If you send poems to someone you hope might publish them, it’s not a business transaction. It’s not professional, no matter how professionally you go about the task.
There may be no response. Manuscripts are returned (though not by me) with nothing but a standard slip. Even that feels (though it is not) personal.
Your poems matter. If you write something and you call it a ‘poem’, that’s tantamount to saying the words matter to you more than ordinarily.
So if the person you send it to, reads the poem and replies, it’s a relationship. The reader has responded to a communication you didn’t make lightly. And whatever poems are, they are communications, and a communication is incomplete without a response, preferably while the writer is still alive.
But hell, it’s a difficult relationship. The response is delayed, and it’s probably not what the writer hoped for. It often shows the communication didn’t ‘work’.
Or the response may be heart-warming. A sense of something understood at least partially. An echo in the darkness.
And yet (although I regularly tell poets to be wary of the word ‘yet’, especially towards the end of poems) all this is muddied by the business of publishing. The publishing thing gets in the way. The person on the other end, the publishing person who is in this case me, has a kind of power they have taken on themselves. They can say, ‘yes I would like to publish some of your poems’ or ‘no, I am really too busy just now.’
When I was a child, and then a young person, and wrote poems readily, I always took my creations to my mother. The writing, when I was in its thrall, was all-consuming. But once that intensity had passed and I thought the poem was finished, I was absolutely desperate for her to read it.
I would rush to her with my poem, which seemed to me more important than anything else in the world. She was invariably too busy. She was up to the elbows in flour, or pinning washing on the line, or writing an important letter, or drawing up a shopping list. She would put it away for later. Sometimes ‘later’ was days away.
I wonder whether she was really all that busy. Perhaps my demand was too intense. It’s hard to read and respond when a little face is scrutinizing you and waiting, waiting, waiting for the reaction.
She did always read them in the end, bless her, though sometimes she must have been sorely taxed by their contents. But her gentle response, when it came, couldn’t match the intensity with which I’d brought my offering.
Poems are intense. They turn on themselves like endless circles. When you get to the end, you’re directed right back to the beginning. They are the inside of a person opened out, whether or not that’s what they look like. I know this, even when I write comments about syntax and semi-colons, and metaphors that might be pruned.
When I read yours, a lot hinges on one particular thing. Does the poem bite? The ones I like do. They get their little teeth in and won't let go.
If I think there’s an energy in the poem that could be better harnessed, I try to explain how that might happen. But I’m not your mother, and I don’t know, not really.
And the relationship is not how it seems. It is more equal than you think. I am on your side. Most of the time, I am just another poet waiting for a poem worth writing. All the power I have as a publisher is notional. Anyone can start publishing.
We are both weaklings in the face of this thing we call poetry. I’m reading your submissions in the hope you’ll explain it to me.
But only till Tuesday, when the window shuts. If it doesn’t shut, I don’t have time to do any of the other things, and the washing, the baking, the cleaning and the ironing are waiting. And I have a few dozen letters to write.
Now dear, as my mother would have said, do go and read Anthony Wilson on why and how poetry is good for you. This impulse to write it isn’t anything to do with getting published. It’s about the truth and insight and energy and healing in the process. And taking part in that is a marvellous thing.