It’s personal.

If you send poems to someone you hope might publish them, it’s not a business transaction. It’s not professional, no matter how professionally you go about the task.



There may be no response. Manuscripts are returned (though not by me) with nothing but a standard slip. Even that feels (though it is not) personal.

Your poems matter. If you write something and you call it a ‘poem’, that’s tantamount to saying the words matter to you more than ordinarily.

So if the person you send it to, reads the poem and replies, it’s a relationship. The reader has responded to a communication you didn’t make lightly. And whatever poems are, they are communications, and a communication is incomplete without a response, preferably while the writer is still alive.

But hell, it’s a difficult relationship. The response is delayed, and it’s probably not what the writer hoped for. It often shows the communication didn’t ‘work’.

Or the response may be heart-warming. A sense of something understood at least partially. An echo in the darkness.

And yet (although I regularly tell poets to be wary of the word ‘yet’, especially towards the end of poems) all this is muddied by the business of publishing. The publishing thing gets in the way. The person on the other end, the publishing person who is in this case me, has a kind of power they have taken on themselves. They can say, ‘yes I would like to publish some of your poems’ or ‘no, I am really too busy just now.’

When I was a child, and then a young person, and wrote poems readily, I always took my creations to my mother. The writing, when I was in its thrall, was all-consuming. But once that intensity had passed and I thought the poem was finished, I was absolutely desperate for her to read it.

I would rush to her with my poem, which seemed to me more important than anything else in the world. She was invariably too busy. She was up to the elbows in flour, or pinning washing on the line, or writing an important letter, or drawing up a shopping list. She would put it away for later. Sometimes ‘later’ was days away.

I wonder whether she was really all that busy. Perhaps my demand was too intense. It’s hard to read and respond when a little face is scrutinizing you and waiting, waiting, waiting for the reaction.

She did always read them in the end, bless her, though sometimes she must have been sorely taxed by their contents. But her gentle response, when it came, couldn’t match the intensity with which I’d brought my offering.

Poems are intense. They turn on themselves like endless circles. When you get to the end, you’re directed right back to the beginning. They are the inside of a person opened out, whether or not that’s what they look like. I know this, even when I write comments about syntax and semi-colons, and metaphors that might be pruned.

When I read yours, a lot hinges on one particular thing. Does the poem bite? The ones I like do. They get their little teeth in and won’t let go.

If I think there’s an energy in the poem that could be better harnessed, I try to explain how that might happen. But I’m not your mother, and I don’t know, not really.

And the relationship is not how it seems. It is more equal than you think. I am on your side. Most of the time, I am just another poet waiting for a poem worth writing. All the power I have as a publisher is notional. Anyone can start publishing.

We are both weaklings in the face of this thing we call poetry. I’m reading your submissions in the hope you’ll explain it to me.

But only till Tuesday, when the window shuts. If it doesn’t shut, I don’t have time to do any of the other things, and the washing, the baking, the cleaning and the ironing are waiting. And I have a few dozen letters to write.

Now dear, as my mother would have said, do go and read Anthony Wilson on why and how poetry is good for you. This impulse to write it isn’t anything to do with getting published. It’s about the truth and insight and energy and healing in the process. And taking part in that is a marvellous thing.

Stuff publishing.




About eighty have arrived so far. The postie is no longer surprised by the weight of our mail.

Cue nostalgia trip. Do you remember when students did the Christmas post?

In December our regular postman disappeared (there were no postwomen in our town, if anywhere). Students were back from University and they staggered down the streets (in the snow) bearing huge sacks of Christmas mail. We would lie in wait for them, eye them up, wonder how they managed to carry the huge load. We heard they were highly paid, they couldn’t wait to get home to take on the job, from which they quickly became rich. They were people’s older brothers or sons of friends of my mother’s: exotic strangers, former children who had shot into the glory of paid adulthood.

There wasn’t just one delivery a day either. There were at least two as standard. Parcels came tied up with string. You needed scissors to open them. But in any case you weren’t allowed to open them, and you didn’t.

On the Sunday before Christmas there was an extra delivery. We were supposed to offer the postman a mince pie. Those students must have had to trudge back to the sorting office for each load because none of them then had cars and the load was too heavy for a bike. That was when work was work and a letter never arrived lightly.


Back to the submissions, which slide through the door with never a whimper, except the ones that are sent recorded delivery or signed for, a horrible thing when you’re in the shower and the postman knows you’re there because the downstairs light is on.

Three kinds of mail arrive here at the moment. Submissions, Christmas cards, and orders (yeay!). Just occasionally there is a letter – I mean a personal letter. I like letters and although it’s getting increasingly difficult to do it, I like replying to them.

So I log the submissions in my big book, and number them and, as you know, read the covering letter. I read at least one set of poems a day but I’m behind now because Christmas is getting more insistent. Last week, someone (she knows who she is) sent me a letter in the form of my own checklist from last week, with answers on each of the points. It made me laugh for joy. Someone reads this! The loneliness of the long-distance blogger is exaggerated.

So yes, there’s another internal checklist for the poems themselves. And many of them arrive beautifully and clearly wordprocessed and a pleasure to read. Name and address on every sheet. Sometimes on gloriously expensive paper too (this is absolutely not necessary but nice all the same). Such arrivals tick, as they say, every box. But others . . .


On the submission page on the website, it suggests “A4 envelopes are best, so the poems don’t have a deep fold down the middle”. Also “please don’t staple or bind”.

People do staple, bind and fold. I invariably take the staples out and if, in the process, I bleed, it is not good for the poems.

In my list of Do’s and Don’ts, I suggest people word-process poems in a plain font – Calibri or Arial, or Garamond, or Palatino Linotype. Even Times Roman. Something that doesn’t draw attention to itself rather than to the poems”. As for the size of the print, I suggest you “use the size of font you’d expect to find in a book, probably a 12 and on no account bigger than 14.” Size 10 is too small.

Often poets vary the sizes of the fonts from poem to poem. If it’s a long poem, they shrink the font to make it fit inside the page. Some poems shrink so small I have to squint to read them. Others suddenly become huge and I’m disoriented.


Line spacing? Poems in books are usually somewhere between single-spacing and 1.5, depending on the editor/typesetter. There’s enough space between the lines to look nice. But poems are not double spaced, unless the poet is writing in one-line stanzas (this does happen). Prose submissions are traditionally double-spaced but not poems. They need to look like they’re going to look in the book, or roughly. And when some poems are single-spaced and others double, oh oh oh!

Most people send poems on A4 paper, of course, and quite right. It’s what I prefer. However, it does mean the author tends to ‘see’ the poem surrounded by the kind of space A4 allows for. In this context, a lengthy line looks loopingly graceful. You can fit a lot of poem onto an A4 page and still have space to breathe.

But HappenStance pamphlets are A5, and most books are similar. (It’s sometimes worth thinking about this when sending to magazines too – some are A4 in size and can accommodate wide poems beautifully; others are too small to do it easily.) It doesn’t mean you should never send me poems with long lines: it simply means be aware of the difference it makes. Very long lines will end up dog-legged on my pages, and therefore the poem will look different. (When we did Chrissy Williams’ Flying Into The Bear we had to think about this a lot.)

What should you do if your poem runs over more than one page? Of course poems are allowed to do that – they can do just what they like. But often people end the first page at the close of a stanza or line that could represent an actual ending. In this case, I spend ages thinking long and hard about the poem, which has (I think) ended. Only to find, when I’ve written some thoughts and comments, there’s more on the next page. It’s amazing how often, in such a situation, the first ending seems preferable, even though it was never meant to be one.

When I print pamphlets, one of my house rules is to make a two-page poem start on a left hand page so you can see at a glance that it hasn’t ended at the bottom of the page. If it’s a three page poem, so it’s still continuing after page two, I try to finish the page on a line that couldn’t possibly be the end – no full stop – so the reader will naturally turn over to see what happens next.

When it comes to long poems, the easiest thing is just to write at the bottom of the page ‘cont. over’ or ‘page 1 of 2’, or something that makes it dead obvious the end is not nigh.

Should all this matter? No, of course not. The poems should speak for themselves.

It’s just a matter of helping them along.




Well, it’s working. Ten sets arrived yesterday. In for a penny, in for a pound.

That’s 63 in total so far, and we’re only just half way through the month. I log them as they come in and read the covering letters – an interesting process in itself. I work through every tenth submission in detail (at random), and return some comments immediately. That makes me feel I’m making head road.

Because this week, at the same time, I had the personal Christmas cards to do (and some gifts to post), a book launch to organise at the Scottish Poetry library, lots of books to dispatch and some writing (non-poetic) to do as part of a paid task. (Paid tasks are crucial round here, for obvious reasons.)

The older I get, the more I realise how analytical I am. I’m one of these people who watches a film and then has to discuss the way the story was handled.

As I look at the December submissions, each of them sent by people doing what I myself once did, I’m analysing my own response. Unlike the reaction to films, this particular analysis results partly from my unease with the role. I’m not keen on being in a position to inflict joy or woe, though it seems somewhat unavoidable.

What I most want to do is share understanding of this poetry business and how it works. And in order to do that I need to understand it myself. Frequently I’m scratching my head.

But on Friday, I thought I should draw up another checklist. People talk about ‘ticking the boxes’. It’s a common metaphor these days because checkboxes are literally all over the place. I had survey from the Health Board this week. Boxes. And on Ebay, the feedback is checkboxes. When we go to the doctor, she is checking symptom boxes.

I have a number of internalised poetry-letter boxes. Maybe it’s helpful to share them externally. So here are my checkboxes for when I read the covering letter. In the end, the poems speak for themselves, but it would be foolish to pretend that anybody comes to poetry wholly uninfluenced by its trappings, even though the proof of the pudding is in the reading.

For a start, I write this blog every week – firing words into the web and hoping some of them land somewhere. So yes, I wonder whether people sending poems have read this. That’s not my first checkbox but it’s one of them, and it has sub-boxes to it, as well. If the sender hasn’t read this blog ever, could that mean they’re not a web user? Could it mean they’ve never visited the HappenStance website, are not signed up for the newsletter, haven’t read the Do’s and Don’ts and the Guidelines and so on? And if this is true, does that mean this is a poet who doesn’t interact on the web?

If so, that’s significant to me. It is not true that all good poetry readers are active on the internet – far from it – but many of them are. And this medium, these days, is where much poetry is read. When I worked as a college lecturer, if any of my students were asked to find a poem, the web was where they started. Author, title and where is it? They were appalled if it turned out their poem couldn’t be turned up by googling it. I was even more appalled when they could find the poem by googling it. But that’s a topic for another day.

If the person who has sent the poems has read this blog – if that person is reading it at this minute – I’m also aware that what I write here could make them totally neurotic. It shouldn’t. People do stuff ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – so what? It’s a learning process.  This is all a learning process. For me, too.

So here goes. Checkbox alert.

Is this a first submission?   ☐

(Lots of them are third, or fourth approaches, but now that I’m getting so many, sometimes I get names confused, and it’s good to remind me.)

Is the poet’s name familiar to me?

(Ideally, any publisher you approach will have heard of your name before you write to them. They will have seen it in magazines, at least, or met the person at an event. Of course, ideals are one thing and realities are another.)

Is this one of my subscribers?

(These people are important to me. They are the HappenStance support network.)

Do they sound like a real person? 

(Some people get terribly self-conscious and send paragraphs of ‘bio’ or blurb or quotes from people who know them. This doesn’t work for me.)

Have they read this blog?

Have they read (and followed) submission guidelines etc on the website?

Is this personal already active in promoting poetry? 

(Could be a member of a reading group, or a volunteer at a festival, or a regular festival attender, or even just a regular buyer and reader of poetry books.)

Have they chosen HappenStance for a reason? 

(as opposed to because HappenStance is just another attempt to get into print).

Have they read any HappenStance publications? 

(If so, I’m expecting them to say something about that.)

Is the letter written in good, clear English?  ☐

(If the poet writes mangled prose, what will the poetry be like?)

Do they mention publication in magazines I know and like? 

(I have a list of reputable magazines on this site, though I don’t take them all, and I’d better not say which I do subscribe to currently because the others will get upset.)

If the poet is in Scotland, are they placing poems only in Scotland, or across the borders as well? 

Has this poet already had a pamphlet or book published? 

(The majority of HappenStance pamphlets are first publications.)

Where is the poet located? 

(If it’s outside the UK, a little frown. I can give feedback but publication is honestly unlikely. I’ll want to know about their connections inside the UK. Do you know what it costs now to post a pamphlet to Australia?)

After the launch at the Scottish Poetry Library yesterday – a lovely event at which C J (Jonty) Driver, Hamish Whyte and Gerry Cambridge read poems and there was much milling and chatting – it struck me that living poets are a human pyramid. We can be too inclined to think about moving up the pyramid, rather than strengthening our place in it. Poets support and are supported by other poets. Not all readers are poets but all poets are readers.

Sometimes, in my replies to submissions, I talk about building a readership – I point out that poets need a readership because otherwise published work won’t sell. But maybe I give a wrong impression. It’s not so much about building a readership for yourself as about building the readership for poetry. If you’re working at getting poetry out there, sharing your favourite writers and publications, your own work will slip neatly in behind that.

The poetry world is not as exclusive as it sometimes seems. Each poet can have a place in the pyramid, and you never know where it will lead. A lot of fun is to be had, supporting and being supported. Each person is vital. Reading and writing. Working and learning.




You know there’s an ulterior motive, don’t you?

Yes, of course there is. Two, actually.

  1. HappenStance specialises in debut collections, first pamphlets. So I want brilliant ones. That means I am looking, actively, for the best.
  2. I want to build the readership for the poets I publish. There are many ways of doing that, but one is to read and give careful feedback on people’s poems twice a year. I don’t charge for this (no reading fees here) but I hope in return most of those people will either subscribe (and learn more about the press) or buy books.

There are reading ‘windows’ twice a year. One is July and the other is December (i.e. now).

To tell the truth, a bit of me dreads these months. The envelopes flop through the door and look at me reproachfully. I hate disappointing expectations (and some people’s expectations are high). The relationship between a poet and the person they hope might publish their poems is a delicate one. If I make them an offer, I know they will really really like me (and I rarely use the word ‘really’). If I criticise their darlings, they will probably experience the opposite emotion. It is so much nicer to make people happy!

The dread goes away when I start reading the poems. I love reading people’s poems. It’s fascinating. I’m not making this up! These aren’t just any old bits of paper. Poems are bits of text that matter to the person who made them, matter a lot. How can that not be interesting?

I think reading and responding to poems is a creative act. I believe it uses the same bit of my brain that makes poems. So it’s an art I practise, and I do it as well as I can.

For first collections, I like to work with the poet over a period of time (up to three years in some cases, less in others) to arrive at the best possible set. That means batting poems back and forth. The thing I can do (I think), and care about most, is help people make poems, or sets of poems, stronger. At least some people.

If you’re not sure whether my feedback would be useful to you, there’s one way to find out. Read the guidelines. Send up to twelve poems. Some people only send six, which is nice (for me) because I can spend longer on them.

Chances of publication? Oh hell. Truth is I can’t make most people happy by publishing their work. I plan to publish eight pamphlets in 2014 and their slots are all spoken for. Again 6-8 in 2015. There are still two tiny possibilities there. I start drawing up the schedule for 2016 in January.

I do spend ages. I am mad. Yesterday morning, while the men were finishing harling our gable end, hurling wee stones at the walls and pinging them off the conservatory roof, I was reading a set of poems. It took me three hours. You see? Crazy? Did I offer to publish them? No.

I sent back a couple of ticks and two smileys.

What does that mean?

If I like a poem, whether or not I think it’s flawed, I put a little pencil tick (or check) among my pencilled comments. I wouldn’t want to publish all the poems I like because it has to be more than just ‘like’.

So the other option is the smiley. If I like it and think, in the right circumstances, I would publish that poem, I put a smiley face.

I confuse things somewhat, by throwing in smileys against marvellous bits of poems, but you don’t need to know that.

The poet gets the poems back with my pencilled remarks, suggestions, thoughts. They take a look at the feedback. They decide whether it is, or isn’t, useful. Maybe they send me more poems next July. If they do, I hope they’ll include the smileys again but without the smiles. I like to come across poems I’ve met before with a sense of surprised familiarity. If they strongly work for me twice, they must be good.

Meanwhile, I hope, if they haven’t already done so, that the poets whose work I’m reading will take out a subscription or buy a pamphlet or two. It throws a couple of quid into the kitty (not more because I price low) and this kitty needs all it can get.

If you’ve already got books or pamphlets in print, the chances that I would publish another are remote. However, it has happened several times. With the right set of poems in the right circumstance, there’s a maybe. And of course, the offer is still open. Happy to read up to twelve poems and send feedback.

I don’t know of anybody else who does this. I may not be able to keep it up much longer, because when I’m reading poems, I’m certainly not making publications, or writing Christmas cards. But at least the harling is finished. 🙂

ps Yes, I publish book length collections but no need to ask me about them. There won’t be many, and I’ll ask you.


Is there such a genre as ‘political poetry’?

I don’t know. Tony Harrison, maybe. Sometimes Adrian Mitchell. Although there is a sense, I think, in which politics strikes to the roots of everything. We’re all governed, in some sense or other. And sometimes the words of government and the words of poetry meet. Especially when a poem reaches to the troubling heart of government gone wrong.

This is true of some of the poems in Jonty Driver’s Citizen of Elsewhere. Born and educated in South Africa, Jonty’s opposition to apartheid and suspected membership of the African Resistance Movement led to exile from his homeland for many years. He wrote a biography of Patrick Duncan, the political thinker and activist. Duncan is in these poems, and so is the principle of facing up to death and worse than death:

Blood eats blood, but how
We do not know.
Justice too is slow.
There are such things done by men to men
We can hardly bear to hear them again.

High above London he lies,
Never doubtful now. His eyes
Do not pretend
Disease will end—
Where sun has flaked and knived colonial hills,
Death is a drought of blood that only kills.

And yet, every single last
Loss must burst from its past—
Like dying. So,
He died; and so
Remember Patrick Duncan, who to the end
Faced the faceless dark as a friend.

Jonty Driver is a lyrical writer. His phrases and cadences sing; and the effect is uplifting as well as scary. In the face of human history, fearfulness is right. One of the poems, ‘Much-Afraid’s Song’, delicately touches on this. ‘Much-Afraid’ is Mr Dispondency’s daughter in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Remember her—“tongue a little bit tied, hesitant maid”? But by the end of the poem, the first person voice speaks for the poet too:

Since I’m still for much of the time afraid,
I shall sing some words no one can hear;
The river will swallow them up—and me:
It’s the only way I can free me from fear.

It struck me as curious that I should be publishing both Jonty Driver and Tom Vaughan (not his real name) at the same time, because Tom, too, is ‘political’. Recently retired from a senior post in what we used to call the Foreign Office (now the FCO), he has been writing for a long time. There was a novel once, and there have been poems throughout—mainly formal, and wry and often witty—sometimes published in HQ Quarterly. He has intelligent fun in verse. But there’s more to it than that.

In 2010, there was a Sampler of Tom’s work (sold out now) which included ‘The Mower’, a poem I put on a card because I liked (and continue to like) it so much:

The Mower

I cut the grass again today.
It took three hours, but now I know
that man was made his lawn to mow.

It’s smooth enough to play croquet.
The shorn blades smell of long ago.
I cut the grass again today.

I’m basking in the afterglow.
I sit and sip a beer, although
under my feet it starts to grow.

You can easily see the playfulness in that poem but there’s an edge too. And that edge is honed and sharpened in Envoy. There is political comment here, yes. There’s lightness, and there’s pain. I have never before worked with a poet who worked in person with Tony Blair and put him in a poem!

For most people in the UK, military entanglements happen on the other side of the world. We know there are diplomats involved but not who they are. Easy to forget they have hearts and minds and feelings, when all is buried by officialdom and negotiation and intelligence and other abstract nouns. 

But they do.


Appropriate’s a lovely word—
it doesn’t mean a thing.
So useful when we need a text
appropriately thin.

Appropriate measures may be used . . .
appropriate forces sent.

Appropriately you’ll never know
exactly what we meant

when unforeseen—of course—events
raise the question why
inappropriately innocent people






It’s the month of new publications!

Jonty Driver’s Citizen of Elsewhere has now followed Hamish Whyte’s Hannah, Are You Listening? into the webshop. Tom Vaughan’s Envoy will follow next week.

I love the word ‘elsewhere’. Something magical about it. Robert Nye has a poem ‘Lines to The Queen of Elsewhere’, in An Almost Dancer, his 2012 collection (“Remembering places where I’ve never been . . .).

‘Elsewhere’ feels dramatically different from ‘somewhere else’.b2ap3_thumbnail_SCAN-OF-CIT-OF-ELSEWHERE-SMALL.jpg

Also Tom Duddy, in The Years, (imminent second collection) has a poem titled ‘Elsewhere’, in which children’s “minds [go] wild with the thought of elsewhere”. Elsewhere is beautiful, unattainable, and eventually tinged with sadness.

In the Merriam Webster, I find also ‘elsewhither’ and ‘elsewhence’, neither of which I remember encountering before. Perhaps I can incorporate them into something.

The Christmas launch at the Scottish Poetry library (Saturday, December 14) is now in the planning. Hamish Whyte, poet and editor of Mariscat Press, will be reading poems from Hannah (Hamish lives in Edinburgh). Jonty Driver will be travelling there all the way from Sussex – a rare chance to hear him read in Scotland. Gerry Cambridge will be sharing a couple of the new poems from Notes From Lighting a Fire, the PAPERBACK! It’s possible that I may have some Fife Place Name Limericks to rattle along with by then too. Most importantly of all there will be a lovely atmosphere and a warm welcome for poets and readers and friends.

Now I must get back to the packaging and sending out of books, elsewhence I came.



The International Serial Book Number was invented in 1965.

Originally it was nine digits long. Then it became ten. In 2007, it expanded to a sequence of 13.

What is this sequence of numbers? A product identifier, used by publishers, booksellers and libraries for ordering, listing and stock control purposes. Through the ISB number the book can be tracked down and, if it’s in print, or in a library, a copy can be obtained.

You can publish without an ISBN, of course. But if you want people to be able to find your book, both during its lifetime and in libraries after we’re all long gone, an ISBN is a handy thing.

Publishers buy these numbers in blocks. You can’t buy them individually. In 2005, when I began HappenStance I bought ten, which is the smallest number you could (and can) purchase at one go. They were dead cheap. I don’t recall the exact cost but I think it was less than £1.00 per number. Since then, the price has gone up.

Ten ISBNs currently cost £126.00.  One hundred cost £294.00. A thousand cost £774.00.

Anyway, I got my first ten in 2005. Quite quickly after that (a year or so later) I bought a hundred and they cost something very close to a hundred quid. One hundred! That seemed a huge number to me at the time.

I’ve just come to the end of that hundred numbers and I’ve bought another hundred. I did consider buying a thousand but . . . I’m sixty. One can only do so much in a lifetime.

There’s little poetry in a list of numbers, it seems to me. However, I found it oddly moving when I realized that the first ISBN in my last hundred was Tom Duddy’s pamphlet The Small Hours: 978-1-905939-00-8.

The last number of that same block is 978-1-905939-99-2. It belongs to Tom Duddy’s posthumous volume The Years. I’m finalising this book for print right now. More about Duddy, and much else, soon.


Gerry Cambridge, the paperback, is about to appear!

That’s the first of the new titles that went to the printer’s this week. Notes For Lighting A Fire in hardback is sold out, though I haven’t taken it out of the shop yet: four copies left. We reprinted twice, but after the second reprinting MPG Biddles went bust.

So we decided to do G Cambridge, the paperback. As a special treat and enticement, it will have four additional poems – five if you count the one on the dedication page. One of the new poems is the delightful ‘Stylophilia’ (love of fountain pens). It celebrates the beautiful names of the many pens and inks a collector can fall in love with. Anyone who knows Gerry knows this is not an idle whim in his case: it is a passion.

But that’s not all. The little book of Fife Place Name Limericks has also finally been completed. I began writing it over twenty years ago. I started typesetting it over two years ago, and now it has finally gone to print. It is not a work of great literature, you understand. It is amusing and has pictures. It will be a test of commitment for me because I need to get this on sale in shops, not just on the HappenStance website. Unlike everything else I do, it was intended to make a profit and therefore keep the press afloat.

When I started this publishing lark, I had no idea of the range of skills required, not all of which come naturally to me. There’s the communication with the authors, the design of the publication, the typesetting, the record-keeping, the proof-reading, the packaging and dispatching, the updating of websites (fortunately I don’t have to design or make the web site because Sarah at ZipFish does that). And there’s the typing, the correspondence, the communication with professional printers, the upsides and downsides of In-Design, the keeping of accounts, the using of couriers, the buying of vast quantities of stamps, padded envelopes, cello bags, printed labels. There’s the folding of cards; the buying of matching envelopes in different colours and sizes; the continual updating of subscriber records. And there’s the ISB numbers (just ordered another 100), the registration of books, the sending of books to copyright libraries, the bar-coding (haven’t got as far as QR codes but that will come next). And there’s the marketing – the flyers, the electronic newsletters, the paper newsletters, the information in the shop, the launch events, the Sunday blog.Oh and the sending of publications to competition places, to reviewers, to those and such as those. And I mustn’t forget the pricing and selling of products (my weakest point – I would cheerfully give everything away if I could). The late Duncan Glen was a wonderful role model: he had great connections with local shops and no hesitation about marching with a new title and a persuasive tone. I have to get better at this.

But back to the titles. There are Maria Taylor’s Poetry Bingo Cards too:  a little joke for poets who play. These will be A5 in size with enough room on the back to write and post to your friends, and to mine, if I still have any. And once printed, someone here will be packing them into packets of four with a sticky label. Another labour of love for my loved-one.

And there’s Jonty Driver’s pamphlet Citizen of Elsewhere, a new and selected collection from a South African-born poet. Poems of life and death from someone who was exiled from his home country for decades. We agreed on the cover yesterday – the image will be a little cave painting ostrich, a bird on its way if ever I saw one. It will go to the printer tomorrow.

Tom Vaughan’s Envoy is nearly nearly done: the only collection I have seen with a poem in which Tony Blair appears as a real character! Lots of fun here, but also some grim reality from a former diplomat. Still waiting the last details of design and cover image for Envoy and then I start tinkering again.

Hamish Whyte’s Hannah, Are You Listening? went to the printer a week ago, so that should be coming back imminently together with two new BardCards and . . . the annual HappenStance Christmas Card, which will go to subscribers in a month.

I find it hard to keep up with this, and I’m supposed to be in charge. I haven’t yet mentioned Tom Duddy’s full collection, his second posthumous book, The Years, which is also nearly done. This will be a hardback book. One of today’s tasks is to look again at the cover. I’m not experienced at designing book jackets but it’s another skill I need. Gerry Cambridge, the best in the business, will advise (though don’t expect anything of the same calibre).

One of the most moving aspects of this publishing business is the kindness and generosity you enounter. People help you. I mentioned Duncan Glen earlier. In the last few years before he died Duncan (Akros Publications) gave me all sorts of useful advice. How well I remember him saying, with that glint in his eye, ‘Publishers always lie!’ And when I started Sphinx, Sally Evans of Poetry Scotland, herself a compendium of wisdom born of experience, sent me a twenty pound note in the post. I’ve never forgotten that. Sheila Wakefield of Red Squirrel has helped in more ways than she knows: a poetry publisher who ran a successful garage knows a thing or two. And there’s Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves, and John Lucas of Shoestring Press, Mike Mackmin at The Rialto and Michael Laskey, publishing through both Smiths Knoll and Garlic Press. These guys know stuff. It is great always having someone to ask. And I haven’t even named all the secret helpers.

But I mustn’t forget to mention the Christmas event at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh. On Saturday December 14th, 1.30-3.30, we will celebrate winter (I hope it won’t be deep snow by then) and launch several books onto the world. These will include:

  • Hamish Whyte’s Hannah, Are You Listening?
  • Gerry Cambridge’s paperback Notes
  • Tom Vaughan’s Envoy
  • J C (Jonty) Driver’s Citizen of Elsewhere
  • Fife Place Name Limericks
  • Poetry Bingo Cards (great last minute Christmas gift)

and possibly

  • Tom Duddy’s The Years (it may or may not be done by then)

Please come if you can. Fun will be had by all, with wine and party snacks. Somehow we will make it to Christmas!




If you read a lot of poems, most of them don’t.

Click into place for you, that is.

And then you read one, and it’s like you’re old friends already. That shock of recognition. Weird.

There are lots of reasons why this happens, not all of them to do with the quality or beauty of the poem. Sometimes the poem speaks to you because the circumstances of the writer are close to your own. And sometimes this similarity stretches across time uncannily.

Here, for example, is a fragment from Sappho, translated by Aaron Poochigian:

I declare
That later on,
Even in an age unlike our own,
Someone will remember who we are.

(Μνάσεσθαί τινά φαμι καὶ ὔστερον ἀμμέων.)

Poochigian has created a brief rhyming form for his translation (see Don Paterson, 2004, “a poem is just a little machine for remembering itself”). Neat and clever. One line from Sappho – just the remark that human beings will remember ‘us’, whoever we are – creates a rhyme that confirms the sentiment and is, by the way in which it’s voiced, memorable. Sappho lived two and a half millennia ago. Someone two and a half milliennia ago shared our preoccupation with being remembered.

Actually, the note in the Poochigian’s Penguin Sappho tells me this fragment “appears near the end of a Discourse wrongly ascribed to the Greek writer . . . Dio Chrysostum”: it is a line spoken by a character who is upset because his statue has been taken down – so he “lectures the Corinthians on immortality through art”. Not a personal statement from Sappho, then. And yet perhaps it is. We want it to be, don’t we? We want that to be the voice of Sappho resounding through the centuries, human speaking to human.

Because part of the point of art, especially written art (though Sappho expected to be remembered by ear, not by book), is connected with memory. We want to be remembered. But not just that. Our writing is an attempt for something to be remembered (Poochigian uses this poem as an epigraph to his own first collection, The Cosmic Purr). We feel as though our little lives, insignificant as they are, hold clues to something meaningful.

       —Forgive me. I need to digress. I have discovered only this morning that a whole element of history has escaped me. I didn’t know that our way of talking about ancient history as B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, or in the year of Our Lord) has changed. Am I the only person not to have known that now most scholars say CE and BCE? And that CE can ignore Christ because it stands for Common Era (though if you are Christian, you can take the letters to mean Christian Era)? And BCE obviously came before that.

The new terminology doesn’t compensate for the fact that numbers getting smaller as people get older BCE is confusing. But how odd that I didn’t know A.D. had been consigned, along with Noah, to the ark. It’s comforting to note that Carol Ann Duffy, in the preface to the Penguin edition, refers to Sappho as born “after 630 BC”, while the translator (Poochigian) in his introduction to the same volume says she was “born after 630 BCE”. Duffy is my generation. Poochigian is still in his thirties.

Anyway, thanks to the internet I have adjusted my mental framework. The other ancient poet I am working my way towards is more straightforward because she’s a CE poet, so her dates go in the same order as ours: born in 1084 and living to about 1151. I’m referring to Li Ch’ing-chao or Li Qingzhao, another woman whose voice floats down through history. Again, her poems were written as songs with tunes, but print has allowed them to survive. Here is ‘Cassia Flowers’ from the Complete Poems translated by Kenneth Rexroth.

After my sickness
My temples have turned gray
I lie and watch the waning moon
Climb up the gauze window screen.
I boil a drink of cardamom leaf tips
Instead of tea.
It is good to rest on my pillows
And write poetry.
Before the door
Beautiful in wind, shadow and rain,
All day the fragrant cassia blossoms
Bend toward me, delicate and subtle.

Perhaps this poem would not have ‘clicked’ with me normally. I haven’t been sick. My hair is fading but not going gray. I don’t know what cassia blossoms are though I think they may look something like this (follow the link). In her next poem, though, she says “I have studied poetry for thirty years”. I can relate to that.

But I came to this lyric via another route. I am working, as I said last week, on a volume of poems by Tom Duddy. In many ways I feel as though I’m following him through his last couple of years, reading the life through the poems, trying to get inside his head. Here is one of his written in January 2012 (he died six months later). It’s titled ‘First Week of New Year Before Treatment Begins’.

Outside, the storm that came up
as the darkness came down
whacks the loose fence
resoundingly hard
against the gate-post
at our westerly gable.

An engine that can only be
a water pump or road drill
doing emergency work
has droned for hours
(not unpleasantly),
like a small biplane
circling nonstop over Cherry Park.

I drowse by the wood fire,
reading over and over
(during brief spells when
the sparking logs rouse me)
Li Ch’ing-chao’s ‘Cassia Flowers’.  

Now both poems have clicked. I see why Tom read ‘Cassia Flowers’ “over and over”. The Chinese poet wrote this when she was ill; writing was a comfort to her. Tom read it in the same situation. It’s not hard to see and feel the electric connection between two human beings across centuries.

Tom Duddy knew the secrets that make poems remember themselves. Here, the immortality is in the detail. It’s in the word “whacks” that recreates the noise of the loose fence in the storm. It’s in the irrelevant engine that has “droned for hours”, and which only an ill person could notice so precisely. It’s in the “sparking logs”. It’s in the connection between human experience and the weather: the calm after a storm. It’s in the name “Cherry Park”, a housing estate in Galway. I wonder whether Tom heard, even there in the word “Cherry”, an echo of those cassia flowers.

His poem captures that feeling of indolence, the haze that slows down time when we’re neither ill nor well, when action and initiative are removed from us. You can hear it in the sound of the words: flowers, rouse, fire, drowse. Human beings, so long as we’ve existed, must have felt like this at such a time. And Tom’s book, The Years, is at least partly about the mystery of time itself: the way the years vanish in an instant, but also how they stop, everything focussed, sudden and alive, in a single moment.





The order makes a big difference.

I take my blog title from Coleridge, of course. Male poets are especially good at coming up with definitions of poetry, and it’s convenient that this should be so, because definitions are useful for brandishing.

The full quotation—recollected online—is this: “I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose,—words in their best order; poetry,—the best words in their best order .”

I woke rehearsing Coleridge’s maxim in my head. Why? Because in my current price list—the one that went out to subscribers last week—I got one of the titles in preparation in the wrong order. Not for the first time, either, I might add. Sometimes these things get scrambled in my head: a sort of title dyslexia.

The pamphlet I got wrong was Hannah, Are You Listening?, by Mariscat publisher and Shore poet Hamish Whyte. I called it Are You Listening, Hannah? The order of the words makes a difference. The second (the wrong one) seems to me a weaker question, vaguer, more casual—even wistful and slightly distrait. The first (the right one) is crisper. It projects. It carries right out into what Julian Treasure calls ‘the listening’. Or so it seems to me, the person who got it wrong.

Hannah, Are You Listening? is a lovely little pamphlet. The poet’s voice is quiet but resonant, serious but playful—even impish, at times. There’s lots of white space. I sometimes talk about how poetic ‘technique’ can get in the way, like the specks and grains on the glass that stop you seeing through. These poems are transparent. Pure delight. 

Anyway, Hannah, Are You Listening? is nearly done. Two other new pamphlets are also in preparation. More of those later.

I’m also working on Tom Duddy’s second book (it will be called The Years). Tom died, as many of you will know, before he intended to. With the help of his wife Sheila and daughter Clare, I’ve been sorting through his unpublished work, in particular those poems he suggested for a second volume. He and I were able to correspond about some of them before all smiles stopped together.

The process of putting together Tom’s book is humbling. It is reading a life, not just a set of assorted texts. Again, he wrote with astonishing clarity. Sometimes his poems, at first glance, seem slight. Nothing much is happening here, you think. Then you realize everything is happening.

Already I am fumbling in words of inferior order to praise what Duddy did better. So I will close with a little example, appropriate because the title—the correct title—is ‘Window on the World, Sunday Morning’. You see right through the window. Not one speck on the glass.


Window on the World, Sunday Morning


A mother and a daughter (herself a mother)

walking very slowly, arm in arm, past


the closed gates, judging gardens as they go;

just behind them, catching up, soon to pass,


a man in a tight black coat, eyes downcast,

grey head bowed as if into a strong wind.


Two girls running sideways down the green mound

between the church and the soaking playing field.


Above them all, jackdaws cher-cherking

in the bright aftermath of gales and rain.