For many dedicated writers, the biggest challenge they face is turning their hobby or ‘vocation’ into a living. In this extended interview, we hear from Kingston University MFA student Mike Loveday, a published poet and the editor of an innovative poetry magazine. Mike shares some insightful tips for navigating through your early writing – and publishing – experiences.
Tell us something about your career to date and what motivated you to become a writer.
Well, first of all I don’t think of it as a job yet – no-one’s paying me, and most people would insist that’s one vital ingredient lacking! You could call it a vocation for now, and it’s been a gradual falling into writing, rather than any single particular thing that motivated me to start. I remember I loved doing close readings at school, and writing about George Herbert’s Love (III), or an excerpt from Conrad’s Typhoon, these were very significant experiences for me in realising that literature was something I was interested in.
As for my “career”, two tangible career milestones so far have been a poetry chapbook publication (He said / She said, HappenStance, 2011) and I suppose the cumulative outputs of 14 magazine which I edit, which feels – especially in the last couple of years – like it’s starting to be acknowledged more widely on the poetry scene.
Was there a particular moment when you decided this was the job for you?
I’ve been writing for ten years but only recently have I ever thought of myself as a writer. In fact it happened in a bizarre way – in a local café last summer, after the chapbook came out – when I had to write a book review for the webzine Eyewear and I was unsure how to start, even though I knew the book well. Reviews usually take me ages. I took myself to the café and said “don’t leave until you’ve written the review”. And I had it done, in an hour, and I felt like I’d really got to the heart of the book in that one sitting. I had a moment of thinking: “you couldn’t have done that before, that’s being a writer, yes you can do this”. In my years of crafting poems I’d never ever felt that before. So it was a book review where I first truly felt that incredible energetic rush of “yes I want to be and can be a writer”, which is probably unusual in that respect.
Having experienced both the editor and author positions, what have you learned about the author/publisher relationship?
I would say that the relationship when editing a magazine is very different from editing the publication of a single writer. With magazine editing, for 14 we might publish 100 different poets in 12 months, and although you might get involved in minor changes to a poem – punctuation perhaps, small points of grammar, or maybe suggesting options to fix a problematic title – your involvement in altering the material is largely cosmetic. Whereas Helena Nelson from HappenStance got very involved in my manuscript, commenting on alternative drafts of poems, proposed revisions, sequencing and selection. And I knew from her other work (as both poet and editor) that I wanted her more than anyone else to be doing that with these poems.
I think with your own poems, no-one frets more about their final appearance, whether that’s one poem or many. But yes, maybe being an editor for a while beforehand helped me sympathise with the sheer workload a poetry publisher has to go through, dealing with all those manuscripts and poems. It made me quite apologetic about suggesting revisions. I did suggest a lot. I just tried to be very apologetic about it.
In your opinion what qualities does a great editor need?
Hmmm.. I’m not really qualified to answer what a great editor needs. In my own experience a strange mix of having strong personal opinions and not having them. That’s an odd way of wording it, but what I am referring to is what Fiona Sampson talked of at a recent event at Kingston – the difference between personal taste and editorial taste, in that she would often publish poems in Poetry Review that she didn’t personally like, but which were good representatives of a certain style. I think you genuinely have to be not too wedded to a particular aesthetic, and have to be able to like all sorts of kinds of poem, and meet them on their own terms. It involves reading published work widely and eclectically, while judging and yet not judging, in a strange kind of way.
I’m like that with music – I listen to most things. I just love music. So although I really love electronica and indie and alt-country as genres, I can listen to good RnB or pop or classical or even rap and think: yes, I can see and enjoy what’s good about that – i.e. that’s a perfect example of everything that’s great about rap. So although there are some styles and poets I really love, on the other hand I rarely condemn a poem, poet or style for being a certain way, and always try to read material for its own strengths. I’m trying to speak broadly about the aesthetics of work that’s publishable quality here. If someone sends a poem that’s just bad writing – hackneyed language, lazy clichés, spelling, grammatical errors – that’s a totally separate matter about quality of craft and effort, and you can feel entitled to “condemn” that.
I’ve also found it interesting recently to work with other people to co-edit 14, and clarify my own instinctive, semi-conscious views while also learning about the views of others. What’s more it’s great fun to work with other people. Each issue of 14 now has a slightly different feel to it, because the chemistry of the team’s combined editorial taste is different. I like that.
As a poet have you ever had to compromise when faced with the demands of an editor?
Well if you mean my own editor at HappenStance, Helena Nelson sometimes disagreed on edits and said “no, I don’t advise that”. And I entirely trusted her on those occasions. It didn’t feel like a compromise, I welcomed her opinion. Sometimes she’d say “I disagree but don’t feel strongly so I’m happy to leave it to you.” Her policy is: if the poet insists, let them have it their way, it’s the individual poet’s publication after all. Which is incredibly generous.
Looking ahead, in your opinion what are the biggest challenges facing the relationship between authors and publishers in your field?
Well, for one thing the recession has affected magazine sales, no question. But regardless of recession, that problem’s always there. If only a similar number of people subscribed to the mag as wanted to be in it, 14 would be doing ok financially instead of struggling along like a man trying to escape with a ball and chain at his ankle. You can never have too many readers, too many people taking a look at your work or the work of poets you’re publishing.
With digital technology making it much easier for authors to connect directly with their readers, many suggest (as a recent questioner at the Futurebook conference asked) that writers don’t need editors anymore. What’s your view?
Maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t see how those two things are necessarily linked. Perhaps people don’t feel they need a “publisher” if they can reach people online. But a good “editor”, they edit, they comment on and change the writing, and maybe change the writer themselves. Even if it’s only from a distance, it’s a partnership. I think of Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish, as an example of a close partnership that got the writer going. Although I hear it is happening less at publishing houses these days, external editing has to happen at some point in the process, and surely much better for it to be by someone involved in publishing your work than by a concerned friend.
Can you share any practical advice for aspiring writers?
There are so many small things I’ve found it helpful to know along the way, it’s hard to know where to start. I do know that for me, reading those initial “How to Write Poetry”, “How to Get Published” books helped me early on, to strip away a bit of my own naivety. You can get that done in private, without making so much of a fool of yourself publically. For poetry, good ones are: Getting Into Poetry by Paul Hyland (Bloodaxe) and How to Publish Your Poetry by Peter Finch (Allison and Busby).
And yet you never stop reading them, do you, the “How To…” books? They just get more sophisticated the longer you keep going, and have more discrete titles so you don’t feel so much of a beginner.
What are you working on right now, and how’s it going?
I’m writing a “novel in prose poems” for my Kingston MFA – a sequence of short paragraphs of prose (self-contained, each with their own title), which link into a loose character narrative. Three different main characters, set in my home town Rickmansworth, in Hertfordshire on the edge of London. The sense of an in-between place is quite important, in more than one sense. As well as Rickmansworth being an odd mix of suburb and countryside, the book is somewhere between poetry and a novel. It’s an exciting hybrid to start on. I’m not sure it’s quite been done before, not in this way.
Mike Loveday reading at Kingston Writing School‘s Five Poets for Oxfam event.
If you hadn’t made it as a writer, what would you be doing now?
I haven’t made it yet. You never really arrive, do you. As for other things, I don’t know…. teaching, healthcare, marketing… I might still end up working or part-working in one of those fields at some point after the MFA.
I guess whatever the field I’m standing in, I’d always be looking around, secretly feeling a little bit lost and holding a map that someone much more experienced than me has given me, and the trick is, the map’s blank.