Wednesday, 30 April 2008

George Ttoouli - The Death of Poetry (Magazine Funding): A Polemic

[This was written about a month ago and sat on hold while I left the country, but seems timely now given a recent post by Roddy Lumsden about small poetry magazines at the Poets on Fire forums (to which it is, now I think about it, only indirectly linked). --GT]

'If you sit down, unimpassioned and uninspired, and tell yourself to write for so many hours, you will merely produce... some of that article which fills, so far as I can judge, two-thirds of most magazines - most easy to write, most weary to read - men call it "padding", and it is, to my mind, one of the most detestable things in modern literature.' -- Lewis Carroll

I'm on too many mailing lists, so my life has been perhaps more inordinately filled up with the floundering death wails of most ex-Arts Council funded magazines than your average poetry enthusiast's inbox (note I don't say lover here - lately, I've had a sneaking suspicion that my love of poetry has been seriously tempered over the years by a need for tolerance towards shoddy event management, partial clique-bathering and inconsistent editorial trends - and yes I know that makes me sound terribly ungenerous, but the clue is in the title of this article), but - if you'll permit the Carroll-inspired convoluted first sentence - really, who fucking cares anyway?

Yes, yes. I know, the old argument: poetry deserves to be supported by the state because most poets are socialists and they are good at heart, kind of like Big Issue sellers. OK, maybe I'm confused about the old argument, but I'm sure there are some commonly trotted out arguments that try to justify public spending on poetry, which tend to revolve almost entirely around the poets and the poetry.

Whatever those arguments are (please, this isn't a fascist blog, do feel free to trot out the arguments in comments), I'd like to sweep them aside because, frankly, all the arguments I've ever heard and forgotten or misremembered about why poetry magazines deserve support beyond their subscribers boil down to sidestepping the main point of magazine publishing. It's not about the content; it's about the production and the aesthetic approach to serialised publication.

Magazines are an outlet for particular tastes - editors saying, All youse guys' poetry tastes suck. I'm going to show youse guys what good poetry tastes smell like. I like poetry that mixes metaphors! Yeah! This is what makes a magazine like Magma successful. The editor changes every issue, so you can tell yourself, One day this might get better, one day, someone I like might edit an issue I don't have to burn in the back garden with all the rest. It is also what kept the completely subscriber-funded Bound Spiral going: the editor would only publish an issue when there was enough content of a sufficiently high standard to fill an issue. As a result, issues were sometimes years apart; at others, it was quarterly. The 'who' of the content didn't matter: it was the magazine's commitment to quality over time, not the editor's commitment to publishing mates.

The championing of taste and content is the death of interest in most poetry magazines; the magazine itself needs to be of interest, not the people it publishes. So when magazines profess a loyalty to particular authors, or styles, they deserve to be shot. When they trot out the same set of completely established, or completley unheard of names, they make an assumption that somebody, somewhere actually cares. And then the cheek of them to presume that, because it's poetry, they deserve to be state funded.

Style, production, quality! The reputation sells more than the content; the content barely defines the reputation. All style, all judging of the magazine by its cover. Why else do Golfer's Weekly, Car Monthly and Plumbers Annual all feature skimpily clad women on their covers? (Note, this is a made up fact containing guessed-at publication titles which may or may not exist, but this should in no way detract from the principle of the argument. Just look at Staying Alive's cover and then eat your words.)

I'm not really asking for the death of all poetry magazines; just those that are started by someone who thinks knowing how to use the photocopier at work and a stapler gives license to running 20+ issues of their mates gibbering in iambics about how much they love their pets. (Hopefully that isn't specific enough to constitute libel. Again, the sentiment is important, not the accuracy of the description of a magazine I received at work a few months ago.)

So we should applaud the collapse of poetry magazines run by people who know nothing about how to create a magazine - an original magazine. And we should applaud the magazines that survive the Arts Council's culling of magazine funding because that is a sign of their innovation as well as, no doubt, because we like to have our ideas affirmed, the innovation of their editorial tastes (though this is, naturally, a secondary byproduct which makes us very happy and keeps us loyal subscribers). Vive The Believer! Long live McSweeneys! Where are the British equivalents?

Nevermind that the recent cutbacks will consolidate the UK's reputation for being a poetry-dead climate, one in which poetry is not allowed to thrive in government-funded streams such as education or the arts. Nevermind that the Arts Council's justification for the culling of UK poetry magazines was based on research conducted in Scotland; nevermind this research ignores the differences between the poetry-reading cultures in Scotland and England and Wales and Northern Ireland. Nevermind that the Arts Council is making dramatic cutbacks across the arts despite receiving a budgetary increase of 3% in 2008 and this despite the budgetary freeze in 2005. Nevermind the major structural changes in the Arts Council's head office, including a change in the head of literature and the departure of a number of key executives, after the round of dismissals and after some late, potentially unpopular, appointments were made. (Oh wait, thinks the reader, you mean the statements in this paragraph aren't concocted on the spot in an imaginative fashion? This blogzine is sounding more and more conventional by the second. That's it. I'm cancelling my subscription to the newsfeed.)


The Editors said...

George, saying you 'left the country' really sounds like you were on the run from the feds, rather than on holiday. Please tell me that's not the case...

Simon, G&P

The Editors said...

I was running from the Solarians. Fortunately, they have skinny legs, easily broken by a quick kick to the knees.

Technically, though, I realise what I said kind of implies I spent a month trying to leave the country. Which makes me sound incompetent. But I kind of like that, so I'll leave it.

George, G&P

Jane Holland: Editor said...

I can't follow your argument here, George. Actually, I'm not sure there was an argument. Maybe once, buried deep under some comment in the third or fourth para, I forget which now, but if it was ever there, it's gone now.

Are you saying it's a good thing for mags to die? And if so, was there irony attached to that?

I don't see how the person with the stapler and the 20 mates gibbering in iambs is hurting anyone, except perhaps our aesthetic sensibilities. (Which is unlikely since even if the mag in question crossed our desks, none of us - erm, apart from George, clearly) would be foolish enough to actually read it.

I ran Blade for nine issues without any grant whatsoever, funded by subscriptions and yours truly, with the help of a cheap local printer and a long-armed stapler. The mag died because various dire things happened to me personally and it sort of fell by the wayside. As so many poetry mags do in the UK. Natural wastage, etc.

But I'd punch anyone in the nose who said I shouldn't be allowed to set up another ad hoc version of Blade and sell it out the back of my van.

It's a free country, ffs, and people should be allowed to start up any magazine they want (assuming it's in order to make someone else's life miserable, and I don't mean simply by foisting bad poetry on them).

The ACE grant cuts are bad. And will affect poetry seriously at a grass-roots level and higher up the chain. But good poetry editors will still put out good poetry magazines, with or without grants. They'll just have to cut corners with production.

Perhaps it's time for a return to the 70s Bob Cobbing photocopies and cheap b&w covers approach.

But let's not forget the net in all this. No grant required for a good e-zine (small amount for set-up, perhaps, but why not fund it yourself if it means that much to you?): all you need for an e-zine is vision, energy and a certain amount of common sense.

Nice talking to you. Jx

Anonymous said...

Actually, altho things will be affected, the editors who are really keen will continue anyway. And it may make people wake up to see you can do things for almost nothing - the internet, for instance.

Bribe magazine is the one i keep holding back from starting. Contributors are invited to send a poem and a cheque. All cheques will be cashed, and the 20 biggest ones will have their work published each quarter. Easy: self-funding and self-regulating. You in?

The Editors said...

At least you realised I was in two minds about the issue. I wholeheartedly agree with you that anyone with a stapler, photocopier and 20 mates interested enough, should be allowed to start a magazine. Let's call it what it is: a fanzine. Low production costs = low break even point, yes?

Should the Arts Council fund this kind of thing? No, I don't believe it should.

But should the Arts Council be entitled to start selecting nationally and internationally read magazines, like London Mag etc. for funding cuts, on the basis that they are not self-sustaining? It's saying that these publications are on par with the fanzine approach to magazine-making. Is that an unfair statement to make?

I was also pointing out that there are problems in Arts Council England using surveys conducted in Scotland to make decisions about funding English magazines, which need further discussion.

And no offence, but Blade is *ugly*. :P

Yes. To paraphrase David Morley, being a poet is a profession of attrition.

Ditto the task of poetry editing. Maybe one day you too will give up and do an MBA. (No, I know it's an impossibility, but that's my response to your idea for a Felix Dennis vehicle.)


Jane Holland said...

Blade ugly? Blade ugly? In what way was it ugly?

My poor little magazine ... that lovely spanking orange or yellow cover ... those quaint little drawings ...

We're both deeply wounded now, you LOOKIST!

(:hastily checks which name she's posting under before clicking Submit:)

clh said...

in spite of some truly amazing print mags, maybe the future really is with online mags and blogzines - in terms of both cost and potential readership. and yet... and yet... well, the aesthetic argument: it's so good to have a tangible object, the book or magazine, to have and to hold; and I for one can only read so much on a computer screen.
on the other hand, don't have to wait months for a reply and even more months for publication, and yes, all the ACE etc bureaucracy and 'literary engineering' is rendered irrelevant. thanks for G+P by the way!
all the best
catherine hales

The Editors said...


If it had looked like this:

I'd have bought it meself...

But, responding also to you and Catherine:

I'm amazed at the quality of recent 'student' publications. Succour coming out of Exeter and Polluto coming out of Leeds. Biddles, etc. are paving the way for high quality, cheap print on demand. The initial investment costs are much more affordable and the print runs very low.

So having the artifact in hand is a great and easy thing nowadays. I much prefer to have the thing in hand too. And the ability to control print run sizes means less wastage, less impact on resources.

At the end of the day, if Blade had been digital, I probably wouldn't have read it, but now I have a copy, I treasure it like an ugly little gold statuette.


Anonymous said...

George, George, George, so young, so bitter, such a picture of my short term future...

I agree though, too much poetry, far far too many poetry magazines. I can't even find time to get through the free student publications for this uni alone. And I've rued every subscription I've ever taken out. But it's a tough one, because as a poet you're expected to go down the magazine route, even if you can't find a magazine that publishes poems you'd want to be seen dead with... but this isn't a problem when all you get is those generic rejection letters suggesting you waste some more money on printing and stamps in a few months time. Grrr, argh, etc.

The Editors said...

Emily, I don't think George is bitter, just easily disheartened. He also attends a lot more poetry readings and handles a lot more poetry magazines than anyone I know, so that no doubt has an effect.

I know what you mean about the expecations of following the magazine route - I think there is still quite a bit of meatspace snobbery about the internet in poetry circles, which is a shame - but e-zines, blogzines etc are very much on the up, and are increasingly, though by no means universally, recognised as a key component of the contemporary poetry scene. Of course, a well-produced and well-edited poetry magazine is always going to be a far more appealing aesthetic object than a blog, however many pictures of robots it includes in its title bar. But how many editors' tastes do you whole-heartedly agree with? How many magazines are there on the marketplace which look and feel great, and are packed with excellent material?

Plus there's the budgetary restraints. To keep up with the poetry scene in print, you either need a wallet the size of Cheddar Gorge, or to be close enough to the Poetry Library that you can make regular trips to peruse the mags. Most poets I know fit into neither bracket. The internet, meanwhile, is accessible anywhere, webzines are cheaper to set up (blogzines free), and there are no subscription costs. Everyone's a winnner. The future starts today.

Simon Turner, G&P

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think there's that snobbery too. People seem to assume you will put any old thing on a website because it's in some way not a real commitment - which is a shame because lack of budgetary restraints probably (I have no experience) gives the editors more freedom to publish the stuff they want to see out there instead of trying to keep the readership happy and the subs coming in.

Of course George isn't bitter! I take it back, don't ban me, my comments are the only published thing I have :)!

The Editors said...

Heck, who says I'm not bitter? I'm the bitterest lemon in the bowl of rot. Well, OK, not really, cos I'm not Peter Reading.

I like trying to pin up my 95 theses on the establishment's door, to see what other people think. Fortunately in poetry you can be corrected without being sentenced for heresy. I genuinely think there isn't enough innovation in magazine publishing in the UK - too many modelled on the same formats, too many marketed on the same guilt-agenda (see recent post...)

Sure there are budget constraints, but there's no limit to what you can do with the arrangement of text/image/line on the page, even in a grayscale. The point is, these days it's labour time into the magazine that makes the difference, not the poetry's quality, because, as people point out, online publishing is delivering cleanly-templated work for free, where it can be judged quickly and relatively in terms of quality.

If you're going to invest even £50 into a print publication, it immediately puts pressure on the publication to compete with the free stuff to justify the cover price.

Oh what a minefield. I don't know where I'm going with this, but I do know I have another idea for a magazine concept looping the neural pathways. Best thing, at the end of the day, is to stop critiquing and manifest something tangible (which includes a website).