Gus Ferguson, the legendary publisher and editor of Snailpress and Carapace, was known for his editorials that were sometimes poems, and poems that were sometimes editorials. One such poem-itorial opined that if he had as many subscribers as he did submitters to his magazine, Carapace would have been a going and growing concern.
The fact remains: Aspiring poets want people to read their poems without reading other people's poems. How do I know this? Two reasons. First, sales numbers don't add up. Second, aspiring poets aren't reading contemporary poetry.
The vast majority of manuscripts that we will reject this period show little to no engagement with South African poetry. The average South African poetry book sells anything between 50 and 200 copies. Magazine subscriptions are also in this realm. We had around 200 writers register their interest in submitting their work to us. I have my reservations about whether the 200 people who submitted their work constitute the poetry book-buying public of Southern Africa.
It's easy to read when someone doesn't read. The same ideas and idioms, cliches and tropes, subjects and experiences, replay themselves over and over across many of the manuscripts we received. If some of these writers engaged with those who were writing in their close proximity, they would know that the poems that they write have already been written. They would know that the best writing often comes from a place of exact and specific context and subjectivity. They would know that poetic forms and techniques have specific uses; that some are old hat, and some are aching to be transformed in new ways.
Many writers and scholars opine that we need to change the poetic canon, to make it more representative of our concerns, our politics, our images. Creating a new canon, however, is a deliberate thing. It requires writers engaging with other writers, and using the spirit of other writing in their own writing. Kafka isn't canonical because people say so; it's because writers transmute the spirit of his work in their own work. Adichie isn't becoming canonical because the Twitterati say so; it's because the images and subjects of her writing are being deliberately carried into, transformed, commented on, and criticised in the creative work of other writers. If you do not engage with your contemporaries, you cannot influence anything.
This is why I would say -- and this might be an unpopular opinion -- that the work of transforming poetry publishing and appreciation in South Africa isn't the sole domain of publishers. It's the task of readers, and readers who are writers.
3) OK, you've pontificated enough; what can I change?
I am very happy to acknowledge that many dozens of people who submitted to our open submissions period write solely for themselves, and thought that they'd send us their work on a whim. I think that's awesome, and should be encouraged. If you write solely for yourself, or your loved ones, and that's your ambition, then don't let anything I say discourage you or stop you from doing that. I play guitar. Sometimes I share my music with people. I don't expect to be signed to Universal Music, though. Likewise, you probably don't expect someone to make a book of your work. If that's your experience, then I only have love for you. Continue to write and share to your heart's content.
If you do, however, want to be more engaged with poetry as a living cultural process, though, there are a couple things you should do. First, read poetry and subscribe to local and international literary magazines. If this is out of your budget, then read online. Then, join writing groups or submit to literary magazines that you have read and like. Start a blog. Share. But most of all, read.
If you don't know of any literary magazines in South Africa, here's a list of the ones I like best: Prufrock, Aerodrome, New Contrast, Stanzas, New Coin, The Kalahari Review, Type/Cast, Itch. There are many more, however. If your ambition is to have a book published, then you should try to have individual poems published in magazines and anthologies first.
4) In conclusion
I know this post might have seemed a little over-critical. That's not my intention. My intention is to speak frankly about how I read the poetry landscape of this country from my limited vantage point, and to give frank advice to people who want to write seriously.
I would like to extend my sincerest thanks to every single poet who submitted to this year's open submissions. Despite my criticism, I want you to know that I have read (and enjoyed reading) all of your work, and that I appreciate the time, love, concern and hard work you pour into your poems. Sharing is scary -- I know this from my own writing career -- and I hope that you don't take any negative feedback or rejection too much to heart. As with all things, we grow more and know more. That applies to me, as much as you.