My first poetry pamplet, Intae the Snaw, comes out this month, and it seems like this is the point at which to start giving it the whole it’s-been-a-long-road shtick, talk about how deep into the fibre of my bones I’ve had to dig to excavate these poems, the editorial to-and-fro. But, in fact, the whole process has been relatively disappointing, as far as personal psychodramas go. From first contact to final product the entire business has taken nine months, and as far as editorial conflict enters into it, all that’s happened is that I’ve been very gently schooled by my editor, the fantastic Meirion Jordan, in the difference between putting together an actual collection and just jamming an armful of manuscripts in a tattered suitcase and jumping up and down on the lid.
So, in a sense, I’ve really got exactly zip to say about the process of putting together a pamphlet. I imagine the production of other collections in other places have been rather more fraught affairs, but that’s not my experience. My experience has been fun. Maybe Gatehouse Press are doing it wrong, or something. My suspicion is that I’ve been somehow short-changed, that there ought to have been more shoutings-at, more tears.
The main thing I’ve taken out of the process is the value of reading and submitting to poetry magazines. When you’re first starting out, you get this advice rammed down your throat, and it just seems like a pretext for other poets to bilk you out of your money whilst telling you how rubbish you are. Which it is. (No, not really.) There are a load of reasons, as a writer, to engage with the magazine scene – track record, peer feedback, yada yada – but the reason that many folk who are starting out submit to magazines is because they kind of hope something might come of it.
Which is not, by the way, an ignoble thing to wish for. It’s not even unrealistic, so long as you don’t expect anything to happen the first time you get into a magazine, or the fifth, or the five hundredth. If there’s something to what you’re writing, someone will notice, eventually. The problem is, you don’t know who or where those people are, never mind what magazines they edit and/or read.
In the beginning it’s easy to have the feeling that the whole of “writing” is one vast cohesive bloc which is leagued entirely against newcomers, i.e. you. Conversely, when you do manage to get something published somewhere, it’s very difficult to understand why news of your success hasn’t spread like wildfire across the entire literary scene. Once you’re in, you’re in, surely? But somehow, The X Journal don’t care that you were in the most recent edition of Y Quarterly. As in Kafka, the door that you were trying to get through, and the doorman you were wheedling your way past – they just lead to another door, another doorman. The party that’s happening somewhere within sounds just as distant as ever.
And all of the above, by the way, being best case scenario – which is to say, that you’re committed to writing and to improving as a writer. If you already think you’re the finished article, you probably gave up on reading this a few paragraphs back. You didn’t like hearing that your inevitable fame might take time or hard work.
For time and hard work will certainly be involved. Even if you one-hundred-per-cent enjoy writing one-hundred-per-cent of the time, you’d have to be some kind of masochist to enjoy submitting to magazines, and being rejected; sometimes kindly, more often facelessly, occasionally even, in a bizarre Hitchcockian nightmare, under the wrong name, for stuff you never even did. And yet submit you must, widely and often, to have any hope of finding readers who get what you’re on about.
I had no particularly good reason to send my stuff to Lighthouse, Gatehouse’s literary journal. Scots translations of Chinese poetry; that’s pretty niche, and not necessarily what you would expect to go over well with a relatively new literary journal based in Norwich. But it was a really good magazine – I enjoyed what they were publishing – and it was worth a spin that if their editors and I liked the same kind of poetry, my poetry might also be the kind that they liked. Without reading Lighthouse, I would never have submitted there, never have been published there, and never have wound up with a pamphlet being produced there.
Which is to say, reading magazines shouldn’t be a chore. No matter how disenchanted you might think you are with the poetry scene, there are magazines out there whose editors are on your wavelength. Finding them, submitting to them, hopefully being published by them – these are hugely exciting things. Reading a magazine you don’t enjoy – well, that bites, but it’s better than submitting to that magazine blind, getting back an impersonal rejection letter, and then being furious at being turned down by a magazine you now realise you don’t even like.
Submitting to magazines can feel like going to them cap in hand, but it needn’t. Sending something you wrote to a journal is the sincerest form of flattery you can give what are (no doubt) its hard-working and underappreciated editors. I like what you are doing and I want to be part of it. And it’s in your power to give. Whether your writing is ready yet or not, your support and interest is worth a lot to any magazine. Just make sure and give it to the right ones.