Martha Kapos, Assistant Poetry Editor Poetry London says farewell to Maurice Riordan
A leading poetry publisher asked me recently if any of the editors 'owned' Poetry London. The question took me aback, but made me realize how unusual it was for a poetry magazine to stand on its own two feet, without the backing of an owner, managing editor, publishing house, or other poetry organisation. At Poetry London the kids are running the store. And since 2005, under Maurice's supervision as Poetry Editor, the enterprise has grown in stature and stability. Sales and subscriptions have significantly increased and we have become one of the Arts Council's 'Regularly Funded Organisations'. Important as these economic factors are in troubled times, a magazine can only be as secure as its reputation. Asked recently by Poetry News about his editorial policy, Maurice simply said 'I want to publish the best in contemporary poetry.'
But an editor, no matter how fastidious his judgements, can only publish 'the best' of the poems he receives. 'All a hunting dog can do', as Stendhal put it, 'is to get the quarry to pass within range of the hunter's rifle. If he does not fire, the dog ca do nothing about it.' The magazine itself, the scope and range of its reputation, is the editor's hunting dog. It's up to the editor to take the poem.
So a stack of submissions sits on the editor's desk, one or two of which may have what Ezra Pound called 'the thing that matters in a poem: an energy, more or less like electricity or radioactivity, a force like water when it spurts up through very bright sand and sets it in swift motion.' Heaney has described the 'strangeness' he undergoes when he reads a good poem, but I see Maurice reading through a pile of poems with something like the sensitivity of a Geiger counter.
In a piece published in Strong Words (Bloodaxe 2000) Kathleen Jamie recalls a game she played as a child (a variation of one I remember as 'grandmother's footsteps'). Mother turns her back and the players advance forward from the starting line on mother's instructions: '"Linda, take three baby-steps! Lorraine, take two giant steps!" One by one', she writes, 'we made our moves. However - and this was the point of the game - before we did so, we had to ask mother's permission... we had to call "Mother-May-I?" before we were allowed to... blunder into a delicate place.' Jamie uses the game as a figure for the long halting process of achieving authority as a poet. Through interest, engagement and finally publication, poets develop the confidence to tap mother on the shoulder and symbolically replace her. The cruel truth of 'Mother-May-I' is that publication is always conferred on a writer by someone else; poets cannot publish themselves. Somewhere in a poet's head, as he or she sits down to write, there is the idea of someone speaking combined with the idea of someone listening. An editor knows only too well 'the lust of the unpublished', but young poets in particular need the listeners in their heads to be converted into actual readers. If Poetry London has contributed to the strength of a group of young British poets currently writing bold, unpredictable and exciting poems, Maurice has been largely responsible. Under his editorship poets yet to publish a first collection have taken up on average a third of the poetry pages.
Since Maurice succeeded Pascale Petit as Poetry Editor Poetry London has gone from strength to strength. The editors are grateful and extend him every good wish for the future.