First of all, congratulations on becoming the new editor of Poetry Review. As an editor of numerous anthologies and a former submissions editor at Poetry London, it's clear you're well qualified for the position. I'm writing to you now because, after a period of wavering - and following encouragement from an editor of some standing - I applied for the position myself and, in the days following my application, started to think pretty seriously about what I would do if I were offered the job. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that the answers I was coming to represented not what elements of a personal style I would hope to bring to the journal but a deeper necessity for change, and so, rather than keep my powder dry for the purposes of another application years down the line (when who knows what will have transpired), I would like to outline those proposals now and ask you to seriously consider them.
The last three issues of Poetry Review, edited by George Szirtes, Charles Boyle and Bernadine Evaristo respectively, refreshed the feel of the journal enormously, and that project should be pursued under the new editorship. Importantly, I feel that Poetry Review must seek to shed the image of a publication aimed squarely at middle class readers of mainstream poetry. I'm aware that 'middle class' and 'mainstream' are vexed terms, often used pejoratively, but they have some valid application here. I've written previously about the elements of tribalism in British poetry, where mainstream sits in the centre, performance poetry and avant-garde poetry at either side of it. This is a crude delineation, of course, and there are many, many poets and many, many projects that straddle these imaginary boundaries. But am I wrong to infer, simply from reading and listening to a range of view points, that most poets who see themselves as working in the 'non-mainstream' area regard the modern Poetry Review as a territory they are all but barred from, while many who see their work as centered around performance regard it as almost belonging to (and promoting) a different medium?
Poetry journals are of course entitled to develop their own character and style, but I feel that there is room for at least one that aspires to carrying out the role of broad overview, creating a space where different poetries intermingle, and it seems fitting that it should be the publication of the Poetry Society. It is, after all, called Poetry Review, and it's reasonable therefore to expect it to review the full breadth of poetry culture in the UK - and beyond, if necessary. My personal tastes do not stray too far outside of what is generally considered mainstream, (although I've been trying to get to grips with avant-garde work for some time) but I concluded, during my brief ruminations on what I would do with the editorship, that the editor should seek to go considerably beyond the boundaries of his or her personal taste, and take on the risk of betraying naivety in certain areas in order to ensure that the contents of each issue are somewhat representative of the full panoply of poetic endeavour. None of us know poetry well enough to stick to what we intimately know and not end up with a partial selection.
But I'm not just talking about the choosing of new poems which are published. In fact, I think that's perhaps less important than the focus of the essays and reviews. George Szirtes' issue included a piece on Denise Riley by Emily Critchley that was strikingly different to the character of the majority of pieces PR has tended to publish. I would like to see more pieces along these lines, but more importantly still, I would like to see pieces which explore and question the boundaries between different poetries, or articulate what underlying disputes there are as to the validity of certain approaches. Dialogue. That's what I'm talking about. I would like to see Poetry Review as a platform for dialogue. Consider a poet like Anthony Anaxagorou, whose politically engaged poem If I Told You has amassed nearly 30,000 views online, and who has worked for the Poetry Society. It strikes me he's not the normal type of poet Poetry Review would publish, and that If I Told You is not the type of poem that many poetry readers would normally rave about. It is political and somewhat of a polemic. Does this indicate a popular movement in poetry that is apart from what many of us are focused on? I think there is room for such a discussion. I certainly think there is room to acknowledge poetic achievements beyond the winning of centrally-administered prizes.
I mentioned 'middle class readers' earlier. I am very wary of making any pronouncement based on supposed class boundaries or stereotypes of certain classes. I am probably middle class myself, but some would call this self-aggrandisement, since I lack property, a high-flying career and a matching crockery set. (It would definitely be self-aggrandisement to call myself working class, since I went to university and my accent isn't regional enough). I'm also a defender of the much-ridiculed 'quiet' poetry reading, where the audience are allowed to sit and entertain their own thoughts about the poetry being read, and success is not measured by the strength of vocalised positive reaction. Nevertheless, I think it's fairly recognisable there is a large overlap between middle class concerns and mainstream poetry topics, such that we have to be vigilant against favouring certain poets and certain poetries because of how they meet our own expectations. I can't describe or pin down that middleclassness precisely, because by its nature, it is more cumulative effect than anything that can be ascribed to the contents of one poem or book (although Sean Borodale's Bee Journal must be near its epicentre). It is present, however, and it provides another reason for potential readers of poetry to close their minds to it, writing us all off as comfortable wine-swillers enthusing about our holidays abroad.
I think Poetry Review should be a point from which to challenge such negative perceptions, and never something which enforces or lends validity to them. I think it should be a place where radically different propositions can jostle with each other, and where readers might cross, in their droves, the strange boundaries between different poetries. I think it is reasonable and right that Poetry Review aims for a readership of such a mixture of backgrounds that no one, seeing the crowd of attendees at a launch night, could think that the journal had a core demographic at all, and where no one entering could feel that they have come to the wrong event. Of course, this won't be an overnight change, but now is the opportunity to set it in motion.