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What Exactly am I Doing Here?

With work at Gatehouse moving on apace, as the people involved slowly and tentatively build up a little bit of momentum, as they start to get their ideas out of the backs of their minds and into the spaces between people, waiting to be heard – I think it’s time to talk a little bit about my perspective. With almost nothing on the table except for some good ideas and a lot of enthusiasm, I think now would be a good time to talk about what I think this new magazine could add to the UK literary scene, and why, with absolutely no guarantees that I’ll ever see any sort of return on the time and energy I expect to put into this, I’m still so excited about the work that’s ahead.

What am I trying to achieve here, then? With so little as yet decided, it might seem counter-intuitive to put my energy into writing blog posts when I could be hammering out things like page layouts, working around the costings from the printers, even getting calls for submissions ready. Well, that will get done, but it’ll be a few weeks before we have anything we can hold up in front of you folks on the website for your approval (or lack of it!). In the meantime, keeping the Gatehouse website’s blog updated is actually pretty useful: at the moment, we don’t have much of a formal structure, just a few people with rather general job titles and to-do lists as long as their arms. When we meet to discuss our ideas and the nuances of putting them into practice, we don’t publish minutes or anything of the sort, even though what we do is entirely dependent on the support of you, the reading public.

So keeping this blog updated serves a few purposes for me. Sure, it gives me a little bit of room to hammer out my ideas, mano a mano with my computer keyboard, but it also gives readers on the Gatehouse website the chance to see what I think, and what the other editors think, about this new project. It means that we aren’t simply concocting this in smoky backrooms, or under canal bridges. The process of getting the magazine together is, for me, almost as interesting as what we one day hope to print in it; and I don’t see the point in a Gatehouse if the doors are going to stay closed and the windows shuttered all the time – or, if you prefer, the Emperor’s new clothes will look a lot less alarming if you’ve already seen him getting dressed. Whatever metaphor you prefer, my point is this: art is not just about an end result. Most art lives as a constant process, that endless stream of generations past the gallery window. Tapping into that process is exciting in and of itself, and I think it’s far more interesting to write about not just what we do (or plan to do), but why we did it, and what we tried before that that didn’t work.

In the last blog update I talked very briefly about my poetry career and some of my academic background, but with only a few paragraphs at my disposal I have to say I barely scratched the surface of the reasons that have brought me to the unusual position of thinking I can help make a literary magazine that works. Well, first things first: why do we need another new literary magazine, either locally here in East Anglia, or indeed in the UK as a whole? Well, the jury is still out, and I’m not going to produce the evidence at this point that will bring it back in here. There are about as many different opinions on this as there are people working in literary publishing, but the one constant I’ve found in chatting to people on either side of the writing/publishing divide is that they’re pretty much in the dark. Unless maybe you’re Faber, your picture of who buys your books (especially poetry) is often patchy to the point of Jackson Pollock; the poetry world is built out of small, local groups who meet at readings, on Creative Writing courses, or simply in private spaces to talk about books they like. Publishers will often know a great deal about who might buy their books within a 20 mile radius of their offices, but start to get hazy once the Medway, or perhaps the Rubicon, gets crossed. Certainly information on poetry’s readership isn’t systematically obtained across the UK, or subjected to the rigours of quantitative research, not least because obtaining data on the subject, and sifting information out of it, is hard work even for fully-fledged quantitative researchers; modern poetry, for good or ill, doesn’t seem to boast many of them, and doesn’t spend much money bringing them in either. It’s understandable when there’s not much money to go around in any case, but it means that so much of the work that goes into writing and publishing poetry can be lofted on the hunch, the anecdote, the tenuously-grounded hope.

So anything I say here has to be understood under a serious qualifier: my own ignorance. I have ideas about what a new magazine might add to poetry in East Anglia and the UK; I have notions about what we at Gatehouse can do that hasn’t already been done by other people. But I don’t have the sort of cast-iron certainty that would tell me this is absolutely what we must do, because I don’t think anybody in poetry has that certainty at the moment. There are people who know the poetry world, from top to bottom and inside out, who are still only making slightly more educated guesses than I am.

With that in mind, I can attempt to return to the point. A new publication needs a market, an empty or under-used space in a wider world of readers and writers that it can explore and enrich. That space, between writers who want to offer something different but can’t quite find somewhere to put it and readers who feel that other poetry magazines are somehow not for them – that space is the raison d’être for any new literary magazine. I can’t know, but I can take an educated guess: there’s a space out there for Gatehouse Press to fill. Even in Norwich, where the poetry scene is quietly thriving, I think there’s room for another magazine, provided that it’s prepared to take a new or unconventional direction.

In fact, Norwich is probably one of the better places to start something like this: the Creative Writing department at UEA tends to bring in a steady stream of talented individuals who are often on the verge of breaking into their full maturity as writers (whatever that is). The plurality of institutions around Norwich that promote creative writing and indeed creative industries of all sorts makes it an exciting place to try to grow out from. On top of that, we’re in an important position at Gatehouse in that WE ARE NOT ALONE. We have close (literary) neighbours in the form of local imprints like Eggbox and The Rialto who are engaged in turning out some pretty top notch stuff – I personally have The Rialto to thank for printing the poetry of Andrew Waterhouse, a poet whose work did a lot to sharpen my sense of what a modern lyric could do. And there are many more folk who would have similar things to say about the work printed by the small literary presses of Norfolk. In a market so far from saturation as poetry is, this sort of situation works to everyone’s advantage, because instead of stealing audiences from one another we instead cross-promote and generate new markets for each others’ books.

This may seem overly optimistic. Perhaps it is. But that, deep down, is what I’m really about. Nobody is paying me to do this work. But a new market for poetry, well, that’s a dream come true, a literary Elysium. I could be wrong. It’s all too easy for people, be they never so clever, to misjudge such things that are ultimately resolved at two or three degrees of separation, and if that’s the case I’ll have to try to make good on that error. But the hope that, a decade from now, I might know for sure that there are people out there who started to read poetry because of the things I and all the rest of us at Gatehouse sandwiched between a pair of covers? That’s true gold, that’s the El Dorado. It’s why I’m here, and why I’m doing this.

Posted 9 years ago

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