Popshot: the new face of British poetry?

An interview with Jacob Denno, editor of the poetry magazine Popshot; first published on Prospect online, October 2010.

The future of poetry is a quietly boring question that’s been hanging around British letters for the last few decades. Very few poets sell more than a few hundred books; more poetry is written and taught in universities, on courses and for competitions than exists outside of them; and the burgeoning performance scene is usually seen as more an offshoot of the music scene than a new phase in the literary canon. Both poetry’s written and its spoken words tend to be, in their respective ways, introverted and distant from the mainstream of literary culture.

And yet—founded in October 2008 and edited by 23-year-old Jacob Denno—Popshot Magazine has almost by accident begun to challenge this orthodoxy. Started on a shoestring budget from the kitchen of an Oxford flat, within four issues Popshot has become the first UK poetry magazine ever to gain worldwide distribution, combining poetry and illustration, and putting some of the best voices of the performance generation on paper—where, it seems, there’s a vigorous demand for their wares on paper as well as in person.

A few months before the fourth issue of Popshot appeared, I met with Denno to talk about his perspective on poetry, why and how Popshot came into being, and what written poetry might mean in a digital age. Almost by accident, I also ended up agreeing to contribute an interview with the poet Paul Farley to the current issue…

Tom Chatfield: Tell me a little about yourself.

Jacob Demo: I’m 23 years old, currently residing between Oxford and London and the editor and founder of the infamous Popshot magazine. The infamous bit might be a lie.

TC: And how did you come to be the editor and founder of an (infamous) poetry magazine?

JD: From a standpoint of naivety, primarily. As I saw it, poetry was busy burying itself in a cloud of mystery and exclusivity whilst every other art form was effortlessly making itself more and more accessible.

TC: Why poetry in particular?

JD: I think it came from a deep-rooted love of children’s books. We learn how to appreciate rhythm and meter as children with the plethora of nonsense poetry and hand-me-down children’s rhymes. I’ve always been a massive fan of rhyme but there’s very few people that can pull it off eloquently.

TC: There seems to be a huge divide between the poetry people read for pleasure and a lot of “great” poetry: do you think the canon can still be read by most people for pleasure?

JD: A lot of the poetry that they push in schools and the great poems that are handed down to us as classics are miles away from the poetry being written today. Unfortunately, most people’s perceptions of poetry are still stuck in the times of Milton and Wordsworth. There’s so much comment on the poetry of the past that many people are completely unaware that poetry is still being written.

TC: Your theme for the next issue is “This Is Modern Living.” Is this admitting a problem with the canon: that it’s very hard to write poetry with a long historical perspective, because people feel that modern living is distant from even the recent past?

JD: There’s this definite divide between those people who like to constantly reference previous greats and those people trying to push the great poets of today. The general perception is that contemporary poetry is much worse, much more volatile and shallow than it used to be, which I think is a gross injustice. Contemporary poetry in my eyes is far more concentrated on detail, on minute matters, than what it used to be when poets tended more to contemplate subjects as vast as love, death, life and so on.

TC: So what does good contemporary poetry mean to you?

JD: It’s painfully clichéd, but primarily I look for an original idea in poems. There are so many poems that we receive at the magazine that feel as if the poet wrote them because that’s what they thought they should write, rather than because they wanted to. I also look for poems that grip you from the beginning: not just from the first line but from the title itself. If by the third line I’m struggling to keep my heart in it, that’s a bad poem.

TC: One thing I feel with poetry today is that it is often about people wanting to write rather than read—and paying to go on courses, to enter competitions and to study, rather than practising their art for a critical audience. Is this a fair assessment?

JD: A fair assessment, yes, and I believe it’s a result of financial matters more than anything else. A lot of the more well known poets hold residencies, run workshops or tutor in creative writing at universities. There is more money in teaching poetry than there is in poetry itself which is, frankly, hilarious. The major downside of all this is that people are being taught a method, a system, a way of writing poetry which ends up churning out poems that are formulaic calculations from the head rather than the heart. The focus is on everyone becoming poets rather than everyone enjoying poetry.

TC: Performance has been transforming poetry recently. Why do you think it’s becoming so big; and what kind of effect do you think it has on writing?

JD: I think performance poetry appeals to our sense of rhythm and timing, and that is one major reason. Spoken word/performance poetry is also doing a fine job of making a connection between music and poetry. Last issue we started including spoken word artists in Popshot and I feel it has given the magazine a deeper aesthetic.

TC: I’m interested in magazines like yours partly because they seem to be a coming of age for the kind of contemporary poetry that performance has helped nurture. Can you tell me a bit about the reception your magazine has had so far: the level of interest, how many people are buying it and sending stuff in, and what you feel about your future?

JD: The reception has been bizarrely positive. And we’re now far further down the line than I ever thought we would be at this point. Being a poetry magazine, there are naturally deep rooted stereotypes that you have to battle against. Trying to get the magazine stocked in more respected outlets has been the hardest thing. I had to pester the book buyer at the Design Museum relentlessly before he finally gave in and started stocking the magazine! Many other places don’t even consider you because the word “poetry” sits on the front cover. Submissions wise, last issue I read 600-800 poems before settling on the final 24. Hopefully, this issue we’ll get even more.

TC: What are your feelings about the established landscape of poetry magazines?

JD: I think in most areas of interest, magazines play a major part in controlling how that field is perceived. For example, when I think fashion, I think Vogue. When I think graphic design, I think Grafik. So I see it as a bit of a failing that when I think poetry, of the kind I enjoy, no magazines come to mind. Ultimately, the long-established magazines out there are responsible for not sustaining interest in poetry. If in ten years time young people are still thinking of poetry and no magazine comes to mind, I’ll feel wholly responsible. I don’t think the long-established magazines are dead in the water. But I do feel that most of them are incapable of bringing poetry to a brand new audience and getting bright young things interested. They’re simply too established and stubborn to adapt, which is where I think the new breed of poetry magazines coming through will blossom.

In terms of magazines that I admire, I think Pen Pusher and Poetry Is Dead are doing great things in helping bring poetry back to a respectable state. As to where Popshot fits in, I have no idea…

TC: Do you think the government should be subsidizing poetry and poetry publishers?

JD: Contrary to popular opinion, I think there should be no government subsidies for poetry publishers. I’ve always felt that by Popshot being self-funding and ultimately more vulnerable, we have to try harder to keep it running and improving. I can’t afford to not adapt otherwise the magazine ceases to exist. Our circulation is 2,000 and growing. That figure is made up of subscriptions, online orders, bookstore sales in Australia, Europe and in the UK, library subscriptions and so on.

TC: That’s a pretty impressive number for a young poetry magazine. How do you think you’ve managed to reach so many people?

JD: From relentlessly hounding bookstores, distributors, blogs, magazines, newspapers—and hopefully by actually having something that people think is a good idea and worth paying for. Also, we got involved with a magazine subscription service called Stack which helped get Popshot into the hands of a lot more people.

TC: And is this a model you think others can, or already are following, given that you’re a one-man editorial team and have no advertising?

JD: Without a doubt. The internet has made it so much easier to do everything that is involved with running a magazine. If I had to read through postal submissions, I think I would find a way to leave this world. Despite all the discussion about print versus web, I think the birth of the internet has helped improve the standard of print magazines no end.

TC: Poetry is competing with a huge amount of other media today. Do you think people read poetry differently than they might have done before digital media—and that it has to do different things to interest them? I’m interested, too, in your decision to use illustrations in the magazine, and make them as much of a feature of the poems. Among other things, it seems to have the effect of slowing down the eye, of making people take more time.

JD: I think for those people who go out of their way to read poetry online, the way they read has definitely changed. One downside to the internet is the fact that there is a saturation of content and no real editing process. Anyone can post up their poems and get people reading them within minutes. That lack of editing means that our perception of poetry and the amount of time we dedicate to it changes dramatically.

This makes it all the more important for poetry magazines to present poetry in such a way that people will give their full attention to it. I wanted the poems to sit side by side with the illustrations as a way of allowing breathing space and increasing attention. Beyond that, I also hope it allows the illustrator the opportunity to create a further dimension to the poem—one which you may not have come up as the reader.

The fourth issue of Popshot is out now.