Smiths Knoll is a poetry magazine that Michael Laskey and Roy Blackman founded in 1991. Since Roy's death in 2002 Michael
has been editing it with Joanna Cutts.
Poetry News Smiths Knoll Interview
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The ListenerIt was in the falafel bar off Radhuisstraat
that you finally relaxed. The cab driver gassed
with the owner in Arabic. The tall couple spoke Africaans.
Just as the first licks of rain began to show on the glass,
your shoulders suddenly gave and your hair fell forward,
hiding your face. How wonderful it was, you murmured,
after all those months of listening, the hard things you’d heard,
the comfort of incomprehensible words.
Death of a DramatistMike says all you’ve got is a boring couple,
old people at that, talking, nothing happening,
you need forty-five story events. Forty-five?
Okay Mike, how about one of them gets up
and opens the window? What does that tell us?
It’s a hot night. What are you showing us?
Restlessness, stress, tension, after all they’ve got
a heroin addict son who has a prostitute girlfriend.
Now we’re getting somewhere, heroin, girl, addict,
prostitute, that’s good, give us the girl, the girl
is a gift, what does she do? But Mike, it’s not her story,
it’s about the parents. That’s boring, a married couple
lying in bed talking, that’s not drama, where are
the story invents? Look… get her round with the son,
they break in, smash the place up, steal money,
beat up the old couple, and then… the dad
recognises the girl because he’s picked her up
in the red light district… I can’t do that Mike, you see
I just want the parents to lie there, wondering
what went wrong with their lives. I want to listen
to what they have to say while they watch the dawn
slowly reach them, filling the room with light.
The lighting would be superb Mike.
On the Racks: An Interview with Michael LaskeyHow long has the magazine been going and how was it founded?
Roy Blackman and I founded it in 1991. Since he died in 2002, I've been co-editing it with Joanna Cutts. We've just brought out issue 37.
Is there a story behind the name?
Smiths Knoll is a sandbank in the North Sea off Norfolk. It used to be one of East Anglia's prime herring fishing grounds, and it was marked by a lightship that featured three times a day on the shipping forecast on Radio 4. We hoped the free advertising would work wonders for subscriptions or at least might have some subliminal effect! But unfortunately it wasn't long before they replaced the lightship with a flashing buoy, so it became 'Smiths Knoll Automatic', and then they cut Smiths Knoll out of the forecast altogether. We still use the old Admiralty chart for the cover though and the lightship symbol as our logo - it has a nice metaphorical resonance.
What is your editorial policy?
What does that mean, I wonder? Our policy's pleasure really, to read lots of new poems, to meet to discuss them, and to decide which we want to share them with our readers. Or do you mean what makes us different from other magazines? Mainly maybe our consistently prompt turn-around time for submissions. We almost always deal with them within a fortnight and often in less than a week. We like to work with poets too on poems that appeal to us but that we think aren't quite there yet, asking questions, maybe making suggestions if it seems helpful. Then we care a lot about the look of the poems: we print them on good quality paper; and give them space, don't cram them in; and we're neurotic about proof-reading - inevitably the odd typo slips through, but they're blessedly rare. And we don't stockpile, so any poem we take will appear in the next issue and at worst the issue after next.
How many submissions do you get per year?
Probably about 6,000 poems and rising.
How many poems can you publish per issue?
53 pages' worth usually. The magazine generally has 60 pages.
Do you publish other material, besides poetry?
No, nothing except short appreciations by Joanna and me of a couple of the poems in each issue, trying to pinpoint what we liked about them.
Do you publish reviews of poetry collections?
How many subscribers does the magazine have?
Getting on for 500 at the last count, still inching up. But it's a desperately slow business, always needing to find new subscribers to replace the ones who don't renew. We print 750 of each issue now and that's the number we shift. I only have two copies left of issue 36, for instance.
What is the best way of submitting/presenting poems (eg typed etc, sae, covering letter, how many poems in one batch)
4-6 poems per batch, though we don't mind fewer; an sae of course; and a twenty-word covering letter if you like, though we always read the poems first, they're what we go on.
Which poets would you say you have discovered?
I don't think we'd claim to have discovered any. I think poets discover themselves, don't they? All magazines do is to help them emerge, stamp their passports - we can build their confidence by liking their poems and we can offer them a wider readership. Of course like any magazine that's doing its job we've published early work by lots of poets who've gone on to publish fine books - Mike Barlow, Chris Beckett, Colette Bryce, Mandy Coe, Amanda Dalton, Helena Nelson, Mario Petrucci, Neil Rollinson, Jean Sprackland, Andrew Waterhouse, Anthony Wilson and Glyn Wright for example - but that was only because they sent us some of their good stuff. Maybe because we'd built up a reputation for being a decent place to appear, a useful credit to have? And that's still an important part of our function, being open to new voices. We love that, that there isn't a Smiths Knoll clique, thank goodness. Seventeen of the forty-four poets in the current issue for instance have never appeared in the magazine before and that's pretty much a standard proportion for us.
What kind of poetry would you like to see less of?
I wouldn't like to see less of any kind of poetry. The more and the more varied, the merrier for the art-form surely? But what we publish in Smiths Knoll tends to reflect my stubborn conviction/hope that there are potentially huge audiences for poetry if only we could reach them, thousands of people who have a healthy appetite for new art, theatre, film, literary fiction etc, but who feel threatened somehow by contemporary poetry. They were put off it at school perhaps? Or they can't see how it connects with their ordinary lived experience, they know it will just be obscure, unrewarding, humiliating? But it doesn't need to be like that of course and we do what we can to counter that prejudice. So the poems we publish are particularly user-friendly, we think, hospitable to readers, worth reading.
Are you subsidised by a Regional Arts Board or Arts Council?
Yes, we have a grant from Arts Council East, who've always supported us generously. Actually in fact our grant's just run out and we need to find the time to put together a new application...
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The editors gratefully aknowledge the financial support of Arts Council England.