”Ambit’s mission is to seek out emerging talent. The magazine is split into three sections: poetry, fiction (including flash fiction) and art, and there are three editorial teams that work on each section, interfacing where appropriate.” Ambit magazine, founded in 1959, has given a voice to many known and emerging artists by publishing short fiction, poetry and artwork. With the launch of their 221st issue, Ambit continues to be a refreshing experimental media for those wanting to find inspiration through an independent voice. Interview with editor Briony Bax.
Can you tell us more about your magazine?
Dr. Martin Bax founded Ambit Magazine in 1959 in London. Martin’s inspiration was the writer John Middleton Murray, who ran a magazine from 1910 called Rhythm and whose contributors included Katherine Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence, with visuals contributed by Picasso and Miro. The first Ambit was set on a Variotyper machine. As an eminent pediatrician, Martin published huge medical tomes at the Lavenham Press and so they were always willing to extend a little credit on the printing bill when necessary, an essential for a small literary arts magazine. Over the years, Ambit has published many well know names. J.G. Ballard was the fiction editor for a while. Peter Porter, Carol Anne Duffy, Ralph Steadman, David Hockney have all made appearances, mostly at the beginnings of their careers. Mike Foreman was the art editor until he retired last year.
Ambit has always had an independent voice. It seeks out new work and refuses to conform. Courage, persistence and passion are at the heart of this quarterly printed journal.
Ambit’s mission is to seek out emerging talent. The magazine is split into three sections: poetry, fiction (including flash fiction) and art, and there are three editorial teams that work on each section, interfacing where appropriate.
In the past couple of years, we have taken the magazine to a purely virtual editorial platform, where each editor works online using Submittable, although we meet once a month to debate face-to-face the final content. We accept about 1.5% of submissions and we look for work that is focused and goes deeply into the subject matter, which surprises us, and avoids the all too tempting clichés. We invite submissions from everywhere and all kinds of people – our job is to craft a magazine that entices you to step out of your crammed life and discover the Ambiteers (our affectionate nickname for our contributors). Some things you’ll love, some things you’ll hate, but we want you to feel something!
Many of our editorial staff are receiving some great recognition: Liz Berry, co-poetry editor, has been nominated for a Forward Prize, Declan Ryan, another co-poetry editor, is a Faber New Poet for 2014 and Gary Budden, who is on the fiction team, is having great success at Influx Press which he co-founded. Kate Pemberto,n who ran Ambit for 12 years, has returned as fiction editor so it is great to have a historical perspective in the mix.
Tell us about yourself:
I have had a very varied career and have moved around quite a bit. I was born in London and originally trained as an actress but ended up running my own small business. I then moved to America with my husband and lived there for 25 years, mainly working in non-profits in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. In 2007 I founded The Orphan Support League charity that works in Kenya and sit on the Boards of Mji wa Neema, The Poetry Book Society and Theatre Ad Infinitum. Throughout my life, I have been writing and 10 years ago, Ambit began publishing my poems. I was approached about three years ago by Dr. Martin Bax’s son Tim, who asked if I would be interested in taking Ambit forward, following the retirement of Martin on his 80th birthday. Given my background, Tim thought I might have the right brain/left brain skills necessary. It was good timing, as I was just moving back to the UK from America.
I decided to start shadowing Dr. Martin to see how Ambit worked. What an experience it was having Martin as a mentor. I loved every minute of it and after many discussions, dinners and bottles of red wine, Martin and his wife Judy both agreed that they wanted Ambit to continue and they would like me to lead it. Since then it has been very busy. We’ve updated all the systems, obtained charitable status for Ambit, formed a Board, moved the office to North Norfolk and recruited some new editors. We’ve added a new visual arts section and introduced a limited edition poster created for editions 214-217. I’ve just completed my first full year as editor and find myself a cross between a head teacher keeping young artists, writers and poets on track and a scrappy entrepreneur watching every penny and constantly thinking about moving the printed product forward in a digital age. It certainly is labour of love.
Luckily, a great Board of Trustees supports me and our editorial team is committed, creative and flexible about their work. Many people think I’m the daughter of Dr. Martin Bax but I’m actually a Bax by marriage. My father was the poet Adrian Mitchell who died in 2008 and I feel that he is somehow looking over my shoulder and smiling.
Why choose print? What kind of paper you use and why?
Ambit has always been a print magazine and hasn’t missed a quarter since it was started. The current typography and layout was designed by John Morgan Studios in London. When I took over Ambit last year, starting at 214, we kept the typeface Linotype’s Univers but we changed the paper to be slightly whiter on 130gsm matt and started to print every edition in full colour. Mike Smith is our digital and production editor, and he uses InDesign. The art editors Olivia Bax and Jean-Philippe Dordolo design the art pages and submit them completely intact to Mike. Jean-Philippe designs all our covers and we meet at Lavenham Press in Suffolk each quarter to review the final galleys and adjust colours. Lavenham have been printing and distributing Ambit since 1959. Of course, we are in discussions of how best to deliver a digital product but we are committed to print and digital will be an add-on rather than a replacement. My vision is for you to receive Ambit any way you like it!
How’s the public response?
Excellent so far. There has been a radical shift in the magazine in the past year, but people seem to be responding – in fact our issue 215 sold out! Our events in London have been attracting a good crowd. We hold them in the basement of a pub in Soho and are creating community around them so all the poets, writers and artists can stay at the bar until late rather than having to disband after the readings are over. I think that printing established artists and writers but also demonstrating that we are open to publishing completely new work is refreshing to many people. Examples of new voices that we just couldn’t resist are 15 year-old poet Joseph Davison-Duddles in Ambit 217, and writer Jack Westlake who had the lead story in Ambit 214.
Business: Good print mags get a lot of love, but it’s not always translated into sales or advertising. How are the sales? Advertising-wise, is it a normal approach of selling an ad page or more a brand ad approach?
Sales are increasing and we are aggressively chasing subscriptions. We have started a Friends and Angels scheme that has been very popular with supporters donating to our Ambit charity and this allows us to claim Gift Aid. We have sponsors in each issue, mainly writing courses, our printer, or writers wishing to advertise their books. Penn State University buys our archive. So adding this all together we just about manage to pay the bills.
Digitalization is on our mind and we’ll be discussing this at our editorial retreat in September. In issue 218, we are launching a new digital sphere art piece. We’ve started appearing at festivals, facilitating “Writer’s Workouts” and “How to get published” panels. This has been very successful, as many people attending literary festivals actually want to start writing themselves. We are staging an Ambit Covers Art Exhibition with Kate Pemberton at the Karamel Factory in Haringey, launching on October 2nd with a Vanguard Reading and then in discussions about an Ambit event around issue 218 in New York in November. We are constantly planning New Voices events that give new writers and poets a chance to read their work in public. I’m also appearing on a panel at AWP in Minneapolis in April 2015. So essentially, Ambit never sleeps.