their poems to us because of illness or disability, or if they live in places where the postal service is unreliable or non-existent because of conflict etc.

      Of course there are arguments for moving to electronic submissions for all – see Claire’s comment above, and my response. It would be a big step to take, given the number of poems we get. (And by the way, in the age of the home printer that's also a scanner, we don’t have to wait for a meeting to read each other’s shortlisted poems.)

  3. Hi Fiona - not to do with this post but I thought you'd like to know I have mentioned y0our blog in an article:

  4. Dear Fiona

    It looks as though I have had a number of poems accepted by Innovate, the Welsh e-magazine. As I submit very few poems anywhere, I am inordinately pleased.

    Best wishes from Simon