An extraordinary week (for me) concluded with The Poet’s Compass yesterday at the CCA in Glasgow.

It was a splendid day with a buzz about it. The fiendish organization and planning carried out by Philippa Johnston paid off. All sorts of interesting and information and ideas were in the air. It was as friendly as StAnza, with people hobnobbing in corners, conspiring over coffee, and revelling in the wonderful, entirely vegetarian lunch.

There was quite a bit about spoken word which, to quiet poetry-in-the-backroom people, can sound scary. But Ali Moloney, Harry Giles (‘all poets should know their way round hip-hop’) and Michael Pedersen could not have been more welcoming and enthused (Michael’s first collection, endorsed by Stephen Fry, is imminent). Open mike sessions began to sound inviting, even for fogeys. Fun was mentioned more than once.

Jennifer Williams did a wonderful job of co-ordinating and linking all platform events with imperturbable delight. Herself a Shearsman author (though she now looks nothing like her author photo), she was a part of the incredible range of poetry backgrounds and experience. There was a feeling of sharing and breaking down boundaries.

Elspeth Murray was charismatic with luggage labels, having fun with poetry in all sorts of ways without even hankering after book publication! Wonderful. It was a day of alternatives. Chris McCabe was there from the Poetry Library in the Southbank: great to put a face to a name, and even hear him talking about Chrissy Williams – yeay! HappenStance poet! – as an example of how to do things differently.

Kona McPhee dealt with the pain: ‘ambition for success is the way you make yourself pay for the gift of creativity . . .  Ambition isn’t about the gap; it’s about the void.’ A book, she said, (her third has just been published) doesn’t make the need for validation go away. I read What Long Miles in the train on the way back, on the long way home, and the beautiful, heart-breaking little poem ‘dog’ is still with me, as is ‘How to Fail’.

How shall I tell thee? So many ways. . .  Gerry Cambridge was inspiring on the prospect of self-publication and doing it well. He was also extremely funny about the editorial side of things with The Dark Horse.

Main speaker was Neil Astley who somehow tackled the current state of poetry publishing without being depressing. How did he do that? The day was so buoyant that reality simply floated up there unthreateningly. It is thirty-five years since he started Bloodaxe. Good grief! Thirty-five!

He spoke about the huge volume of submissions, the tiny number of Bloodaxe new-author publications per year (between one and three), the reasons why 95% of those submissions stood no chance. There were four reasons, he said:

  1. The ‘poet’ does not read poetry (or  is just possibly a member of a group who only read each other).
  2. The ‘premature ejaculation’ phenomenon i.e. doing it all too eagerly and too soon, with little experience in the field, or insufficient track record of magazine publication.
  3. The poet had chosen the wrong publisher/editor/ or imprint for what he or she wanted to do. (Research the imprint! Read what it says on the website. Read the books!)
  4. The poet needs help, not publication.

A really good tip was this: send six of your best poems with a covering letter briefly listing previous credits and sounding out the publisher (they are almost all men still – he mentioned Michael Schmidt, John Lucas, Andy Croft, Mike Mackmin, Charles Boyle and Peter Sansom – only Amy Wack and Jane Commane were there for the wimmin, though the remarkable Robyn Marsack did get a mention as one of the Carcanet Oxford Poets editors). Neil said he was more likely a) to read and b) to turn the enquiry round quickly if it was brief and to the point.

He reminded us that only 1 in 10 of any books was ‘successful’, that 0.6% of all book sales are poetry, and that ‘poetry readers are notoriously resistant to e-books’ – so far.

And he described what he has always looked for and continues to value: a poet who nurtures the talent before taking it out into the world. He spoke of the way the ‘individual voice can only be achieved in private’ though it is moving towards a public self. He spoke of the way a set of good poems is not enough. There are too many poets for the opportunities, too many sets of good poems. What is required is a voice ‘unlike anyone else’s’, a set of poems ‘consistently strong’ and not a collection that could be a ‘one-trick horse’ (which, by the way, suddenly struck me as a great collection title), but a talent that promises something that can be sustained, a writer who can go on to complete ‘even stronger second and third collections’.

Already I see in my paragraph above that the words look chilly and easily criticized. But it was a warm speech from a man beleaguered by the logjam, but also a central part of keeping it electrically alive. He was cheerful and funny.

And then there was me being HappenStance and about to go into the July month which is the submissions period. When I got home two more envelopes were already waiting. And the awful thing is that I, too, am now part of the impossible poetry logjam, because really I can only do a few publications a year, and I too have more submissions from poets worthy of publication than I can possibly take forward.

However, I can and do offer other things. I can, for example, give feedback. It is only one person’s point of view, of course, but still a fairly detailed response is worth something, it is a huge investment of time on this side of the equation, and it’s something you don’t get from competition entries. I often make suggestions, and these sometimes include self-publication, co-operative developments or alternative formats.

Neil Astley said ‘poetry only reaches readers through enlightened subsidy’.

I immediately thought ‘that’s not necessarily true’. HappenStance has no public funding. It has to wash its face through sales.

But ‘enlightened subsidy’ manifests in many ways. With HappenStance, the financial support is in the subscribers who choose to support the press by buying pamphlets, following the story of the press, engaging in dialogue, and giving feedback on the publications – they are the people who make this possible. A year ago there were about 250. Now it’s more like 350. This means that a new pamphlet publication usually finds at least 60 readers amongst the subscribers alone. 60 copies may not sound like much in terms of Harry Potter, but it makes a HUGE difference in terms of keeping things going, and it’s one reason why Fiona Moore’s recent pamphlet, The Only Reason for Time, has already sold out of its initial print run of 280 copies (the author still has a few).

Most people who send in poetry submissions to HappenStance from the UK either subscribe before they send, or after. None of the cash benefits accrued could be realistically be described as ‘profit’, but in fact almost everything depends on the subscriber scheme. The HappenStance subscribers are marvellous readers. Writing is a two-way process, and reading is a creative act.

Watch for more on the current state of po over the next few weeks, though there may be asides on the grandbaby (another startling event here this week), and other poetry plans now I have officially ceased to be a college teacher after 25 years in harness. I was awarded ‘voluntary severance’, which means they pay you not to work for a whole year, so long as you promise not to go back.

No problem. Off to read some poetry now.



  1. How I enjoy your blog entries! So much that is useful – in particular, today, the advice to nurture one’s poetry in private, which accords with all my instincts. And your mention of the need for subscribers has had the required effect. I’m now added to the Happenstance subscriber list.

  2. Congrats on the “voluntary severance”, though I don’t really like the sound of it. I was ging to send you a dozen poems this week, your “July window”. I think. I will, even though you already have so many submissions.mstill, I hope you also have more time. Enjoying the blog, Twitter etc. have a good holiday, if you can fit it in! Regards Ed Vanderpump

  3. This is a fab post Nell, I feel as though I have been to the wonderful CCA in Glasgow. Well actually, I also feel really envious of anyone who was there and able to enjoy all these strong alternative ways of looking at poetry and thinking about how we make poetry important to people without obsessing about print.
    Yay for severance. Yay for the volunteer. xx

  4. Back from hols and catching up on the blogs: great post. It’s made the conference come alive again! Was indeed an inspiring day. I’m off to subscribe to Happenstance and write a poem (which will be nurtured in private)!

  5. It was a really encouraging day. Thanks for this write-up. I kept up the luggage label note-taking thing throughout the day and hope to see these slideshowificated at some point before long!

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