An Interview With Jo Clement About The Butcher’s Dog Poetry Magazine

by Lina Alrababah

Why is it called the Butcher’s Dog? 

Great question. The title has a very particular meaning for me. But I’m always infinitely more interested in what the name means to our readers. We get fit as a butcher’s dog quite often. I like that interpretation. The idea that a butcher throws scraps and offcuts of meat to their dog feels akin to us, as a small independent press. We ask submitters to send their best three poems, choice cuts, as it were. And we are, of course, ravenous and ready to publish the UK and ROI’s most exciting poetry.

How long did it take to actually make the magazine a dream come true? 

The magazine was founded here in Newcastle in 2012. We had support from New Writing North and Arts Council England at the beginning of our journey and have been unfunded ever since. We’ve been going nine years now. We couldn’t survive without the poets sending us their brilliant work or our readers who have the appetite for poetry with bite and a fiver space to buy a copy. Bringing each issue into the world is a wonderful feeling.

How do you choose poets? 

We don’t choose poets. We choose poems. The magazine is co-edited by myself alongside a guest or guests. Reading the poems anonymously means we encounter the voice in the poem and its ideas, long before we find out who wrote it. This keeps things fair. There’s no bias or nepotism.

I still don’t know what defines a Butcher’s Dog poem. There’s no recipe. I just know it when I meet a poem that will work on our pages or it won’t. I get a rush of, oh hello, this is interesting. Bringing together 24-25 poems in sequence means thinking about order. What do you open and close the magazine with? What happens in between? It’s quite an organic process in which the writing asserts itself and tells us what to do. So to answer the question, the poems really choose us.

Will you make it more than twice a year? 

If we could secure funding, I’d really love the Dog to go quarterly. At present, we publish in Spring and Autumn only. We get around three thousand submissions of poetry in each call, and a high percentage of that is publishable, so we’re regularly turning away lots of great work. The time, labour and attention involved in putting a publication together is a full-time job and presently, we simply can’t afford to increase our outputs. I work on the magazine in my free time and work with co-editors who understand this work’s very particular nature and value.

What is your favourite poem? And why? 

Ah, that’s such a tricky question! There are so many poems I return to. It’s a lot like music for me, I dip in and out of genre and artist. My ears are always eager for something new but some days you just want to put on some Billie Holliday, some days you want Pink Floyd, others you want Dolly Parton. For a taste of what poems I’m into at the moment, you might listen to BBC Radio 4 early next year. I’ll be on Poetry Please with Roger Mcgough where I’ll share my pick of reader requests. Tweet me @_dodo and I might pick yours.

What inspires you to write? 

I pull inspiration from lots of places. Sometimes I write in response to artworks or music. Often I’ll write in dialogue with a particular poet or poem. Every poem ever written is making dialogue with another poem, whether the poet knows it or not. There’s also this idea that we should only pick up a pen if we feel something very strongly. I agree with that to some extent but most of my writing starts off from zero. Sure, I write when I’m annoyed or elated or frustrated or in love, but there’s a limit to how much you can pull from your own emotional resources and experiences as a writer. You have to be gentle with yourself. Don’t commodify your emotions. I like to use experimental practices and prompts to give myself that break.

Writing is an exploration for me. I like to find out what I feel and what I know. This is also why I read. I am also very distrustful of language and like to poke it with a stick. What does this word mean, and why? How do I feel about this idea? At university, we’re in the business of knowledge: the smarts. But you can never know everything, and you know what, that’s kind of the point. So long as you’re curious and open to learning new things, not knowing everything is cool. It’s a given. Oh, and I also have a terrible memory. Writing helps me remember the stuff that matters.

What is the biggest struggle of running the magazine? 

Time and money are the barriers. As an indie, we don’t have a team of people to cover finance, administration, social media, design, marketing, distribution etc. I run the press from my back bedroom, so the buck stops with me in most respects. It’s a responsibility that I relish. If I didn’t invest time into the magazine, who else would publish regional voices? So many small journals start and then disappear once those involved realise how much graft is needed to do it well. Our presence speaks volumes to the publishing industry, which is, remember, very London-centric, very white, very able-bodied, very straight, very middle class, very wealthy. It says: the North East is where poetry happens and everyone’s invited. We’re skint and guess what, we’re doing exactly what you’re doing down there, just as well as you are and we’re doing it on fumes. And we’re not just printing any old poetry, we’re printing exceptional poetry. That’s something that connects viscerally with our readers. They get it.  

What is the most joyful part of running the magazine? 

I get a kick out of running a Northern press but also reading the work. If you don’t like reading poetry, don’t run a press. Three thousand poems take a lot of time and effort to read, especially to honour the time and effort that the poet has put in. It’s a respectful exchange. A call and response. It is so crucial that poets feel heard and not only have someone spend time with their writing, but also receive a response that says thanks for your poem. That’s even if it won’t be published. So many presses don’t do this and, as with job applications, it has somehow become the norm not to hear back.

Of course, one of my favourite things is being able to tell a poet they are being published in our forthcoming issue. The stakes are high. We publish less than 1.5% of the submissions. When I tell someone that they’ve made the cut, it’s always such a great feeling. We print folks who’ve never been published before, award-winners and everyone in between. This exposes the extent to which gatekeeping is a counterproductive process for literature. It shouldn’t matter who is writing. What is written matters much more. I very much see myself as someone who has slipped through the gate, and rather than serving myself, and I’m holding it open for other writers. Come on in, I say. The water’s lovely.   

The cover designs are very unique, are they inspired by the theme within? 

At Butcher’s Dog we publish 24-25 poems in each issue and there’s never a theme. I tend to wait until the poems are selected before I look for an artist. There should always be some kind of dialogue between the poems and the artwork. It should be appealing to the eye, by which I mean challenging or interesting. Sometimes I commission a new piece of work but more often, I see a painting or a digital illustration online and think – that’s it, that’s the one. Interestingly, that process reminds us how important it is to have an online portfolio, both as artists and as writers. If you’re out there, someone will find you. The artists I pick are, like many of our poets, from the margins. The mainstream might underrepresent these groups. We champion them.

Do you have any advice to young poets? 

 Nourishing an interest in sound and sense helps us grow into empathic, feeling individuals. Sound, I believe, has an almost amniotic quality to bring us comfort. It speaks to that first sonic encounter with the world, hearing our mother’s heartbeats in the womb. But, of course, as we get older, writers tend to have this wrung out of them. So here’s my advice: write about the stuff that brings you comfort. Not the things you think that readers or lecturers want you to write about it. If you like video games, write about Zelda. If you like walking, write about your favourite hill. If you like sushi, write about your favourite joint. Or go for a walk, pull out a flask and write on that hill. Go order some maki, pull out your notebook and write about something else entirely. Or just go experience some life away from the page for a bit. A major part of writing is not writing. There’s an art to that too, it’s called living. Read as much as you can and make space and time for yourself and your interests. This will always emerge and improve your writing tenfold. Don’t forget the root of the word amateur is love. Bring that to the page. The reader will surely join you. 

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