Twenty-five years. How has Snakeskin managed to keep at it for so long, when so many of its contemporaries have slithered helplessly into the black gulf of forgetting?
The only answer I can offer is that it’s
become force of habit. A monthly ritual of getting the
poems together, making a selection and putting them
online. A most enjoyable ritual, since poets are by and
large interesting people, even the bad poets. Even the
stroppy ones. Even the paranoid ones. Even - no, I won't
mention his name.
Looking back over the quarter century, it’s usually the crises I remember. Two Internet hosts have collapsed into bankruptcy, and another decided it didn’t want my business any more. My home computers have been a much-loved but temperamental bunch, and crashes have more than once caused delay and the loss of data. Some of the early Snakeskins are lost irretrievably, since they are from the times before archiving, and before I had learned the importance of backup copies.
I won’t go into Snakeskin’s early history just now, but if you’re interested you can read the account I gave in an interview with Helena Nelson of Sphinx a few years ago. No, twenty-five years on, I want to remember some poets. First, those we have lost.
The first of our poets whose death I heard of was that of Bill Adams. He wrote sharp and perceptive short poems, like those collected in his e-chapbook, Spindrift, which is worth looking at. It was a great loss when he succumbed to cancer, too young. An individualistic voice who livened the pages of Snakeskin for many years was Lynn Fullington (She’d be cross with me for writing ‘Lynn’ there; she always insisted on a gender-neutral initial, ‘L.’) I never got the impression that others liked Lynn’s poems very much; I don’t think any appreciative fan-mail about her work ever reached the editorial offices. Yet her poems were distinctive and always sharp. Sometimes I didn’t quite get them at first. Some took a bit of pondering. Then I’d realise she was saying something that needed saying. She’s a good example of the poets very different from myself whom it has been a joy to welcome into Snakeskin. The story of her last mad visit to England, incapacitated and defying all medical advice, is one that needs telling one day.
I felt as an even greater loss the death of Thomas Ország-Land, who (as Thomas Land) contributed for many years translations of Hungarian poets of the Holocaust. These poems, often grim, often luminous, were reminders that poems written in the worst of circumstances can survive, and can be examples of resilience and hope. Tom was a great loss.
Two poets (happily still with us) who have helped to shape my ideas about editing Snakeskin are Ken Payne and Helena Nelson. My collaborations with both are among my happiest poetic memories.
Back in 1997 Ken and I collaborated on a huge project: The Maze of Mirrors. We were both excited by the potential of the internet, not only for distribution poetry, but for developing new forms. (Click the link to read Ken’s Manifesto for the Internet Poem). There was considerable learned talk about hypertext poetry in those days, but in our view other poets playing with hypertext only produced imagistic, unstructured stuff. Instead, we were inspired by point-and-click games and by Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novels to produce a mammoth exercise in ottava rima, which takes the reader through various horrors and indignities, and whose theme is always the mirror, the reflection of an unsatisfactory self. It gained a good audience in its time, and made its way into a few theoretical Ph.D. theses on modern poetics. I doubt whether many of today’s graduate students would be comfortable with it, though. In places it is flagrantly un-PC.
Another collaboration was with Helena Nelson. Her lively poems had arrived in the Snakeskin offices a while before, and I had enjoyed them hugely. Together we produced Re-United, a fictional poetic correspondence, with a plot inspired by the then-current craze for Friends Reunited and the like. It was fun. Later, of course, Nell went on to be the most dynamic force in Scottish poetry, with Happenstance Press, Sphinx magazine and countless other projects. I am also grateful to her for frequently directing promising poets towards Snakeskin; she knows the kinds of poetry that are welcomed here.
Another important voice in Snakeskin is that of our resident essayist, Bruce Bentzman. I invited him, many many years ago, to let us have an essay or two, because I enjoyed his contributions to an online chat group. He has stayed around, and since 1998 has allowed us to follow the ups and downs of his life. Thanks, Bruce. Keep them coming in.
Snakeskin has built up a stable of regular poetic contributors (several of whom can be found in this anniversary issue) but we try to stay as open as possible to new voices. A decision I made early in the zine’s career was that I would not include mini-biographies of the poets, although this was (and remains) standard in many magazines. ‘Make the poem the star.’ has always been the motto, and readers should not be distracted by accounts of the poet’s life, or previous publications, or qualifications. The poem on the page is all there is, and the reader is not told about the poet’s career, or nationality, or race. The poet’s gender is often clear from his or her name, but sometimes, (as in the case of L. Fullington) even that is unclear. We do as much as we can to make the words the important thing.
Sometimes potential contributors have expressed appreciation of Snakeskin because it welcomes verse written in traditional metre and rhyme. In America still there seems an odd bias against traditionally crafted verse in many print and web poetry publications, though British poetry, I think, is rediscovering the potential of poetic craft. This is a subject on which opinions tend to be entrenched, and tempers can burst into flame. Although its editor is personally committed to exploring rhyme and metre, the magazine keeps an open mind. We welcome all kinds of verse, and the one criterion is ‘Does this poem work?’ The poems we really welcome are the ones that I read and think: ‘Wow, I wish I’d written that.’
So with twenty-five years under our belts, where do we go from here? That depends entirely on the poets. What keeps me going is the daily hope that today’s inbox will contain the work of someone new, a truly sparkling writer who writes like nobody else. It happens twice every year or so, And that’s enough to keep me going.
But then best way to think about anniversaries is enshrined in D.A. Prince’s poem in this issue:
To crown the years: champagne