Why do I do it?

In the last month I read well over 700 poems, and gave detailed feedback on at least 500. By December 31st, I felt as though I’d trudged through several miles of snow and ice. Poetried out? Absolutely.

It doesn’t make sense, in that month of parcels, cards and reindeer, to invite all these poems in. But when was I ever truly sensible? And what month would be better?

I am aware of giving out mixed messages about submissions. I both welcome poems and, at the same time, suggest I’m hardly likely to offer to publish any of the work that arrives. This is true. I am hoping to read the poems, take an interest, find or rediscover some interesting people, and also not offer to publish any of it.

Why? Because I permanently have too many publications on the go. Because I’d really like to write some poems myself.

But obviously I do continue to publish pamphlets, and a small number of books. I continue to take an interest in what does get published, and by whom. I continue to want HappenStance publications to be the best.

So I when reading the poems, I have half an eye on a possible future prospect, at the same time as thinking: no, no, you have too much already!

I hate the whole business of Many are Called but Few are Chosen. I hate the idea of poetry as a gigantic competition. I hate that people get up their hopes, tick all my boxes, and still I don’t say Yes, I love your work, let’s do it.

I’m far more likely to say, I think you’re using too many semi-colons or Why are so many of your poems in two-line stanzas? I don’t even like being the sort of person who says these sorts of things.

I am a people-person. I comfort myself in various ways. One of these is to read the poems properly, or try to. I give feedback, in pencil, on the work. Sometimes, I know, such feedback is useful. Sometimes, over time, people who have valued such responses have gone on either to win pamphlet competitions or to be published by other worthy imprints.

At other times, people feel rejected whatever I do. And there are people whose work I would never publish, although I rarely say that explicitly. But one of the privileges of any publisher is to choose whom and what they publish. I need to feel strongly interested both in the work and the person behind it. I need to feel I can get on well with them, that the relationship would be mutually enjoyable and educative. Why else would one publish poetry at all?

So I read covering letters carefully too, and if someone sends poems to me over two or three years, I start to have a sense of that individual in a context. I keep brief notes. And sometimes I can offer some suggestions about how a set of poems might get published (assuming I don’t offer to do this myself) or even some ideas about new ways the author might write or structure a set of poems. I’d like to think it’s not so much about ‘yes/no’ as about multiple possibilities of each person arriving at what’s best for them. If the work is good, ultimately it will be published somewhere. It’s a matter of persistence, compromise and intelligence.

When it comes to offering to publish, I have a subscriber base, too, to consider. Most (but not all) of the people who send me poems are HappenStance subscribers, so they will already know the key role of the subscribers in terms of decisions and preferences. When I do choose to publish, I want the work to be something I can warmly recommend to those subscriber-readers who regularly send feedback about my publications. The HappenStance subscribers are a human network based on a relationship, not just people to sell things to. They are almost all poets. They send me letters and emails and cards and jokes. They are discriminating, good readers and I want to keep them. In order to do that, I need to publish work they’ll find compelling and worthy of respect. They’re far more important to me than the Forward Prize selectors.

Unofficially, I am studying the state of contemporary UK poetry, and the poetry publishing business. I’m studying it through its participants. Mainly I study participants at the relatively early stages of the game. Such people will tell me what they’ve already tried, how and why. So those people who send me poems are unwitting contributors to my research. I like to know about them. I like to know what they write, how they write, and why (especially why); where they think it’s taking them; why they approached me in the first place. I’ve been doing this for ten years now. I want to work out what’s going on. No, I have no aspirations to undertake a PhD in poetic practice. I’m simply trying to understand a public situation which often seems to make little sense.

Cynicism is something to contend with, yes. More often than you might think, however, I meet a poem that lights up this whole room. For a moment I glimpse what it’s all about, for all of us.

Then January takes over, the lights dim, and it’s time to tackle the accounts.


  1. You may well end up only telling us we use too many semi-colons (or, in my case, colons), but as no one else does, it’s a very valuable service. Thank you.

  2. Thank you, Nell, for your hard work, and your vision, and your care. May 2016 light up your room many times (not too many, just enough) as your words light up our rooms for us.

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