Recently I have been involved in attempts to de-clutter the loft, and have been bringing down boxes of books to look through. It was a rather sobering experience to discover a box of old poetry magazines, some of which have ceased publication or are under newer editors, others have ceased altogether. These were magazines I used to avidly study in the hope of being admitted through their hallowed portals into the world of publication. Now they are covered with a faint grit of plaster dust. Some I got into, some I never did, but I am only keeping the ones which have meaning for me. Or to put it another way, issues I got my poems into.
Looking through them, several things struck me. One was the quality of the publications, which has improved massively since the days when magazines had to be typed up rather than word processed, and standard of paper and binding used is now closer to book quality, compared to some of these very basic stapled pamphlet style books, probably done on a photocopier, though Ambit (one I never cracked), Stand (only got in for the first time last year) and Other Poetry (which I eventually reviewed for as well as having poems in lots of issues) are rather glossy and professional-looking. I do have a fondness for the simpler designs, done on a budget by someone who clearly loved what they were doing but had no funding. The glossies, however, were the more prestigious ones. Orbis was the first magazine to publish my work after my self-appointed apprenticeship of a decade, and in those days, they even paid!
Another thing was the names of the successful poets. Many have disappeared without trace, who may have stopped writing altogether; others were being published all that time ago and are still writing now, such as Pippa Little, Roger Elkin, Jonathan Davidson, Katharine Gallagher and Philip Gross. This also applies to me. Others went on to become favourite poets of mine, like Jeni Couzyn and Elma Mitchell. Some of these poets I really liked have died and their work all but forgotten, casualties of changing fashion and the fact they are not here to promote their work: Dannie Abse, Geoffrey Holloway, Ken Smith, Evangeline Paterson – all fine poets. I wonder what happened to Lisa St Aubin de Terran after George Macbeth (another fine forgotten) died. There are plenty of poems here by people I never heard of again.
Flicking through these once so familiar publications from the 1980s made me realise, above all, that they are ephemeral. It is barely relevant now who was published in them and who isn’t. Poetry magazines come and go, they are of their time and showcase new work that might not even make it into the poet’s collections. They are try-outs like open floor nights. Of course we all try to gather lists of excellent magazines who have taken our work, but eventually they only exist in bibliographies.
Nowadays many magazines are on line, either in addition to or instead of print magazines. The content can be viewed as long as the website remains live. Print journals often seem more prestigious, but online has a wider reach and a greater chance of longevity. That’s a valuable lesson.
Another valuable lesson concerns rejections. In 20 or 30 years, you will no longer care whether or not you got into a particular magazine or not. Success and failure will mean the same thing, when these old magazines are archived if they are lucky and pulped if they are not. It’s a sobering thought.