Why the beautiful South has a place in my heart

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I’ll confess it straight away – I have a soft spot for South, which was the first poetry magazine to accept a poem of mine. They hadn’t a clue that I hadn’t been published anywhere before – it was the poem that mattered. The launch for that particular magazine was in Chichester, back in 2008. South publishes twice a year; eight years on, it was launching South 53 in Reading, home of many fine poets, on Thursday night.

It’s a magazine with a number of features. Each issue’s contents are chosen by a different pair of guest selectors, who have no idea of the identities of the poets they pick. It is adorned with admirable mono cover pictures – the current cover shows Reading’s Maiwand Lion war memorial -  and has a generally stylish appearance; and it survives on subscriptions and sales, and has no Arts Council grant. 

That last point was emphasised at the end of the evening by Patrick Osada, a long-time member of South’s management team, who was enjoying a night in the spotlight as the magazine’s profiled poet.  Even so, he was allotted no longer to read than the five minutes that the other 19 poets there on the night to read were also given.

embedded image from entry 56931 Given that the selection process is anonymous and rotational, it is surprising at times how many familiar names crop up in successive issues of South. You wonder, even with the rotating guest selectors, is there a South “house style”? In her published comments one of the guest judges, Clair Dyer, pictured left, a novelist, poet and creative writing tutor, noted “the recurring topics and motifs” that ran through the poems she saw. The poems she particular admired “looked at everyday subjects from different or refreshing angles”.

Her fellow selector, Wendy Klein, who has published three collections, conceded that “subjectivity can cloud judgment”, making it “vital to have a co-selector”. She added: “I am a sucker for poems with a strong emotional impact, and poems that are dominated by form or shape have to work much harder to be chosen by me.” 

embedded image from entry 56920 So who are the kind of poets that appear in South? On Thursday night we heard from Mary Bevan, pictured right, from Wimborne, Dorset, who began to write only 15 months ago after retiring from a career in lecturing and consultancy. ‘Navigator’ on page 42 of South 53 is her first published poem, anywhere, although she has won competitions, and also writes fiction and short stories. Mark Totterdell first read his poetry in public five years ago at the launch of South 43. Since then he has appeared in Agenda, Ambit, Stand and The Rialto.

embedded image from entry 56929 The poets are by no means all southerners. Retired teacher Alice Harrison, pictured left, had come down to Reading from Rhyl in north Wales to read her poem about the time the sea crept into coastal homes. She revealed that after she wrote the poem, 13 years on, the sea repeated its trick – and she was not so lucky this time.  

One of the most moving poems on Thursday night was ‘Viral’ by Andrew Geary, pictured below, from Enfield in north London, about photographs that attract worldwide attention. The poem narrows its focus to the photograph of a small boy on a beach that tore at people’s hearts: “The sea, / as if ashamed of what it has done, / has nudged his body back onshore / and is licking his black hair.”

embedded image from entry 56925 Sometimes a poet might seize their moment at a South reading to slip in another poem that might not have been given the nod by the magazine’s selectors. Sue Spiers, from Southampton, read the exuberant and raunchy ‘Fanny Farts’ - maybe not South’s usual kind of poem, but it brought the house down. Another poet, Lynda O’Neill, later sighed: “I really wish I’d brought a dirty poem. I’ve got several.”

The evening was MCd with panache and wicked wit by guest compere AF Harrold, who is normally found presiding at the Poets’ Cafe in South Street, Reading – that is, when he is not elsewhere performing his own poetry. He is also a successful children’s writer.  Introducing one poet whose biog said he had been published in over 40 magazines, anthologies and webzines, Harrold demanded to know: “Where’s his loyalty? Some people are quite happy just to be published in South!”

And with its convivial launches held in different towns and cities that engender the feeling of a poetry community, you can see how that might be. South has a print run of 300, with its subscribers numbering around 120. If you want to submit up to three poems to the next edition of South, the deadline is 31 May. 


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