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Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Open letter to Maurice Riordan

Dear Maurice,

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.

Yours sincerely,

Jon Stone


  1. I've never been a member of the Poetry Society. I used to think it was for old people who attended Poetry Circles, then I thought it was like the National Trust - a well-meaning organisation attracting well-off well-meaning people, an organisation that does some good work but isn't going to change anything. Then Potts and Herd took over and I got my most encouraging PR rejection slip ever. I don't know how whether membership income fell during their time, but I can imagine the membership built up by the previous editor fleeing in droves, the deficit not balanced out by the new advocates who didn't (or couldn't) provide monetary support. I doubt that the PR editor(s) can be immune to membership numbers for too long. What are the stats for subscriptions over the years? What has the demographic profile been over the years?

  2. It was good to hear your thoughts, Jon, thanks. I won't be 'at the desk' for a couple of months yet,I'm afraid, but I look forward to considering work then from the broadest possible spectrum of poets. I plan to offer some ideas about the editorship in the summer issue of Poetry News.

  3. Thanks for commenting, Tim, and thanks for reading and replying, Maurice! I'll look forward to hearing more about your plans.

  4. Jon, this is a tricky one. You suggest that because of its title (and because, perhaps, it’s the organ of the poetry outfit that is most in receipt of public funding, and has a good claim to be considered 'national', though these are my words not yours), 'it's reasonable therefore to expect it to review the full breadth of poetry culture in the UK - and beyond, if necessary'. I think there IS that expectation. I don't think it's a reasonable one. I doubt that a print magazine of 128 pages appearing four times a year can do that: the breadth is now simply too broad, and shifting too. You'd end up with sampling, skimming of surfaces, tokenism.

    If that IS to be the aim, it needs an online presence at least as big as that of Poetry (Chicago). And to use online not just to sample from the print issues and show archive stuff but as an extra dimension, putting out material that the print issues by themselves can't accommodate: wide-ranging, reviews/essays that are too topical to wait for the the print issue or too in-depth to be included in the print issue (because the space they'd take would shut out other things) or so specialist that only a particular readership is interested, and long poems which the print issues can only excerpt and more poems by writers that the print issue has room for one from, etc.

    That, of course, would cost. And probably need more than a single editor. I'd like to see them go for it. But meanwhile, it's a quarterly print magazine with a single editor, and the only way to go is just to let that editor exercise his (I'd say her or his, except that we know now who's got the job) personal taste (and challenge his own taste too, yes, that too). Inclusive of prejudices and personal enthusiasms and blind spots. Otherwise he's not editing. (As it happens, that it's Maurice Riordan doing the job I think is good news. In the only workshop I ever attended with any regularity, Maurice was the most articulate, open-minded and sure-footed of us all when it came to discussing the work of others. I trust him.) If the result is a magazine in which some readers feel that only a certain type of poetry gets taken notice of - an accusation levelled at both Fiona Sampson and the Potts/Herd regime, in both cases I think a very reductive judgement: look at the contents lists of both in detail and it becomes less easy to make that call - then fine. PR, for the poetry world, is just one of a range of magazines, and if this is your thing you read (and submit to) this and if that then that. Its problem is the expectations put upon it, that it should be all things to all people. Not possible. So don't even attempt that.

  5. Just come across this, Jon. In my guest editorship I was keen to get in a variety of people who don't normally appear in Poetry Review. But not only people, ideas of poetry too, hence the pieces not only on Denise Riley but on Vahni Capildeo and references to others that I would like to have accommodated but couldn't for space and time. Had I stayed for more issues they would have been in.

    The question of clarity that a later post here deals with is less to do with the work than with the way the work is approached. I came across a letter from Ava Gardner to Robert Graves in which she says she finds some of his poems difficult to understand. His answer is that poetry is not to be understood but enjoyed.

    There is something quite important in this. Most people, most of the time, expect poetry to articulate their own feelings more clearly than they themselves can. They want this feelings crystallised, to achieve a memorability through association with song.

    They are not wrong to want this, nor is it the middle class alone who do. The working class probably want it more than anyone does.

    But life and language are complex and the ways poetry means are not exactly the way prose means. The point about the difficult poets is often that people expect to understand them as they understand prose. I sometimes think the way into meaning is to fall into it, as into water. Come in and feel the water rather than trying to understand water from the outside was, I imagine, Graves's meaning.

    My plea to critics and writers who write articles for magazines like PR would be for them to open the way to the 'difficult' not to close it off. If they enjoy it, let them share the enjoyment and assume they can talk about it without excluding those who are not familiar with the talk - discourses, of you like - that is applied to them already used to the 'difficult'. I want them to say, 'Look, Denise Riley is not 'difficult' if you walk in this way rather than that.'

    I think that's eminently possible without lowering expectations or, as a university critic of the middle class might say (but wouldn't) 'lowering the tone'.

    I admire Maurice and think he will be an excellent editor. What I think would also help is, perhaps once a year, a guest editor, or guest assistant editor if that can be afforded.

  6. Having only just come across your letter and the responses Jon, I'd like to echo your sentiments in relation to Long Poem Magazine; it is just our intention for LPM to 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.' We do indeed aim 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.' I'm proud to say we have achieved this at our Barbican readings, with several people commenting very positively on the mix and how unusual it is. I too enjoyed the guest editorships of PR and look forward to the next issue - thanks for opening up the topic!


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