I don’t mean in love, or in life. I’m talking poems here.

And I’m talking both as a rejectee and a rejecter. Both are unpleasant roles, but the former is worse than the latter. Or worse for some people.  

I vividly recall the early days when I was sending out a lot of stuff in A5 manila envelopes. Sorting out the poems into groups. Typing up the accompanying letters to editors. Printing final copies as consistently and beautifully as I could. Folding them precisely, popping them into the envelopes, slipping the envelopes into the big red post box. This was long before Submittable. Long before Email. Those were the days.

Until they began to come back. Inside the first manila envelope was a second, addressed to me in my own handwriting. It had a fold down the middle where A5 had been folded to A6 to fit inside the first envelope. You could see these envelopes returning a mile off. You could hear them flop onto the floor in the hall. You could hear them flop heavily, like envelopes with six poems in – not three or four (which might mean two had been accepted). 

The worst aspect was the flip-flop heart on opening the envelope: a mixture of hope (you can’t help it, even if the envelope is heavy) and pragmatic anxiety. If some non-poet is with you at the time, you have to hide these feelings. You can hardly stand there and curse when your Aunt Emily is waiting for her cup of coffee.

Some people are very good about this stuff. ‘So what?’ they chuckle, and get on with their lives. Not me. I used to feel dismal for the rest of the day, at the same time as being furious with myself for having that ridiculous response. After 24 hours, the negative emotion had shrunk to a whisper. After 48, it had gone completely. This was good, but there were more rejections on the way. And each time, the same cycle of ridiculous emotions. 

When you open an envelope with returned (rejected) poems, the wee souls never look the same. They go out so hopeful and clean and nicely folded. They come back rumpled with their tails between their legs. Where has their confidence gone? 

So why on EARTH do I suggest that other poets, many of them fragile in confidence, should put themselves through this? The reasons are complex (more of this in my book How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published), but I do still suggest it, even at the same time as still – to this day – finding it difficult myself.

Yes, I have some tips. It’s the sort of thing you expect from blogs. But as well as this, you can of course remind yourself of various truths, like that none of this is personal; that the return of the poems doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t like them (or you); that they may just not like poems about dogs/sex/the menopause/Donald Trump; that they may already have two poems about frogs in this issue; that the poems were the wrong shape, style or size for the magazine; that your work arrived when the issue was already full; that the silly one about human fleas may have given them the wrong idea about you etc; that it may not be the best idea to share your feelings about the editor on Facebook….

Let’s get down to the tips then.

1. It’s a business. Get down to the paperwork. You sent them out … when? They came back … when? From … where? Keep a meticulous record. You need to know how long each mag sat on the work. And how many rejections you have had from them so far, since there is a point at which you will stop trying.

2. Remember the unique collection you’re in process of making. I mean your collection of rejection slips. Some of them may be valuable one of these days. So go for that slip, grab it and check how rare it is. (The rare ones have comments, coffee rings, blood stains, or were intended for somebody else, not you. Seriously.) File it.

3. Some people say ‘send those poems right out to the next magazine’. I wouldn’t do that. I think you need to put them to one side for a little while. Read them again once your negative emotion has dwindled. Then decide whether you should tweak or change or even abandon. This can teach you something. You might vary the set next time too.

4. Check how much work you still have out there, circulating. Something should be doing the business for you. So you might send a few other poems out. And if you feel really rebellious, include one of the ones that came back today with a totally different title!

5. If your emotions are intense, find a field or open space, or somewhere with few people around and scream at the very top of your voice as loud as you can. This is fabulously therapeutic, not least because – after the scream – you’ll laugh.

6. If you still feel TERRIBLE, write a poem about it. Strong feeling is great. I have several poems written after rejections, one or two of which found good homes.

7. Go and read a couple of your favourite touchstone poems. Remind yourself what this is all about. And how vitally important being a reader is.

8. Maintain perspective by checking the world news. So many awful things can trump rejection from a little magazine. Especially right now.

9. Remember persistency is your friend. If a specific poem has already been rejected six times, the seventh is far less painful. In fact, it becomes fun to see whether it will ever be accepted.

10. Send a couple of rejectees to a good critical friend for comments. The critical friends – your good readers – are enormously important.

11. Do a thorough review of the magazines you’re sending to. Do you like enough of the work inside them to justify wanting to be printed there? If you don’t, then don’t send there again. Reject that magazine.

12. Be naughty with your multiple rejects. Cut them up and change the stanzas round. Make two little ones into one longer one. Share the very short one on Twitter. Then photograph it and have it printed on a mug. (There is a home for every pome.)

13. Start a little magazine. Nothing too complicated. You could do it online, if you like. Changing your role from rejectee to rejecter is hugely educative. (Or read Gerry Cambridge’s book: The Dark Horse: On the Making of a Little Magazine. You start to see the whole thing in an entirely different way.) 

14. Be aspirational. Decide whether the poem has been rejected enough times to qualify it for the fabulous Salon of the Refused, where rare items from your rejection slips will also be joyfully received.


Photograph of a marzipan Peppa Pig on top of a birthday cake. She looks particularly smug.

Little magazine. Big story.

I’ve always specially liked the term ‘little magazine’. It sounds so un-literary. But of course, it’s the reverse.  

This is how the British Library defines a ‘little magazine’:

‘a literary magazine, usually produced without concern for immediate commercial gain, and with a guiding enthusiasm for contemporary literature, especially poetry’.

Yes—that just about nails the sort of publication I have in mind. Something both bizarre and respected, in many ways a bit of a throwback, of both academic and amateur interest.

Wolfgang Görtschacher, editor of Poetry Salzburg, has published two whole tomes about ‘little magazines’. Richard Price, who at one time co-edited Gairfish, Verse and Southfields, and in his own right, Painted, Spoken, has (with David Miller) co-authored a detailed bibliography and history of the British breed, from 1914-2000.

So little magazines are started (and sustained) by people with a bit of an obsession, and then they’re written about by people who have a somewhat obsessive interest in them. And meanwhile, the rest of us (when they’re poetry magazines) read them, rage about rejections from them, celebrate them when they print our poems, and wonder how and why anybody does this thing, this magazine thing.

Little magazines start by being anti-establishment. They specialize in reacting against this or that. They don’t always end up that way. Malcolm Bradbury makes a distinction between the little magazine and ‘significant literary journals’ like The London Review of Books and the TLS. But the borderline between little magazine and significant literary journal is a sort of no man’s land. What is ‘significant’ anyway? What sort of person has the authority to express views on literature, on culture?

The truth is, as it ever was, that anybody can start a little magazine. Anybody can print and publish their say, and the say of others. Anybody at all can start it. Even if you have no money at all, there is always a way. But very few can keep it going over decades. The editors who do this are a species apart.

If the story of the long-running little magazine is told at all, it is usually in fragments by a researcher: a chapter in a book, a paragraph in an article. The editor is too busy to do it him- or herself.

And so when Gerry Cambridge, editor of The Dark Horse, said he was thinking of writing the story himself, after two decades, I was encouraging.

I have a connection to disclose. Actually, several. Gerry was the first editor to publish any of my poems (though the first ones were in Spectrum, not The Dark Horse). When he started The Dark Horse, I subscribed and became a regular contributor of both poems and critical writing. I have read every single issue of the magazine from then (1994) to now. As HappenStance editor, I published a volume of his poetry, Notes for Lighting a Fire, as well as his essay about typesetting poetry, The Printed Snow. Somehow, I have now known Gerry for long enough for him to qualify as ‘an old friend’, a person I trust and respect as a poet, editor, type-setter, book-designer, fountain-pen collector and expert on birds and ink. 

So—he did it. He actually wrote the story of the Horse. It was neither simple, nor straight-forward. It nearly drove him daft in the middle—doing both this and all the other things that sustain life and the magazine itself. It look longer than either of us anticipated, but the tale has been told—and HappenStance has published it, an honour and the completion of a cycle.

Gerry’s book is called The Dark Horse: The Making of a Little Magazine, and it has a mischievous title-extension too ‘& sundry divagations on poets, poetry, criticism and poetry culture’. It is a handsome volume—large and orange, with numerous colour plates showing the magazine’s design over the years. Among his other talents, Gerry is a first-class photographer, so there are fabulous monochrome pictures of writers too. And, of course, the story of the magazine, in three sections.

If you want to know what makes a person do this little-magazine thing, you may be able to work it out from this account, though I’m inclined to think it remains a mystery. Indexed by Margaret Christie (herself a HappenStance poet), and typeset and designed by Gerry, the book is an idiosyncratic and entertaining source of information about a little slice of literary experience and the associated personalities. You can dip in, or read from beginning to end. If you leave it lying about, someone else will pick it up, start to flick through (nodding and smiling), and may well slip it into their bag. It is that sort of book.

Buy this book (please). No, really. I mean it.

I would prefer to give books away.

However, yesterday at the StAnza bookfair, I did my best to sell as many copies of How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published as humanly possible. I told a number of poets they ‘ought’ to read it. What a presumption!

But it’s like this: poets ask things.Cover of How Not to, bright yellow, featuring anguished poet graphic and title in dark blue and red

They ask things like ‘what did you think of the recent publication by xxxx’? Or they ask, ‘I’m thinking of approaching xxxx. What do you think?’ Or, most worryingly of all, ‘I wonder if I might send you some of my poems?’

‘You need to read this book,’ I say. ‘It’s only taken eleven years to be able to write it, and it might save you a lot of time.’ It’s not the same as the pamphlet publication that preceded it, many copies of which I used to send (free) to poets who sent me their poems and didn’t know what they hadn’t done, but should have done, first.

I hate the way life is full of secret rules. You only find out later what you should have known to start with. To make it worse: some people seem to know these rules. Who told them?

I must get back to poetry, which is so very much more important, but I hope this book will do two things.

1. It will make some money to spend on publishing some poetry.

2.It will share the secret rules which you may, of course, learn eventually, but only after considerable pain. Save the pain.

It’s not just for new poets. Sometimes those who have one, or more than one, collection already in print have even more cause to read it. You don’t know what you don’t know.

The poetry publishing thing stirs up all sorts of emotions, and adjectives start flying in private conversations: unfair, unjust, unbalanced, nepotism, power, corruption, Private Eye. Please deliver us from temptation. Let us not mention funding. Let us not mention gate keepers. Read the book. It is funny in places, which is as it should be. Poetry is a serious matter, but poets should not take themselves too seriously.

I could say more, but today I’m going to StAnza to be on a panel discussing small magazines in the context of one of the best longstanding publications, Gerry Cambridge’s The Dark Horse, with Dana Gioa streamed in virtually from the States.

So no more from me today. Instead, here’s the link to what I wrote about StAnza in 2012. It still sums it up.

This is a poster/banner for The Dark Horse magazine, feating a giant horse looking round four covers of back issues, one on top of the next. You see the characteristic design of the magazine, and there's a big quote from the late Dennis O'Driscoll bottom left saying 'among the trully outstanding poetry mgazines of the English-speaking world'


How long should a poet leave between collections? Will fifteen years do?

Martin Edwards’ HappenStance pamphlet Rainstorm with Goldfish is his second collection. His first also a pamphlet (he was a Redbeck Press pamphlet competition winner) was Coconut Heart in 1997.

So Edwards has had no fewer than fifteen years to mull the poems between the pages of Rainstorm with Goldfish. And I think it shows. Without meaning to lapse into blurbonic plague (see Dennis O’Driscoll in Dark Horse, issue 25), the language here is distilled. There’s a purity in the understatement that strikes me as rare, and beautiful.

Poetry’s a fickle business. It was back in 1984 that Martin first encountered a little blaze of glory. He had poems in a Faber anthology, Hard Lines, and before he knew it he was being interviewed on Radio 1 as one of the latest gifted young poets.

It’s 2012, so it doesn’t take a genius to work out he’s no longer young and the blaze of glory was short-lived. But he’s been a faithful servant to the Muse all this time. He doesn’t write lightly.

Here, for example, is ‘Grief’. It looks so easy.

Your eyes and nose and mouth
were points

in a pattern of stars, gone
in a blink.

All the palaces of your voice were empty;
all the labyrinths of your fingerprints.

Or there’s ‘Hate’, which begins:

I’m sixteen and just beginning
to hate myself.

How could anyone not want to read the rest?

Rainstorm with Goldfish outfaces brevity with depth. And although there is something valiantly restrained about working against the current, about resisting the imperative of publish publish publish, I hope it won’t be fifteen years before Edwards does more. Anna Adams, in Island Chapters, says “True poems come into being at the top of an experience chain, as people and birds of prey are at the top of a food chain”, “something found, not something sought”. Sometimes the necessary experience chain takes fifteen years. Or more.

It has been suggested – by Robert Nye, among others – that patience, for a poet, is a mandatory requirement. Waiting until the poem is ready. Again, I can feel myself toppling into numinosity (stop, woman, stop before it’s too late!) but there is something in this.

There are innumerable ways of writing poetry. Some are young and full of life and playfulness and sheer delight. Exhilarating and fast and intoxicating. But a few writers take a lifetime to say a handful of small things plainly. Rainstorm with Goldfish belongs in that group.


How could I NOT have said this last week?

How could I NOT have said this last week?

. . .  is to learn. Maria Taylor reminded me and of course it’s true. For a  poet-reviewer, you study other people’s poems because you want to learn how it’s done (and occasionally what to avoid).

Gerry Cambridge, whose ‘bio’ paragraphs for poets at the end of The Dark Horse are often a little more unpredictable than some, once described me as “a practising poet”. Wonderful description! It’s like being a doctor, in which case my practice is in Fife. But it can also mean, and certainly subsumes, the sense that regular practice is required, or even that one is only a practising poet. Practising for the real thing, that is.

But part of being a Permanently Practising Poet (PPP) is taking part in your own individualised master-classes. By this, I mean carefully and closely reading work you admire. In this way, the master poem demonstrates its art to you. Sometimes, with superb work, you just goggle because it is so good.

Or you go over and over it, and can’t quite work out how it does what it does, although it still does it (my favourite kind of text).

At other times, after reading and re-reading, you see many interesting intricacies in the pattern of shape and sound. It’s like a first-rate fruit cake. You enjoy it more, the slower you nibble, the more you notice the shape and texture, the fine ingredients.

I don’t want to push the fruit cake analogy, or mix my metaphors too far. There is a limit to how much fruit cake you want to nibble. Also a limit to how much fine poetry you can take in at one go. But that’s as it should be.

Mostly reviewers grapple with mixed work. Some great bits, some wobbly bits, some damned interesting bits. And then the analogy is more like panning for gold. When you find what you think might be the RT (Real Thing), you get very excited and pore over it for ages. And if you think it definitely is, you want to share your find. What a pleasure then, to write about it!

If you think it’s FG (Fool’s Gold), you get a bit narky, especially if you’ve spent a very long time standing in a cold stream with your 14” heavy gauge steel pan (although these days, you can get plastic gold pans). It is this emotion that sometimes leads to impatience on the part of reviewers. But they should know better.

And ideally, there is some gold. It is what the PPP is looking for and it is what the PUS (Poet Under Scrutiny) is looking for too. And it is invariably highly interesting and worthy of drawing attention to, because no one bit of Po Go is like any other bit. So the PPP reviewer tries to learn what makes it what it is, tries phenomenally hard, because if we could only learn the secret, we could replicate it. But by and large, all that can be learned (though this is not to be sneezed at) is something about technique, or occasionally something about lack of it. This is only one of the reasons why poetry is amazing.

And sometimes, that which is indubitably gold to one PPP is dross to another, which is also part of the fun. “What is aught but as ’tis valued,” as Troilus says to Hector (of Cressida).

Speaking of which, a number of Cressidas volunteered their services as Sphinx reviewers last week. I am delighted.