mouth formed thought formed mouth formed thought mouth formed

If you have to know, don’t edit, or an interim attack of conscience at the coal face.

Calling oneself a poet is a kind of confidence trick. In the face of a new day or a new sheet of paper there is no knowing how it will come out. In fact when it does come out there is no knowing (for the author certainly) that it has come out. “If you have to know, don’t write” (Berryman I think).

So what about calling oneself an editor? Sitting in judgement upon other people’s poems?

There is a part of the editorial role which is oddly easy. A lot of the material submitted simply doesn’t seem to do anything – or anything for me at the time I read it. Usually the problems are of two kinds

1) Prosaicness. There are those that like their poetry to be plain and prosy – I don’t, I like to see the language shaken up a bit. This may be an irrational prejudice.

2) Stock subject/treatment. The ‘I looked at the sea/sat in the woods/climbed up a hill and felt a bit weird’ poem. The ‘dark side of love’ poem. The social-issue-which-isn’t-very-nice poem. Here I think I am on sound ground – unless the poem is stunning in some other way a stock approach is likely to consign it to the no pile (oh – and also the workshop-exercise-we’ve-all-used poem unless it catches fire in an unexpected direction). Now I’m pretty sure this is a rational prejudice. Say something once, why say it again (or at all if we are already agreed on the point). It follows that death and dementia poems have to be very strong to be in with a shout – but strong emotion does often generate strong poetry.

The third kind of problem – the just badly written poem – is, unfortunately, an increasing rare bird for cutting the editor’s workload.

The almost impossibly hard part is comparing poems which have real strengths and weaknesses – a fabulous metaphor in the middle but maybe an excessive ‘tell’ at the end, a brilliantly written poem which nevertheless takes a stock view of the world, a very long poem which has many merits – but can I justify eliminating two or three others to make the space? (That is a hard one, and I thoroughly recommend Long Poem Magazine to you, which deliberately sets out to get away from that nagging constraint – and publishes some brilliant poems – and I would say that even if I were not in the most recent issue.)

I’m pretty sure that when we have our ‘shortlist’ we could pick two contrasting and excellent magazines from them. I’m also pretty sure that in the slush pile there are at least as many poems that would strike a chord with others and will get publication elsewhere. In fact that last point is the saving grace of the enterprise – the poem survives our decision and can fight another day. On the other hand when you’ve done the full round of 30 submissions from Poetry Review down to the Cricklewood Occasionals Newsletter and Classified without an acceptance, there is probably a signal in the noise.

All I can say is that I know editors at Magma (and I am pretty certain all editors) go about their business with integrity, try to do the best they can, and few would say they know they have picked just ‘the best’ poems for any issue. If you have to know, don’t edit.