Ephemeral Things; or, About Little Magazines


Photograph by Simen Johan. Via

by Owen Vince

As a poet, you are your grandmother; you are browsing the obituaries with a red pen and an address book in your hand. The air is too warm, the heating always on; there are pink plants drooping against the Roman blinds. As an editor of a magazine, and as a poet, you scour the internet for news of the dead: casualty reports from the front lines, from poetry’s ceaseless war of attrition. Magazines announce their deaths, sometimes suddenly; sometimes they drop dead overnight. You may never know.

Only this morning I received an email from the editor of an online poetry site with whom I was working on some new items. She apologised but had bad news; the site was folding, a bolt from the dark. On my Facebook feed was news of the merger of two houses of poetry, while I myself wrote out the suicide note of my own magazine, HARK.

When I started the magazine with a friend along the rained-on mush of London’s Finchley Road, we had next to no knowledge of how much work it would be to put out even five issues over the next two years. In December, our final issue – the “death issue” – will be released. We’re proud of the work we put in, and of the poets and writers we have published in that time, and of the editors and artists we have worked with. This isn’t “about” HARK. But it is a story repeated many times; the origin myth of all poetry editors. It is tragic, because so often magazines fold not simply because we want them to, but because of external pressures. “Real” jobs, relationships, the costs of hosting or printing, Capitalism, time. Always we battle against time.

Within the communities of experimental and freeware video games, “altgames” is a term used to describe not a genre, but the community and effort of “keeping the artist, OR artists, alive and allowing them to make their art” (as TJ Thomas has argued, as quoted here by Lana Polansky). It’s the support that you push and plug into a creative “industry” that sits outside of capital, but remains anchored to it. Magazines cost money; to print and to buy. And so often we accept that we won’t make a living from them. If nothing else, they cost us. Of course, many of us don’t want to make a fortune. Like Thomas, we want only to achieve some pretty ordinary and modest goals; to pay our rent, and feed ourselves, while doing the best work we can do for ourselves and the poetry community at large. We don’t want to be handed fat cheques and be subject to the conditions that such funding requires. We enjoy our outsider-art status, and recognise that it is an essential component of the industry that “feeds” the more visible tip of the poetry iceberg. Plush, sleek Faber editions and BBC radio programs would not exist if there was not a seemingly invisible churn of poetry and poetic activity reproducing that receptivity. Small magazines, or “little magazines”, are an essential component in that industry. Little magazines produce and reproduce poetry while continually setting and resetting its languages and discourses. While the “surface” of poetry may seem more limited and sleek, it’s insides are a mass of movement and change.

And yet, such magazines are fragile; they are defenceless. The internet has been a major support strut in expanding the distribution platforms of poetry and poetry publishers and spokespeople, but there remains enormous volatility. News of the birth and death of poetry magazines is a near constant metronome to the steady hand of time. But when they stick around, we are thankful; sites such as Sabotage, and the excellent Saboteur Awards; web presences such as 3:AM and B O D Y; publishers such as Eyewear and Test Centre. I can’t name everybody, and there are so many of the glorious dead. Magazines and presses die – they come and go. It is sad that they disappear but, I think, we should not mourn this churn too much. Littleness means that we can be ephemeral on our own terms; it gives us space to experiment and to try new things. Of course, in an ideal world we would be able to just keep on going, but perhaps that is not always the best course. The massive energy, resourcing and coordination that are put into releasing even occasional online magazines creates an atmosphere of vitality and importance; we are alive to the exposure which all magazines are constantly eroded by. I don’t want poets and editors to encounter precariousness, of course; I want a poetrypunk of support that enables us to accept, almost Zen-like, the constant transformation and ploughing of our scene on the one hand, and yet to the acquire the stability of life, health and income that allows us to continue being the “best that we can” on the other. It’s a challenging balance, but an achievable one. Mutual aid – the shared distribution of support and encouragement, online and in the “real” world – are an important component of this. Buying magazines is important. But so is attending readings, saying a good word, writing a review. Activity and oversight keeps us busy; it reproduces the poetic world without alienating workers from the produce of their labours. We should mourn the dead, but we should also carry on.

But this is not necessarily something “new”. Radical and ephemeral publishing, “alt mags” and zines, have been a constant feature of literary and other Modernities. In architectural writing during the 1960s and 1970s the market was represented most visibly by glossy trade journals, but also by the eclectic, experimental and playful publications of Archigram and Bau. In poetry, at the beginning of the century, as poetry pulled away from its Victoriana and classicism, poets gave life to publications such as Blast and DADA. Hundreds of minimally distributed letter-press publications came and went, utilising their fragility and outsider status in order to create an environment of excitement, vitality and experimentation. The British Library maintains an extensive collection of such “little magazines”, as those “produced without concern for immediate commercial gain, and with a guiding enthusiasm for contemporary literature, especially poetry. A little magazine may champion work by a very small number of authors, or a particular style, or attempt to provide a cross-section of what its editor sees as the contemporary scene”. The continued transformation and reappearance of the “little magazine” has “launched a whole spectrum of radical practices” which reorient the languages we use to describe poetry, and bias it toward the exceptional or the daring (as Beatriz Colomina has argued in “Clip, Stamp, Fold”). Not having to answer to static commercial interests means that, as editors, we can create against commerce. We mobilize radical languages and utilise alternative publication as a site for continually encountering and rewriting our times and our practice. As a form of cultural production, they “often mediate the initial reception of an author’s work”, and provide a trial space for the emergence of new forms and approaches. In the UK, you have ventures such as Prac Crit which uses its web presence to creatively combine poems with essays and interviews; para-text, which bridges the contours of online and offline by combining physical publication with an online “paratextual” glossary; of new ventures such as Haverthorn which publish on a print-on-demand basis; or Datableedzine which encourages “visceral ephemera”, experiments in the visual, auditory, and textual. This is a confrontation space between the academy and poetic practice, which promotes poetry through both online and offline worlds. Poems in Which, for example, provides an ongoing space for poets to share new work; it is curated by a dedicated team of poets. We choose our battlefields carefully.

In a sense, “littleness” is a condition, a permanent feature of our practice. And while we should rightly agitate for better conditions for poetry workers, we should also celebrate our own dance on the lip of destruction, our ability to change up and to change often. It’s important that poetry has stability and stable platforms, because this is where new ideas are bridged between the avant garde and the more commercially visible. Stability is also important for recognition; awards, regular readings, and safe “homes” for poets are crucial for providing the learning and encouragement that we all require. But, so as not to get too down about our forever of tragedies, it is important to see the positives among the negatives. Yes, magazines and presses die. The internet is full of statements such as, “last updated in 2004”, full of 404 errors and dead links. It is sad to see the passing of a poetic venture, but we can take good and vital things away from it. Old, sloppy adage; “death is life”. A Lion King moment. And poetry, of course, is Simba.

The Lion King, Walt Disney Pictures, 1994

About the Author:

Owen Vince is the managing editor of HARK. A poet and writer living in Norwich, UK, he studied both archaeology and Russian literature, and has an interest in urbanism, architecture, and critical writing around social justice, new media and experimental music and video games. His work has appeared in The Arcade Review, Cartridge Lit., Magma, Prole, Hinterland, and others. He is currently working toward his first collection of poems, alongside researching alternative forms of presenting and curating poetry.