Amy Key is an English poet and editor. Her poems have been published in magazines and anthologies including Poetry, The Poetry Review, Best British Poetry 2015 (Salt 2015), Love Poems (Faber & Faber 2015) and The Poetry of Sex (Penguin 2014).
Hi Amy. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of the Best Friends Forever anthology with Emma Press in 2014. Can you tell us a big about how it all came together and, as editor, did the project throw up any surprises along the way?
Thank you! I’m so happy that Best Friends Forever happened. I felt friendship among women was under-represented in poetry and that there needed to be a bringing together and celebration of poems on relationships that are so central to the lives of women.
I felt that representations of women’s friendships in the media, film and TV were trite and two-dimensional, commodified to promote brands and products and sometimes misogynistic. I had also reached a point where friendship had become a dominant theme in my work poems – I was writing acrostics for friends and reading lots of poems on friendship by poets like Annie Freud, Camellia Stafford, Dorothea Lasky and others.
I just trawled through my twitter feed to see when I first started to talk about the idea. What I found was I tweeted about writing a love poem to a friend back in May 2013, then in September I announced ‘I want to put together a little book of poems about female friendship called Best Friends Forever’. By October that year I had found a publisher – the amazing Emma Press – and launched a call for submissions.
The biggest surprise is what can happen as a result of having an idle thought and tweeting about it. It was a mixture of good luck, good timing and having the confidence to see through an idea. Emma Wright asked me to pitch it to her and thankfully she liked my ideas. Although I had editing experience (on Poems in Which and The Shuffle Anthology Series), I’d never edited a book before. I think my feeling that this was something important, necessary even, carried me through.
It is fair to say though I was surprised by how much work it was. There was a huge response to the call for submissions and close reading hundreds of poems takes considerable effort and attention. Figuring out the shape and flow of the book requires some intuition and a good deal of time, considering things like how representative the book is of different experiences and backgrounds.
I’m really proud of the book and all the poems I included, but I do wish I had worked much harder to find poems by women of colour and that we’d considered things like whether the use of the word ‘female’ might make some writers (e.g. trans or non-gender conforming people) feel excluded. I think it takes more than simply having an open submissions process – I could have, and should have, done more to seek out writers and encouraged them to submit.
In the course of making the book a couple of things happened which are really special to me. One was that author Emma Jane Unsworth read the manuscript and gave us an endorsement for the book. I’d loved her novel Animals – in some way she was the perfect reader for the anthology – and I was so happy she loved it.
The second was more recently when at the T. S. Eliot prize reading, my friend Rebecca Perry mentioned the book and read her poem from the anthology called ‘Soup Sister’. I was there in the audience at the Royal Festival Hall and had a little cry because somehow that act of generosity, Rebecca sharing her moment in the spotlight with the book and with me, was emblematic of all the things I wanted to celebrate.
You are also co-editor of Poems in Which which seems to be going from strength-to-strength. What would you say it is you are looking for in the unpublished poems that makes them a good fit for the journal? I’m curious too how the selection process tends to work having four editors collaborating on the team?
I try not to have a fixed idea of ‘what I’m looking for’. When you’re an editor you have the luxury of picking what you like, you decide – you’re the editor! But I also try to put aside my own prejudices about certain ‘types’ of poem and even certain poets. Too often I’ve opened a submission by X writer thinking ‘I don’t usually like X’s stuff’ and then been surprised.
I couldn’t summarise what characterises poems I like, but I guess an attempt might be the poem is really confident in its imagery, audacious even; that all lines pull their weight; that there’s nothing clumsy about it, e.g. weak line endings.
I like strangeness, irregularity, coolness, surprising similes. I am less fond of poems in strict form, strong rhymes, uninspired titles, faux ephiphanies (which makes me laugh as often I have a declamatory tone in my own poems) or where the subject matter is sexist, or racist, or beleaguered by some other bigotry. These are depressingly common!
Selecting poems when there are four of us can take a lot of time, though we’re trying to get much better at it. We have a shared taste but it’s a Venn diagram, not a complete match. That means we can have long and impassioned debates about whether to take this poem or that poem.
I have huge respect for my co-editors in terms of their own work, but moreover we’re friends and I trust them. If I’m not sure about a poem and one of them loves it, I will take more notice, slow down, try to see what they are seeing. I hope that the combination of our tastes and ideas leads to a more diverse, better journal than it would be if I was the sole editor.
Perhaps more so than other journals we will also ask poets to make edits if we feel changes need to be made before the poem is published, and that takes more time too. We use a mix of face-to-face review meetings and a google doc to each offer our opinion on a poem. If 3 of the 4 of us can’t support selecting a poem, we will reject it.
Aside from trying to upload poems with complex tabulations onto the website, rejecting poems is the worst part of the process. We do our best to let people know what we do like about their poems even when we don’t take them for the journal. As much as possible, I’d like being rejected by us to be a relatively positive experience!
Last year three Poems in Which were selected by Emily Berry for Best British Poetry 2015 – the third year in a row poems from our journal were included. Being able to provide a platform for some fantastic poets and seeing them get that kind of recognition is massively gratifying and makes the sometimes arduous administrative burden of running a magazine worthwhile.
Your debut full-length collection Luxe was published by Salt. It was disappointing when such a fine imprint was forced to stop publishing single author poetry collections due to financial pressures. How optimistic are you about the future of poetry book publishing in the UK amidst all the doom-and-gloom reports of decline in physical book sales in recent years?
I heard the news that Salt had decided to stop publishing single collections a short while before my book came out. On one hand I was relieved my book would still come out, but on the other I felt my experience of having a debut was diminished somehow…that it was a false start as Salt couldn’t really offer the same level of support other publishers gave their poets. Now I find myself without a publisher and wondering where to send my next manuscript and whether it counts against me I’ve already published a debut.
I can’t say I know much about the decline in physical sales, but I don’t automatically feel pessimistic about it. I think e-books are great – I read almost all novels in e-book form and I continue to buy a healthy amount of poetry books. Publishers like Penguin have restarted their poetry list and new imprints like Pavilion are now on the scene. Small presses like Penned in the Margins are winning big awards and attracting hugely talented writers. There are fantastic journals and websites like tender, Wild Court, Clinic and Minerva. I think there’s a lot to be positive about.
I understand you were involved in a writing commission for the Austrian fashion house DMMJK last year as part of London fashion week. How inspiring was the experience and did the end product meet or exceed your expectations going into it?
This was a dream commission for me. I felt immediately inspired by the designs I was asked to respond to – they seemed simultaneously dreamy and fresh, like a fruit salad served on a cloud. What was interesting for me was how difficult then I found it to write anything!
I say more about the inspirations and how I actually ended up writing the poem on the Austrian Cultural Forum’s (ACF) website. But in terms of my expectations of the project I’m happy to say they were exceeded. The curator Jen Calleja worked with the ACF to produce a beautiful pamphlet of all the commissioned writing, alongside the featured designers.
It was glossy and emphatically fashion, and this pleased me a great deal. It sort of took me a little way to my ambition of being Poet in Residence at Vogue, which is a long-standing daydream. We performed the work in the ACF’s supremely elegant building in Knightsbridge, where we had the rare experience of reading to people who were in the main not poets.
The ACF also created a showcase of the featured designers and sound installations of our writing during London Fashion Week. I’d not appreciated when I agreed to take the commission how multi-layered the experience and how high the production values would be. It was such a pleasure to be involved with and has sparked more poems directly inspired by fashion designers.
What does the rest of the year hold for you? Are there any dates in the poetry diary you are looking forward to or are there any specific goals you have set yourself?
I’m a civil servant and this year there are set to be huge job cuts in my organisation. It may be I’m very distracted from writing because worries about the future end up taking precedence. I will resist that as much as possible, and if successful I hope to make progress with the manuscript of my second collection.
The way I write has changed a great deal and I need a lot more quiet time to finish a poem. Poems used to come quickly. Now they don’t. I hope to organise a week somewhere wild and quiet where I might be able to build on the scraps of the last few months.
Issue 9 of Poems in Which has recently gone live, but along with my co-editors, I will be plotting for the 10th issue due this summer.
I was a reader for this year’s Faber New Poets, so I can’t wait to see the selected poets launch their pamphlets in April. I also can’t wait for new books from Mark Waldron, Noelle Kocot and Brenda Shaughnessy.
In July I’m due to read at the Ledbury Festival and I hope to see lots of poets read there when I go.
My favourite place to be is in the water, so later this year I also hope to collaborate with Rebecca Perry on a project related to swimming and pools and our relationship to being in the water.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
About this time last year I stayed in an old cottage in Deal, Kent, where I spent my early years. I found a book in the cottage all about famous hauntings in Kent. Something about the language must have pleased me because on the train back to London I started typing a list poem of various hauntings on my phone.
I loved the idea that we are literally haunting everywhere we go with the infinitesimal debris we leave behind – sometimes physically, sometimes psychically. So the poem explores that idea of what exists unseen in every place we visit or inhabit.
When Chrissy Williams and Tom Humberstone launched their call for submissions to Over The Line – an anthology of poetry comics – it occurred to me that the poem could work really well with a visual element, a counter-narrative of sorts. I then collaborated with Rob VonRamm, a comic artist, to develop the poem into a poetry comic.
This involved cutting and reorganising parts to enable it to have a relationship with the artwork. It was great fun to end up with something not quite mine, a negotiated piece we both owned, and somehow, as it is not a ‘typical’ poem for me, sharing the creation of it seemed helpful.
The little girl who died after eating buttercups is haunted
The Gold Lion and the two Red Lions are haunted
Following the death of a dog, the driver of a car and its two passengers, the zebra crossing at the infant’s school is haunted
The old wooden bus shelter near the gated park is rumoured to be haunted
Under the pier, at the high tide mark, is haunted
The dog known as ‘Handsome’ haunts the perimeter of the library
The butcher’s father, Ted the elder, forbade the making of beef sausages following the death of a customer in 1973 who subsequently haunts the butchers
Discarded pistachio shells under cinema seats are haunted
The Liberal Club is haunted by a cat called ‘Jinx’ who will drink shandy, but only from an ashtray
Penelope Caldwell, daughter of the last Town Crier, haunts the civic centre
The last Town Crier haunts the now derelict toilet block of the private Boys’ School
Persons unknown haunt the 377 bus route
The defunct ticket machine in the delicatessen is haunted
Constance Bown, lifetime companion of Penelope Caldwell, haunts the duck pond
The entire contents of the laboratory, including the Bunsen burners, pipets, volumetric flasks, tongs, microspatulas, goggles, beakers, crucibles and magnesium strips, are haunted
The trees by the new roundabout are haunted, though they’ve mostly been cut down
If you have the urge to swallow pebbles it is a ghost
If you wake up and your hair is about the pillow like you arranged it for photographic reasons it is probably a ghost
If when you close your eyes you can remember your first taste of butter it is a ghost
If your cat paws the place you were sitting when you leave the room your cat is a ghost
If you lie in bed emphatically alone you are a ghostly presence
If you can’t see a ghost but can see yourself very small it is most definitely a ghost