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The first issue of Snakeskin appeared in December 1995. With the current issue, therefore, we celebrate our twentieth anniversary. I thought of marking it by writing something about the origins of the zine, but then remembered that I had already done this, with some help from Helena Nelson, when she interviewed me for her (excellent and fondly-remembered ) magazine Sphinx, back in 2009. It was the last of a series of interviews with editors - and the only one that Helena decided would be best conducted in rhyming couplets. It struck me that many Snakeskin readers would never have seen the Sphinx interview - so here it is:

Helena Nelson 
Helena:
Let observation with extensive view,
Survey the web, from Poetry Kit to you,
Remark each early gamble, each wild bet
On poetry’s future on the internet,
Each ezine, webzine, every hypertext.
O what has happened? What will happen next?
Then say what hope, what strange ambition burned
When first, O Simmers, thou to Snakeskin turned?
And whence the title—now renowned, but then
A novelty to pixels and to men?

George
George:

Well blimey, Nell, but you’ve gone all Johnsonian!
Should I reply in kind, I’d feel a phoney ’un.
If we’re to keep this conversation up, let’s
Go for slightly less heroic couplets.

Way back in ninety-five, I was a nerd,
Much taken with computers, when the word
Seeped through about this thing, this Net, this Web.
I bought a modem, felt my spirits ebb
While struggling to connect it, then — success!
I felt like Keat’s Cortez when the mess
And splendour of the baby Internet
Was bit by bit by oddball bit revealed. It let
(Until the modem crashed again) me see
A world where thought flew fast and words were free.
This nerd was both excited and enchanted
By what today’s YouTubers take for granted.
My ISP doled out a hundred K
Of server space to work with, or to play.
Homepages were the thing then, to post pix
Of wife and kids, and doggie doing tricks.
Sod that, I muttered, but I could do worse
Than starting up a webzine of new verse.

Nell:
So that’s the story! Logically, I think,
You saw the opportunity to link
Your versifying interests and the new
Ethereal outlet. Yep. But why did you
Choose Snakeskin for a title? And (come clean)
Why were your fellow eds so rarely seen?

George:
I’d sort of reckoned mags got extra credit
If a committee was brought in to edit.
It therefore seemed like commonsense to ask
Some slightly virtual friends to join the task.
So that’s how Wayne and Linda were recruited
And they turned out to be ideally suited.
We never disagreed, they never whinged;
Unlike some poets, they were not unhinged.
Their judgments harmonised. Their taste was sound.
Our working title?  404—Not Found
After an error message that was seen
With dreary frequency upon my screen.
But as I drifted off to sleep one night
Up bubbled the word—Snakeskin. That seemed right,
Clear, memorable, and a tad obscure.
I little thought how long it would endure.

Nell:
Well quite. But what a task you undertook
Every single month! Ready, Steady, Cook
Goes slowly in comparison to you.
With poem after poem coming through
The pressure must have mounted. Could it be
That somehow triple personality
Helped? Lovely Linda, feisty heroine—
Your female side? But where did Wayne fit in?
I know your masthead was Carvosso’s Credo
But after that, did Wayne not—well—recedo?

George:
Linda’s a formalist. For her, a word
Is just a token that helps make absurd
(Perhaps) but interesting patterns. She
Explores the pointless possibility
Of programmed verse and verbal acrobatics.
Her ideal’s a poetic mathematics.
But if she’s cold and formal, Wayne’s romantic.
He dreams he’s William Blake, and turns quite frantic
When he meets verse that seems too dull or cosy.
He yells, like Hamlet did, What’s this, a posy
For a ring? He bares ferocious teeth
And thinks most verse submitted quite beneath
His fierce contempt. I, as you’ve doubtless guessed,
Am calm and gentle, always in the best
Of happy tempers. I should be content
To publish all the nice and nicely meant
Submissions that arrive—yes, even those
That state the obvious in chopped-up prose.
But Linda grunts, No form. Wayne snarls, No guts.
They override my kindly ifs and buts—
The poem’s out, despite my What a shame!
It’s useful to have colleagues you can blame.
No, Wayne’s not been around so much of late.
But he’ll be here when needed—just you wait.

Nell:
That’s fair enough. But let us—could we—next
Discuss the dodgy stuff, the hypertext
That Crespi has such fun with? Do you feel
Technology has over-egged the zeal
Of hyper-this and and jumpy-Java-that?
Do we require a speedy caveat
Before the art’s defeated by such games,
Shot down (on bulletin boards) by ready flames?

George:
Like it or like it not, we’re in an age
Where poetry is moving off the page
And onto screens. An online magazine
That’s any good must ask, What can the screen
Add to a poet’s repertoire? I think
The answer has to be the hyperlink
That lets us make our own zig-zag progression
From page to page, digression to digression
In free, unchecked exploratory trek.
(Read Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck
Which makes impressive claims for an aesthetic
Of the non-linear peripatetic.)
Here’s what makes hyperpoetry exciting—
A poem becomes not just some bloke reciting
Some of his thoughts or feelings. It’s a maze
Through which all readers thread their various ways.
The poem gains a new dimension thus—
It’s not one line from start to terminus,
Its model’s neither song, nor film, nor lecture.
No—hypertext resembles architecture.
Within it, each new reader’s free to wander,
To see the sights, and maybe pause to ponder.
Not nagged on by one bossy author’s voice,
He picks his own way, making choice and choice.
Well, that’s the theory—though the awkward fact is
Such things are rather hard to do in practice.
Still, long ago, in Snakeskin’s younger days,
Ken Payne and I produced one monstrous maze
Which had an intricate postmodern schema
Of mirrors, horrors, and ottava rima.

More recently we haven’t done so much
In that line—but we might, so keep in touch.

Nell:
I’d like to try that—but ottava rima?
Rhyme, I fear, is something that can seem a
Trifle archaic—less like avant garde
Than Patience waxing Strong on flowr’y card.
Your essay on the matter is well-planned
With every line both rhyming and—well—scanned,
And some of your Snakeskin poets do do rhyme
Though more do not. So isn’t this the time
When fortune’s tide in the affairs of men
Is flooding every poet, every pen,
With verse so free that rhyming is passé
To give in gracefully? What do you say?

George:
You’re saying this to get me riled! Well, yes,
I know some poets view rhyme with distress;
I dislike rhyme, they say in tones judicial.
It makes the poem seem so artificial.
I can’t help wondering why they are afraid
Of evidence that poems are things made,
Not just spontaneous feelings pouring out
From souls a-bubbling with the urge to spout.
I’d say that deepest thoughts and passion’s storms
Get best expression when strict formal norms
Are challenged by the fierce and bracing strain
Of meanings they can only just contain.
Rhyme isn’t sacred—just one good technique;
Strong rhyming means the poem won’t be weak.
(Let me make clear, though, that unrhymed submissions
Have found a place in most Snakeskin editions.
I don’t reject them with affronted curse;
They’re fine by me. I like my verse diverse.)

Nell:
As diverse as E-chapbooks?—on display
Each issue on your website. Would you say
They are the future? Are we going to see
A world of downloads—publications free
And printable at will? Good Lord (she gulped),
Will all the paper pamphlets soon be pulped?

George:
The average reader of the Sphinx, methinks,
Loves books of all varieties, and shrinks
From thoughts of bookless futures. I agree.
I love books too, but Net technology
Is what helps poetry in Snakeskin get
To places Faber, Salt and Carcanet
Send damn few volumes. Down the wire
Go verses that may please, tease or inspire,
An operation simple, quick and cheap.
The final consequences may be deep
But I’ve a hunch that paper will survive—
Though if it doesn’t, poems still can thrive.

Nell:
Yes, I agree. Their prospects aren’t yet zero.
Thank you, dear poet, editor—and hero.


Sphinx 10, 2009

sphinx

If you have any comments on this interview,  George Simmers and/or Helena Nelson would be pleased to hear from you.

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