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Critical Mass

I wasn’t joking when I said I read a lot of poems – over the last few months I’ve read literally thousands of them, as the editor of Issue 34 of Magma [tag]poetry[/tag] magazine. This is my first time as an editor, and it’s very interesting to be on the other side of the fence for a change. Having submitted lots of poems to magazines, like most poets I’ve received more rejections than acceptances. So it’s been a slightly surreal experience to be the person opening the letters and e-mails and making the judgements myself.

After ploughing through so many poems I have a new-found admiration for all those editors out there who keep the poetry world going. It’s exciting, challenging and eventually tiring work. I’m lucky because we rotate the editorship at Magma, which means I’ve handed over the baton to Tim Robertson for Magma 35, but I’m amazed to think of the enthusiasm and sheer stamina of editors who edit issue after issue single-handed.

I’m also hoping the experience will be useful for my own writing, by sharpening my critical judgement and helping me to weed out mediocrity in my drafts of poems. I wouldn’t have taken on the editorship unless I was fairly confident of my critical judgement, but having to get through so many poems has certainly forced me to focus my attention quickly on the essential qualities of a poem – Does it catch my attention and hold it? Does it have the spark of energy that brings it alive?
Answering these questions quickly needs an alert mind, so I did most of the reading first thing in the morning, when my mind was fresh and uncluttered and I was most sensitive to the signals that let me know when I came across something worth considering. One of these signals was a sense of something coming into focus as I read – with so many submissions, many of them had an unfinished, half-realised look to them, so that it was a delight to come across writing where the words and the images they evoked had a sharp clarity. A bit like the updating your glasses prescription and being astonished at the fine detail of the world around you.

And of course, you have to be able to trust the ‘voice’ of the poem, to be convinced by it’s tone, it’s syntax, diction, rhythms and so on. But for me the bottom line is a kind of gut feeling, the physical response of my body to the poem. Towards the end of the editing process, I was using a kind of ‘metal detector’ approach to the selection and ordering – laying the poems out on my living room floor, and walking around them, trying them in different sequences and noticing how it felt to walk along them. By paying attention to my body’s signals – a slight feeling of hesitation or discomfort vs a flutter of excitement or energy – I could play around with different combinations until I got the one that felt right to me.

‘To me’ – a very important qualification. A different editor would have come up with a different selection and ordering from the same mailbag of submissions. This is one of the reasons we rotate the editorship at Magma, to keep things fresh and surprising. And because of the hard work done by many people over the past 10 years, which means Magma attracts a large number of high quality submissions, I was faced with an embarrassment of riches. Obviously a poem had to reach a certain standard before it could be considered for publication, but even after raising the bar pretty high, I was still faced with more ‘publishable’ poems than I had room for. At this point I was making decisions based more on which poems I liked the most, and which ones seemed to fit best with the others in the issue. There were a few poems I tried to set aside, but which refused to let go, nagging at me until I let them back in. And there were others that were perfectly good in themselves, but which simply looked as though they belonged elsewhere.

As well as a feeling of relief at having finished at last, I’m also left feeling more relaxed about submitting poems to magazines in future. The experience has made me realise that the process of editing is not simply about black-and-white, good-or-bad decisions; there are lots of gradations (and colours) in between, and each editor finds different patterns.

The best thing is I’m very excited about Magma 34 itself – it’s still in production and I don’t want to spoil any surprises, but there are some great poems and features that I’m very pleased to have in my issue. Watch this space for details when it comes out…

In the meanwhile you might like to look at Magma 33, edited by Tim Kindberg with the intriguing theme of ‘the unnoticed, the ignored’. He has some great contributions to his feature article on poetry’s ability to illuminate the marginal – A Strange Kind of Torch. And the print version includes an interview with Al Alvarez, who very rarely gives interviews these days, which was a must-read for me.

If you want to see your poems published in Magma, the deadline for submissions to Magma 35 is the end of February, so you still have a couple of weeks. Tim Robertson is editing, and he’s particularly interested in poems on the theme of ‘London’. Good luck!
[tags]creative writing[/tags]


  1. […] When I look back on my holiday in Japan, I remember that before the trip I had spent several months editing a poetry magazine, which concentrated my thinking about writing poetry – so maybe this period of focused work had “prepared” my mind for the burst of writing that happened when I found myself in new and stimulating surroundings. […]