"Where Emerging Talent Knows They Can Find a Home."
A Chat With Briony Bax, Editor of Ambit
Ambit is a quarterly literary and arts magazine created in London, published in the UK, and read internationally. It’s available by subscription, and in bookstores and libraries worldwide. Despite having published such luminaries as J.G. Ballard, Carol-Ann Duffy, Fleur Adcock and David Hockney since it was founded in 1959, the magazine’s website states, “We look at everything that is sent to us, and give no preference to well-known writers over the newest artistic talents.
Interview by Euan Monaghan
Ambit has quite the history. Can you summarize that briefly for those not in the know?
Ambit was founded 1959 by Dr. Martin Bax. He had been inspired by looking at copies of Rhythm Magazine that had been published by Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murray. Although Martin was a very successful paediatrician, publishing numerous medical books, Ambit was his passion and he managed to run Ambit from the front room at 17 Priory Gardens, Highgate, for over 50 years. His art editor for most of that time was Mike Foreman, whom Martin met at the hospital when their eldest sons were being born, and they have been close friends and collaborators ever since. Martin and Mike were joined by Peter Porter, Henry Graham, Eduardo Paolozzi, JG Ballard, Edwin Brock, Carol Ann Duffy, Tony Dash, Ron Sanford and Geoff Nicholson and every quarter, without fail, the magazine was produced, printed by Lavenham Press and distributed internationally.
Many poets and writers have worked in the Ambit office over the years, notably Emily Berry, Liz Berry, Travis Elborough, Declan Ryan, Gary Budden and Lucy Mercer, while Martin’s late wife Judy valiantly tried to keep the accounts in order. For a while the Arts Council funded part of the costs of printing the magazine but there was a huge furor in the sixties when Martin and JG Ballard ran a competition to find the best poem written on drugs. In the archive, which is now housed at Penn State University, many letters can be seen arguing about this decision. The competition went ahead and the person who won was a woman taking the contraceptive pill.
"We were in trouble again, when Ambit launched a competition for the best fiction or poetry written under the influence of drugs. Lord Goodman, an intimate of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, raised the threat of prosecution. In fact, we were equally interested in the effects of legal drugs -- tranquillisers, antihistamines, even baby aspirin. The competition, and the 40 Pound prize which I offered, was won by the novelist Ann Quin—her drug was the oral contraceptive…"
— J.G. Ballard from The Atrocity Exhibition, New Revised Edition, RE/Search
When Martin was approaching his 80th birthday I was asked by his family (I am a Bax by marriage which confuses some people who think Martin is my father—my father was, in fact, the poet Adrian Mitchell.) if I would consider taking over as editor of the magazine. At the time I was going to move back to London after having lived in the US for 27 years. I had been featured in Ambit as a poet but I hadn’t considered moving into the editorial world. I told Tim Bax, who is now the Chair of the Ambit Board, that I would start shadowing Martin and seeing how the magazine ran and then I’d take my decision. After about a year of working with Martin and the team in the office, and after many conversations about whether he and Judy would like the magazine to continue, which they did, it was decided that I would take over from issue 214 and that Martin would have a celebration lunch at the Chelsea Arts Club for his birthday and his retirement from the magazine.
Since that time I’ve been producing Ambit from our office in North Norfolk with most of our editorial staff working virtually. We’ve become a charity, we are now printing in full colour and I’ve moved to having the art in the magazine be its own entity rather than responding solely to the text. The exception to this, and a nod to Ambit’s past, is our tradition of illustrating two stories each issue. Our poetry editor is now Ralf Webb, Kate Pemberton is our fiction editor and Olivia Bax and Jean-Philippe Dordolo are our art editors. Mike Smith is our production editor who typesets and liaises with our writers and poets to make sure everything is in order before we go to print. Many times J-P and I will actually go to the printers in Lavenham and check the proofs as they come off the presses as we are passionate about getting everything just right.
I think that the Ambit today has moved on from being the ‘bad boy’ of British poetry magazines into something where emerging talent knows they can find a home. We love finding new work and using an online submissions system means we can accept work from everywhere. We accept about 2% of the work we receive, so it is competitive to get published in Ambit, but it is possible for new writers and poets to find a place with us. I think that is what I’m proud of – when I see a brand new voice printed on the next page from someone who has been well established for a long time. That gives me goosebumps.
There were some changes within the magazine recently.
We’ve had a few changes in staff to the magazine. When I started Liz Berry and Declan Ryan were the joint poetry editors, but after Liz won the Forward Prize she became so busy that she moved on and Declan had to concentrate on his university teaching. I’ve recruited Ralf Webb who started with us as an intern to be our new Poetry Editor and Ruby Silk, Imogen Cassells and Andrew Webb are assistants. Gary Budden has moved on from helping with the Fiction – he’s now running his own publishing house Influx Press – but Kate Pemberton remains with the magazine helped by Rob Newton and Gwen McKeith. We’ve also become a charity which helps with fundraising for the magazine and we have recruited many Friends and Angels who help sustain our work. Mirelle Fauchon has returned to Ambit as illustrations editor, and we now have a part time bookkeeper and marketing person in Norfolk which has helped keep us organized.
Now we are full-colour the art can really stand on its own and I‘m proud that we now have a strict 30/30/30 page split for all disciplines so poetry, fiction and art are all as important as each other. Since we have computerized the submissions system we now have ‘windows’ for people to submit work to control the volume of material received. This works very well and allows all our editorial staff to work where and when they want and we meet up in London or on Skype once a month to discuss and decide what we want in the magazine.
One other change is that our launches are now taking place at The Sun and 13 Cantons in Soho. I felt that if we did our launches at a bookshop there was that awkward moment at the end where some people wanted to stay and talk or some wanted to have a drink with the editor. So, I’ve moved us into a pub which has a good space for readings and that way we can read, drink and hang out all in one place. Our events are very popular and there is a real community building up around the magazine. We like to provide an environment where everyone feels welcome and as a result we’ve got a whole group of artists, writers, poets and fans who gather every three months to celebrate the magazine.
I’ve also launched annual competitions – this year the poetry theme is ‘Resistance’ – and George Szirtes, whose second poem ever published was in Ambit, is our judge. Winners will be published in the magazine, are awarded cash and read at our launch event so that is always an exciting evening.
Is there a common thread linking the kind of work you publish?
There is no common thread linking the work we publish other than we love it! All of us as editors have our pet peeves and likes. Mine, for instance, is that I’m not overly fond of poems that are referencing art; I’d rather see the piece of art than have a poet describe it. But I love poems that are written about something unexpected, or are from a different point of view. We are all allergic to rhyming couplets but we appreciate formal form – we were delighted to publish a crown of sonnets by Mary Jo Salter for instance. In the fiction again we are looking for stories that we haven’t read before. For example, we received what I call ‘a sad man in a basement’ story from a man in Texas. We didn’t like the story but we could see he could write. Kate Pemberton noticed that he worked as a commercial beekeeper, so we emailed him and asked him to write about that and he came up with a great story which we published. I’ve also been reaching out into communities where we traditionally don’t have influence. We had a very successful partnership with Jee Leong Koh who guest edited the poetry in Ambit 228 and I think we’ll do more of that.
What we tell anyone who wants to appear in Ambit is get to know our magazine and see what we publish – that way you’ll know what to submit.
What is Ambit’s approach to the challenge of diversity?
We take diversity seriously and talk about it regularly at our editorial meetings. I think it is easy to do lip service to diversity especially when filling in funding forms. I believe that to truly be diverse you need to reach out to different communities and invite and welcome them to participate. For instance, I often state in our promotional material that we are open to all genders, races, and members of the LGBTQIAPK community. I think having Lee Leong Koh – who lives in New York, is Singaporean and gay – as a guest editor really helped us reach into communities that we otherwise wouldn’t influence. I’m planning to do more of that sort of thing. I’m also a great fan of VIDA in the States and we always try to have our magazine be gender balanced if possible.
Has running the magazine changed your own writing?
Well, running Ambit, being poetry editor of The New European and helping to run a charity working in Kenya – Saidia Children’s Home – certainly takes up a lot of my time and leaves little for writing. I am working on a couple of projects but they are very much in formation. I suppose reading so much poetry and fiction from submissions does inspire me as there are some many exciting forms being used and original ideas. I tend to use airplane time and trips away as mini writing retreats. I think one day I’ll have to sign up for a serious four-week writing retreat to get my collection finished, but at the moment there are to many distractions.
Euan Monaghan founded Structo—a magazine of fiction, poetry, essays, and interviews—in 2008. Originally from the UK, he now lives in the Netherlands.