The Friday Poem talks to Kathryn Gray and Andrew Neilson about gatekeeping, excellence, and risk, and finds out what goes on inside digital poetry journal Bad Lilies
TFP: Why ‘Bad Lilies’? — where did the name come from?
Kathryn: It just occurred to me. And we both thought: nice name! The inspiration seems to have come, though, from some lilies in a vase by our hearth. I only realised the very obvious connection later, however strange that might seem. But there are more than a few playful poetry associations, from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal to Lord Wavell’s Other Men’s Flowers.
Andrew: Now we’re coming to the high-falutin’ explanation. Each issue is a little anthology of poems, and of course the Classical etymology of the word ‘anthology’ breaks the word down to mean, basically, ‘gathering flowers.’ No, in truth, it was less to do with Greek and more to do with the lilies in the fireplace.
Kathryn: And, of course, we named those lilies bad because we think they’re very good indeed!
TFP: And where did the original idea to set up a poetry magazine come from? Did / does one of you take the lead, or is it an entirely joint project?
Kathryn: It was during February last year. One evening, we were sitting talking. This was the period of The Languishing. Following eleven months, by that point, of the pandemic, I’d started to feel quite emptied-out. Well, we all did, didn’t we? In the 23 years Andrew and I had known each other, we’d never previously worked on a poetry project together. The idea popped into my head. I thought: Let’s create something small and lovely in poetry to get us going again. A digital journal? And then I said it out loud. And Andrew listened. And we thought: yes, we can do this. And before I had the time to change my mind, Andrew had started to build the website …
Andrew: I was playing around with Squarespace at the time anyway. Not being at all skilled when it comes to web design, I just felt there were ways we could easily use that platform to showcase poems in a particular kind of way. I was keen on the idea of a relatively large typeface and lots of space around the poems. As soon as I started experimenting with that, we could both see some exciting possibilities.
We’re looking to get away from any sense of cliques, or whatever’s fashionable, and to put very different poets alongside each other and, hopefully, foster a dialogue between them
TFP: What does Bad Lilies do that other poetry magazines don’t do — or weren’t doing when you set it up — what gap in the ‘market’ did you hope to fill?
Kathryn: It’s less that we’re filling a gap, I think, than that we’re hopefully broadening the opportunities for people to publish. And broadening the range of people they might appear alongside. And — or so it would seem — broadening audience. Andrew works really hard on our social media presence, and there’s some evidence that our reader-engagement goes beyond practising poets, solely. This is very important to us.
Andrew: Yes. One of the things we’ve definitely wanted to do is put poetries beside each other which you may not always see placed together in other magazines, because some other editors may have particular leanings that they see their publication as championing. That has always had a place in poetry, but at this point in time it feels more important to do something different. We’re looking to get away from any sense of cliques, or whatever’s fashionable, and to put very different poets alongside each other and, hopefully, foster a dialogue between them. And we want to expose readers to that variety in poetry, too.
The other thing we’ve wanted to do, as a digital publication, is platform poets writing in English from outside the UK, and to build an international audience as part of that. Around 40% of our visits come from outside the UK, so this seems to be working.
TFP: Give me a rough idea of how the magazine works — who does what, when, and where?
Andrew: We both do editorial, in the sense of selecting poems. We almost always agree, which is perhaps a sign of how long we’ve been ‘in’ poetry together. There are times when one of us might have to lobby the other to include a poem, but I can’t think of an occasion where either of us has wielded an absolute ‘veto’!
Our submissions windows always have several issues in mind, rather than just the next issue, so we also discuss when poems might appear, and what poems they might appear alongside. Editorial meetings tend to take place on early Sunday evenings. The rest of the work is pretty much split between us. Kathryn does the heavy lifting — she mainly responds to poets, handling acceptances and rejections. She also leads on any line editing we might venture to contributors, as well as proofreading. I typeset the poems and, as part of that, take a lead in sequencing the work in each issue. As Kathryn mentions above, I also run the social media for Bad Lilies, which has been an important way to get the work out there.
TFP: Do you solicit poems at all or does everything come from submissions? Do you read submissions blind?
Kathryn: Our first issue was entirely commissioned. We needed to get off the ground, and we also wanted to showcase the kind of poems we enjoy to give people some feel for the sort of work we were looking for in the future. We were very fortunate to bring on board some exceedingly generous poets who were supportive of the venture and really wanted to help: a good example of how community is crucial when it comes to building things. It’s so often a group effort. And we owe those poets — well, we owe all our poets, but those in particular — for the gamble they took on us, and on what was, initially, just the seed of an idea.
… great sonics, an authoritative tone (even, or perhaps most especially, in expressing vulnerability), attentiveness to the line (for non-prose poems), and, very obviously, a freshness of language (free of cliché, invigorating)
Following that, we’ve occasionally tapped people on the shoulder — those poets we’re wild about and whom we felt would really contribute to our overall aesthetic and, hopefully, our breadth. But that happens very rarely now, and I should add that it has never once come at the expense of any other fine poet appearing in the magazine, whatever the stage of their career.
We don’t read submissions blind and that’s not going to change. I’m unconvinced that’s a particularly helpful strategy for ensuring balance and, even as I say that, I’m also somewhat unconvinced it would change outcomes all that much in any case. I suspect newer poets — those with less of a publication record — might wonder whether this presents a barrier to their inclusion, but I’d like to reassure them that, if anything, the opposite is true. We’re actively looking for new poets: there’s a joy — and our own sense of vain kudos (!) — in discovery. We’d like to believe we’re helping high-quality people onwards, in however small a way.
TFP: A question about gatekeeping — do you, as editors, have a commitment to represent marginalised writers? And if so, how does this manifest?
Kathryn: I really dislike the term ‘gatekeeping’, at least in respect of what we do. It feels like far too lofty a term to apply to the humble Lilies — I’d never buy into the notion that we have such power! And there are many gates, in any case, and many mansions beyond those gates and at the end of the driveways … But, yes, we do think it’s incredibly important to be inclusive. Not least because if you’re not being inclusive of all quality writing then I think, most seriously, that you’re probably not being honest about a great many things, and you will also almost certainly curate a very dull magazine indeed — one that shuts out discovery. I hope we’re demonstrating a commitment to representation in our issues, but we can always do more, and Andrew and I have made it a key value to keep learning, keep self-questioning. We want to create space for all talent, and we warmly encourage poets from underrepresented communities to send to us.
TFP: What are your inner guidelines when you come to consider poems for publication? What, precisely, are you looking for in a poem?
Kathryn: Ha! If only it were easy to articulate a straightforward answer to that question.
Before you get to the money shot — the emotional / intellectual outcome — I think some things are probably deal-breakers for us, with regard to engineering: great sonics, an authoritative tone (even, or perhaps most especially, in expressing vulnerability), attentiveness to the line (for non-prose poems), and, very obviously, a freshness of language (free of cliché, invigorating). Formal poems should impress the reader with their sense of surprising inevitability. And, then, the ‘big themes’ can be dangerous and must be handled with care: what are you bringing to a subject that makes our notions of it somehow new or finds our notions challenged in some way?
We both have an affection for the idiosyncratic, too. My old mentor, the late Roddy Lumsden, once quipped: “Why would you go out to buy more tins of baked beans if you’ve a cupboard full of them at home?” Which is to say: difference, uniqueness for a poet is a gift when shipping out to editors and audiences. A position of risk, for sure: not everyone is necessarily going to connect — and some people really, really like baked beans, after all. But it’s also an incredibly valuable attribute, one to be cultivated and celebrated. There is nothing quite like a poet doing things their way, all the way. We love those who stand out from the crowd — creating taste, rather than following the fashion.
There is nothing quite like a poet doing things their way, all the way. We love those who stand out from the crowd — creating taste, rather than following the fashion
In the end, though, we never come at poems with these tick boxes when we sit down to make our decisions. Of course we don’t! And people will perhaps satisfy those deal-breakers above, but all the same we might decline. Like all magazine editors, we are only human: we might get things utterly wrong at times; we might be self-contradictory. But perhaps a slippery truth is that — as with so many things in life — we editors don’t always know what we’re looking for until we’ve found it. This is why — after reading a magazine and getting a feel for what it does (and for what it might be missing!) — the mantra of ‘send your best’ is the cheerful (the only) strategy to adopt and why a decline from a magazine does not invalidate a poet’s project — not at all!
Finally, I want to make a special case for humour. We’d like to see much more of that, most especially given these troubling times. As Hubbell admonishes Katie in The Way We Were: ‘Everything’s too serious to be so serious.’
TFP: You say you aim to showcase “the finest poetry, ranging in technique and subject matter”. The concept of excellence in poetry has been dismissed in some circles as elitist or discriminatory. What’s your response to this?
Andrew: I think Kathryn’s last two responses point to our view on this. Obviously there has been important progress towards more inclusive poetry publishing, and that’s a great thing, but we shouldn’t fall for the trap of thinking that inclusion and excellence are mutually exclusive. I think that’s actually patronising to poets who may previously have faced barriers to publication. We are unashamedly looking for excellent work, but as we say, it will be “ranging in technique and subject matter” — by which we mean, there is no narrow definition for us of what excellence might look like. As we said earlier, we hope that Bad Lilies showcases real variety in poetry, both in terms of styles of poetry, and in terms of a diverse group of contributors.
It’s also important to stress, however, that we don’t claim to be consummate authorities on poetic excellence! We just hope our taste in poetry is broad enough, and informed enough, to guarantee the reader a quality experience when encountering an issue of Bad Lilies.
TFP: Do either of you have any particular preference or pet hate re types of poetry submitted (that you are prepared to admit to) — I mean, does one of you adore concrete poetry but hate the lyric ‘I’, for example?
Andrew: So our interest in variety probably comes from both of us having studied under the Irish American poet Michael Donaghy, who certainly fostered an enquiring and eclectic taste in reading. Kathryn mentioned another old friend of ours, Roddy Lumsden, and Roddy’s taste in poetry was most definitely a catholic one. Kathryn and I have both spent many years thinking about contemporary poetry and have seen all sorts of trends come and go. In that sense, we’re both thoroughly immune to the poetry world’s more ideological strains of what writing ‘must’ look like.
I want to make a special case for humour. We’d like to see much more of that, most especially given these troubling times
I suppose we do have a particular interest — I wouldn’t call it a ‘preference’ — for formal poetry, and one of the things we’ve done is platform some American formalists like A. E. Stallings, David Yezzi, Maryann Corbett, Amit Majmudar — I could go on! — and that’s been a deliberate attempt to remind UK readers of a tradition on the other side of the Atlantic which has perhaps been a little neglected (and sometimes feels neglected even over there). Again, that’s the influence of Michael on us both. He was very much a link to a time when British and American poetries were in more productive dialogue with each other.
TFP: You don’t currently offer payment, although you say that if you do secure funding, poets will be paid. Have you looked for sources of funding and do you think you will get any?
Andrew: We can’t comment on that right now! Which probably gives you an answer of sorts …
TFP: Are there any plans for expansion? A print copy / manuscript criticism / mentoring / workshops / on-line launches?
Kathryn: See Andrew’s answer just above! What can we say? Well, we are interested in doing something in print in the future. But not simply a print version of the digital journal. Watch this space …
Kathryn Gray and Andrew Neilson will discuss the ideas and motivations behind Bad Lilies with Rory Waterman at a virtual event for the Sylvia Plath Festival on Sunday 23rd October (5.30-7pm). Joining them to read poetry will be Bad Lilies contributors Naush Sabah and Clare Pollard. Tickets can be booked here.