Poetry & the Art of Editing: Poetry Review 103:2

Magazines (or Periodicals if you’re feeling frisky) are the cardio-vascular system of contemporary poetry. Open any recent collection and you’ll find something like: “Acknowledgements are due to the editors of the following publications in which some of these poems first appeared”, then a list of magazine titles that either follow the Ronseal / exactly-what-it-says-on-the-tin principle (Poetry; Poetry Review; Poetry Wales) or its near opposite (Magma; Archipelago; The North).

The editors of these magazines are an essential part of the poetry ecosystem: influencers,  opinion-formers and critical filters; discoverers of new talent; advocates and proselytizers. It’s a difficult job to get right.

Poetry Review, the Poetry Society’s flagship magazine, has recently taken advantage of an editorial interregnum to invite a trio of one-off guest editors to take the controls for an issue each. The last of these was the poet and novelist Patrick McGuinness whose issue 103:2 has just gone on sale in the UK. As well as containing some outstanding work, it’s also a masterclass in how to edit a poetry magazine.

Titled Poetry &, the issue resists a view of poetry “so passive-aggressively in retreat from all the spheres it used to touch and be touched by” and instead focuses on connections between poetry and other things – disciplines, art forms, translation, etc. As an organizing principle this is loose enough to allow a diversity of content but intellectually coherent enough not to look like cheating (of the “my theme is the absence of a theme” variety).

The translations are particularly strong. Jamie McKendrick’s versions of Antonella Anedda are precise and poignant (“So the liquid air of days / may suddenly shake time and give it space”); Karen Leeder’s renderings of poems by Volker Braun have some stunning lines (“Grow rich on life’s very transience”); and I didn’t begin to understand Jordan A Yamaji Smith’s translation of Yoshimasu Gōzō but was still moved by it – another proof of Eliot’s assertion that true poetry can communicate before it is understood.

Of the original poems (an inadequate distinction, since the translations are original poems in their own right), there are stand-out pieces by D Nurske and Kathryn Simmonds. Jennie Feldman’s “Extra” is a joy (“Don’t blink. There should be / infinity in your gaze”). And three poems by Sam Willetts linger in the memory for days: “Caravaggio” is a beautifully-crafted and disturbing poem that I’m not going to spoil by summarizing here; my wife and I were squabbling over our copy to see who got to re-read “Stone” first; and “The Bemusement Arcade” is unforgettable (“my pockets nearly empty, and no-one here, / and the sea so high and dark outside”). That said, there isn’t a conspicuous weak link in the issue.

Photographer Jimmy Symonds has assembled a seriously playful picture essay based around words that made a first appearance in the language (per the OED) in different years of the twentieth century. This is a perfect example of the issue’s “Poetry &” premise, and a work that can be read in multiple ways or just enjoyed for its fresh structural conceit. There’s also an excellent essay from the poet and translator Sasha Dugdale (who has recently taken the helm at the magazine Modern Poetry in Translation). “Branchlines” is as much about private language as about translation, but reading it reaffirmed my strongly-held but never-properly-articulated belief that all poetry is at some level a form of translation. “Poetry at its best washes words clean of their grimy associations and smug integrity: it mauls the complacent word beyond recognition, it takes the mean and the downtrodden word and makes of it something that gleams and resounds.” This could stand as an epigraph to the whole issue.

McGuinness is a first-rate author in his own right. His debut novel The Last Hundred Days was long-listed for the Booker and won the Wales Book of the Year, and his 2010 collection Jilted City is securely in my personal top ten poetry books of the last decade. But the art of the editor is different, and not all talented writers are also talented editors. With Poetry &, McGuinness has shown himself to be a natural editor with a talent for assembling others’ talent and an eye for the eye-catching. If I were in charge of the Poetry Society I’d be twisting his arm to edit the magazine again. As it is, I’d urge anyone who wants to see what good poetry editing looks like to hunt down a copy of Poetry Review 103:2.

Poetry Review 103:2, “Poetry &”, ed Patrick McGuinness, The Poetry Society, 2013

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