Who invented the term ‘reading window’?
This space is more like the other side of the letter-box, sitting on the floor surrounded by envelopes. More keep falling on my head.
So far fifty-eight sets of poems have arrived with stamps both franked and unfranked, and five smaller sets by email (from online only subscribers). Two are at the sorting office because they were understamped (at least I assume the two notifications are for submissions envelopes). I am working my way through and replying one by one, but I’m only up to 22.
The task is absorbing and educative. But I don’t feel confident about it. Who could? Who really knows what’s what when it comes to poetry? Who can be sure she is not missing the whole point?
But one can analyse things too much. So I just start reading, and I try to read each poem as though I’ve never read one before, though this gets more difficult over the month. It’s also more difficult if the poems resemble one another. That is to say if a poet has eight poems all in three-line stanzas. (I like to think each poem has its own shape or form.)
Still, I put my anxiousness to one side, and set about suggesting this, that and the other with my new pencil.
When you bought a 2B pencil in the olden days, you had a good idea how it would write. How soft, not hard. How legible, not faint. These days decent pencils cost serious money and at Rymans (where I bought mine last week) they mainly come in packets of three.
But one brand of 2B pencil is not like another. My new pencil is not as soft as I’d like it to be, or as soft as the last three types of pencil I’ve been using. To me, it’s somewhere between HB and B. However, it has a good eraser that fits on the end, which is useful on the bus.
Because the space behind the letter-box sometimes finds its way onto a bus or train, where the process continues. But it has to come back in the end to the table in the sitting room because the laptop’s there where I log the ms and try to write some comments that’ll help me remember what feedback I gave to the poet. After the first 50, you have no idea what you said to whom, or which Peter or Janet was which (Peter, Janet – please don’t take this personally).
Specific difficulties arise. In particular this: I have a system of ticks and smiley faces. If I like a poem, I put a pencil tick on the page. If I like it so much I would publish it (if I could), I put a smiley. But this system is starting to break down. Sometimes I like poems but still think they’re not fully cooked. Sometimes I like them with a big tick and sometimes a tiny, weeny tick. Sometimes I like them and don’t remember to tick them. And sometimes the poet, bless her cotton socks, only gets two smileys over three years no matter how many poems she sends.
But there’s a more serious issue. The quality of many of these submission envelopes is high. It really is. I now see a good number of sets of poems I would like to publish. Far more than I can publish. It’s easier to say a thing should happen than make it happen.
So I’m sitting behind the letter-box looking at an increasing number of poets who have sent me several sets of work, all of which has had a warm response from me, but not quite so warm that I’ve said ‘Yes, let’s make a pamphlet of your poems.’ They are in my ‘maybe’ list, and the list is getting longer by the day. Oh but this is a difficult one! It’s like that editorial response to poems sent to a magazine that goes ‘Liked these but not quite enough.’ Meanwhile, the poems are all jostling and stiffening their collars, desperate to be loved.
How do I decide which to offer to publish? There are too many elements to mention. Sometimes it’s one individual poem. Sometimes it’s a sense of the sheer talent of the writer. Sometimes it’s knowing a set of poems is nothing like anything I’ve ever published before. Sometimes, it’s feeling the publication would blend well, or contrast well, with the others I have lined up for a certain year. Sometimes it’s having an idea about how the set of poems might be presented. Sometimes it’s the sheer energy of the poems – an energy great enough to counteract my own tiredness.
This is not a moan. Please don’t start feeling sorry for me. I like doing this reading. It’s meaningful and worthwhile, and it teaches me something. Each time, I learn new things. It is a great thing that there’s lots of good poetry happening. There cannot be ‘too much’ good poetry.
Also, I invited the poems and chose the space in which I sit. Nevertheless, there’s something else I want to say.
There are quite a number of small presses these days. But not enough. We need more small publishers. There are sets of poems that – for hugely varied reasons – don’t lend themselves to winning competitions but that can and should be published and shared.
We need more co-operatives – small groups of writers looking at this together. More people who want to learn about ways of supporting other poets, through publications and associated activities. More people with the skills of editing and typesetting (or the determination to buy them in), who can work with others to make interesting, varied, provocative, dynamic publications. More people like Emma Wright, at the Emma Press, and Duncan at Tapsalteerie. More people who, perhaps fed up with their poems being liked (but not quite enough), move into supporting other poets in the same situation. More unincorporated Rebel Incs.
Poacher can turn game-keeper. Poets can take the power into their own hands and more of them should. I don’t mean self-publishing. I mean publishing other people. People you know and like. People you don’t know but should. People whose work deserves it. It’s an extraordinary learning experience.
I could recommend a number of good poets to you. Just drop me a line.