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Seventeen Years of Magma: Reminiscences from our outgoing Chairman

All of seventeen years chairing the Magma group, eleven years presenting our launches at the Coffee House Poetry sessions at the Troubadour – hard to believe it. And now I bow out, at our AGM at the end of March. A few memories, a few thoughts.

Our first meeting, and taking the lead in setting us up with an Agenda, Minutes, a Chairman, a Treasurer, a Secretary – paraphernalia surprising to some of the others, fellow members of Laurie Smith’s poetry class at the City Lit.  But no point bothering unless we were ambitious, and no chance of realising our ambitions unless we were businesslike.
Getting off the ground fine. But then our nadir, two or three years in. Meeting in a dingy dark basement room in the City Lit. Fewer members, some having given up. Sales static. Quality of poems fine, but who cared? Decision – persist.

On the up and up – all sorts of different things coming together. Meetings in a high bright BBC room in Bush house, the office of Mick Delap, newly back from reporting in Africa – surprisingly transformative of morale. Our launches at the Troubadour working a treat. Magma slowly gaining in awareness and regard. A gift of cash that meant we could risk going up from 8” x 5½” to the size we are. New Members, among them Tim Robertson who masterminded our first application for a proper grant, from the London Arts Board. Two more since from Arts Council England – we owe them a great deal.

The high point of my own Magma life – Aldeburgh and St Andrews Festivals in 2006-7. At Aldeburgh, the buzz, milling around in the throngs of the poetry world. At St Andrews, the almost domestic scene, the Scots treasuring themselves, unexpected poets from all over Scotland – getting to know Jim Carruth, laureate of cattle. At both, the pleasure of talking with the poets from our own sessions – Mathew Caley, Vicky Feaver, Anne-Marie Fyfe, Lorraine Mariner, Jane Routh.

A summer afternoon in an Oxford garden, interviewing David Constantine, another favourite of mine. Holderlin, Goethe – relief from London chat about someone or other’s latest collection.

Evenings in the Troubadour with our contributors reading. The wonderful unpredictability of poets, never conforming to how I expected them to look – randy evocations from lean old ladies, weary reflections on futility from the young. The numbers, the buzz. Enjoying my own role, a payoff for the hours of administration.

Memories of poems and poets over the years. The best poems by no means always came from the most recognised poets. Anyway it was the less recognised we could do the most for – the well known would be published anyway.

Changes over the years. So many more poems coming to us – from 200 or so an issue to well over 2000. And many fewer duds. A higher level of competence – maybe because there is so much more good teaching of poetry, maybe also because we are better known.
Also a downside – a certain monotony of competence, to this editor at least. Reading on when every individual poem is capable enough but the overall effect can feel limited. A tendency to take as eternal truths the maxims developed a hundred years ago to free us from Victorianism, till I found myself pining for poems that would tell not show, would not be written in normal conversational speech, would not be about the details of personal life but the great themes and movements that form and frame those lives.

But finally and at the end of my time on the magazine, I feel great pride in how Magma has given so many poets the opportunity to be read and often to launch or develop successful careers, and pride too in how many of the best poets of the age have graced our pages. I look back with affection and pride on the members of our group over the years who have made Magma what it is, and at the legions of poets and readers who, in my mind’s eye, crowd in behind them, flourishing the banners of the eternal muse.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. I well recall the beginnings of the magazine as a fellow member of Laurie’s class in those early days. I left the poetry scene to return more than ten years later to find that everyone had heard of Magma (yes, that mag that began at the city lit… I had been ecstatic at making it into Magmas 4 and 6!) Delighted that the magazine has gone from strength to strength – thank you David.

  2. Good to hear from you liz. I remember you well. Little did we think Magma would become what it has become.


  3. David

    well done for all your effort for the mighty magma

    all the best for the future

    hope to bump into you again some time


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