Shepherds at the gate

The journey to getting poetry published is hard enough as it is that to suggest there might be some benefit to having your work turned down may sound perverse. Increasingly, though, I feel as grateful to the editors who say no as I do to those who say yes.

That thought was initially prompted by something I read the other day and now can’t remember, but I was reminded of it by two recent blogs in which poets offer sideways looks at the poetry-publishing-machine. In Beyond Submissions, Naush Sabah questions just how much store poets should put in the validation of an acceptance from an editor they know little about. Some poems might be best shared by other means, without all the hassle and anxiety. Or not shared at all: it’s not an exact comparison, but think of the number of sketches a painter produces before the final picture.

In (Avoiding) Poetic Ecological Collapse, meanwhile, Jonathan Davidson suggests that a constant rush for publication may not only be unsustainable for our own writing but a distraction from all the other ways of engaging with words which the art needs to flourish. What happens when we see ourselves as custodians of the ‘commonwealth of poetry’, rather than toilers in our own private furlongs?

Writers sometimes see editors as gatekeepers and it is easy to see why. Rejections feel like being held back: if only they would let us through into the green pastures of publication! (You can blame Jonathan for the pastoral metaphors). But editors – and, increasingly, arts administrators, competition judges, mentors and funding bodies – also decide when to let the poet through, and in what form, and this inevitably shapes where they go next. Less gatekeepers, more shepherds. It is a big responsibility.

Sometimes I think it is a responsibility we don’t talk about enough. I have come across several books in the last few years – highly-acclaimed first or second collections from prestigious publishers – where I couldn’t understand why the editor hadn’t encouraged the poet to slim the collection down, or even wait until they had a stronger set of poems to work with. Perhaps they already had.

I doubt anyone reading this is going to feel sorry for poets sitting on the shelves in Waterstones (perhaps we should). My point is only that the rush to publication doesn’t even serve those who might appear to be benefiting from it. Few things are more important than affirmation, especially early on, but perhaps as important is being able to explore avenues you don’t end up going all the way down. Who knows what some writers might have gone on to if they had stayed in their chrysalises a little longer.1

There is an awkward tension here with the fact that so many poets (more and more, it seems to me) are also editors themselves. That DIY attitude goes back long before the internet. It is why poetry is so exciting and it helps keep it open. And the best editors, of course, take their pastoral responsibilities very seriously indeed. But magazines and small presses all need a steady stream of material to maintain their profile. And if we’re not editing, then we’re running workshops, or mentoring, and the end point of these schemes is often, implicity or explicitly, to speed up a poet’s ‘arrival’.

More and more of us, in short, are invested in saying ‘yes’, when the answer the poet really needs might be ‘later’. And yes, I’m aware of what a hostage to fortune that is…

1 I’m afraid I ran out of ovine metaphors.

Detail from ‘Strayed Sheep’ (also known as ‘Our English Coasts’) by William Holman Hunt, 1852.

2 thoughts on “Shepherds at the gate

  1. Jonathan Davidson

    What is important is that these issues/observations are discussed, and so many thanks for this useful addition to the discussion. I agree with your suggestion that some books are simply too full and too soon. When reading any volume, I rarely hanker after more poems, but I do often hanker after better poems. Sadly the abiding culture causes us to race towards whatever winning posts we think we see…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jem Wikeley Post author

      Thanks Jonathan. I remember someone on Twitter asking whether poetry collections have, on the whole, got longer over the years. Being a spring chicken I couldn’t comment, but my guess would be yes, they have…



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