The Friday Poem talks to Mark Antony Owen, founder and editor of poet directory and quarterly journal iamb, about his initial inspiration, having a lot of ‘brass neck’, and how he fills iamb’s dance card
TFP: Can you tell me a bit about why you set up iamb? On our website you say: “They say the sincerest form of flattery is imitation. Let’s hope, then, that those behind The Poetry Archive – this project’s inspiration – are flattered, sincerely, by what we’re building here …”. Did you feel that The Poetry Archive was failing to cast a wide-enough net?
MAO: What I recall thinking was what a shame it was that The Poetry Archive – which I loved, still love, and which got me back to writing poetry after a lengthy hiatus – didn’t feature more of the current, perhaps younger, certainly less-well-known poets that I was discovering organically through social media. It took me a while to get my head around the commercial realities that must face a charitable organisation: it can’t do everything, so it has to prioritise. So what started out as my frustration with the status quo was quickly channelled into the idea of creating … not a rival to The Poetry Archive, but its ‘unofficial companion’. (I’ve never sought permission to use its logo on iamb, but I know those there are aware of my project, and I gather they’re happy to allow the association.)
TFP: Did you build the site yourself? What experience did you have of working with sound clips?
MAO: The site was designed, built, populated and launched in just seven weeks. And all of that work was done by me. I’m one of those people who has approximately enough knowledge of a wide-enough range of skills to be either adequate or bloody dangerous! What I didn’t have at the outset of iamb was any experience of manipulating sound – well, maybe a little, but we’re talking very little. So after lots of messing about with various Android and Windows apps designed to help edit sound recordings, I eventually bit the bullet and dived into free software Audacity. It was a game changer. And while there’s still so (too) much to learn, I feel I now know enough to turn passable recordings into something that sounds a bit more professional.
TFP: Did you know a lot of poets who you felt should be recorded? Where did you start?
MAO: I knew of a lot of poets whom I wanted to hear recorded. So I started DMing them on Twitter, and found a surprisingly large number were willing to submit work – old and unpublished – to help get iamb off the ground. Still can’t quite believe so many were willing to make that leap of faith! In the first year, I must’ve approached c.100 poets. About five didn’t get back to me; fewer than ten asked to defer to a later date. Everyone else said yes. From that point on, I filled iamb’s dance card for 2020 pretty quickly.
The site was designed, built, populated and launched in just seven weeks
TFP: Are many of the poets that you feature invited or do most come to you through the auditions window?
MAO: For several reasons, I was scared of opening up ‘auditions’ (my word for submissions) during the first year of iamb. The main three reasons were: 1) I wanted to set a pretty high bar from the get-go, so hand-picking ‘good / great’ poets (based entirely on what I knew of their work) felt a safe way to do this; 2) I feared becoming quickly overwhelmed by amateur versifiers flooding the auditions process with poetry I wouldn’t be comfortable publishing (though as it turned out when I did switch on the tap, the standard of auditions was impressively high); 3) I worried that not having a sprinkling of well-chosen ‘big names’ in my first year’s roster might make other talented / serious-minded poets dismiss iamb as little more than a D-list, mutual-back-scratching publishing clique.
TFP: You’ve got some really big names on your roster – how did you get Jorie Graham, for example?
MAO: I have what folk from a generation before mine call ‘a lot of brass neck’ so I just went out there and asked some of poetry’s royalty to get involved. If you’d known me in my youth, you’d never have guessed I’d grow up to be so confident! Jorie Graham was a great case in point. She and I had actually been mutuals on Twitter for some years. And around the time iamb was being birthed into the world, I was also helping poet Tara Skurtu get her pandemic lifeline project the International Poetry Circle off the ground. I seem to recall saying to Tara, “Yeah, I’ll ask Jorie to contribute a video reading!” Next thing I know, I’m not only liaising with Jorie but also her friends and colleagues at Harvard. Me, a guy with just two high-school qualifications to his name! So it felt a natural next step to invite Jorie to be part of iamb. She quizzed me about it, then sent me her email address. A week or two later, I’m stood in my kitchen in my dressing gown editing recordings of three of Jorie’s poems (my laptop resting on the cooker hob).
TFP: Do the poets that you feature record their poems themselves and send you sound files, or do you record them via the website? What’s your process, and how much work do you have to do to get the recordings clean enough to use?
MAO: Demands of home and work life mean I’d never find the time to get any wave of iamb out into the world if I also had to supervise each poet’s recordings (much though I’d dearly love to do so). This means I’m wholly dependent on poets sending in their own efforts. Around 65% of these are pretty good: good enough, at least, that I don’t have to do much polishing to make them sparkle. Roughly 25% need a bit more work – and this is always the starting point for me at the beginning of each wave’s preparation. Sadly, and for a host of different reasons, the remaining 10% either require the employment of some digital witchcraft on my part, or mean I have to ask the poets concerned to re-record. The good news is that I’ve so far been able to get something listenable readied for every single poet.
I just went out there and asked some of poetry’s royalty to get involved
TFP: Three poems per poet, twenty or so poets per wave, four waves every year – that’s some workload! Do you also have a day job? How do you fit it all in along with After… and Subruria?
MAO: Ha! Well, even if I say so myself, I am a bit of a machine when it comes to my passions! And yes, I work full time as a content designer / copywriter.
When I started iamb, I’d originally planned to showcase just ten poets per wave (which would’ve been way more manageable, let’s face it). But 2020 was a special year … how ‘special’ few of us realised at its outset … so 20 poets per wave felt right. Besides, so many fabulous poets were signing up to be part of the project that I wanted to include as many as possible. By wave three, I realised just how much work I’d created for myself, so when I came to plan for 2021 and beyond, I snipped each wave’s roll call by five. Any more and I would’ve burned out long before now.
Why then did I start After… ? The cadence for iamb is quarterly, and demands a lot of each poet, let alone of me. I wanted to create a fortnightly space where single poems were the stars, and I chose to tie this to the full and new moons. I restricted it to an ekphrastic concept as much to stem the tide of poems on any and every subject as to give ‘after’ poetry a new home online. As for my personal magnum opus, Subruria … well, that’s a real slow-burner (and probably worthy of another whole interview on its own).
TFP: And what about your own poetry? You feature in wave one, but are you published elsewhere? Do you do readings?
MAO: Okay, so I guess we’re going to talk about Subruria after all.
I had the idea for Subruria long before I published a word of it online. I suppose I chose to go down the digital self-publishing route as I doubted anyone would be interested in such a protracted roman à clef (albeit one in poetry). I also, like so many writers, feared its rejection. But equally, I wanted full creative control – and that would’ve been lost to me if I’d involved anyone else. So for the most part, my work gets published in Subruria pretty much exclusively. Sure, there are a few bits and pieces of mine that were published before my syllabic days began, but they’re mostly forgotten.
Occasionally, a journal editor sees something of merit either in a poem within Subruria, or on my Twitter timeline (where I tend to test reactions to my writing). They request permission to reproduce my work elsewhere – perhaps also asking for a new piece – and, invariably, I say yes (with gratitude). I understand that this way of ‘promoting’ my own work does, of course, close off a great many opportunities to see my name and my work in the kinds of journals and spaces where so many of the poets I publish in iamb appear regularly. But I’m not the sort to push my own nonsense, and would much rather that those who feel so inclined to read my work do so by discovering Subruria … somehow. And no: I don’t do readings, either. Unless you count those that accompany every poem in Subruria.