In something of a departure from Magma’s usual practice, the Magma team thought the travel-diary, as it were, of a guest-editor, someone outside the regular rota, someone who doesn’t face 2,400 poems on a regular basis, might nevertheless be of interest to Magma readers and to regular successful or soon-to-be-successful submitters of poems, so herewith some thoughts on the process, the poems, the pleasures.

Firstly, Magma‘s policy of changing editor with each issue, whether editors from the Magma rota, or guest-editors as I was honoured to be, ensures every Magma is different from the last and that a poet rejected for one issue could well appeal to the next editor. Furthermore, Magma‘s international profile, its eclecticism, and an egalitarian commitment to promoting new voices alongside poets of reputation and standing, ensure a freshness and vitality in the inbox/postbag that make the editor’s task stimulating, challenging, exhausting… and an absolute one-off delight to anyone engaged with contemporary poetry. (Readers may wish to note that Magma 36’s poets include a 17-year-old and a 21-year-old – whose first publication this is – alongside a US Poet Laureate and a Nobel Prizewinner whose own poems were first published in a poetry magazine when he was just 20.)

And so to process: my first strategy was to find a theme which would narrow the field and help winnow the harvest. ‘Inscapes’, a term much-loved by the now much-overlooked Gerald Manley Hopkins, seemed to offer an opportunity of exploring how our contemporaries approach the ineffability of consciousness. This strategy overlooked one vital fact: that since, say, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, poetry has largely shrugged off its public, epic, historical functions of communicating and memorialising great events and concentrated almost exclusively on its other, private, quieter side, exploring the poet’s inner soul, memory, state-of-mind, deepest thoughts.

So, despite the hundreds of us charging onward into the valley of our saying (to conflate Tennyson and Auden), I’ve had an amazing insight into how poets now harness the tragical, comical, pastoral, historical – and a species of literary Dada-ism to contain and convey the essentially inexpressible. I managed to mentally classify some of these sub-genres of ‘inscape’ and was surprised at how many poems not obviously subscribing to the theme’s very broad church nonetheless clustered into the eaves of my subclassifications, quite apart from those poems which jumped out of the editorial in-tray (how one shudders at editors’ dismissals of our darlings as slush-pile!), jumped out for sheer verve, precision, poetics … with no hint of interiority in sight.

But first to the regular features. Who to ask about influences? Whose work had I long thought to express apparently unmediated consciousness to an extent where the work’s literary effects were more empathetic and experienced than syntactically understood? I turned immediately to a poet whose work I’ve found enjoyable, fascinating, and yet difficult, and Medbh McGuckian’s Presiding Spirits poem fulfilled all those expectations while allowing us a fairly unique opportunity to interrogate the intersection of contemporary artifice with our vast collective consciousness of life, literary forms, legends and the rest.

Long before Medbh, before Virginia Woolf’s streams of consciousness and Joyce’s epiphanies, our inner struggles had expressed themselves through the medium of spiritual poetry: and it is to a poem by one of Hopkins’ 17th-century precursors, the Anglican priest, George Herbert, that the guest in our regular Guest Choice feature, has turned in dark times. Joseph Brodsky once said, “Prison is an absence of space made up for by a surplus of time”, and when I started to consider who, outside the world of poetry, might have had long periods of intense reliance on inner reflection, I recalled Brodsky’s line, and remembered John McCarthy and his five-and-a-half years of incarceration as a hostage in Beirut, much of it blindfolded, much of it alone. John’s advocacy of one of Herbert’s impassioned poems is a reminder of the worth, in the truest sense of that word, of our best poetry.

Poetry survives, Auden said, “in the valley of its saying”, and its meaning and power survive endless periodic changes in the manners of its saying. So I wanted our ‘poetry practitioner’ to be someone working with a form that seems appropriate to contemporary inner philosophical utterances: though like debates over rhyme/no-rhyme, which go back a thousand years, the verse-versus-prose-poem debate harks back to 15th-century Provence and the war between the oral fables of the time and the verse lays of the troubadours. Louis Jenkins is the prose poem’s current ‘champion’ and tells us how the form works for him in Poetry in Practice.

I chose Claire Crowther as showcase poet partly because I’ve long been attracted by her use of language and her askew take on the quotidian, and partly because her perceptions exemplify a number of the sub-genres of ‘inscape’ poetry I discovered in this thought-provoking, almost-anthologising process.

The poems in the magazine hang around together in entirely arbitrary associations: those where travel/displacement (and roads taken or not) register shifting perspectives; poems where places themselves exemplify a state of consciousness; those where music – Tiger Rag, Elvis’ ‘Love Me Tender’ or Thelonious Monk’s jazz piano, say – accompanies our musings; poems of memory, real or fictional, coming from the brain’s curiously disorganised backup storage, that same mysterious place from which come, one imagines, flamboyant or slightly terrifying inscapes of circuses, funerals, fairgrounds and unreliable mirror images.

For the rest – love-poems, haikus, cinquains; poems about the act and art of writing, though those, too, are interior workings-out; poems on postcards and painting; political poems…. But all those efforts at identifying intersections and connections are evidence, I’m afraid, of my impulse to impose order on the inner landscape, an order that the poems nonetheless manage to defy, as the reader will find.

Many thanks to Magma and all who submitted poems: I’ve talked of the joys of discovery but I should admit to finding incredibly difficult the task of returning poems, so many that could have made it in a lesser magazine, so many that I enjoyed. Thanks to all of you.