Noel Williams first collection ‘Out of Breath ‘(Cinnamon Press) was published in 2014. Noel co-edits Antiphon with Rosemary Badcoe, an online poetry magazine now in its fourth year, and is reviews editor for Orbis. Noel was educated at King’s College, Cambridge and at Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University where he has been a professor for ten years.
Hi Noel, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Antiphon, the magazine you co-edit with Rosemary Badcoe, is very carefully designed and full of excellent work from UK and abroad. I wondered if you are surprised by the growth of the magazine?
I think we have been a little surprised by the growth of the magazine, though certainly being online means that it’s internationally accessible, and cost-free, so those are obviously factors in success. However, there are a very large number of small magazines online – and some outlets where the designation is unclear – so in that sense it’s quite competitive. At the same time, in the UK at least, the number of quality print magazines for poetry has declined rapidly, and as our pitch includes a strong belief in “quality” work (even though we recognise that is a problematic term) I think much of our success is simply down to the quality of the poems we publish. It would be quite possible to double the size of the magazine, but we feel that would reduce its quality. We limit ourselves to around the best 24 or so poems we receive for each issue.
The design philosophy fits this strategy, too. Rosemary does most of the design work. In fact, she’d probably say she does most of the work full stop! (or “Period”, for your readers in the USA.) One thing we’ve avoided is choosing graphics which overcome the text. Antiphon is most definitely about poetry, and the design is something like creating a pleasant room in which to read and appreciate the poems .
I’d say you have achieved the ‘pleasant room’ effect admirably. What about the amount of work involved? Has that been something of a surprise too?
I think there is rather more work than people would believe, especially when submitting poets ignore what we’re asking for. Some poets fail to edit their work properly, and quite a few submissions are, in some sense, “faulty”. There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of faults in the work we receive: technical flaws and creative flaws. Technical flaws include misspellings, grammatical errors, use of clearly incorrect words and so on. We have a policy of not interfering with the poet’s original work, so any error at all of this kind will almost inevitably lead to rejection.
The “creative flaw” is more difficult to handle because, quite obviously, such things may well be a matter of opinion, taste or style. We have found, however, after four years of reading thousands of poems, that certain kinds of weakness recur, and these tend to be very noticeable to us now. We only publish poems with the agreement of both of us – and our tastes differ – so this takes time to reconcile.
Could you say something about being the positive and negative aspects of being an editor?
I could trot out some clichés, and probably believe them: “editing is fun, exciting, enlightening, a service to the poetic community, a duty for those who possess the skills, a necessary evil” etc. Occasionally, I find editing tedious, especially if I spend a few hours trawling through poems where the poet clearly either does not know what they’re doing or is submitting to completely the wrong magazine.
We began Antiphon because we felt there were good poets who weren’t getting enough, or in some cases, any, exposure. We felt we would learn something from the experience, and we have. We also thought that editorial experience would be good for our poetic CVs – in other words, there was some self-interest in setting up the magazine; and I think both of us have had a few opportunities that we otherwise wouldn’t have had because of it.
We hadn’t realised what a slog it could be. But I want to find work that I could not possibly conceive of writing myself, imagery that is so radical and true that you feel you could live by it, poetry which is art, a thing in itself with its own life and beauty. I want to be amazed. And occasionally, I open a file and there’s something there which, quite literally, I find unimaginable – a piece of creation that you simply could not anticipate. It’s rare, but it happens.
The other reward I’ve had – and I hesitate to report this, because of what it implies – is being able to help the occasional poet. As with most journals, we do not give feedback. It would be far too time-consuming. Poets can be very defensive when their work is critiqued, even if the critique has the best of intentions. I know, because I can be like that myself.
However, on very rare occasions I’ve taken a little time to give specific feedback to a poet we’re rejecting because we feel there’s something in the work that deserves recognition or encouragement. I will sometimes explain the one or two weaknesses we think we’ve seen, and suggest how, in general, the poet might avoid them in future. I always try to offer a reason, an explanation, rather than simply saying “I don’t like this.” On every occasion that I’ve done this, the poet has come back to me with gratitude, and that feels good. When I feel I’ve helped a developing poet, I get a huge buzz. It’s perhaps not really a central editorial role, but it is one that makes me feel good about myself and, indeed, helps me be a better editor, I think, as it validates at least some of my perspectives. I don’t believe that “good poetry” is just a matter of taste, although taste is an important factor. I believe there are certain principles and practices one can aspire to which are more likely to yield better work, and probably do, and that one can identify.
Do you feel that being an editor has effected your own work and if so how?
The only impact I think editing has had on my poetry is to distract me from it. Editorial work is just one of reasons where I can pretend I’ve a good reason for not actually sitting down, pen in hand, and struggling with the language.
Have you any advice for would be poetry magazine editors?
Try to keep coming at the task afresh, to do new things, to evolve and develop. We’ve tried several things with Antiphon, such as supporting poetry festivals, trying themed issues. Most recently, we’ve shifted to pdf format and, with the last issue, started posting audio files of readings, which so far seems to have been a very positive change.
I’d say that anyone contemplating a new magazine should do it, for the sake of the poets who might get an airing as a result. Editors should try to be as clear as possible about what they want to accept and why. It’s quite difficult to formulate an editorial policy for poetry, but if you can find some ways to characterise it, you should find things a little easier.
It’s also a good idea to have a team. Antiphon has only Rosemary and me, plus a handful of occasional reviewers. The magazine needs a design, a look; it needs a structure; it needs an editorial; it needs proofreading; it needs technical skills; it needs promotion and perhaps marketing; you need to attract readers and attract contributors; it needs management of reviewers, perhaps, and the writing and editing of reviews. All of these are best spread across two or more people. But that in turn leads to other issues – managing the team, organising and communicating effectively, getting agreement about design decisions or editorial choices, and so on. Rosemary and I argue about some issues but we make sure that every decision is approved by both of us, and if one of us has misgivings, then that poem is rejected or that design element isn’t used. Because we both have different skills and motivations, the upshot is a magazine which I think, is generally very well received. We’re really pleased, for example, when one of our poets publishes a collection and there is Antiphon nestling among the Acknowledgements.
What type of work you would be interested in seeing?
We are open to any kind of work on any subject. We do like to find musicality in poems. That’s not an appeal for more formal pieces, although we do enjoy them. If a poem lacks all musicality, we’re unlikely to publish it. One of our most common comments on a submission is that it’s “cut-up prose” – pieces whose only concession to the poetic mode is the line ending.
We like poems that have a movement, a development, that “go somewhere”. This doesn’t necessarily mean narrative, though it might do. It means poetry which starts in one place and ends somewhere else. The short lyric piece is therefore less likely to find a home in Antiphon than in some other magazines. Although, being aware of this, we do occasionally take such pieces as a counter to this. Personally, I’m particularly fond of the short lyric and of nature poetry, too. But for such work to get into Antiphon it needs to do more than simply note the curve of the swallows across the pond. Unless it does it with exquisite originality. Exquisite originality will always get into Antiphon! We like work which has thought as well as heart. Either might be enough on its own, but the two combined gives a much better chance of publication. Some poetry is too intellectualised for us, and some seems gushingly sentimental.
We like to have variety across the magazine, so oddities and unusual kinds of work will appear by virtue of contrast. The aim is to offer something rich and strange, not something predictable and ordinary.
Your first collection, Out of Breath, was published last year.
Unfortunately, I’m quite prolific. I say “unfortunately” because the upshot of producing lots of work is producing quite a variation in quality. Some of my poems I know are good. Some I know are not. And the bulk, somewhere in the middle, may or may not be, but I’m rarely a good judge of them.
So, since publication of the collection, I’ve been working on three sets of poems, plus a plethora of odd pieces. One is a narrative sequence about aspiration and despair. This was a deliberate attempt to structure a set of poems in the light of each other. I want to create a sort of parable, which also explicitly aims to use repeated motifs, analogical with Wagner’s Ring (where the same musical ideas are repeated in different guises). I like this idea, but I don’t think I’ve really pulled it off here, so I’m also thinking what else might be developed in a similar way. Then there’s A Walk Underwater: probably 35 or so poems, prompted by the death of my youngest brother eighteen months ago. The problem with these is that they are perhaps too personal in their content, making them either too obscure or perhaps too trivial for most people. They don’t make a sequence, or even a set, as such, so I suspect that no press would be interested in them as a whole. But this isn’t really a project, more a compulsion, so it will continue.
And Love Lines: I noticed in OOB that I’d essentially no love poems (there are two which might be called such, but they aren’t really). This depressed me, because I’ve written love poetry throughout my life, reams of the stuff, but clearly none of it felt good enough to appear in my first collection. So my key project at the moment is to put that right. I’ve a working manuscript of 50 poems, written largely over the last year, attempting different angles on the love poem, and trying to represent as well as I can the ins and outs of being in love with the same woman for 45 years.
My main problem with all of these is knowing what to do with them. Should they each be pamphlets? In which case, would any press really be interested, given the personal origins? Or should I gather either the sets/sequences together, or extract the best of the poems that have resulted, and call that a second collection? Individual poems seem relatively easy to place, but I’ve no clear sense of where I’m going, in practical terms, with any of these sets of work.
There’s also a set, consisting of poems I wrote on women and warfare as Resident Artist at Bank Street Arts. We’re considering a handmade edition of these (and so, probably extremely limited). I’d quite like to collect them together both for their subject matter and as a record of the residency.
Would you be able to mention some influences on your own poetry, whether that would be other poets or music or anything else?
The question of influences is a difficult one, insofar as those I might claim as influences may, in reality, have little impact on the actual work, and influence may be as much to its detriment as its benefit. I’m predominantly a romantic, and most readily identify with Keats and Wordsworth, with Hopkins and Dylan Thomas trailing behind for their musical impacts.
I keep a small shelf of poetry books across my eye-line in front of my desk. These are the works I’m attached to, emotionally and creatively, but whether I could claim any sort of influence, I don’t know. They include Crow, Four Quartets, Penguin Modern Poets 10 “The Mersey Sound” (probably the first poetry book I bought, originally in 1968), “The Hunting of the Snark”, a collected Frost, a collected Keats and, of more contemporary poets, Maitreyabandhu’s “The Crumb Road”, Selima Hill’s “People Who Like Meatballs”, Frances Leviston’s “Public Dream”, Helen Farish’s “Intimates” (I was taught by her, and much impressed by her views and her lyric work), Allison McVety’s “Lighthouses” and Helen Mort’s “Division Street” (Helen’s volume impressed me, but also I find several parallels between her reported experiences and my own, in our heritage and education). You can see that many of the connections here are as much personal as poetic. Other poets I’ve admired recently are Robin Robertson and Mimi Khalvati. Equally significant influences however, have been A. A. Milne, Spike Milligan and Lewis Carroll whilst amongst novelists I favour Kate Atkinson, Kazuo Ishiguro and the late Terry Pratchett. I’m glad you’ve mentioned music. I’m really interested in the potential connections between written forms and other arts. My exhibition “Exploding Poetry” in 2010 explored several of these, including one piece in which I used the form of Vaughan Williams “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis” , (the most profound piece of music ever written, in its exploration of the spiritual hope of the atheist) . My PhD focused on Blake, whose integration of image and text inspired me.
I have a fondness for opera (Wagner’s Ring Cycle) and the more massive symphonies, such as Mahler, and in the progressive and psychedelic music established in my formative years (Yes, Pink Floyd), together with much of the guitar driven heavy metal that has developed alongside it. Earlier bands which were formative for me were Cream, the Hendrix Experience, Coliseum. I’m also very keen on classical minimalism such as John Adams, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass.
Within the visual arts, I like the Pre-Raphaelites and Art Deco, together with the Impressionists and post-Impressionist – pretty popular choices. My model would be da Vinci, not merely for the work, but for his approach, a man interested in everything, rarely completing anything, allowing all his interests to inform each other and inter-penetrate, obsessive about some matters, especially about getting the detail right, but able to throw away in a few pen strokes brilliant insights or observations. Although the Renaissance man (person) is impossible I think that represents an ideal artists should aspire to – neglecting nothing, and being prepared to let attention and interest wander wherever feels natural, questioning everything, and learning continually, seeing walls as doors and doors as windows.
Has writing poems had always been part of your life? Could you say a little about your motivation to write poems?
I started writing poetry at the age of six, and have never stopped, though I’ve neglected it at times. I’ve always written stories, then novels. I wrote my first novel around age of 14, and about a dozen since. I’m working on a novel at the moment which may properly be completed.
I went through two life-threatening illnesses that told me if I wasn’t going to do what I really wanted to do, I might never have another chance. Until then I’d not given much serious attention to poetry. I certainly want to be admired for my work, to be published and recognised, but I’ve already achieved that as an academic, so the gratifications of ego aren’t sufficient to explain it.
Beauty, I think, is the driver, or at least the desire for it, and to achieve that beauty through something which is truthful, but truthful in the way it is perceived, or inherently in itself, rather than because it accords with nodding wisdom. Keats felt that suffering was inherently necessary in order to build art – not that the “artist must suffer”, but that only through suffering could one apprehend the truths that art conveyed. The nature of the world is suffering, so beauty is an apprehension of suffering. That’s a good word, “apprehension”, because it conveys both the noticing of the poet, the perceiving, and the fear that goes with noticing the truth. A poem will never get to the heart of the matter, because language is incapable of getting to the heart of the matter. What it can do, though, is enable someone, a reader, a hearer, to get to the heart of a matter for themselves – to experience something which is theirs, and private, and otherwise inexpressible, yet as real and as different as any other experience. Whether that is called “truth”, “feeling”, “understanding”, “resonance”, “beauty”, “spirituality” or “absurdity”. The motivation is to set up some sort of echo. Like stamping your foot and wondering whether anyone in the next room hears a sound, or feels a floorboard vibrate, or merely senses some shift in the air.
Thank you Noel.