The assistant editorship of The Rialto is helping me let poems take over my flat. I recently finished teaching a reading group for The Poetry School so my Wall Of Hill (entirety of Mercian Hymns photocopied and arranged on my bedroom wall so I could scribble notes) has come down. Things might have felt a bit empty had all available surfaces not then been filled with submissions to The Rialto along with associated envelopes, folders, headed papers and a small infestation of paperclips.
I have done mass poem reading before, mainly for competitions, so the slab-like stacks of submissions are not as overwhelming as they might otherwise be. I’ve learned to pace myself, the importance of cups of tea, and I’m used to managing the inevitable anxiety that I might miss something and the sometimes painful knowledge that someone poured themselves into the piece of paper you are holding. In this I am well prepared.
I know reading for a magazine is going to be different. A lot of the competition work I have done has been early-stage where anything approaching reasonable competence will go through to the next step. For the largest competitions this can be communal work, around a table or on office computers, with readers occasionally stopping to share a particularly brilliant line or to shout out a daring title. Meanwhile, reading for young people’s awards has often meant looking for a curl of potential, a mixed entry with real ambition being noteworthy, even if the author hasn’t yet learned to edit the less successful lines.
Moving to a magazine the biggest shift may be that in competitions the poems are vying against each other: as a judge I am looking for the best, as a sifter for the better than average. Poems can be held up against their neighbours and, while sometimes it is an extremely close call, there is always a fixed limit to the work. A magazine with rolling submissions isn’t like that, the question isn’t ‘is this better than the last poem’ because there is no finite limit to the poems – they will and do keep coming. The question is do I want to read it again? Is it something I want to share? Would other readers enjoy it too? The safety blanket of direct comparison is less applicable, the poem has to excite by itself.
I feel the responsibility has changed too. It’s not just about the people who are sending in their poems anymore, the focus must be on the readers. I imagine them looking over my shoulder and wonder what they would make of the poem I’m looking at. I’m not sure who my imagined reader is, are they cover-to-cover readers or do they dip? Does my imagined reader have a stack of poetry magazines in their bathroom or are they trying a single issue for the first time sat at a table in the Poetry Library? I can’t predict them, but I hope in the next few folders of submissions I’ll find some poems that will thrill and mesmerize me, that I can share with this unknown reader.