Terry Quinn (4/1/05):
The Publishing of Poetry

What other branch of the Arts is as self defeating as Poetry? I can't
think of a method of publishing that is so guaranteed to bury good
poems and poets than that which exists in this country at present.
Can you imagine any other enterprise, never mind just in the
Arts, where you're only allowed one shot at getting some form of
success. And yet there it it, usually in heavy black type at the
front of the publication 'Previously Unpublished Poems only'. Let's
take painting. I'm not altogether sure how it works in the Art world
but I've an artist friend who has exhibited his paintings all over
London. He'd be completely baffled (he was, because I asked him) if
he'd been told that no other Gallery would hang his work as he'd
already shown it somewhere else. Or a photograph published in one
magazine and never accepted elsewhere. How about music? Would a
composer accept the fact that because the CBSO has played his work
then no other orchestra would play it? Or a pop tune - played once on
Radio Cumbria never to be played on Radio One. I know the group would
sign for a label but that's like signing with an agent. The
playwright who has had his or her work performed at the Birmingham
Rep so the Royal Court won't look at it. Publishing novels at the
same time is on a different scale and economically wouldn't make
sense usually.
Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that restricting the
method of publishing in the poetry magazines to previously
unpublished works has two consequences. The first and minor one is
that a lot of available space is filled by not very good poems. But
the second consequence is crucial and it is that a really good, maybe
great, poem might be published in a small magazine with a circulation
in the dozens and that's it. Virtually certain to be lost forever
unless spotted for an anthology and how likely is that? This is
So what's the alternative? Obviously there still has to be a
policy of printing new poems else it all stagnates but there must be
the freedom to publish poems already published. This would emulate
the pop charts at a crude level. So in my best of all possible worlds
a good poem would start to be published in lots of magazines all over
the country and would be spotted by all sorts of readers. From there
it would not be long before it would appear in anthologies which seem
to be the stock in trade of Waterstones or Ottakars or whatever and
then both readers of poetry and general readers would start to see
the best of current poetry rather than stuff that's good but highly
restrictive in origin. And it might well then encourage the general
reader to hunt out where these poems originated from i.e. the poetry
As a sort of experiment I tried to see how this would work in
practice with a friend who loves reading novels but not usually
poetry. I gave her a couple of poetry magazines to read through.
After a time her eyes seemed to glaze over. She reckoned they were
mostly a bit dull, a bit samey or she didn't understand them.
I then gave her a copy of 'The Firebox' and the reaction was
different. She liked a fair few of them and got pleasure from them.
She liked the poems.
The lesson is that good poetry works. This isn't about what is
'good'. That will take care of itself. The way it's published now is
stifling it at birth.



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