An Interview With Patricia Oxley

Leah Fritz talks to Patricia Oxley about

editing Acumen poetry magazine,

running the Torbay festival

and being awarded the MBE


Although she had been informed about the MBE last year, it wasn’t until the 26th of January, 2012 that Patricia Oxley, editor of the literary journal Acumen and poetry advocate extroardinaire, received the honour from the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace. Actually she had been invited to go to Windsor to receive it from the Queen last October, but that coincided with the Torbay Festival, over which Patricia is the monarch, and so the appointment was postponed – luckily for the few family members and friends who got a chance to cheer Patricia in London immediately afterwards. And elegant she was in her Chanel-style dress and jacket and an amazing little hat and the high-heeled shoes she said she’d practised wearing for three whole weeks.

 [Photo credit: Elizabeth Davidson]

 As an American ex-pat, I am by turns fascinated and bewildered by royal honours, but never have I felt one was more deserved than the MBE bestowed on Patricia Oxley. Here’s why:

LF:  Unlike most editors of poetry magazines, you make a point of the fact that you aren’t a poet yourself. Another fact, though, is that your husband, William Oxley, is. So I’m wondering, did you fall in love with poetry or William first?

 PO: Poetry came first.  I listened to poetry being read at junior school.  We had poems like ‘Cargoes’, parts of ‘Goblin Market’ ‘Sea Fever’ ’Wild Horses of the Camargue’ and a great deal of Georgian rhyming verse;  all of which appealed. Imagine some of those poems being read to juniors of today!  But the rhythms and images enchanted me so that by the time I went to Secondary School, I was ready and eager for the wealth of English poetry taught.  I always say that having to go to Latin lessons was the best thing that ever happened.  I disliked Latin so much that I spent two years reading Palgrave’s Golden Treasury under the desk.  I ended up with little Latin but a huge love of English poetry.  When I met William I had just finished studying Keats and Shakespeare for O-levels;  so he and I had our first conversations  about poetry.

 LF: Tell me something about your background – where you are from, what your life was like before you gave birth to Acumen?

 PO: I was born in Rochdale during the war.  Once that ended I moved with my parents to Barrow-in-Furness for around four years then returned to Manchester.  My father was a master printer who worked on the Manchester Guardian.  I stress ‘Manchester’ as that paper was very different from the Guardian of today;  a paper then known for its correct spelling and use of English, its literary articles and comments by well-known writers of the day who actually knew how to use the language.  He told me that though he couldn’t help with my homework – I was at grammar school by then – he could at least see to it that my homework was well presented.  He taught me many rules culled from his typography learnt being a typesetter for the MG.

 I took science subjects at A-level, but never lost that early love of poetry and literature. William was very much into the classics at that time so encouraged me to read Homer, Plato, Heroditus etc.  And he introduced me to Milton well before school did.  And we also read the great novels of the nineteenth century from all over Europe.  It was a heady time of discovery for both of us. 

Once we married we lived in London for three years where he began to write poetry.  Then came family, a move to Epping, career moves for William, being a full-time mother for myself.  And all the time, reading, reading.  By 1972, William had had his first book published, and, though still at home, I became involved with poetry events and magazines as, like many poets, William tried his hand at editing. The writing became so important in his life that we moved to Brixham.  And eight years later, I thought of Acumen and you know the rest.

 LF; How is Acumen organised? What do you do on it and what do you delegate to others – Danielle Hope, Glyn Pursglove, William, et al.?

 PO:As editor, I read all submissions, plan the magazine, type-set it, get it proofed, and organise the printing and distribution.  Glyn sends out books for review (his choice from the many which are sent to us) and sends me each issue’s review pages via email so all I do on the reviews is format them.  William does the ‘Interviews’.  He comes up with possible interviewees and we discuss them and make a decision.  Then he writes the questions and gets the answers.  Again, all I do on that is slot them into the magazine and format them. Danielle as advisory editor is indispensable for her advice on problems.  She has rational answers to many problems to which I am too close for such clear thinking.

 LF: How do you decide on the poems to include in each issue? I notice that there are groups of poems which seem to be related, and they are divided from each other by sections of prose. How do you work that out and how much time does it take?

 PO: I try to read the submissions each day.  This means that I don’t get bogged down in  a backlog (except after holidays).  So I never get ‘poemed-out’ as I have heard it called.  Any poem which has any kind of appeal – images, word-play, feeling, subject-matter etc – is placed in a short-list.  Out of the many poems I read during the four month period between issues, usually around a hundred to a hundred and thirty find their way into the shortlist.  One of the best ways of sorting this shortlist out is to use train journeys to London etc.  I carefully read the poems on the outward journey, making a list of those which I think ought to go into the magazine.  Then even only 24 hours activity puts all this out of my head.  I mix up the poems into a different order, then do the same exercise on the way home.  If no journey is available, I try to do the same exercise on either side of a weekend.  Then I compare the lists.  Those in both lists are ‘in’ (for the time being), those in neither are ‘out’ (for the time being).  Then I go through the same exercise again with the poems which were only in one list. So it goes on until I have approximately the correct number for the issue.  Then, to make sure, I read the rejected poems once again just in case one has worked on me subconsciously (which sometimes happens) and finally read the accepted poems as a batch to make sure they are all of a good standard.  This takes around a week to complete.  

 Only then do I start to sort the accepted poems into groups of similar ones for the magazine.  This usually takes me about a day.  I am familiar with the poems now and can link them together in sequence;  sometimes all on the same topic sometimes just one poem leading to another leading to another … with the final poem being very different from the first poem of the group.  Then I fit them into the magazine in what I hope is a sympathetic placing within the prose.  I am quite fussy about two-page poems, trying as much as I can to start these always on a left-hand page so that the reading is not interrupted by having to turn over. And I suppose that’s about it.  I usually try to block out a fortnight of my diary to choose and set up the poems for each issue. 

 LF: The Torbay Festival is another significant poetry project you initiated. What is the history of that? When I attended it, I noticed that the workshops and poetry readings are serious, and yet there are also occasions for socialising and just plain fun. Lunchtime events, pub events and the big dinner party, for instance. How have you established that balance? Who helps you set up the Festival and keep it running so smoothly?

 PO: The Festival wasn’t initiated solely by myself.  William and I co-started it when he was Poet-in-Residence for Torbay for the Millennium. He had a little ACE funding and we ran the first competition to help out financially. After it was all over, William was glad to get back to writing poetry but I saw that the Festival had been a fun event, full of poetry and friendship (well it had to be friends whose arms we twisted to come and read in Torbay for the small fees we could afford then!).  But I felt that it could be an opportunity to give poets a voice and an audience; and to give an audience a taste of good poetry. As with Acumen, I wanted to mix recognised poets with others not so well known but who wrote good poetry. So I began building the Festival along those lines. One of the early visitors to the Festival wrote that coming to Torbay was like attending ‘one long poetry party’.  This seemed exactly right for Torbay;  the audiences seem like guests at a party;  a party where everyone matters, not just the performers.  So the character of the Festival, which grew organically, was formed.

As to running the Festival:  there is a small ‘permanent committee’, as it were, of six people in the Bay.  We meet regularly and they are a great help when I need to pass ideas in front of them.  They also come up with ideas, comments and criticism.  And they are the permanent workers taking several organisational tasks off my shoulders.  However, we do have four out-of-town committee members who bring a different dimension to the committee, showing us how we are perceived by the outside world. This is a  very valuable asset and often corrects the narrower view of things seen only from Torbay. I couldn’t organise the Festival without the help and support of these dedicated people.  At the first Festival someone said that I ran the Festival with military precision and asked when had I left the army.  This has now become a standing joke, despite the fact that I issue the jokingly titled ‘Military Handbook’:  a set of papers detailing everyone’s job at each event. So we all know what we are supposed to be doing at any one time.  It seems to work despite sometimes swapping jobs at the last moment …

 LF:  Then there’s the Torbay International Poetry Competition. Is that solely to raise funds or do you look to discover new talent through it?

 PO: It was started to raise funds for the Festival.  But, strangely, I have discovered new talent.  Poets who have been short-listed and whose work I didn’t know have been invited to send their poems to Acumen and have often become regulars in the magazine.  So now I look forward to reading the short-listed poets more than receiving the treasurer’s report on how much money the competition has brought into the Festival coffers, important though this is in enabling us to offer reasonable fees to poets taking part.

 LF:  You also occasionally publish books, pamphlets and the like. How do you decide on doing these?

 PO: The pamphlets are for poets who have appeared regularly in Acumen and whose work I enjoy but who have never had a collection of any kind.  I hope the pamphlets give them something to sell at readings and are a help in getting full collections eventually. They are almost always done by invitation rather than submission. Twenty years ago I used to do full collections but abandoned that largely because I was not good at distribution.  Only very occasionally now do I do full collections;  and then only for special reasons.

 LF: And you arrange other poetry events in Devon. Please talk about these.

 PO: I do actually also arrange events outside Devon. But with regard to those in Devon:  they are often as a result of being invited to add a poetry dimension to other arts’ events.  For example, The Great Create (primarily organised by a Devon artist) is a cross-arts’ event which takes place at Greenway, the National Trust owned former home of Agatha Christie. There I have been asked to provide poets for events like Poets’ Picnic, Poetry in the Courtyard, Poems on the Door etc. I also collaborate with another artist who runs POETSfriday.  This takes place four times a year when people meet for poetry, an art exhibition and afternoon tea. It takes place at Cockington Court, in the ‘Olde Worlde’ village of Cockington on the outskirts of Torquay. What an atmosphere there in which to read poetry! I also try to run four mini one-day Festivals a year consisting of a workshop, an open mike, and a full reading.  It’s all fun though and full of friendship. If it wasn’t, why do it?

 LF: You and William have travelled a lot – to the South of France, Italy, Nepal, Canada, USA, India, etc.: How does that come about? How does that affect your work?

 PO: 1973 was the year I said I would never fly again! It seemed that every time I had flown, something had happened, brakes failing on landing, bits falling off aircraft etc. So I stayed firmly on the ground.  Then in 1998 my daughter, married to a diplomat, found herself posted to Kathmandu in Nepal.  The only way to get there was to fly …

Since then, she and her family have been Canada, Romania and India (where we plan to visit this year),  Friends have taken us to the South of France and Italy where they have holiday homes.  I know William has found these visits enriching to his poetry. As a non-writer I feel it has broadened my general sensibilities to other cultures and ways of life.

 LF: You are one of those few redoubtable people (usually women!) who manage a household, are closely involved with daughters and grandchildren in a way that seems almost effortless, and yet do a formidable amount of outside work successfully. What’s the secret?

 PO: Love of what you are doing and love of the people you are doing it with.  The support of a wonderful husband and a loving family.  Poetry is right when it emphasises that it is love that makes things happen.

 LF: What do you rely on for financial support for all you poetry activities?

 PO: I am tremendously grateful to the Arts Council for funding many of my ventures, especially the Festival and for Acumen.  But I have had small grants from other grant-making bodies, support from a few sponsors, occasional donations and, of course, income from the activities themselves:  subscriptions, ticket sales etc.  It has also helped that I spent my formative years living through what has been called the ‘age of austerity’;  those years between the end of the War and the ‘We’ve never had it so good’ era of Macmillan. Money was made to go a long way in those days and old habits die hard …

 LF: Finally, tell us about receiving the MBE. It was a well-deserved honour, but what has it done for your spirit, your amour propre? Has it reinforced your conviction that what you are doing is immensely worthwhile and your determination to go on doing it? I, for one, hope so.

 PO: The award of the MBE took me by surprise.  I was still shaking over twenty four hours after I’d read the letter. I can honestly say it made me feel tremendously humble that anyone thought my efforts were worth rewarding in this way, and very proud for poetry.  So thank you to all my friends, the supporters of the magazine and the Festival, above all to the poets who have allowed me to print their work for many years without any payment and who come to the Festival to enjoy poetry not for a cash reward.  I feel it is their MBE just as much as mine:  it is for POETRY.