It was difficult getting the window to shut. Several envelopes were stuck in the hinges. But it has shut now.

Thank you! Thank-you to the writers who trusted me with their poems. It’s not an easy thing to expose your work to a critical reader, especially one who comments on verbs that are leaning, lines that are breaking and sonnets that are creaking. And towards the end that reader was very tired.

There are other thank-yous. If you spend a whole month reading like this, very little else can be done. So the ordinary functions of the press grind to a halt, which is risky. But many readers humbled me with their generosity before Christmas. They ordered publications, they sent donations, they sent stamps, they sent love. This secret fuel is amazing.

The window won’t open again in the same way. This was the apex, the peak, the nirvana of poetry reading. In May 2015 (still difficult not writing 2014) HappenStance will be ten years old. I will be nearly 62. And I plan to change things. How? Not quite sure yet.

But poets mainly create themselves. There will be, and always have be, people to whom making poems is important. Creating readers of poetry is harder. That’s what I’m working on.

Watching my fiendish work over the last weeks, more than one friend has said, ‘Why don’t you charge?’ Of course I have thought about this. The money, if some people paid for feedback, could be reinvested in the press. If payment were required, it would reduce the numbers dramatically. I haven’t ruled it out.

Still, I’ve a deep fear of poetry that’s by the privileged for the privileged. I am on the side of the garret and the baked potato. I am on the side of it is more blessed to give than receive. I believe, ridiculously, enough money will always arrive. So far, it has. Though only just.


Now here’s the ‘window’ analysis. I love figures.

162 poets sent in work. More than twice as many as the previous December. They sent between 1 and 29 poems, but it would average about 10 each. Most of them remembered the stamped addressed envelope. About 1600 poems, then.

Of these poets 107 were female and 55 were male.

I can’t comment on age range because I don’t ask people about that, though they sometimes tell me, but my unstatistical impression is that three-quarters were over 50 and only about 4 were under 25.

Nearly all the poets who sent poems were (hooray!) HappenStance subscribers. 17 were not. But they might yet be. I am an optimist.

About 30 took out a subscription just before sending poems in. (This is good if they also go on to buy publications, because it suggests they’re active readers. If they don’t buy anything subsequently, the postal subscription makes a loss).


  • 34 in Scotland
  • 3 in Wales
  • 2 in Ireland
  • 115.5 in England (of which 23.5 were in or near London)

as well as

  • 1 in Isle of Man
  • 1 in Sweden
  • 1 in Canada
  • 1 in Spain
  • 3.5 in France

I hope those numbers add up. This is me, not a spreadsheet talking.

I took 47 pages of (secret) notes. Most ever. These include notes on the bio, brief comments on the poems, and also comments on my comments and the experience of reading. Up to now I’ve done this by hand in large books, but this time I did it on the laptop because the books go back nine years and are hard to search. Many poets assume I’ll remember what they previously told me about themselves. I don’t. I get my Marys and Chris-es confused.

88 poets sent in poems for the first time, just over half. I rewrote the printed reply notes three times.

The level of guilt on my part was at 88% (I made that figure up. It means high). That’s because I made hardly any offers. I agreed to do two debut pamphlets in Spring 2016 (2015 was already ‘full’) but both authors already knew an offer was coming.

Normally I would have offered to do more in 2016. Two things stopped me.

First, it was the volume of poetry. It overwhelmed me. Second, I was astonished by how many possible debut poets, sending for the second, third or fourth time (so I was recognising poems I knew and loved), clearly merited publication in the next two years. I highlighted a group of 24 who fitted into this category. Twenty-four! If I did nothing else from now till 2017, I couldn’t manage that.

Fortunately, other things will happen for most of these poets. They’ll either win one of the competitions (as many who’ve send poems to me have done already) or find another publisher. I hope they’re all on the qui vive, spotting what’s going on in the sector, and which new imprints might be worth approaching. In the first three of four years of a new publishing business, a publisher is actively looking for new, good poets. After ten years, what she needs is not poets but readers. Or even better, poet-readers.

But also it’s important not to keep on doing the same thing in the same way, even if that thing has gone well up to now. Creativity thrives on change.

Also there’s Chapter Nine of the HappenStance Story to be written, three pamphlets urgently needing attention, StAnza tickets to buy, two new books nudging my collar, and the other 13 items on my list. And I had better get dressed.

Thank-you again. Huge thank-you. Thank you poets, blog readers and poetry buyers and supporters. You are not a vast community, in Harry Potter terms, but individually and en masse, you are . . . supercalifragelisticexpialidocious.


18 thoughts on “SHUTTING UP”

  1. You’re right about readers/poet-readers. As a result of reading Pamela Johnson’s article about Poetry Reading Groups ( via a link from the Poetry Book Society, I’ve been mulling over the idea of setting one up in Hastings. The only thing that holds me back is the fact that I already belong to another book group and attend two Stanza meetings each month, so wonder if I have the energy! But if as many poets spent time reading poetry as they spend trying to write it, and if those who don’t write at all but are interested in poetry and/or baffled by contemp po could overcome their diffidence, it could help to advance the cause of poetry in general. Views from any of your subscribers would be welcome!

  2. Couldn’t agree more, Antony. I also toy with the idea of having one here, but since I haven’t enough time to make dinner, I know I can’t. But I’d love to. I’d come to [i]yours[/i]… if I were a few hundred miles nearer.

  3. When I was just edging my way back to poetry after a long gap I joined a U3A poetry reading group. When it looked a bit uncertain to continue I gingerly volunteered to be coordinator. It has nourished me much more than it has ever wearied me and continues to introduce me to poems I may not have found otherwise. We all enjoy reading and discussing though only two of us also write. As often before, I shall be taking at least one Happenstance poem to our next meeting.

  4. Linda wrote that she’d be taking at least one Happenstance poem to a future meeting. *Maybe* HappenStance could host what some other sites have – a few poems with notes for reading groups.

  5. I’d urge anyone to get involved with a poetry reading group. Looking at full length collections is far more rewarding (and instructive) than looking at single poems. I followed the link in Antony’s comment and while the guidelines there are helpful it all looks more like hard work than is necessary. The Nottingham Stanza set itself up purely for reading collections and is far more relaxed in approach – and we choose our own titles rather than stick to the PBS lists. If a reading-only group sounds too daunting for some, why not urge your poetry group to have, say, one meeting in three where you look at a collection? Softly, softly …

  6. Dear Nell

    It looks as though the old joke about there being far more writers of poetry than readers of it is rapidly becoming a reality!

    Happy New Year from Simon

  7. The readers are fighting back, Simon. Seriously. I met two only this morning. And there are five serious readers in this very thread, apart from you and me. So that’s seven. And actually at least three quarters of my 400ish subscribers buy, read and return comments on a couple of poetry pamphlets a year. Do they like them all? Not necessarily. But they find them interesting and thought provoking, which I think is better. And quite often they [i]like[/i] them too. 🙂

  8. Dear Nell

    Did you realise that (where I publish my own work!) now hosts over fifty thousand poetry books. So even if you read one a day, it would take you a century and a half to get through them all. Proof, if any were needed, that the supply of poetry somewhat outstrips the demand for it.

    Best wishes from Simon

  9. I didn’t realise there were that many, Simon. How alarming! I suppose the same must be true for fiction – is it? So the key will be, if one self-publishes there, also to have created a readership. Some novelists seem to manage this, though I know they must be in the minority. And of course, if they[i] are[/i] successful in self-publication usually a bigger publisher, who can manage the distribution properly, will make them an offer for their next title since they’ve proved the viability. The problem for poets is that we measure success in sales of a couple of hundred, which is quite something, while for novelists it is thousands. Which brings me back to my first thought, that the problem is not publishing as such. These days it is easy to do (though not quite so easy to do well). The challenge is creating a readership who will want to pay for the text.

  10. Dear Nell

    I’ve just checked and, as of today, there are 54,496 fiction titles available from They must be making millions! The good thing about is that the authors are free to buy as many or as few copies as they wish.

    Best wishes from Simon

  11. Though this is also true for authors printed by mainstream publishers, of course. Though the author discount, royalty fee and number of free copies will vary from publisher to publisher.

  12. Hello from Bristol!
    This conundrum about too many poets chasing too few readers has intrigued me for many years. I’m certain there is a solution, and it’s in the area of meeting a need. And how can there not be a need for what poetry can offer, because it offers (at its very best) at least an approach to human happiness and fulfilment. Think of Keats’ late odes, Wordsworth’s Prelude, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Milton’s sonnets, Shakespeare’s everything, Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and just about everything else, Gawain and the Green Knight, (whoever it’s by) R S Thomas, Hopkins’ The Windhover… I’m sure everyone has her own list of poems thery couldn’t live without. And yet the huge majority of literate people probably don’t read any of these from one Christmas to the next. I think what we have to do (and it’s a colossal task not to be a chieved in one lifetime) is re-create a culture that’s been lost for many reasons, because poetry, no matter how great, can only exist in a healthy culture, and we haven’t got one. How do we start this task? Answers on a post-card please… (apologies for banging on about this, but someone has to)

  13. Lord, Stephen! Now there’s a thought, or several! I don’t know about the task, except that we [i]are[/i] doing it, I think, in small ways here and there. You are doing it yourself simply by writing that. I must go and read [i]Marriage of Heaven and Hell[/i] again. It’s been a long time…

  14. We do have a special poetry reading group here in Greenwich, despite all our other bookclubs and readings, etc; and it’s wonderful. Challenging and wonderful. I recommend it. I shall now have to go back and read Pamela Johnson’s article.

  15. Hi Nell,

    I have to say that I found this post thought-provoking. As an editor/publisher/accountant/cooker of dinners and wiper of snotty noses (and poet) I’m finding too that finding the readers (and crucially, getting them to part with money for poetry) is the real issue! On financially-not-so-good months (most months for me at the moment!) I don’t think well of all this frenzied publishing activity that doesn’t take the accounts into the black. However, as a poet myself, of course I know how costly buying books/pamphlets/magazines etc. is and I simply can’t justify it when there are real necessities we have to buy e.g. food and school uniforms! So I empathise with the poets/poet-readers too.

    I think there was something I read recently (was it in Mslexia?) about the government wanting to encourage more people from lower socio-economic backgrounds to engage with the arts, but in these difficult economic times the level of engagement just wasn’t on the increase. It’s not really too difficult to see that when times are hard poetry is probably the last thing a person wants to spend money on. (Although of course there’s the argument that it has the potential to inspire and encourage, but food for the soul doesn’t fill the stomach.)

    Apologies if I’m going off-topic and this comment is loaded with cliches, but of course as a publisher this has been on my mind a lot too.

  16. Telka, I couldn’t agree more! I want to sell my publications, of [i]course[/i], but I already buy more publications than I can afford to pay for (from other publishers and magazines). I don’t know what the answer is! Poetry is bloody expensive. Not so bad if you’re in London and could get to the Poetry Library occasionally, or Edinburgh (Scottish Poetry Library) but heavy otherwise. People need to function in groups — chip in and buy things between them and swap them round. I’d love to do this. I don’t find online poetry a substitute. I like paper. 🙂

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