The Friday Poem talks to Wendy Pratt, founder and editor of Spelt Magazine, about running a literary magazine with a nature focus, elitist gatekeepers, and the importance of planning
TFP: When did the idea of setting up a poetry magazine first occur to you?
WP: I’d had a strong urge to set up a magazine of my own for three or four years before I got the nerve to start Spelt. It was when I was invited to be the editor of the print magazine Dream Catcher in, I think, 2018 – 2019 that I began to think more seriously about it. It allowed me to see ‘behind the scenes’ and be privy to how much of a commitment is involved in running a good quality print magazine. I was their first female editor and absolutely loved working with the writers, but it was someone else’s baby, and I would find myself thinking about what I would do or how I might run my own magazine, given the chance.
TFP: How much work is it – how much time do you spend on Spelt?
WP: I spend between 15 and 20 hours a week on Spelt, working around my own writing and my own work.
TFP: What did you want to create? What did you want to do?
WP: I wanted to create something that was very different, something that was very me. Also it was important to me to be part of the arts community, and a big part of that is recognising and respecting the work that other people have put in to get to where they are, and not simply climbing up or over them to further your own ambitions. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t encroaching on other magazine’s territories and potentially affecting their readership.
I had always thought that I would run a literary magazine with a nature focus, but for a while I worried whether that would be too niche. Also I wanted my magazine to do more than ‘just’ showcase excellent work, I wanted it to have a direct affect on the literary community, providing a platform for under represented voices. I’m from a rural working class background, and I would class myself as a kind of nature writer. I use natural themes to describe personal trauma, for example, and I have recently been accepted by Portabello literary agency with a non-fiction nature writing book. I strongly believed that that was where I could do most good as an editor.
TFP: So how did you go about it?
WP: I’m a big fan of planning. I drew out a big spider plan and in the middle I put together the main things I wanted to accomplish with the magazine, and the things that I wasn’t willing to change or compromise on. That became the structure on which the magazine was built. These were things like making the magazine full colour, even though it’s more expensive to produce, because I wanted it to be a beautiful thing. Nature isn’t black and white and I wanted to reflect that with lots of pictures. I wanted a friendly and accessible font because I want the magazine to be high quality and accessible. I wanted it to be something you would see in an indie bookshop, but also on a kitchen table, or even in the cab of a tractor. Spelt will never be edgy or be seen as academic, but it is high quality engaging content in a beautiful form.
I wanted Spelt to be something you would see in an indie bookshop, but also on a kitchen table, or even in the cab of a tractor. It will never be edgy or be seen as academic, but it is high quality engaging content in a beautiful form
I suspect that there are people that will look down on us because we pride ourselves on creating something accessible, but that probably says more about their elitist gatekeeping opinions than it does about me or my magazine. There is space for more than one type of literary magazine and you only need to pick the latest issue of Spelt up to see the quality that’s inside. I feel there is quite a lot of gatekeeping in the literary community. There’s often a snobbishness, and an assumption that good quality content can’t also be friendly and inclusive. But that leads to missed opportunities to showcase incredible, talented writers.
TFP: Your five year plan involves not just the magazine but also outreach workshops in rural settings, online webinars and conferences. How’s it going?
WP: Did I mention I love planning? When I decided to set the magazine up, I knew I wanted it to be more than just another magazine. I wanted to provide a platform and really work at upholding those core principles I’d set, which also included being active in the writing community and finding ways to provide good quality workshops and events to people who might not otherwise be able to access them.
The main focus was people in rural areas where the logistics of travel to festivals and other events are challenging, to say the least. But this also obviously includes those with disabilities, people with caring responsibilities etc. I wanted Spelt events to be online events as much as possible, but part of the plan was, and is, to bring some events to village halls in North Yorkshire. It’s important to have a vision and to have goals, so this was important to me.
TFP: Famously there’s no money in poetry. How does the money work at Spelt – do you manage to pay yourself for your work?
WP: Well, we are into our second year and through a mixture of sales, small online workshops and subscribers, the magazine breaks even, and by that I mean the production costs are met and I am able to pay Steve (Steve Nash, Co-Editor and Technical Artist) for one of the days he spends on Spelt each issue. He edits the Urban / Rural section of the magazine and is the design and tech person – it’s really important to me that everyone recognise his input.
So Spelt sustains itself, but there’s no money for me. I think at some point, if we can build more of a platform, I will eventually get paid to manage and edit the magazine, that’s certainly part of the five / ten year plan. But having been a small business owner and self-employed freelancer, I am very, very aware that something like this takes time to become established.
We have grown a Twitter, Instagram and Facebook following, we have attracted people to our workshops and I am certain that the slow growth will continue. The five year plan has changed slightly, or rather it’s more of a ten year plan. Some of the things in the original plan won’t be possible until Spelt is better known and has a greater reach. To get to that point we need to build on what we are already doing. This year is a year of expansion.
The next part of the plan is to launch the Spelt School for Nature Writing which will start in September. The school will include longer courses, workshops, masterclasses, writing groups and I hope live events too
One of the core principles I set out at the start was that we wouldn’t be reliant on external funding to produce the magazine. I am happy to use funding to grow the platform, or as an injection to move the magazine forward in less time it would take without funding, but I have seen so many magazines fold because their stability is reliant on external funding and I think Spelt can, at the very least, sustain itself, as long as I am working as a volunteer on it.
TFP: What’s next for Spelt?
WP: The next part of the plan, and something I am hugely excited about, is to launch the Spelt School for Nature Writing, which will start in September. The school will include longer courses, workshops, masterclasses, writing groups and (I hope) live events too. This requires a massive amount of planning and once again I have been back to the planner, laying down goals and core principles which include us paying our workshop facilitators properly.
All of this sort of stuff takes an enormous amount of time and right now I have reached the point at which I can’t find more time to put into it and still pay my own bills. So I’m hoping for some funding to help me to build on the platform we already have, to just move it forward a little. The workshops will be creative writing workshops but I also want to offer skills workshops aimed at giving people from non-traditional writing backgrounds help in the industry, such as writing cover letters for magazines, pitching to non-fiction magazines, structuring Creative Non Fiction (CNF) articles etc, all done through Zoom initially until we can find a good hybrid model and then we’ll look at where else we can grow.
TFP: What experience did you bring to Spelt – had you dealt with printers, layout etc? And how much have you had to learn on the job?
WP: I’d edited magazines previously and because I work for myself running workshops and courses I am used to creating marketing materials. I mentor and I edit and proof manuscripts for other publishers, and I am a poet and author in my own right so I know what it is like on the other side of the inbox.
As far as layout goes, that’s Steve’s area, and whilst I am confident and have a basic idea of how it works, I am so glad that I have a co-editor who brings his own skill-set to the magazine. Printing-wise, I actually worked as a silk screen printer for a few years, and my husband works in digital printing, so I had some experience in dealing with printers and again, I had a strong idea of what we wanted in terms of the aesthetics of the magazine – paper weight, print quality etc. It is much easier to work with people if you have a clear idea of what it is you want to produce and why.
The whole story of Spelt has been a learning curve, to a certain extent, but an absolutely thrilling one. We’re hoping to have something else print-related to announce soon, but I daren’t jinx it before it’s set up and in place!
TFP: Spelt aims to publish “writers working in rural settings, writing about the rural experience, celebrating nature and the natural world.” Doesn’t this run the risk of attracting mostly poetry about flowers and bees?
WP: Our motto is that Spelt celebrates and validates the rural experience. One of the key aspects of Spelt, probably the key motive of the magazine, is to provide a platform for the real rural experience. This means avoiding the romanticisation of the rural, not treating rural areas like gardens for cities, or as a place simply to visit. It’s important to me that we include work that is about the lived experience of rural people. Rural people often become background in their own lives.
Often poetry and CNF about the rural experience is seen as ‘less’ than more metro-centred work, less edgy perhaps, less valid. I also wanted to avoid the ‘escape to the country’ mentality around the rural experience and provide a place in which we might see poems that push beyond that cliché. I’m very proud of how the magazine is doing. Our columnists in particular are brilliant. Currently we have a farm-haven for queer folk featured in one of the columns, and one of our best interviews was with Jason Allen-Paisent (you can read it on the website) about his book ‘Walking with Trees’ and his experience of connecting to nature as a black person.
Sitting in the first launch, with 100 people on Zoom in attendance, looking at Steve and saying “we did it” was pretty special
That isn’t to say that the magazine is all about challenging assumptions. We love good poetry, and good CNF. I love to see how poets, in particular, find ways of expressing beauty without resorting to cliché and romanticism. It can’t be all about the crappy aspects of rural living. I like to see work that captures the very special experience of living with nature as the background to your life. If you live in a place that is rural, your psyche is affected by it, you are aware of seasons in a different way, weather, wildlife. It seeps into the way you describe things, the way you process things.
Not everything in the magazine is written by people living rurally, but one thing we try to avoid is the romanticisation of the rural, so yes, we get plenty of bees and flower poems, and they’re welcome, as long as the writer is really using the full range of the poetic or CNF medium to do something interesting.
TFP: What’s your overall experience so far as an editor? What has been the best and the worst of it?
WP: Setting up Spelt is one of the best decisions I have made. I love it. I love the process of putting the magazine together, I love finding difficulties, addressing them, overcoming them. I love working with lovely Steve and the feeling of opening the box and looking at the next issue, still warm from the print machines – that never gets old. It’s fantastic.
It would be hard to name one thing that has been the best, but sitting in the first launch, with 100 people on Zoom in attendance, looking at Steve and saying “we did it” was pretty special.
The worst was a man who sent a lot of sexually explicit, rape and murder based ‘poems’ (I hesitate to use the word ‘poems’ as – apart from being offensive – they were simply appalling, a real abuse of grammar, spelling and punctuation) and they were very definitely aimed at me, written in the first person, as a kind of ‘poem threat’.
I took it seriously and opened a file and set some boundaries around it, limiting what I would put up with before involving the police, but he did in fact desist, with a torrent of abuse, when I asked him to not send any more ‘work’ to us as we’d never publish it. It was a horrible experience. I found myself looking over my shoulder and worrying every time I opened the inbox. It spoilt the experience for a while, but thankfully he’s fucked off now back to his mum’s spare room and his greasy wanking sport sock.
TFP: Do you find that editing a poetry magazine helps you develop your own work as a poet, or does it get in the way?
WP: A bit of both. I took the decision to take a small pay cut recently and take less freelance work on so that I could have some time to write. I’m currently finishing up a collection of poems which should be coming out 2024, I think, and I’m working on a creative non-fiction book, and I have a novel on the back burner, plus working on possibly getting a play I wrote a couple of years ago out and on the road. All of which takes time, and in reality I want to always be a writer first, editor and facilitator second. But I don’t want to sacrifice the magazine for that. Working on the magazine makes me very aware of the poets that are really pushing the form and I find that inspiring.