The Friday Poem talks to Mike Bartholomew-Biggs from London Grip about managing poetry reviews, choosing poetry for online magazine London Grip New Poetry, the re-launch of Poetry in the Crypt, and the joy of maths
TFP: London Grip aims to offer independent and original reviews of current shows, events and books, an exhibition space for cross-media arts AND an in-house poetry magazine. You also carry articles on the “widest range of topics” – the searchable categories on the London Grip site range from ‘architecture’ to ‘writing’ via ‘economics’, ‘jazz’, ‘psychiatry’ and ‘tapestry’. This is a pretty tall order. How do you deliver it?
MBB: Truth to tell we probably don’t! London Grip was started in 2007 by Patricia Morris and the category list still reflects many of her interests and those of the other early contributors. Stephen McGrath took over the role of Managing Editor in 2011 and in that same year I became poetry editor, following on from Robert Vas Dias. Now I handle all book reviews as well as the quarterly posting of London Grip New Poetry (about which more later) and Stephen looks after all other topics – chiefly art, film and theatre reviews. We are still happy to feature occasional contributions on travel, history, science and even mathematics!
TFP: You also don’t limit your sphere of activities to London. How wide a geographical area do you aim to cover?
MBB: As an online magazine the (English-speaking) world is our oyster! Our contributors – and therefore, presumably, some of our readers – come from Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Canada as well as Great Britain and a few European countries.
TFP: Where do you find your reviewers, and what sort of guidelines do you give them? Do you pay for reviews? If you do, how do you manage it – do you attract sponsorship?
MBB: Poetry reviews make up the major part of London Grip’s output – at a rough count we have published about 100 so far this year. Every two to three months we offer a list of available books to our panel of about thirty reviewers. From this list they can nominate a few titles they find interesting. I then have a challenging resource allocation problem to try and ensure everybody gets something they want!
As an online magazine the (English-speaking) world is our oyster!
Our reviewing team has changed over the years but it still includes some who were invited to join when I started as poetry editor. We remain open to new recruits and one good way to get our attention is by offering us an unsolicited review.
We give our reviewers very few explicit guidelines except as regards house style in layout and presentation of quoted extracts. We aim to present clear and balanced assessments from a general reader’s point of view (i.e. not too academic). Some reviewers choose mainly to discuss the themes and content of a book while others pay more attention to poetic style. We try to avoid undue extravagance in praise and to be tactful and measured in making negative remarks. Reviewers are all volunteers and their reward is usually nothing more than a free book and the sense of a job well done.
We also have a team of regular contributors of art, theatre and film reviews but they submit work as and when they choose rather than working within a commissioning cycle.
TFP: Tell me about the London Grip in-house poetry magazine. Is it a print magazine, how often is it published and what sort of poetry do you like to include?
MBB: London Grip New Poetry appears quarterly (March, June, September and December). It is primarily an online publication but it does come with a link to a print-friendly version of itself that some users say they prefer. Past issues of London Grip New Poetry can be found here. We have a mailing list of around 700 to whom we send the link to each new edition along with the printable version as an attachment. We also announce each new edition on Facebook and Twitter.
The form of the magazine has evolved since 2011 and currently an issue will probably contain about forty poems. We tend to prefer work which has a narrative thread and / or an unusual point of view. We also like to see some evidence of structure and enjoy formality and rhyme if done well and if appropriate to the subject matter. We are a bit resistant to anything that approaches ‘nature poetry’ – but we have on occasion been won over.
TFP: When you say you have resistance to ‘nature poetry’ (wry smile here) do you mean poems about flowers, rolling hills, etc? There’s a lot of eco poetry being written at the moment – I wonder where that sits for you?
MBB: I do indeed mean poems about “flowers, rolling hills etc” (and I would include small animals among the et ceteras). My problem is chiefly with poems that seem to be only about those things. If they illuminate some broader aspect of the human condition then I am much more sympathetic. Which, I suppose, makes me fairly sympathetic to eco-poetry. But eco-poetry would be on my radar anyway because – as I should have said in answering one of the earlier questions – London Grip is happy to make space for political poetry. But we do look for it to be subtly persuasive rather than preachy or ranty – our preferred weapon is the rapier rather than the bludgeon!
London Grip is happy to make space for political poetry. But we do look for it to be subtly persuasive rather than preachy or ranty – our preferred weapon is the rapier rather than the bludgeon
TFP: Can I also ask about the process by which you select the poems for your online journal – you say ‘we’ – is it just you, or do you have help? How many submissions do you get?
MBB: Yes I am the sole editor of London Grip New Poetry. But I shall continue to refer to myself as ‘we’! We open a two month submission window for each edition and poems are ‘triaged’ pretty soon after arrival as ‘short-list’, ‘possible’ or ‘definite reject’. We aim to send out (sympathetic) rejection letters fairly fast. Since some submissions don’t stay in the inbox for very long we can easily lose count of how many we get, but I’d estimate that we’re offered 300-400 poems in each window, which would make our acceptance rate a bit better than 10%
One aspect of our process for dealing with ‘short-list and ‘possible’ poems is quite interesting. We almost always observe that contributions seem to gather, quite spontaneously, around a small number of themes (which are different for each edition – something to do with the zeitgeist?). In the latest issue, for instance, quite a few poems reminisce about first love affairs while there’s another significant group dealing with parent-child relationships. In previous issues there have been clusters of poems around such diverse topics as railway journeys or floods or identity crises. Hence a ‘possible’ poem can graduate to the short list because it fits in well with an emerging theme. (Of course a ‘possible’ can also be upgraded simply because repeated readings show that it to be stronger than we had first discerned, and a short-listed one may similarly get demoted when we realise that there is rather less to it than initially met the eye.) This identification of shared themes and links between poems means, we like to think, that an issue of LGNP has a little of the coherence of a single-author collection.
The thematic element in our selection process does sometimes result in a good poem being set aside because it doesn’t ‘fit’ in any group. In such cases we ask the author if we can hold the poem over for the next issue in which it may well become a ‘seed’ which helps set the tone. Typically we carry forward about half-a-dozen poems in this way.
TFP: How do you feel about the contrast between London Grip, which is free to read, and Poetry London that even electronically is (I think) £22 for a year’s subscription (the paper version is £30)? Does being free downplay the kudos and the eagerness for top poets to feature?
MBB: Being a poet as well as an editor means that I can see this from two sides. As a poet seeking publication I still have a sneaking preference for a print magazine because acceptance implies that someone is prepared to spend real money on making the words available and also expects that someone else is prepared to spend money to read them. But on the other hand I do submit to on-line magazines and am very happy to appear there. As an on-line editor I am uncomfortably aware of how easy a job I have compared with that of running a print magazine. I sometimes wonder too if the very availability of open access on line magazines like London Grip might undermine the existence of print magazines which cannot possibly be offered for free. Obviously I have so far convinced myself that the two output streams can co-exist in parallel.
Now let’s consider your tricky question about where the “top poets” choose to publish. I don’t believe there’s much overlap between our pool of contributors and that of Poetry London or PN Review or Poetry Review. But I do think many of the same names will crop up on the pages of on-line magazines like London Grip, The High Window, Ink Sweat & Tears and morphrog and those of long-running print journals like Acumen, Frogmore Papers, London Magazine and Orbis.
We certainly like our poets to be challenging in what they say but perhaps less so in how they say it!
Some might be tempted to use footballing analogies to rank poetry publications in the same way as one might compare the status of Premier League clubs versus the various divisions of the Championship. I am not going to succumb to that temptation. I will simply observe that the more prestigious journals probably take care to keep abreast of new developments in poetry and hence some of their content may seem quite challenging in terms of form and style. In this respect, London Grip may be a little way behind the curve: we certainly like our poets to be challenging in what they say but perhaps less so in how they say it!
TFP: How did the pandemic affect London Grip?
MBB: Hardly at all. The editors remained generally healthy and could carry on the administration. More importantly, most of our contributors maintained their interest in submitting material. I could go further and say that keeping the magazine going was good for my mental health because the pandemic coincided with a very unfruitful period in my own writing and it was the need to engage with other people’s work that kept me actively interested in poetry.
TFP: Can I ask about Poetry in the Crypt – your poetry readings in St Mary’s Church, Islington – which you’ve taken a break from but which resumed in October. Do you have plans for more face-to-face events, and have you ever considered taking them onto Zoom, for increased accessibility?
MBB: Poetry in the Crypt arose from some informal poetry evenings arranged by Graham Claydon who was the vicar when Nancy Mattson and I joined St Mary’s church in the mid 1990s. After Graham left, Nancy and I took over the events and made them a bit more ‘professional’ by bringing in guest readers. Since then we have had readings three or four times a year in the crypt under St Mary’s and the gate money has gone to various charities – most recently to Hospice Care Kenya.
As with all other venues, our programme was interrupted by the pandemic and lockdown. While we could see that zoom was working well for other organisers we never felt that the medium was the right one for our events.
Prior to the pandemic we were getting audiences of 50-plus which was about the limit of what the crypt space could hold, So for our recent restart we have moved upstairs into the church where there is more room (and also a better sound system). The first manifestation of the renamed Poetry above the Crypt was the launch of Smokestack Lightning. A second event at the end of October was in our usual format of three guest readers plus floor spots. Plans for 2023 have yet to be finalised.
TFP: Before your career as a writer, you had a career in mathematics – first in the aircraft industry and then in research and higher education. I wanted to ask something about how – or if – working in maths helps or hinders the writing of poetry. Perhaps it fosters a useful capacity for abstract thought?
MBB: This now feels a bit like a question from another time. I have been retired from professional mathematics for 14 years and no longer do much personal research. Around 2008 I published a small pamphlet called Uneasy Relations which claimed to be bringing together the two hemispheres of my brain; and, for a while, I was involved with an international group of mathematicians who also wrote poetry. I have also included poems at chapter endings of a couple of mathematical textbooks that I wrote just before my retirement.
Mathematicians develop techniques of problem solving based on looking very closely at the exact meaning and implications of a piece of text and these skills are, I think, transferrable to the close-reading and editing of a poem
The work I have just mentioned, however, was largely poetry about mathematics; and your question concerns the possible ways in which a mathematical outlook might help in the writing of poetry of all kinds. I have often given glib and improvised answers about poets and mathematicians both valuing brevity and elegance and liking to draw broad inferences from specific instances. I even put these conjectures into a pair of haiku:
Poets show, don’t tell:
build metaphors from concrete
and specific bricks.
abstract and general is
our bread and butter.
But another important factor may be that mathematicians develop techniques of problem solving based on looking very closely at the exact meaning and implications of a piece of text and these skills are, I think, transferrable to the close-reading and editing of a poem. My taste for the imaginative unravelling of puzzles probably explains my fondness for writing narrative poetry based on real-life such as the semi-true story in Fred & Blossom or the family legend behind The Man Who Wasn’t Ever Here. No doubt it also motivated my attempt to construct an ekphrastic ‘evolution myth’ in Pictures from a Postponed Exhibition or to combine poetry with detective fiction in Poems in the Case.
TFP: Have you ever used a poem generator and was it any use?
MBB: Well that’s a question out of left field! I had to consult the internet in order to be sure what you were talking about and respond appropriately! I did briefly try one of the generators I found via Google. It was one that offered to give me Emily Dickinson & Robert Lowell as my muses; but I wasn’t immediately impressed with the results. The only remotely comparable device I have used is to work within the constraint of a finite word-hoard. This has been quite successful on a few occasions – e.g. a poem composed using only words to be found in the lyrics of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.
Now that this unexpected subject has been raised, however, I am beginning to wonder whether I would in fact benefit from some fresh aids to composition. Poetic ideas no longer come to me as frequently or spontaneously as they used to and I may be undergoing the age-related experience that Philip Larkin was referring to when he said that poetry seemed to have given him up. Goals I am still gamely plodding towards are – in the long run – completing a pamphlet-sized sequence triggered by the book of the prophet Ezekiel and – in the much shorter run – composing a poem to go in this year’s Christmas cards (maintaining a tradition that started in the late 1980s). Other than these I may have to focus on the second component of a New & Selected …
And since I seem to have shot off at a bit of a forward-looking tangent I will just mention that the 50th edition of London Grip New Poetry is due to appear in just over a year so obviously I want to keep going until that milestone is reached. It may then be time to start looking for an apprentice – maybe someone young enough to fit Leonard Cohen’s description of “a sixty year old with a crazy dream”.