I was born in a remote, primitive era of prehistory, millions of years before the evolution of the modern human (well, actually, I was born in 1968, but it often feels like it). When I was growing up, there was no worldwide web, no-one (bar maybe a couple of moneyed tech geeks) had a computer at home, mobile phones were the size of a toaster, too expensive for most people and did nothing other than make phone calls, and counterculture magazines were often produced on hand-cranked Banda machines (ask your nan).
Everything’s changed. We’re now living in a digital landscape and over the last few years there has been an explosion of e-zines and blogs that have brought poetry to a new and broader audience. Exciting times? I think so. With, of course, the caveat that always come with the internet – the democratisation that it brings can also be accompanied by zero quality control.
I am constantly surprised by the naivety many aspirant poets have about the internet.”I have had poems published!” they say proudly, as if they’re a regular contributor to Poetry London, and it later transpires that what they mean is that they have posted their poems on what is basically an open-access electronic pinboard, with no editor and no filtering, and where all too often nobody goes there to read, they just go there to post.
That said, there are a number of excellent e-zines, edited by respected poets, whose submissions process is as rigorous as the leading print journals and who carry poems of a similar quality to (and often by the same poets as) the print journals. And even if some websites are less exclusive/rigorous than the print journals, that can be a good thing – moving away from poetry as a cosy clique where your face has to fit and opening up the genre to new audiences and new voices. Plus that’s all before you even start on the other fora for our poetry that the internet has provided, e.g. YouTube, our own websites etc.
Being the immature attention-whore that I am, what I love about e-zines is the instant gratification I get on publication. I tweet or Facebook a link and, within seconds, my friends can read my work and post validating messages. Also, (and this is the point where I really should get on the line to Freephone Sad Bastard) I can count up the number of likes, shares and comments my poem got from strangers on the site itself. Contrast that with the print journals, where often I don’t know anyone who is a subscriber, so my friends don’t get to read my poems, and I never really know whether anyone liked or even read it. It’s nice to get my complimentary copy in the post, but thereafter follows an eerie silence, and the ability to put another title on my biog seems little pay-off after the three-month wait between submission and acceptance and the six-month wait between acceptance and publication.
What I love less about e-zines is their very public nature means that, once it’s out there, you lose all control of your poem: it can be reshared, stolen, misattributed and it is forever lost to other, potentially more lucrative publishing opportunities. As with music, the increasing expectation of audiences that work should be accessible for free on the web is diminishing opportunities to sell the work and threatening to turn art forms from careers that the very tenacious and talented can just about eke a living from to hobbies for privileged dilettantes.
And there’s nothing like the feel of real book, pamphlet or magazine in your hand. Somehow you feel much more like a real poet when you’re physically holding a journal with your name in it than when you see your work on a website. That can sometimes feel only one step up from reading your own Facebook posts.
There does not seem to be a great deal of consensus in the poetry world about how the new electronic forms of publishing fit in with the old. I have often been advised not to submit to e-zines and told that publication in the print “little magazines” carries far more gravitas and weight with promoters and publishers. And yet I read an article this week, in which Tom Chivers of Penned In The Margins seemed to be suggesting the diametric opposite: “The readership of some magazines is so low that I wonder, what’s the point? Nowadays we can use different media that are more successful in reaching an audience.”
So is the internet the way forward? Are the “little magazines” the dying gasp of an old order – an order in which the gates to poetry success were controlled by middle-aged men in tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows – that is being swept away by a younger, funkier, more diverse generation with a fairer, more democratic way of doing things? Or are print journals going to remain an important route to getting a collection published for emergent poets for some time to come?
One thing is certain, though: if you care about small magazines and want them to remain relevant, you need to support them. Without subscribers, they can’t compete with the internet.