A piece from December 2008 about the trials and tribulations of running a small literary magazine and, more specifically, about dealing with poets.
A month or so back I was talking to the manager of a well-known London bookshop. I was about to tell you which one but I think, on reflection, it’s probably best if I keep shtum, and refer to my man only as The Nameless One – not because he is the corporeal manifestation of some diabolic metaphysical evil and uttering his actual appellation would cause him to revert to his true malignant form (i.e. this isn’t another piece about the Kennington Bookshop), but because he is a pleasant fellow and I don’t wish him to be garrotted on his way home from work by outraged and affronted troupes of effete sonneteers. For the subject of our conversation was poetry. Or, more precisely, poets, neither of us having any gripes with poetry, but both of us having plenty with poets.
His shop never used to have a poetry section, he said, as it seemed needlessly divisive; any poetry was simply filed alphabetically amid the fiction, to encourage such serendipitous and pleasantly discombobulating discoveries as, say, Simon Armitage snuggled up between Jeffrey Archer and Margaret Atwood. But then one day a Local Poet spotted this and was not only outraged and affronted but quite overcome with a fit of the vapours. Poetry is a fragile and precious thing, he asserted feebly, once smelling salts had been brought, that needs to be partitioned off from the rough bonhomie of common prose by at least two solid plywood uprights. And so, in the joint interests of Art and Commerce, a pact was struck: The Nameless One agreed to instigate a clearly demarcated poetry section, and the Local Poet agreed to organise regular in-store poetry moots at which his fellow urban rhymers would become so helplessly intoxicated by the thick possety richness of the English language and the gratis ruby debouchments of a cheap Tesco’s wine box that they would find themselves unable to resist purchasing many slim volumes of utterly unnecessary verse.
Thus, one Wednesday evening not-too-long after, a ragbag collection of beards and berets and half-moon glasses assembled behind the closed sign, settled themselves on borrowed canvas chairs, and passed the time that each of their number took to nervously read what he or she had composed in the preceding week by sipping politely at a refill or two of Pinot Noir and silently seeing how many anagrams they could make from the phrase “one-day ordering service”. And then, once everybody had read, they went home, leaving the slim volumes untouched in their plywood corral. “Because the trouble with poets,” The Nameless One ruefully reflected, “is that they never fucking buy anything.”
Smoke gets sent a lot of poetry, but we rarely print any. Partly because most of it’s written by people who think that what makes a poem a poem is simply the fact that the words don’t go all the way to the right margin – or, more wrist-slittingly, that deep emotion can be expressed only by vigorous use of end-rhyme – but mostly because it’s usually clear that the writer hasn’t ever bothered looking at a copy of our magazine. Which supports the findings of The Nameless One that what makes a poem a poem is actually the fact that it’s written by someone who expects other people to read their work despite they themselves having absolutely no intention of reading anyone else’s.
We even went through a phase of receiving lots of sapphic erotica from Canada. This was often eye-opening, sometimes eye-watering and occasionally instructive – there are ways of keeping warm in a snow drift on the outskirts of Winnipeg, for instance, that really just hadn’t previously occurred to me, and I speak as a man who was once on good terms with an extremely frisky husky – but ultimately just bewildering and a bit insulting, because in each case it was clear the writer’s only aim was to be published. Anywhere. Also… deep breath… if you want a magazine to feature your work, then surely it makes sense to do a bit or research? Because hurling some free verse about free love in Saskatchewan at a magazine whose tagline is words and images inspired by London does actually make you look like a bit of an idiot. But then we often get people asking what sort of stuff we’re looking for, and my standard gritted-teeth answer of “stuff like the stuff we usually publish” genuinely seems to floor them. So maybe it’s just me.
Many years ago, I used to run a record label. And, whilst pigeonholing is generally invidious, I’m happy to say that we didn’t release any blues-based heavy rock, believing – perhaps naively – that blues-based heavy rock would soon be made illegal, along with folk dancing and leggings. Despite this, we still used to get sent demos by an awful lot of blues-based heavy rock bands. More bizarrely, we still do, usually with a note attached to the effect that the band really love what we’re doing and would feel privileged to be part of it… which, given we’ve now not done it for ten years, and rarely gave the impression of wanting anyone to be part of it when we did, is not a statement that comes wreathed in an aura of sincerity. And call me a cynical old tosspot if you like, but – I can’t help feeling the same about the people who tell us how much they love Smoke before asking us to print a 10,000-word extract from their forthcoming novel set in Manchester.
And it’s not just the writers and artists. I seem to have ended up on the mailing list of Canongate Books, and used to feel guilty about this, because it costs money to post hardbacks and I don’t particularly want to be responsible for anyone in the book trade going out of business, other than the Kennington Bookshop. So when Canongate’s publicity department rang to check my address, I did the decent thing and pointed out that Smoke is a magazine that is (a) about London and (b) entirely free of reviews and extracts – why, after all, should we publicise Canongate’s books in Smoke if Canongate doesn’t publicise Smoke in its books? It makes no sense. And you would know all these things, I almost added, if you actually looked at a copy of the magazine. The next day, a brand new package of books arrived. But, once I’d opened it, I stopped feeling guilty; because surely anyone who publishes a novel with the opening line “Accidents ambush the unsuspecting, often violently, just like love” (The Gargoyle, Andrew Davidson, £16.99) and thinks that hyphenating the word “sister” across two lines is acceptable typographic practice needs to be stopped by any means necessary, don’t they? There you go, Canongate – badly written and poorly typeset – it looks like we do reviews after all. So send us more. Though no more copies of The Bird Room by Chris Killen, please, as you’ve sent us three already and I’m sure Mr Killen will want his royalty rate revised if he finds out.
Occasionally, of course, it just gets a bit surreal. Some PR woman rang up the other day and asked to speak to our reviews editor. When I pointed out that we didn’t have one as we didn’t do reviews, she wanted to know why on earth not.
She really got quite indignant.