Kirsty Allison, Ambit
Arts/literary quarterly Ambit has followed a unique course since 1959, its mix of writing, poetry and art summed up by a list of editors that has included JG Ballard, Carol Ann-Duffy and Eduardo Paolozzi.
The latest addition to that list is Kirsty Allison. As well as writing poetry and prose—her name first appeared in Ambit in 2007, and her debut novel ‘Psychomachia’ has just been published—Kirsty sings as part of Vagrant Lovers. As she shares her week ahead, she discusses the role of editor and her plans for Ambit.
Photography by Martin Goodacre
What are you up to this morning?
It’s 5.30 am. I’m cranking up the fire, splashing my tongue with vit-D drops and chasing that with a Carajillo, shouting at the radio, and moving into the room which is fast becoming a library, putting on a record.
I’ve done an hour of yoga. I have a budget meeting at 10am, online with our Norfolk HQ, so am currently racking up the poetry submissions we’ve had for Ambit 246 which drops at the end of February. I’m sharing them with trusted poets, getting their feedback and we'll discuss choices this time next week. I’m finding my way as editor, deciding who I want to work with, so I’m sounding it out with people I like and trust.
We’ll see what I agree with and learn most from. As editor, there are three key components: vision, delegation and listening.
Describe your desk and your work space
I hauled this beauty back from finding it in my path once in Bethnal Green Road another lifetime ago. For some reason, likely that I am a writer, the desk has been consistent. It’s solid. I sit on a yellow velvet chair.
To my right I have a door looking out to my Peckham yard, which is wintering painfully, although the roses still continue to try to be roses regardless. I am surrounded by a wall of paintings and a massive screen that bounces two computers in and out of it.
Behind me, sweet Zoom world; a mirror with bulbs around it, reflecting my desk and the paintings, tambourines and leads hanging, a room-length shelf with the full reference collection of Ambit, a Technics harmonium, a vocal mic—a clear lack of time to style the room any better.
But now the phone’s ringing, so I’m moving to my chair in the corner of what becomes more of a library every day. It’s the general Ambit war room, with a production planner that we really should pay attention to. There are Ambits everywhere.
In my vintage medicine cabinets, envelopes, our beautiful stationary, stickers, bookmarks—there’s a Stanley Donwood print we still have a few copies left of. And just so much legacy. I need an Ambit wing.
My assistant is isolating with Covid, so I may recline on the sofa that he usually works from, if it all gets too much. I keep in regular contact with Briony Bax, who edited Ambit for seven years, and has the best advice.
The current issue is Kate Pemberton’s last one as Fiction Editor, and she’s been with the magazine since the 90s, working at the North London’ kitchen table which used to receive postcards from William Burroughs holidaying in Morocco. She's been an amazing coach, and knows our history inside out. I’ve also been blessed with Illustration Editor, Dr Mireille Fauchon, who began as an intern. I have a brilliant board whose experience is phenomenal.
Ambit’s a huge machine, I’m currently finding the best way to run it, and with Alex Abery on finance and subscriptions, and Stephen Barrett, the designer, we’re the core, and much of it is online, as we are all littered around the place, and we’re in plague times. But the main archive is in Norfolk, and editors are scattered. I have partners like London Fields Brewery and Soho Radio.
Which magazine do you first remember?
My Dad’s electronic magazines, and The Beano.
Which magazine matters to you the most this morning?
I like what Doesn’t Exist does, there’s a looseness to it, but it’s still structured. I feel that definitely influenced how we showcased Lucy Gray’s first prize-winning artwork in the current Ambit (245). She’s worked with Tilda Swinton (which I only found out interviewing her after she’d won the prize money), and Gray’s practice is quite anti-fashion, but visual grammar is so conditioned, it’s easy to read her work through a jaunty fashion lens.
I have a copy of Beauty Papers close. Ian F. Svenonius’s Cellophane Flag. Picked up a Morocco Bound Review last week. My shelves hold cuttings from many years’ writing about subculture, and across the media. I have many zines, projects I’ve produced as Cold Lips, and I still like the gloss of World of Interiors, Vogue, and publications that I’ve contributed to, such as Mu, where I’m just resigning from, as I don’t have the time to review books there currently. I remember the days before Ambit, when I had time to read London Review of Books. Now it stacks up in a pile of LRB guilt with other subscriptions.
Describe Ambit in three words.
Poems. Stories. Art.
Or in more words: The most stolen magazine from Harvard Library. I like that one. We put it on a comp slip with art by Wayne Horse.
The magazine has an amazing history—published since 1959, always printed by the same printer. How does the current issue 245 differ from issue 001? Lavenham Press, our printers, possibly have more to do with our legacy than you may expect. Paper’s a luxury, and Ambit is a tribute to print. We are creating something that sits in libraries as an artifact that expands on the times through art and literature.
A key part of Ambit, that curator and author David Brittain alerted me to, is that Ambit ages better than many of the zine contemporaries that come and go—and that is largely due to the quality of it all. Ambit’s a cult British publication, and also an institution of its own merit.
In 245 we take on board Ambit’s rich legacy, and the content is modern, as it always is at the time. I want to explore the archive thoroughly. 245 is really stripped-down looking, but uses two paper types with colour inserts.
The content does dictate how we work. I initially wanted to do an insert publication of Lucy Gray’s work, as it happens to be 32 pages of colour, but we’re independent and it’s good to work within some constraints rather than going holographic on every page. Words can do that. Black and white is potent.
I don’t want to be flash in the footsteps of all the contributors who have created Ambit since it was founded by Dr Martin Bax, and continued by Briony Bax from 2013 to 244. Briony set Ambit up as a charity and began the friends and angels scheme.
She also started the annual competition, which had only run previously in the 200th edition, encouraged by Kate Pemberton, and the infamous 1968 contest asking for work written on drugs, leading us to be banned and called out in parliament for being ‘disgusting… the product of a twisted mind… a most dangerous publication’. So yeah, we had a bit of a pause on the idea of ‘winners’ after that.
Issue 245 showcases the winners of the 2021 competition for work around the subject of Metamorphosis, which for the first time opened across the Poems, Stories and Art disciplines. Ambit has always strived to provide ladders into literature and art.
The work is by the voices of tomorrow, but I’m also grateful to see that people who have a longstanding relationship with Ambit enter the competition. To balance that, I did features with the heroine and hero of the issue, the judges, Kim Addonizio and Michael Salu. I will likely do more of this, given my background in glamorising others, but I do want the work to speak first, and allow the enigma of the creators to exist, rather than some sort of fetid lifestyle sub-celebrity index.
One of the consistencies in Ambit is the contributor biogs, which I remember reading, growing up into being a fiction writer, as clues into the mysterious world of literature.
The issue is also the first ever competition-dedicated issue, with both the winners and the many commended entrants featured, and therefore, it’s far larger than we planned (up from 48 to 80 pages) because the commended work was so good, we published all of it, rather than put one piece above another.
Over coming issues I’ll go harder on content, commissioning, and inviting people I respect to get involved, to bring up the newer names - but again, the work comes first, people may have been published in Ambit before, but that never ensures everything they send will be.
Design has also been a key part of Ambit. How does the process work with Stephen Barrett?
I am beyond grateful to Illustration Editor, Dr Mireille Fauchon for inviting Stephen to get on board. He is an absolute deity of typography, can spot a double space from ten miles away. We started working together a year ago, and we’ve both learnt a huge amount, and that thing of finding out how we work best together. He’s fastidious, and I’m pretty tight, so we’re now getting to the point where it’ll go jazz. Which is great, because Dr Martin Bax was all about jazz.
Stephen and I meet in person each issue, but the first time that happened, it was live on the Ambit Radio Show X Soho Radio, post-lockdown. We work very hard, he’s absolutely world-class, we like grammar battles, house style being ordered. I’m letting him get on with what he’s good at, but he takes on suggestions, and that is the creative process.
I find myself fiercely protective to people I like and respect. I really enjoy doing the page edits. And we do those sharing a screen. We have epic online discussions.
Earlier this year I was happy when he said yes to designing my debut novel, ‘Psychomachia’, and the posters, and I like that synergy of collaboration between projects; it also helped expand our own understanding of each other’s design culture, but equally resonates back to Mike Foreman, who art directed Ambit for 50 years, designing so many book covers for past editors, such as JG Ballard and Martin Bax.
How does the process of commissioning/ accepting submissions work?
Traditionally Ambit has always given 30 pages to each discipline: Poems, Stories and Art.
Art has never come in unsolicited, but almost all of the poetry and fiction has. The poetry world is an institution I’ve rebelled against for many years, but am now confronted with—voting on the Forward Prize and such like, so we’re in very complex times of publishing and gatekeeping, and with what the main houses are choosing what to infect the culture with, so there are many politics, and gangs, and I don’t care for any of it. I just want great writing—and that means giving conscious foresight to identity politics whilst not being swayed by metadata before the quality of the work, and also respecting the elder poets, not just the new guns slinging their words around like weapons.
I’m messing with the format by returning more to illustrations falling on the same pages as the work, as I like the idea of interdisciplinary explanations, so that’s what we’re commissioning currently.
Issue 246 will be different. But what I love about 245 is it looks like Ambit inherently, through the typography Stephen’s selected.
Some of the most inspiring work of past Ambits for me is the ‘Invisible Years’ strand, where JG Ballard worked with Ron Sandford, Martin, Mike Foreman, and they created what were graphic story artworks that would run next to Paolozzi’s art. Amazing. Groundbreaking and classic.
The visual remains a calming space to break up the intensity of what we have inherited from the format of John Morgan, who built on the work of Derek Birdsall and Alan Kitching. I’m very excited for the visual future of Ambit. And if it all goes to plan, it’s a while ’til I’ll be commissioning fiction, a fiction editor, or starting the open calls for that—but that’ll be rad, f’sure.
Tell us more about new Pop issues.
When I came on board there was a discussion about print being dead and maybe we should cut it down from being a quarterly to being a biannual. That was an option, but one of the first things I asked for was a full set of back-issues.
Ambit 1-12 were saddle-stitched in a beatnik style, when Martin was pulling scraps out of the bins from other jobs at Lavenham Press, and using offcuts. It continued to be stapled right through to Ambit 65 (1976), although many of those covers are iconic, publishing the first works of Hockney, Ralph Steadman et al, often with two-tone covers, sometimes photos - it’s so rich.
I felt that Ambit had survived as a quarterly since 1959, and despite there being more competition now than ever with the advent of digital printing and Adobe, there was nothing to stop us continuing putting out four a year, but maybe make two of those issues skinnier.
So that birthed Pops, aside a conversation with poet and PR-maverick Sarah Lowe, where we discussed guest editors putting their own spin on Ambit. I also wanted to continue giving platform to new writers, as Ambit has been doing forever, but wanted to give new generations more established names to be published alongside.
Caleb Femi was published by us early, Gboyega Odubanjo, Deborah Levy, Stevie Smith, Toby Litt and Carol Ann-Duffy, but they weren’t known when we first did that, and there are many examples of this—so I wanted to offer what JG Ballard, Paolozzi, Geoff Nicholson did when they were editing, which attracted people like William S. Burroughs, Linton Kwesi Johnson, so yes, I feel there’s got to be some wider names to pull up the new—beyond the old school whom we all respect.
I asked Lias Saoudi of Fat White Family to be the guest editor of the first Pop, 243 (above), and it’s iconic, legendary, and sets the bar high, with some of my favourite writers and artists. And it’s saddle-stitched like the early editions. We doubled subscriptions thanks to this.
We initially planned to do two Pops a year, with one guest-edited—people taking the spirit of Ambit with their own commissions from their world, of Poems, Stories and Art, and the other to be about the competition - we’ll see if it works out quite like that next year! The board do encourage me not to get too bound in form, and to play. At the moment, I’m just finding my feet with the quarterlies, that’s really what Ambit is—but we’re offering a beautifully designed book by John Morgan Studio for new Christmas subscriptions. It will all develop editorially.
What are you most looking forward to this coming week?
Dining in fine company, writing, recording, rehearsing, meeting up with Ambit fam, Mireille, Kate, Stephen, and wetting his new baby’s head. I want to plan an Ambit tour for next year.
The best thing about Ambit is giving people the validation that it offered me when I was first published, and it’s great to be shaping that, pulling in new fam. It’s really difficult to get in, it’s 2-3% from the submissions—but that means we’re finding very promising work.
The next show by Vagrant Lovers is at Lion Coffee and Records in Clapton, London, on December 10th
Subscribe to Kirsty’s Substack.