Poems That Take You by Surprise: A Chat With Philip Quinlan of Angle Journal of Poetry
Philip Quinlan is the author of a chapbook, Head Lands (White Violet Press, 2012). His work has appeared in: The Flea, The Chimaera, Lucid Rhythms, Lilt, Soundzine, Numinous, The Avatar Review, The Centrifugal Eye, Sea Stories, Shit Creek Review, Shot Glass Journal, Snakeskin, Victorian Violet Press, Whale Sound, Studio 360, In Stereo Press, The Hypertexts, Lighten Up Online, Antiphon, Raintown Review, Kin, Unsplendid, New Trad Journal, Atavic Poetry, and Life and Legends. Philip is also co-editor, with Ann Drysdale, of Angle Journal of Poetry in English, www.anglepoetry.co.uk. Philip lives in the UK.
Interview by Lisa Montanino
What inspired the idea for the poetry journal’s inception? And once you had the idea, how did you make it a reality?
In terms of Angle’s inception: the journal owes a great debt to the poet/editor Paul Stevens, who somehow managed to edit no fewer than three quality online poetry magazines (Shit Creek Review, The Flea, and The Chimaera). Sadly, Paul is no longer with us, and the demise of those magazines was one of the principal motivations for starting Angle. I would also want to acknowledge my debt to my friend, poet, and founding co-editor, Janet Kenny, whose sterling efforts (and infinite patience with me!) made Angle possible and got us to issue 3. From issue 4 onwards I have been equally fortunate to have the poet Ann Drysdale as fellow traveller. Most recently, the excellent poet Maryann Corbett was kind enough to guest edit for us, and Patricia Wallace Jones deserves honourable mention for her artistic contributions to issue 7. Finally, I’m indebted to Peter Bloxsom for his technical support.
Angle actually had quite a long gestation period during which I thought a lot about design, ethos etc. Design-wise, I finally settled on the idea of what I call ‘virtual print’: I wanted the heft of a print magazine with the ease of distribution (and potentially larger readership) afforded by the web. Also, both Janet and I wanted to keep the layout clean, simple, and respectful to the poems. No less than that, we wanted to be respectful to the poets by offering electronic submission, quick turnaround, and author proofing.
We were very fortunate that so many writers of quality were willing to answer our initial call for submissions (and of course we directly solicited work). This helped us to establish a tone and a bar which has served us well (our rejection rate is only about 50 %!)
Angle Journal of Poetry in English contains poetry, reviews, and visually pleasing art. Was this your original concept for the journal? Can you elaborate on who picks the featured poems and art work?
I must admit, I had never envisaged Angle being such a large magazine, with something like 100 poems per issue. (Nor, to be fair, had I realised how much work that would imply!) The reviews, in a way, are just icing on the cake. Speaking for myself, I only review books I’m enthusiastic about; negative reviews say more about the reviewer than the work in question. So, writing a review is, for me, a bit of light relief from the donkey work of editing. Happily, we’ve also been blessed by some far more astute guest reviewers than me!
Initially, we fought shy of artwork (other than cover art). We were certainly not keen on the idea of ‘illustrating’ the poetry. The change came with the inception of our ekphrastic supplement (the cunningly-titled Arsy Versy): we published an excellent series of poems by R. Nemo Hill which were already accompanied by the author’s own photographs. In a way, the poems and images illustrated each other, but in another way I certainly came to see the images as ‘visual poems’ in themselves. This seemed to lead naturally to Pat’s artwork for issue 7, where again the images were visual poems.
I think the important thing is to establish a consistent core identity, but not to the exclusion of a little judicious experiment and surprise.
As far as editorial choices go: I think two is company and three is a crowd. Having one male and one female co-editor seems to work well in terms of rapid decision-making, and I think the gender balance is helpful. We are, I hope, totally democratic.
From your submission guidelines, you publish once a year with a May/June issue. Previous to issue 8, you published the journal a couple of times a year combining seasons, what propelled the change in time frame?
Well, as I said above, we want to be respectful to poets and their work, and Angle seems to have established itself at a certain size per issue. Where we got to by issue 7 was that we would have been starting in on submissions for issue 8 the day after publication. I certainly sensed a danger that weariness would set in. Having a six-month break between issues seemed the best compromise to enable us to come to it with freshness and enthusiasm each time. Editing poetry is not the same as reading poetry for pleasure, and you can easily lose sight of the tree of beauty in amongst the wood of punctuation, spelling, syntax, grammar and layout. There is very little reward in poetry publishing other than the pleasure of reading submissions, producing something which looks as good as you can make it, and the relatively brief flurry of plaudits on publication, so you need to hang onto those things. If it becomes a chore then all is lost.
When reviewing submissions, do you also consider emerging writers?
I’m sure that Janet and Ann would agree with me that the last thing to worry about is a poet’s status or publication history. I never read the biographies until an issue is basically assembled and they need editing in. Of course, from time to time we solicit work directly from poets, but even then it is only because we are struck by their poetry, and that can just as well be because we have seen a piece of work by someone we don’t know in another venue.
We favour formal poetry, although we have no absolute agenda, and that is a relatively small world, so it is inevitable that some names will crop up with some regularity. However, one of the pleasures each time is to welcome newcomers to our little fold. In any case, every poet was ‘emerging’ at some point and had to be published in order to complete their metamorphosis. As a poet, I haven’t quite got there yet (and may never do), but I’m very grateful to the late Paul Stevens for his kindness in publishing some of my early efforts; that’s a part of his legacy I’m keen to carry on.
Was there ever a submission you read that completely blew you away?
Yes, but I’m quite wary of picking favourites. We have consciously never involved ourselves with nominations for the Pushcart or similar, for that reason. I have a natural aversion to awards: as many as they please (and possibly motivate) they upset and demotivate a great many more. So I’m going to cheat and speak generally: what most floats my boat is musicality, non-linearity, and surprise. What fills me with gloom and despondency is diaristic poetry, quotidian language, and predictability (and there is an awful lot of that about).
If you are going to push me for an example, I have to say that the perfect diction and quiet authority of, say, Stephen Edgar is more likely to blow me away than verbal pyrotechnics.
What most floats my boat is musicality, non-linearity, and surprise.
Do you have any general advice for new writers?
1) With my tongue in my cheek, I could say, I suppose: ‘Never (try to) write a poem unless you absolutely have to.’ Seriously, though, I think a lot of aspiring writers feel a compulsion to produce work, and to get it published, as a way of establishing themselves as the genuine article (whatever that may be). Forget about ‘writer’s block’: there is no necessity to write poetry until a poem needs to be written. The best poems are always the ones that take you by surprise. That’s where I’m at now. It’s very liberating.
2) Another possibly contentious view I have is that one shouldn’t write a poem down until it is pretty much done in the head. I think that if the words are truly memorable you will remember them (and vice versa); the memory is a far more ruthless editor than you will ever consciously be. Having said that, revision is important, both for sense and sound. So far as the latter goes, while it is true that I am much more of a fan of page than stage, how a poem feels in the mouth and enters the ear is key, I think: not everyone has the ability to read well out loud, but I think all poets should develop the skill of ‘reading out loud in the head’, as it were.
3) Almost none of the poetry being written today (or which was ever written, for that matter) will last. But I think one ought to approach writing as if it might. There is a great deal of ephemeral poetry around nowadays, a sort of disposable product with built-in obsolescence. Aim high!
What are some of your favorite journals and literary magazines to recommend to writers and readers?
I tend to favour UK-based publications, of which there are relatively few as compared to the US (which is why I felt there was room for Angle in the market place). That’s not being narrow and parochial, particularly, but I do find myself more often in tune with English sensibiliities. Equally, I think journals which are openly accessible and free are often far better than those rather grand print journals who seem to think it’s OK to bar simultaneous submissions while happily taking a year to decide they don’t like your work, if they ever deign to respond at all. Inexcusable in my view, and I have never found that approach produces significantly better content. Finally, I rather like the poet Andrew Waterman’s characterisation of poetry as ‘the last cottage industry’. Let’s keep it free, I say.
With all that in mind, I’d particularly mention two venues: Atavic Poetry and Antiphon. Not to decry others, but an exhaustive list would be impossible, and those two nicely exemplify the values I look for, both editorially and in terms of design. Also, all the best journals have names beginning with A …
Do you or your publication hold events for your contributors and artists?
No, we don’t, I’m afraid. Speaking purely for myself, I’m not a big fan of the poetry circus. I’m just in it for the poetry. A poetry festival or conference is my idea of hell. I will never understand the concept of the ‘poetry community’ which some people seem keen to push. Poetry is an essentially solitary pursuit, not a social club. So, shoot me!
On the other hand, if our contributors ever want to throw a party for us poor editors I guess I’d probably turn up … Noblesse oblige, and all that!
What are your goals for Angle?
Short term ambition: probably to get to issue 10 without having a nervous breakdown!
Medium term ambition: to keep wanting to do it; to enjoy it.
Long term ambition: when Angle finally folds (as all publications must, eventually), for it to be remembered fondly, and occasionally mentioned in despatches.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention that I haven’t covered or would you like to ask me a question?
Yes, if I may. There are very few venues which devote themselves to ekphrastic poetry, so I’d ask your readers who are so minded to bear in mind our ekphrastic supplement, Arsy Versy. We bill it as an occasional addition, which means we’ll only publish it when we have about 30 or so suitable poems. Beware, however, that ekphrastic poetry is not easy to do well.
Lisa Montanino is the author of fiction novel, Feedback (Little Mountain Publishing, 2014) and short story, “Observations of a Native New Yorker” featured in online magazine, Divine Caroline. Lisa is currently working on her sequel to Feedback and a novella The Diaries of Debra Westlake. Lisa is a new contributor to The Review Review. Her additional work and philanthropic efforts can be found on her blog Accidental Bohemian - https://lisamontanino.wordpress.com/ . Lisa lives in New York.