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Thumbscrew

It’s partly just me being selfish, but I’m slightly gutted that I arrived on the poetry scene (have I arrived? or am I about to? I’m not really sure…) and, unless I’d been precociously intelligent, by extension on planet earth, too late to enjoy a subscription to Tim Kendall’s wonderful magazine, Thumbscrew.

The mag ran from 1994 until (from what I can gather) 2002, and in that time carved itself a niche in publishing often excellent and sometimes refreshingly unusual and off-kilter poetry, but most of all, in mocking the hype, soundbytes and absurdities that often surround poetry, poets and their reputations / egos. I’ve been reading the issues uploaded on the wonderful resource that is poetrymagazines.org.uk recently, and absolutely love what must have once been the near-legendary ‘Odds and Ends’ section. Here’s a smattering of pieces drawn from it:


Beware the Blurb

“Vendler is arguing for a depoliticisation of [North] that robs it of much of its power to provoke as well as merely to reassure; and it is a measure of Heaney’s stature that he thrives on being read in just such a provoked or provocative way” (David Wheatley, TES, 20 November 1998).

“It is a measure of Heaney’s stature that he thrives on being read in such a provocative way” (blurb, paperback edition of Helen Vendler’s Seamus Heaney).


Don’t Forget your Gaviscon

Always keen to prove its intellectual credentials, the Poetry Society has devised a new gimmick. For just £17.50, you can book a meal in their café, cooked by a “seriously good poet”. Michael Donaghy cooks Mexican, Sarah Maguire cooks French, Mimi Khalvati cooks Iranian. There is an additional charge for stopping the chefs reading their poems.


Say No to Strangers

The Poetry Society Website offers good advice for inviting poets to your school. (The best advice, you’d have thought, would be not to invite them at all.) Poets, it proclaims, “are not to be left alone with groups of children”. “Ask if your poet is insured”. “Our advice to poets would be to refuse to take any unsupervised session, as we would not be able to support them adequately if a case were brought against them for anything that took place in that situation”. The risks are obvious: if left unsupervised, the poets might start reading their “poems” to impressionable youngsters.


The letters section, as you might imagine given the above, was equally lively and entertaining.


So my question is this: what has rushed in to fill Thumbscrew’s gap since it folded nearly six years ago? What magazine is cutting poetic ‘gods’, ridiculous book blurbs and the flexing of egos down to size these days? Only a small press magazine could get away with such hilarious, semi-serious banter and discussion (that is, as much as I enjoy the publication, I don’t think Poetry Review’s letters pages or wide and varied readership would quite suit it!) The blogs and forums do a good job of poking fun where and when it’s needed, I suppose, but it’d be nice to see a mag capable of balancing good poetry (Thumbscrew published plenty of that, including Muldoon, Greenlaw, Harsent and Redgrove) with intelligent humour and deft severity in its reviews, features (read this one on Armitage's poetic career) and other prose.

Well, I live in hope. In the meantime, why not wander along and read the archived Thumbscrew issues on poetrymagazines.org? Link’s here.

Comments

Jane Holland said…
As the name suggests though, Thumbscrew was always a bit of a 'mean' magazine.

I had some pieces in there on a few occasions, critical prose (I think) and certainly some poetry, but didn't really approve of its attacks. I published a truly appalling poem there once, designed as a private attack on someone, and regretted it afterwards. That sort of bitter aggression rarely makes for good art.

In some ways, Craig Raine's magazine Arete (also Oxford-based - perhaps that's significant?) is a descendant of Thumbscrew's policy of extreme meanness to those not on its 'good guys' list, though with a more hardened literary vision overall and usually more playful in its meanness.

If you like T, you might want to try a single copy of A for size. Unless you already subscribe?
Ben Wilkinson said…
Thanks for dropping by, Jane.

I can see how Thumbscrew could've been quite an aggressive mag at times, but having only seen the issues on the poetrymagazines.org.uk website, it all seemed quite harmless at first glance!

As for Arete, I have read a few issues of it but I don't subscribe. The critical prose in there seems a bit hit and miss to be honest, and I don't feel there's enough poetry in its pages either. I remember you blogging on Raine's article on Don Paterson's poetry, which was certainly illuminating, but then you get articles like that one on Daljit Nagra (was it by Adam Thirlwell?) that, as well as being ignorant, made some outlandish claims and some unnecessarily cruel comments.
Cailleach said…
Interesting perspectives on mags old and recent. I really like Dark Horse at the moment - there's an incredible amount of good poetry crit in it and I like the connections between the US and Scotland (and N.I. as well).

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About the Author

Welcome to the website of the English poet and critic, Ben Wilkinson.
Ben was born in Staffordshire and now lives in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. He received his first degree from the University of Sheffield, and holds an MA and PhD from Sheffield Hallam University. He has won numerous awards for his poetry, including the Poetry Business Competition and a 2014 Northern Writers' Award
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He is a keen distance runner, lifelong Liverpool Football Club fan, and among other things he works as poetry critic for The Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement. You can find many of his reviews on this site.
To contact Ben about readings, workshops, or for any other enquiries, you can drop him a line at benwilko(at sign)gmail.com. Unfortunately, I am not able to consider unsolicited requests from authors for book reviews.

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