I am taking a break from writing brand new blog posts over the summer.
Instead of posting new work I am giving readers the chance to read material from the archives of my blog.
In no particular order, here are twenty of my favourite posts from the last four years.
Yesterday was a good day and a sad say. A good day because Smiths Knoll, the poetry magazine edited by Joanna Cutts and Michael Laskey, arrived on my doormat. A sad day because, after twenty-one years, yesterday’s issue, number 50, will be its last. (It is a cracker by the way, full to bursting with energy and life.)
I had seen the notice on the Smiths Knoll website warning that this day would come. As always, however, when the fact of the matter finally dawns, it is still a shock. I do not think I would be writing in the way that I write now, with a sense of an audience and someone looking over my shoulder at what I do, without it. Smiths Knoll belongs to a tiny handful of poetry magazines I still subscribe and look forward to. In more ways than I can possibly do justice to here, it has saved my life on countless occasions.
I’m not sure when I first heard about Smiths Knoll. I seem to remember a flyer falling out of another magazine I was subscribing to, promising something along the lines of being open to poems from ‘new voices’. The implied message was that it did not care about reputations or schools. I thought, This is the mag for me. That must have been sometime around 1991, because issue 1 followed not long after that. Barring two issues in the early twenties I have every other issue, the nearest to a full set of anything I have ever owned and ever will own.
The two things I love (I’m not ready to use the past tense yet) about Smiths Knoll are the discoveries of new poets and the careful attention of the editors.
It would be invidious to name names, but my sense of what is going on out there and who is doing it has been incomparably enriched by reading this poetry magazine. Some, over the years, have become friends in that actual sense of meeting and getting to know them. It sounds amazing to need to say this, but I have found that they are real humans, with lives, just like me, and that is mostly what we talk about when we get together, once a century if I am lucky. This number is outweighed by those I have not met but whose poems I (still) look forward to and am excited by. Smiths Knoll is not a dating website, but lifelong friendships can be struck up in this way, all started by seeing a name in print and sending them a congratulatory email or note. I will never cease being grateful to the editors for this.
The tradition of close reading and intelligent editing is the magazine’s other great strength. When I began sending Roy Blackman and Michael Laskey, the magazine’s first editors, my poems I do not think, in honesty, that I was ready for the level of attention and care that the poems received. Written in longhand in beautiful cursive script, in black ink, their notes on the poems would be clipped to the drafts I had sent them, usually within a couple of weeks of sending them out. (I believe Smiths Knoll is the most exemplary poetry magazine in the world in this regard.)
Their comments were detailed, direct, honest and logical. I remember they cut down one early poem I sent them by close to three pages. For ten minutes I looked at their letter speechlessly, then did what they suggested. I have never stopped being grateful to them since. (I’m still working through some of Michael’s comments on a draft of something I sent in the mid-nineties. I wonder where I will send it.)
All of this amounts to nothing less than the creating and sustaining of a very healthy culture, in this case in the domain of poetry. Anyone who has had any experience of starting something -a blog, a band, a journal- from scratch will know that it takes time to find, cultivate and then challenge your audience. The marvel of Smiths Knoll is that it seemed to arrive fully formed and functioning from Day 1, with a sense of what it wanted to do and how it was going to do it. This is rare in most fields, not least in poetry, and rarer still that it achieved (I will permit the past tense at this point) its vision with humanity, warmth, humour and above all kindness.
We will not see another like it.
You can read Michael Laskey: My Hero here
You can read Lifesaving Poems: Michael Laskey’s ‘Bike’ here
This tribute to Smiths Knoll chimes exactly with how I feel about the magazine, and must have originally been written just before Michael (Laskey) recommended your blog to me – which I have been reading with pleasure and admiration ever since. As I live in Suffolk I am now in the fortunate position of being able to number Michael and Joanna among my ‘real’ friends, and indeed I remember Roy (and his proper particularity about punctuation!) with great fondness.
I came a little late to poetry and my collection only dates from issue 16 but I also benefitted from their exact and kindly feedback, and was later able to join the monthly workshop that Michael had set up. (He claims that it isn’t ‘his’ group, but that is exactly how the rest of us regard it of course!) The attention to submissions felt like – in fact was – a tutoring which continued until eventually I managed to produce a handful of poems that were accepted. And what a wonderful graduation ceremony the appearance of the first poem was!
Needless to say I have been a regular at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival for quite a while now and I look forward to meeting you there in November – and if issue 25 of SK happens to be one of the ones that you are missing I will gladly pass on a spare copy that I have.
All best wishes, and thank you for the inspiration of your blog.
My first ever published poem was in issue 4 of Smiths Knoll in 1993. There is something very special about the first time and SK had my affection ever after for that reason, although I became frustrated by the size of the magazine and its impact on long-lined poems. Receiving detailed comments on my submission felt such a privilege; once I was editing a magazine myself (Staple) I realised just how much effort went into that. I am very glad to have published one of Roy Blackman’s last poems in one of the first issues of Staple I edited; being torn off a strip by him for having introduced an error was very good for me 🙂