Sally Evans, esteemed editor of Poetry Scotland, explains the process of selecting poems and deciding what goes into the broadsheet.
The editor heaves a sigh of relief. The magazine has “gone to bed” as printers say and there is a pause before the mail-out. Every magazine is different, but there are constants whatever the set-up, whether the magazine has a committee, a single editor or changing editors.
Poetry Scotland is a broadsheet, and in the tradition of broadsheets you fill it with poems –which answers people who have sometimes criticised it for having too much poetry in it. There is always enough material collected in the few months between issues, but the first question is, what will make this issue interesting and give it character, what will be the main noticeable content? There may be longer poems or poems on themes, or work by a popular and high-profile poet. There are various languages to consider: I try to include Scots and Gaelic fairly often, and occasionally other languages or dialects. With Scots, there are several dialects and I have noticed people will usually only read their own dialect — I can tell this from the feedback I receive. Sometimes there are projects within poetry, such as the English Diaspora issue (the only study of this subject in Scottish Poetry that I know of) — or other special issues.
This time we have an inset on a Scottish Natural Heritage Project on Flanders Moss, a raised bog, and for the first time in Poetry Scotland’s history we are printing poems by school pupils in this inset. Their work is very exciting. You see, we have to develop, we have to move on and make sure the broadsheet does not become boringly repetitive. One result of this in terms of this particular Poetry Scotland is there was less space in the magazine proper.
I had an interesting long poem from a good poet who has contributed before, an account of how Zhou En-Lai came to Edinburgh in 1920, hoping to study at Edinburgh University. In the event he could not get in and hung around with Scottish communists before sailing back to China. It makes an interesting poem and takes just over a page of narrow columns inside, leaving about three pages for single poems or groups of poems.
Then something I really liked came along, a political ballad, but after very careful consideration I decided this ballad could not be printed for reasons to do with the content. Though I thought it an extremely good poem, I rejected it, explaining the problems to the poet. That left me rather without some oomph on the front page, for although we all like to read gentle poems and formal poems, we also like something grittier or more startling at times – you can’t produce a good magazine by marking poems out of ten and putting in all the top ones!
The day was saved by an international poet who I knew through an email list. I solicited a poem from her, and that poem sits on the front page, giving some bite to the issue. ‘Soliciting’ a poem of course means asking someone if they will contribute a poem, either because you know their work, or their name is such that everyone will be interested and they can be relied upon to be good.
What else goes in? There are always some poems I have definitely promised or even some left from the previous issue, so these go in and now we have to start looking at the subject matter and type of poem as well as their lengths and widths, which become vital at this secondary stage. I had a nice short but wide poem which I wasn’t sure if I would use: in the end it slotted in. You can’t use several poems on the same subject unless they are deliberately balanced against each other. I received two poems about a train crash once, (possibly the same train crash) and I had to more or less toss up. If they had been contrasting I could perhaps have used them both. Finally, good little short poems or haiku may well find their way into the corners of columns as I finish the page layouts.
I have said that I will take good beginner work from Scotland but not from England, as I receive a lot of poems from England and I can only include them if they fit in the Scottish “cultural window” in some way. With beginners and younger writers who have not yet built up an image, I have to use my instinct for poems that I like. I think I look for fresh work, not samey work that has too much of a feel of a “writing programme” about it. Over time, as long as their work is ok, co-operative and helpful writers will win out, those who don’t indulge in tricks, double submissions, conflicting pseudonyms, or negative gossip (all editors have a great ear to the ground).
I try to balance the genders reasonably over each issue. Having begun Poetry Scotland when women were not given a fair share of space, I firmly printed women authors and now have to very slightly discriminate against them to prevent this magazine looking heavily biased towards women. I have many women poet friends and am glad to give them all space from time to time. I have never believed in ghetto writing and I’ll go out of my way to include all kinds of writers, from Stanley Robertson the traveller/gypsy to beat poets, good disestablishment poets such as Steve Sneyd, out on a limb poets and the most literary people in the English speaking world that I can get.
On the whole I would call my approach poet-based rather than poem-based: I like to include many people as long as their work is good.
As well as editing Poetry Scotland Sally also blogs at www.desktopsallye.com, runs Kings Book Shop in Callander and the diehard poetry series.