I don’t mean in love, or in life. I’m talking poems here.

And I’m talking both as a rejectee and a rejecter. Both are unpleasant roles, but the former is worse than the latter. Or worse for some people.  

I vividly recall the early days when I was sending out a lot of stuff in A5 manila envelopes. Sorting out the poems into groups. Typing up the accompanying letters to editors. Printing final copies as consistently and beautifully as I could. Folding them precisely, popping them into the envelopes, slipping the envelopes into the big red post box. This was long before Submittable. Long before Email. Those were the days.

Until they began to come back. Inside the first manila envelope was a second, addressed to me in my own handwriting. It had a fold down the middle where A5 had been folded to A6 to fit inside the first envelope. You could see these envelopes returning a mile off. You could hear them flop onto the floor in the hall. You could hear them flop heavily, like envelopes with six poems in – not three or four (which might mean two had been accepted). 

The worst aspect was the flip-flop heart on opening the envelope: a mixture of hope (you can’t help it, even if the envelope is heavy) and pragmatic anxiety. If some non-poet is with you at the time, you have to hide these feelings. You can hardly stand there and curse when your Aunt Emily is waiting for her cup of coffee.

Some people are very good about this stuff. ‘So what?’ they chuckle, and get on with their lives. Not me. I used to feel dismal for the rest of the day, at the same time as being furious with myself for having that ridiculous response. After 24 hours, the negative emotion had shrunk to a whisper. After 48, it had gone completely. This was good, but there were more rejections on the way. And each time, the same cycle of ridiculous emotions. 

When you open an envelope with returned (rejected) poems, the wee souls never look the same. They go out so hopeful and clean and nicely folded. They come back rumpled with their tails between their legs. Where has their confidence gone? 

So why on EARTH do I suggest that other poets, many of them fragile in confidence, should put themselves through this? The reasons are complex (more of this in my book How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published), but I do still suggest it, even at the same time as still – to this day – finding it difficult myself.

Yes, I have some tips. It’s the sort of thing you expect from blogs. But as well as this, you can of course remind yourself of various truths, like that none of this is personal; that the return of the poems doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t like them (or you); that they may just not like poems about dogs/sex/the menopause/Donald Trump; that they may already have two poems about frogs in this issue; that the poems were the wrong shape, style or size for the magazine; that your work arrived when the issue was already full; that the silly one about human fleas may have given them the wrong idea about you etc; that it may not be the best idea to share your feelings about the editor on Facebook….

Let’s get down to the tips then.

1. It’s a business. Get down to the paperwork. You sent them out … when? They came back … when? From … where? Keep a meticulous record. You need to know how long each mag sat on the work. And how many rejections you have had from them so far, since there is a point at which you will stop trying.

2. Remember the unique collection you’re in process of making. I mean your collection of rejection slips. Some of them may be valuable one of these days. So go for that slip, grab it and check how rare it is. (The rare ones have comments, coffee rings, blood stains, or were intended for somebody else, not you. Seriously.) File it.

3. Some people say ‘send those poems right out to the next magazine’. I wouldn’t do that. I think you need to put them to one side for a little while. Read them again once your negative emotion has dwindled. Then decide whether you should tweak or change or even abandon. This can teach you something. You might vary the set next time too.

4. Check how much work you still have out there, circulating. Something should be doing the business for you. So you might send a few other poems out. And if you feel really rebellious, include one of the ones that came back today with a totally different title!

5. If your emotions are intense, find a field or open space, or somewhere with few people around and scream at the very top of your voice as loud as you can. This is fabulously therapeutic, not least because – after the scream – you’ll laugh.

6. If you still feel TERRIBLE, write a poem about it. Strong feeling is great. I have several poems written after rejections, one or two of which found good homes.

7. Go and read a couple of your favourite touchstone poems. Remind yourself what this is all about. And how vitally important being a reader is.

8. Maintain perspective by checking the world news. So many awful things can trump rejection from a little magazine. Especially right now.

9. Remember persistency is your friend. If a specific poem has already been rejected six times, the seventh is far less painful. In fact, it becomes fun to see whether it will ever be accepted.

10. Send a couple of rejectees to a good critical friend for comments. The critical friends – your good readers – are enormously important.

11. Do a thorough review of the magazines you’re sending to. Do you like enough of the work inside them to justify wanting to be printed there? If you don’t, then don’t send there again. Reject that magazine.

12. Be naughty with your multiple rejects. Cut them up and change the stanzas round. Make two little ones into one longer one. Share the very short one on Twitter. Then photograph it and have it printed on a mug. (There is a home for every pome.)

13. Start a little magazine. Nothing too complicated. You could do it online, if you like. Changing your role from rejectee to rejecter is hugely educative. (Or read Gerry Cambridge’s book: The Dark Horse: On the Making of a Little Magazine. You start to see the whole thing in an entirely different way.) 

14. Be aspirational. Decide whether the poem has been rejected enough times to qualify it for the fabulous Salon of the Refused, where rare items from your rejection slips will also be joyfully received.


Photograph of a marzipan Peppa Pig on top of a birthday cake. She looks particularly smug.

On Windows and Fish

The reading window is open. The envelopes are stacking up.

So not much from me this week. Instead I’m reading poems and baking cake. The cake is for the HappenStance Winterfest event at the Scottish Poetry Library on Wednesday. Last night I dreamed I was there and the reading part went all wrong because we had a poet who wanted to read but who wasn’t on the programme and I couldn’t even get him to begin his poem, let alone end it. So there was much panic, the time management at such events being a delicate matter.

But in the end he read something, and Andrew Sclater did some stuff, and Gerry Cambridge did some stuff, and I thanked everybody.

And then I remembered that although I’d brought the cake and the crisps and the juice and the white wine and the red wine and the serviettes and my notes, I had forgotten the books.

So the rows of seats were full of lovely people who had arrived for the books to be launched and there were NO BOOKS. 

A great relief to wake up and go and read some poems. Pencils sharpened at dawn.

Stuff Christmas shopping. I have other fish to fry.

Little magazine. Big story.

I’ve always specially liked the term ‘little magazine’. It sounds so un-literary. But of course, it’s the reverse.  

This is how the British Library defines a ‘little magazine’:

‘a literary magazine, usually produced without concern for immediate commercial gain, and with a guiding enthusiasm for contemporary literature, especially poetry’.

Yes—that just about nails the sort of publication I have in mind. Something both bizarre and respected, in many ways a bit of a throwback, of both academic and amateur interest.

Wolfgang Görtschacher, editor of Poetry Salzburg, has published two whole tomes about ‘little magazines’. Richard Price, who at one time co-edited Gairfish, Verse and Southfields, and in his own right, Painted, Spoken, has (with David Miller) co-authored a detailed bibliography and history of the British breed, from 1914-2000.

So little magazines are started (and sustained) by people with a bit of an obsession, and then they’re written about by people who have a somewhat obsessive interest in them. And meanwhile, the rest of us (when they’re poetry magazines) read them, rage about rejections from them, celebrate them when they print our poems, and wonder how and why anybody does this thing, this magazine thing.

Little magazines start by being anti-establishment. They specialize in reacting against this or that. They don’t always end up that way. Malcolm Bradbury makes a distinction between the little magazine and ‘significant literary journals’ like The London Review of Books and the TLS. But the borderline between little magazine and significant literary journal is a sort of no man’s land. What is ‘significant’ anyway? What sort of person has the authority to express views on literature, on culture?

The truth is, as it ever was, that anybody can start a little magazine. Anybody can print and publish their say, and the say of others. Anybody at all can start it. Even if you have no money at all, there is always a way. But very few can keep it going over decades. The editors who do this are a species apart.

If the story of the long-running little magazine is told at all, it is usually in fragments by a researcher: a chapter in a book, a paragraph in an article. The editor is too busy to do it him- or herself.

And so when Gerry Cambridge, editor of The Dark Horse, said he was thinking of writing the story himself, after two decades, I was encouraging.

I have a connection to disclose. Actually, several. Gerry was the first editor to publish any of my poems (though the first ones were in Spectrum, not The Dark Horse). When he started The Dark Horse, I subscribed and became a regular contributor of both poems and critical writing. I have read every single issue of the magazine from then (1994) to now. As HappenStance editor, I published a volume of his poetry, Notes for Lighting a Fire, as well as his essay about typesetting poetry, The Printed Snow. Somehow, I have now known Gerry for long enough for him to qualify as ‘an old friend’, a person I trust and respect as a poet, editor, type-setter, book-designer, fountain-pen collector and expert on birds and ink. 

So—he did it. He actually wrote the story of the Horse. It was neither simple, nor straight-forward. It nearly drove him daft in the middle—doing both this and all the other things that sustain life and the magazine itself. It look longer than either of us anticipated, but the tale has been told—and HappenStance has published it, an honour and the completion of a cycle.

Gerry’s book is called The Dark Horse: The Making of a Little Magazine, and it has a mischievous title-extension too ‘& sundry divagations on poets, poetry, criticism and poetry culture’. It is a handsome volume—large and orange, with numerous colour plates showing the magazine’s design over the years. Among his other talents, Gerry is a first-class photographer, so there are fabulous monochrome pictures of writers too. And, of course, the story of the magazine, in three sections.

If you want to know what makes a person do this little-magazine thing, you may be able to work it out from this account, though I’m inclined to think it remains a mystery. Indexed by Margaret Christie (herself a HappenStance poet), and typeset and designed by Gerry, the book is an idiosyncratic and entertaining source of information about a little slice of literary experience and the associated personalities. You can dip in, or read from beginning to end. If you leave it lying about, someone else will pick it up, start to flick through (nodding and smiling), and may well slip it into their bag. It is that sort of book.

Buy this book (please). No, really. I mean it.

I would prefer to give books away.

However, yesterday at the StAnza bookfair, I did my best to sell as many copies of How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published as humanly possible. I told a number of poets they ‘ought’ to read it. What a presumption!

But it’s like this: poets ask things.Cover of How Not to, bright yellow, featuring anguished poet graphic and title in dark blue and red

They ask things like ‘what did you think of the recent publication by xxxx’? Or they ask, ‘I’m thinking of approaching xxxx. What do you think?’ Or, most worryingly of all, ‘I wonder if I might send you some of my poems?’

‘You need to read this book,’ I say. ‘It’s only taken eleven years to be able to write it, and it might save you a lot of time.’ It’s not the same as the pamphlet publication that preceded it, many copies of which I used to send (free) to poets who sent me their poems and didn’t know what they hadn’t done, but should have done, first.

I hate the way life is full of secret rules. You only find out later what you should have known to start with. To make it worse: some people seem to know these rules. Who told them?

I must get back to poetry, which is so very much more important, but I hope this book will do two things.

1. It will make some money to spend on publishing some poetry.

2.It will share the secret rules which you may, of course, learn eventually, but only after considerable pain. Save the pain.

It’s not just for new poets. Sometimes those who have one, or more than one, collection already in print have even more cause to read it. You don’t know what you don’t know.

The poetry publishing thing stirs up all sorts of emotions, and adjectives start flying in private conversations: unfair, unjust, unbalanced, nepotism, power, corruption, Private Eye. Please deliver us from temptation. Let us not mention funding. Let us not mention gate keepers. Read the book. It is funny in places, which is as it should be. Poetry is a serious matter, but poets should not take themselves too seriously.

I could say more, but today I’m going to StAnza to be on a panel discussing small magazines in the context of one of the best longstanding publications, Gerry Cambridge’s The Dark Horse, with Dana Gioa streamed in virtually from the States.

So no more from me today. Instead, here’s the link to what I wrote about StAnza in 2012. It still sums it up.

This is a poster/banner for The Dark Horse magazine, feating a giant horse looking round four covers of back issues, one on top of the next. You see the characteristic design of the magazine, and there's a big quote from the late Dennis O'Driscoll bottom left saying 'among the trully outstanding poetry mgazines of the English-speaking world'


The shortest day. Losing the plotamus.


No, not really. That was just to get your attention. Well, it was the shortest day yesterday – but also an absolute beauty in this neck of the woods. Bright, brilliant sunshine and December gleaming for all it was worth.

But someone probably noticed I didn’t blog last week. This was because I had disappeared under the mountain of tasks, partly a result of Christmas, and partly Other Things.

Meanwhile, the submission envelopes were stacking up alarmingly, and arriving faster than I could open them. In the middle of all the December mayhem, it’s calming to sit and read poems from real people. But it’s been hard getting proper time to do that.  I’m one of those people who slows down if pressure builds up. I slow down and go on longer, and dream about hippopotami (at least I did last night).

And although – yes – I do love poetry and language and all that stuff, I’m also endlessly analytical. I’ve never understood why I write what I call ‘poems’, let alone anyone else. So I constantly try to work out what’s going on and how it’s happening in the here and now, which is different from any other time as well as similar to every other time.b2ap3_thumbnail_PILE-OF-MS.jpg

In last year’s December window, 77 sets of poems arrived. This year, so far, there have been 115 by post and 7 electronically, because the new online sub allows people to send up to 5 by email.

However, the online sub is now in a dodgy situation because of a new European Union VAT rule that comes into place in January. This requires the seller (me) to apply the VAT of the home country of the buyer to any digital sale. And then, obviously, to pay the appropriate sum to the tax revenue agents of the requisite country, thus making the small amount of income even smaller, and the time required to do it even greater. Insane.

But that’s just more plodding for the hippopotamiss. Meanwhile, I’m reading the poems people have sent. I was a bit worried that the online people would try to discuss the feedback with me – by email. I can’t do that because I don’t have time, even though if I were the poet, I know I would feel I wanted to explain what the sixteenth stanza meant too. But most of the poets have been admirably restrained.

Back to the postal ones, which are still arriving. And the reading.

I’m interested in the forms and shapes. It’s what I see first. What shape the poem is on the page. I flick through the set. If they’re all similar in appearance, I wonder if the poet writes all her poems that shape. To me, the shape of the poem is part of the form of the poem, which is (if the thing is a humdinger) inextricably tied up with what the poem is saying/meaning. This indefinable business of it all coming together is part of the magic. If it works, it’s astounding. And rare.

When poems are divided up into neat chunks: couplets or triplets or quatrains, that’s okay. It looks nice. It looks like a pattern, and I like patterns. If I get to the third stanza and find myself wondering why the poem’s in quatrains, it usually means it hasn’t ‘hooked’ me. Because although I am, self-confessedly, analytical, I know I’m not supposed to be analysing the stanza format while reading.

Similarly, I hate the way I go on about sentence structure or syntax. I really do. But often I get lost in the opening sentence by line three. This can happen for all sorts of reasons, not least using a sequence of words in which each one could, for a moment, be either a noun or a verb or an adjective. Something like this:

Frost walks break, cooling, and again

seasons hope open before the wheelbarrow
that peril jacks here catching all the attention! Oh I know
confusion purposes this.

Of course that was an extreme example because anyone would find it confusing. But you see my point. When you read ‘Frost walks break’, you’re not sure whether ‘walks’ or ‘break’ is the verb. Same with ‘hope’ and ‘open’.

I often draw attention to a difficulty in finding a finite verb. Oh hopping hippopotami – what is this, an English lesson? Using the term ‘finite verb’ is a short cut. I mean the bit of the verb that’s clearly attached to the subject of the sentence, the bit that completes a statement. Verb = doing/being word, right? With a finite verb, the doing/being gets done. With bits of verbs, like participles, the doing isn’t finished so you get a sentence fragment, or non-grammatical sentence. Like this:

Moving into the sun again, and coming
back and not knowing, even then, which
way the sun, the
setting sun, the falling sun.

There’s no finite verb in that group of lines. This doesn’t mean the lines are wrong. It means there’s an interesting, displaced, floating effect. No finite verb means no position in time. I could put a finite verb in, of course, and everything would change, though not necessarily for the better:

Moving into the sun again, and coming
back and not knowing, even then, which
way the sun, the
setting sun, the falling sun was going.

All the same, when reading the second version, you feel you (sort of) know where you are. You’re in the past, for a start, even though the action is fluid. But in that first sentence, the lack of a finite verb is more taxing for the reader. And that’s without even mentioning the line breaks.

Line breaks are just another poetry trick. They can accomplish all sorts of things and this is part of the fun. But they’re also little barriers, positioned deliberately. They create tiny hitches in the rhythm, or the sense, or the flow of meaning. If those tiny hitches become major snags – because you can’t see where the central thread’s going – that’s a problem, unless the poem is (in some sense or other) about confusion. Which, just to confuse the hippopotamuse further, it might be.

There are poems that manage one single sentence across three six-line stanzas. Gerry Cambridge has just sent a beauty on his Christmas card. When this works (as it did in Gerry’s case) it is a joy. In such an instance the reader glides securely through the poem like a skier in perfect snow, and then goes back and does the whole thing again. And again. Just for the pleasure of it.

But so often it doesn’t work. Many poets seem afraid to write short sentences. I suspect there’s an unconscious sense that poems shouldn’t seem easy. If they were easy to understand at first reading, would they be poems?

Well, yes. They might well be poems. Poems can do anything. Short, long, convoluted, crazy.

On balance, though, I think it’s good to keep the reader with you, at least until she gets to the end. If she falls off her skis in the middle, she may never get back on. Or she may get onto a different poem.

In my perilous feedback to poets, I’ve been doing the usual thing of drawing attention to ‘leaning verbs’, because their proliferation is still astonishing. I was amused to see the ‘Blind Criticism’ example in this month’s issue of The North has one at the very end, which puts the author (I won’t give her away) smartly into the contemp-po box. And you can see it isn’t a bad thing. But there’s something familiar about it. It’s not, to my mind, the best thing. Because the best thing is not quite like anything you’ve read before.

It’s also possible that I’m losing it. Yes, plot lost. Hippoplotamus lostus. If you read a huge quantity of poems, you can’t miss the recurring trends. You can’t fail to see how often the word ‘heft’ pops up. Poor ‘heft’. Used as a verb, it was once singular and different. Not now. Lottaheftamus.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Hippopotamus_001.jpgAnd the number of poems that follow the ‘then’ and ‘but now’ format! And the number of lines beginning with my least favourite word,‘as’. Not to mention the ubiquity of ‘we were stood’ or ‘we were satamus’, which causes me physical pain.

Sometimes I think it’s a good thing to be exquisitely sensitive to language and phrasing. Sometimes I know it’s not.

Here’s the list of contemp-po features that have been smacking me in the eye over the last ten days. I’ve modified a little since the last time round, where there was more illustration of the last two, so if you want to know more about what I meant, follow the link:

  • lots of‘I’ plus present tense: ‘I see’ and ‘I watch’ and ‘I think
  • disappearing subjects (verb with no ‘I’ or ‘he’ or ‘you’)
  • poems in couplets
  • entire poem based on one metaphor (sometimes it works)
  • over-mixed metaphor (crossed logics)
  • death by adjectives
  • a lot of cross-stanza enjambment
  • colons, semi-colons and dashes that don’t (for me) do much
  • long sentences that lose the reader
  • multiple statements lacking finite verbs
  • sentences or stanzas starting ‘And’ and ‘But’
  • first few lines dead (no bite) or hard to follow
  • titles with a witty (?) double meaning
  • title steals thunder of the best (last?) line or phrase
  • numerous ‘as’ sentences (see blog 26.05.2011)
  • anaphora structure (eg each line begins ‘because’)
  • the last word of the last line is ‘love’
  • the word ‘yet’ flags an epiphany (resist! resist!)
  • the word ‘for’ meaning ‘because’
  • then, followed a few lines later by suddenly (regrettable in prose, let alone poetry)
  • perplexing line breaks, which is nearly but not quite as bad as
  • line breaks on ‘significant’ word like ‘break’ or ‘turn’ or ‘over’
  • a rhyme at, or very near, the end, but none anywhere else
  • no punctuation, and then some suddenly arrives
  • the ‘leaning verb thing’
  • the ‘how’ and ‘the way’ clause repetition
  • line breaks sometimes serves as a pause (no comma) but other line breaks are enjambed so the line break isn’t a pause at all and it all gets . . . difficult
  • poems that only fit comfortably on a page at least A4 in size
  • ‘I was sat under a tree’; ‘we were stood by the bar’—contemporary usage that works conversationally but sits uneasily in formal writing (so sez Nellie and see OxfordWords blog on this)
  • scant awareness of assonance – one of the best tricks in the book. Maybe even the best.

Back to the envelopes now. Oh, one last word. Some nice people have deferred sending poems, they tell me, because they don’t want me to be overburdened. But theirs could be the ones I would like most. I know I can’t keep this up forever. By next December, there may not be a window at all. So send them now while the hippo muse is still (relatively) amusing and before the postamus crumbles. Hip, hip, hurrotamus!



‘Un poème n’est jamais fini, seulement abandonné. A poem is never finished, only abandoned.’ Paul Valéry

I’ve abandoned a good few poems in my time.  It’s hard to know when, or if, they are ever ‘finished’.

Gerry Cambridge, poet and editor of The Dark Horse, once told me, ‘Do not send out fresh poems.’ And he was right. It was a long time ago, and I’d had a surge of inspiration. I had ‘finished’ three or four new poems and promptly sent them to him.

Even now, time and again, I find a poem is not as finished as I thought it was. I tinker about for a week or do, think the thing is ‘done’, file it, and – lo and behold, I pick it up six weeks later and see immediately something must change, or the first stanza must go, or that it mustn’t have stanzas, or that I’ve repeated a key word twice and didn’t even notice.

On the other hand, I’ve abandoned poems sometimes because I couldn’t get them right. Then I’ve gone back into them to finish them, and I’ve wrecked them. Sometimes they’re worth keeping, flawed or not. A fragment might be salvaged and re-used. Sometimes, they need to be abandoned without trace.

When people send me poems during submission windows, I quite often (and this comment is terribly annoying) tell them I don’t think a particular poem’s quite ‘cooked’. Or I say, ‘I think there’s a poem in this poem but it hasn’t quite arrived.’

I’m a great fixer. I worry about this too. I often think of Robert Browning’s poem Andrea del Sarto. I may be employing my “low-pulsed forthright craftsman’s hand”. Who wants to be low-pulsed?

I, painting from myself and to myself,
Know what I do, am unmoved by men’s blame
Or their praise either. Somebody remarks
Morello’s outline there is wrongly traced,
His hue mistaken; what of that? or else,
Rightly traced and well ordered; what of that?
Speak as they please, what does the mountain care?
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for? All is silver-grey,
Placid and perfect with my art . . .

The aim is not to be placid and perfect. The aim is to let the poem do its thing, whatever that may be. It’s a strange process, working with words and lines, working with one’s art, such as it is, and hoping the poem will do what it seems to want to do, that some subconscious process will allow the lyric to achieve itself. Almost impossible to describe.

But redrafting is not necessarily about making perfect. Browning might have talked about the soul of the poem and setting it free. Andrea del Sarto, ‘the faultless painter’, longs to fix a painting, but there’s a cost:

That arm is wrongly put, and there again –
A fault to pardon in the drawing’s lines,
Its body, so to speak: its soul is right,
He means right – that, a child may understand
Still, what an arm! and I could alter it:
But all the play, the insight and the stretch –
Out of me, out of me!

Many people get a poem to a certain stage and then take it to a workshop or even a masterclass. This can be helpful. It can also wreck the poem.

I once sent a poem to a good poet I know for advice. Her advice led me to change the poem substantially, and I was rather smug about the pleasing result. Then I put the poem away. I came back to it six months later. I had killed the poem stone-dead. I went back to the original version. That wasn’t right either. So I abandoned it forever

I’ve returned to ancient poems too – poems I wrote decades ago, which I think I can now ‘fix’. But it’s hard to work on poems after they’ve aged beyond a certain amount. You’re not the same person. Your voice is different. They can end up more ‘finished’ but less authentic. There is a point at which abandoning the poem is the right thing to do.

How do you know when you’ve reached that point? I’ve no idea.





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.



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!




But not whining. Or I hope not.

But it has been quite a week.b2ap3_thumbnail_DSC02048_20130901-085220_1.jpg

The decoration of the HappenStance bedroom/office was neatly finished in time for the work downstairs to commence with a vengeance. The conservatory, which was leaking in more places than we had bowls to put under, has been torn down (ready for rebuilding). So the furniture from the conservatory is in the newly painted bedroom. It is difficult to move there.

The new conservatory has not yet been built so the door which would go into it is boarded up and the sitting room is consequently very dark.


However, the log burning stove (cue previous saga) has been installed. We are still getting used to the shock of stove plus huge pipe. But it works. It certainly works. And the light from the flames slightly offsets the huge dark from the boarded up wall.

Half the exterior of the house has been rough cast and harled. Men come to do pipes, cladding and gutters tomorrow morning. And more of the building work round the soon-to-be-erected conservatory. They are all men. On the board in the kitchen, there’s a small list of names and what they take in their tea.


And on my upstairs list (it has been increasingly hard to get to this computer which is a gateway to the WORLD) there has been the pleasure of knowing Gerry Cambridge’s book, Notes for Lighting a Fire, has been short-listed for The Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Book Awards. Long live mortgages!


But meanwhile (a lot of my paragraphs are starting with ‘but’, but that’s the least of it), my friend and HappenStance poet Marcia Menter, arrived from New York, and together we set off for the Isle of Arran, leaving the building work behind, and my long-suffering partner Matt in charge of log stoves, tea for the workers and general survival.


Why Arran? Marcia was one of four winners of the Robert McLellan poetry prize and she flew over, like a true poetry executive, for the award ceremony. (This is not the sort of thing she usually does but hey, life is short).

The three other winners included another HappenStance poet, Jim Carruth (hurray!) And then there was Ron Scowcroft, Hubert Moore and highly commended Emma Strang. Hubert is the one with his hand in his pocket, Ron the one gripping the lectern. Jim, you will recognise. A lovely bunch of people.



But it wasn’t all winning. On our way to the event, Gerry Cambridge texted to say Seamus Heaney had died, a huge loss. I would not normally see this from a US perspective but because I was with Marcia, I knew that this death was featured next day on the front page of the New York Times above the fold. This is practically unheard of.

And so, as PoetryWorld shivered on its foundations, we celebrated poetry, which will outlive all of us.

Peter and Ann Sansom were the judges of the McLellan competition and awarded prizes. But they did much more than that. They are not ordinary judges (or poets). They talked about each winning poem. They read each poem, and then the poets read them again. We got to know those poems, and their authors.

All this in a little community hall on Arran, set out not in in rows, but with café-style tables and bring-your-own bottles of wine. There was a lovely atmosphere. Peter and Ann read a few of their own poems too – not many – with charm, humour and generosity. We laughed a great deal. Oh did you read Anthony Wilson on Ann Sansom? It is all true.


I think it’s true to say that on this lovely occasion on Arran, despite the loss of the great Seamus, we felt like we had all won. He was not forgotten, and as long as there is life and letters, he never will be.

We arrived in Arran in rain but with rainbows.


We left in a squall of rain that nearly soaked us through, followed by brilliant sunshine.


Now back to the building of the HappenStance emporium. This week the conservatory should go up, the roofwork should be done – oh and a few other things. One day it might be possible to read and write here again.

But not yet.

On Friday, I go to London, taking some HappenStance wares to the Free Verse Bookfair at the Conway Hall in London. I must work out where it is before then. If you’re based in or near the metropolis, do come along and have a chat. I may have dust and mortar in my hair, but who cares?





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.