The art of choosing: magazine editors reveal how they sift and select
“I read the first line of every poem that comes in: if I read to the end it goes into a ‘maybe’ pile:” Ahren Warner, (pictured right), poetry editor of Poetry London magazine. “I make my mind up very quickly. I accept or reject poems equally quickly”: Maurice Riordan, (left) editor of the Poetry Society’s Poetry Review. “I get more letters complaining about lack of rhymed poetry in the magazine, than I get actual rhymed poems to consider”: Michael Mackmin, editor of The Rialto, said, adding, with disarming honesty: “Sometimes I read the magazine afterwards, and think, why did I accept that?” .
Dedicated followers of poetry fashion? Gatekeepers of poetic taste, or “lifeguards”, as Maurice Riordan put it, saving some poets from publication? He added: “If your poem is published in Poetry Review, 4-5,000 people are going to read it. I’m surprised people aren’t a little daunted by, or fearful of that.” Mackmin agreed: “There’s an obligation for the editor to take care of the poet.”
The three editors read poems and then took part in a fascinating and entertaining Q&A session, chaired by Cahal Dallat, at Coffee-House Poetry at the Troubadour in west London. Organiser Anne-Marie Fyfe apologised for the fact that a fourth editor, Patricia McCarthy (Agenda), had been unable to make it because of the floods.
Mackmin went on to say that as far as poetic fashion was concerned, “I don’t particularly know what current tastes are. They seem to shift all the time.” He spoke of suddenly receiving a rush of poems about horses, or swimming pools, and speculated whether these subjects had recently appeared in workshops or on creative writing courses.
Riordan said: “I only publish what I like.” But Warner qualified this by saying that he “tried to publish the poems I think are good, which are not necessarily the same as the kind of poems I like.” He added that he tried “not to get grumpy” about submissions.
Mackmin said the quality of submissions had improved, and the amount of poetry sent in had grown hugely, with many more women poets submitting, since he began editing The Rialto. He partly ascribed the increase to the boom in creative writing courses.
Riordan said that in every issue of Poetry Review “there are people there that I’d never previously heard of”. He said that was partly because he was not “particularly clued into” what was being published in smaller poetry magazines. With the number of poetry submissions he has to consider, it was impossible to keep up with everything, he added.
How important are covering letters accompanying submissions to magazines? Warner said: “I don’t tend to read the letters that come with them. I go straight to the poem.” But Mackmin demurred: “Oh, I like the cover letters. They’re often very good fun.” He said he tried to avoid the word ‘rejection’. “I write ‘return’ letters. Some poets insist they’ve been rejected, but that’s their psychopathology.”
Riordan said “a good proportion” of the poetry he received “is quite good. A lot is quite daft.” He added that “there are more poems that I think are worthy of publication than I can actually publish, but it’s a relatively small percentage”. Mackmin said that often the poem he plumped for was “the last poem in the submission, the one they’ve slung in at the end”.
The editors agreed that it was hard to find a sufficient number of good reviewers. Warner said: “Serious reviewing and serious thinking about poetry is very rare.” Riordan took a more severe line: “People are very keen to review, but not very keen to write sentences.”
But he believed that despite the big rise in online poetry magazines, “people still like to read their poems in print, on paper. Our job is to put a beautifully printed object into people’s hands.”
And Mackmin maybe touched on the heart of the matter when he said, just before the end of the discussion, of himself and his fellow editors: “We are basically very odd, honest people … it’s just our opinion. We really don’t know.”
* Coffee-House Poetry is held regularly at the Troubadour. Its next meeting is on Monday 3 March, when Jo Shapcott and Daljit Nagra will read and introduce a first selection of young Faber Academy poets.