The little magazine that could – Dave Kavanagh looks at the birth of The Blue Nib

I conceived of The Blue Nib in 2015; I wanted to offer aspiring poets a fresh platform for new work and I wanted it to be something special. I went in search of a formula; I searched the web for magazines and E-zines. During my research I found three types of poetry websites. There were those peer review sites that writers or aspiring writers paid to be members of and on which they might share and critique each other’s work. I knew this was not what I wanted to create.

The second group were the poetry journals of individuals who were often poets, or aspiring poets themselves, and who published the work of fellow aspiring poets and created a community of a type. Some of these were excellent while others were mediocre. Some were slick and others were not, the content often chosen with little or no evidence of an editor’s critical eye. The final category were the professionally built sites that offered payment and published only the work of already established poets.

I considered a serious question at this stage. Did the world need another poetry literary webzine? I am stubborn by nature and once set on a course I pursue it. So, I set about creating the first incarnation of The Blue Nib. I built the site with the help of a friend. I contacted those I knew who might submit; I scavenged housekeeping funds to scrape together the money to launch in the summer of 2015. The results were predictable. We failed. We offered a slick enough platform, and we received submissions, we even launched a contest, but despite our best efforts The Blue Nib was another aspiring poets’ journal and doomed from the get-go. Our audience comprised our contributors and ourselves, site visit numbers were small and instead of growing they were shrinking. Within six months we were not only floundering, we were dead in the water. By Christmas 2015 The Blue Nib was no more.

The story might have ended there. However, the sense I had failed in what should have been a simple enough endeavour continued to prod and poke at the back of my otherwise busy mind. This internalised postmortem of my failure continued forcing me to confront the errors made and the roads taken and not taken until I realised I had ignored my original question. Did the world need another literary webzine? 

Like a lemming I came running back to the cliff, knowing I had missed something, that between the peer review poetry sites, the aspiring poet’s journals and the high end, well-financed magazines something was missing.

I reexamined the market; I peered into the abyss that is the poetry scene on the world wide web, read reams of poetry on the top end sites, all wonderful, inspirational stuff, all written by poets who would never submit to a start-up. So I turned to the lesser sites, the peer review sites and the cheap and cheerful journals, I trawled through the poetry, some awful and some better than average but some wonderful. I realised then what I had missed.

I had tried to provide a well-constructed platform hoping I would attract submissions when what I needed were quality submissions; the platform was almost irrelevant. To succeed, I needed those better-than-average writers, those voices that did not yet have a strong platform for their work. The Blue Nib needed to be a stage for the emerging voices, writers that had not yet gained access to the upper tiers, but who were headed that way. I needed to attract the rising stars while they were still within my reach.

I approached some of these writers; I begged and I cajoled until I extracted commitments from them to at least consider submitting. With this half promise and with foolish enthusiasm I planned the relaunch of the magazine as a platform for emerging poets. I again raided the housekeeping to finance a pre-launch campaign. I blitzed social media with information and wrote to poets I half knew or knew through online transactions and I set a date.

The Blue Nib in its current incarnation released the first issue on the 12th June 2017. It contained only 8 articles, 6 of which I wrote myself. It had a decent poetry page with work by some poets I had cajoled into submitting and work by others that had, as if by magic, shown up in my submissions folder. I am thankful to both Alfred Booth and Michael Griffith who both contributed work to that first issue, and who have supported The Nib from the outset. In that first issue our featured poet was Iris Orpi (Iris Price) a poet born in the Philippines and now living in Chicago. Iris has since achieved much in the world of the creative arts and it is gratifying to know we have in some small way contributed to that.

Issue 2 came a week later, and it was an improvement. It contained 9 articles, only 4 of which I had to author myself. We had 4 pages of good poetry, again, some from poets I had cajoled into submitting and a few unexpected surprises. In the issue we featured the work of Lincolnshire poet, Shirley Bell.

Shirley impressed me and after a brief exchange of emails she agreed to come on board as editor of the Blue Nib. We still scrabbled for quality content with some issues having limited amounts of poetry but the single constant was quality, we were attracting good poets and not only those I had bullied into submitting. Our audience was growing and our readership was not only coming from contributors but from elsewhere. We were headed in the right direction.

By Issue 4 Irish poets had noticed us. Our Issue 4 featured poet was the wonderful Irish writer Anne McMaster. I will forever be grateful to her for being brave enough to submit to a little-known webzine.  Anne to a great extent opened the floodgates of Irish talent and the submissions from Ireland have continually been consistent in both number and quality. To date, we have featured work by other well known Irish poets such as Therese Kieran, Linda McKenna, Seanín Hughes, Lorraine Carey, Geraldine O’Kane, Steven Byrne and Kate Ennals to name but a few.

By September 2017 we felt The Nib had grown enough for us to consider launching a contest. However, we didn’t want it to be another meaningless poetry competition judged by ourselves with a small cash prize. We wanted to offer something worthwhile.

I suggested finding a guest judge with enough kudos to add weight and authority to the panel. Shirley had studied under the lecturer, poet and fellow of the RSA, Michael Blackburn and approached him to be our guest judge, and to our delight he agreed. The winners of the first chapbook contest were all debutantes, so it was a particular joy for us to be the first to publish in print, work by Derek Kannemeyer, Jackie Gorman and Christopher Meehan.

Our second contest attracted an even larger number of entries with our guest judge, Kevin Higgins selecting three female poets as the winners. The overall winner was debutante Anne Walsh Donnelly of whom Kevin Higgins said “(The winner) is a poet of exceptional bravery, a pretty sensational original voice. I hope the poetry world doesn’t tame her, though no doubt it will try.” The runner-ups were again debutantes, Akshaya Pawaskar and Bobby Sparrow. Their work features in Chapbook 2 which is launched in this issue.

Chapbook Contest 3 is now closed and the entries will soon wing their way to our Guest Judge, Scottish Poet and editor of Southlight, Vivien Jones. This round of the contest received the greatest number of entries to date and the quality of poetry has been exceptional. We look forward to announcing both the winners of round 3 and the details of round 4 in our new look Print & Online format in September 2018.

Yes… I did say ‘New Look, Print & Online Issue’. There are changes afoot, read more about them in my second piece in this issue.

Thank you all for being here, and for your support as readers and contributors to the magazine

Dave Kavanagh.

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