This was one of the questions at the Poetry Book Fair last Saturday.

The Book Fair was exceptionally good. The atmosphere was hustling and bustling but absolutely friendly and unhierarchical. Faces you know well from the backs of prize-winning bookjackets rubbed shoulders with faces you’d never seen before. Hang on—faces can’t rub shoulders with faces. But you know what I mean.

b2ap3_thumbnail_BOOKFAIR.jpgApart from selling books at a stall, and launching D A Prince’s new book Common Ground, and the choc-lit anthology, Blame Montezuma! (with lashings of chocolate tasting buttons), I took part in a panel event, together with Peter Hughes of Oystercatcher Press and Emma Wright of the Emma Press. Joey Connolly (Kaffeeklatsch and Poetry Book Fair manager) asked the questions. Peter, Emma and I all publish poetry pamphlets, but the way we do it, and what we look for, is (and isn’t) different.

The truth is: each poetry imprint is highly individual. It must be. It’s just like writing poems. Making a publishing enterprise is a creative act, and each person who does it does it differently. What we have in common is that we are all making this same thing, a thing that produces and sells little papery publications with poems in them. We’re probably all mad (in a good way). We are all (I think) stubborn and determined.

Anyway, one of the questions was about submissions. What were we looking for?

There wasn’t a lot of time. I answered the question truthfully, but my answer wasn’t the whole answer. So much so that I travelled back on the train thinking hard about what the answer really was.

What did I say on the day? Something like this: that I couldn’t define what I was looking for because I didn’t know what it was. If I knew what it was, I said, I would write it myself. I hoped to be open to poetry that defied all my expectations. Oh, and I also said I looked for work that could be accommodated within an A5 pamphlet format, because that’s what I make. Mundane, but true.

And yet not the whole story. When I read poetry submissions it is exciting to think I might come across something like nothing I’ve ever read before but still instantly recognisable as ‘poetry’ (whatever’s meant by that elusive term). And sometimes I think it happens. Generally it’s in the shape of individual poems, though, rather than poets. That is to say, someone sends a set of poems and one or two of them strike me as remarkable. The rest may not engage me at all, or only to varying degrees.

So, yes, I do look for the unexpected, the thing I can’t define.

But there’s more to it than that.

I look for the expected. I look for the expected but done well. I like mainstream as well as sidestream and substream.

I like traditional forms (except villanelles, sestinas and pantoums). I’m tough on form though: it has to have passed its MOT.

I like personal poems. I like love poems. I like poems that make sense. I like poems I don’t understand. I like poems that make me think hard. I like poems that make me work. I like lyrical poems. I like prosy poems.

But the Book Fair question was really about publishing. What did we look for with a view to publishing it?

It’s not just a matter of publishing. There’s the issue of selling. I have to sell the pamphlets to get the money to publish more. My most important sales outlet is the HappenStance subscriber group. Many of these people regularly buy pamphlets, and they tell me what they like (or don’t like). This feedback influences my subsequent choices. I might publish something I thought most of them wouldn’t like, but I certainly wouldn’t do that often. If I did, I’d lose them.

Some of my publications sell faster and get better feedback than others. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are the best (or the ones I personally like the best either) but it does mean they’ve gone down well with the people I sell to. So I make a mental note – like a colour in a colour chart – of where that poet fitted in, and what might either contrast well, or harmonise. I try to learn, all the time, about the readers as well as the poets. I want to offer them a range. I want to challenge them but I also want to please them.

Then there’s the fact that I publish two different kinds of poetry pamphlet. One set is from ‘established’ poets with an idea that demands pamphlet form. By the end of 2014 (If all goes according to plan) I will have published nine pamphlets, three of them in this category. I don’t actively go round looking for them at all, because I’m permanently over-committed. But if something turns up that I can’t resist . . .

The other six poetry pamphlets for 2014 are debuts, i.e. the poet’s first step into publication. These are the HappenStance bread and butter. Obviously I am looking for poets I think are ‘ready’. Or nearly ready. It does take time but, as Hamlet pointed out in somewhat different circumstances, the readiness is all.

Sometimes I see a set of poems I think are fabulous. No editing required. Just as they are. In this case, the debut poet doesn’t need me. He or she should win one of the competitions, thereby gaining both cash and kudos. So I suggest they go away and enter. If they don’t win (for reasons I can’t fathom) they come back to me.

At other times, I think a set of poems is amazing, and I also think, for a variety of reasons, they won’t win a pamphlet competition. They are too off the wall, or too emotional, or too retro, or too understated, or too something else. How hard it is to put this kind of thing into words!

But mostly I look (when it comes to debuts) for poets I can work with. Not just in a personal sense (though this is important too) but in a way that can make the work stronger, that can move the poet along a little.

In order to be a good editor, you need not just a sensible head in terms of meaning and impact and presentation and form, but also an intuitive grasp of what each poet is doing and how their method works. For some people, I feel I have that. This means I can be a good sounding bell. For others, even though I may like them—and their poems—I don’t.

The poet needs to be looking for something too, something more than just a publisher. He or she needs to feel an editor’s method and response to the work is ‘right’ for them. It takes a little while to establish this, which I why I encourage people to send small sets of poems during reading windows, and why I rarely offer to publish a pamphlet on first submission.

I used to be a college teacher, but I don’t want to be a ‘teacher’ now. I can’t teach anybody how to write poems. I can, however, work with them on poems. And for a few people I can be the sort of editor I need myself.

So that’s what I look for. All of it.

And at the same time, during each and every reading ‘window’, I hope I won’t find it, so I can have a bit of a rest. . . .




Getting and spending

What a week. Ooya-hun — what a week! I warn you — this blog entry is much too long.

No post last weekend because it was the fifth birthday party. Family were staying, including my sister sleeping in the study where I write this blog on a Sunday morning. It was the most complicated event I’ve ever attempted to organise. Mid-preparations, Gina Wilson’s pamphlet was in its final stages — I took a mock-up to the party itself to give to her for final checking.

What a week. Ooya-hun — what a week! I warn you — this blog entry is much too long.

No post last weekend because it was the fifth birthday party. Family were staying, including my sister sleeping in the study where I write this blog on a Sunday morning. It was the most complicated event I’ve ever attempted to organise. Mid-preparations, Gina Wilson’s pamphlet was in its final stages — I took a mock-up to the party itself to give to her for final checking.

Gillian (artist daughter) made an amazing cake. More than 60 people, about 20 of these being HappenStance poets, came along. Robin Vaughan-Wiliams did a Risk Assessment. Poems were read from past pamphlets, recent pamphlets, pamphlets out of print, pamphlets in process and pamphlets which haven’t even got as far as a contents list. Jamie Rose of Reeds (son-in-law made music and sang one of the poems, a ballad).  I nearly cried. I was able to say my bit about poetry, whatever it may be, being less about the art of the individual than the mystery of language (to which all poets subscribe). I think I said it less pretentiously than that.

At the party, I didn’t mention being shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award for the second year. However, on Monday there was a mysterious email from PBS about jpgs.

On the Tuesday, there was an email to check whether I was coming and if so, bringing how many guests. I replied to say I couldn’t come — working flat out in college — but that two of ‘my’ poets would be there.

On the Wednesday (day of the award ceremony) there was another email, asking me to call as soon as possible, and even including a mobile number. And a similar message left on the message machine (not on my mobile though). I didn’t get home on that Wednesday until 7.45 (the college work really is driving me demented just now and it’s end of term next Friday) and when I picked up the message I thought, hm, that’s interesting (see post of 5th May).

About ten minutes later I got a text message which read: Congratulations! Hope your ears are burning!

Even more interesting. I wasn’t sure who the text was from (changed my phone recently and not all my contacts, for reasons not understood, transferred from old phone to new one). So I texted back: Congratulations on what?

And it was Davina (D A Prince), who was at the Michael Marks Event in the British Library, and with her Clare Best, who also texted me. And we had WON. So there was much jumping up and down in the HappenStance household, phone calls hither and thither. Descriptions from Davina and Clare on the phone. Tessa Ransford had picked up the cheque on my behalf and made a nice speech.

Anyway, I won’t go on about this further, except to remark that five thousand quid is a huge sum of money in terms of pamphlet publishing. My annual turnover is about eight thousand pounds. Last year there was a loss of about two. For 2008-2009 I should have come closer to breaking even but I haven’t done the books yet. So five thousand extra?!  I will be thinking very carefully how that money can be spent, apart from upgrading my Imac which will be step one. And I’ll report on that too, in Chapter Five of the Story, which goes out to subscribers.

I feel proud and pleased to get this money. And at the same time . . .  pamphlet publishing is obviously important to me, and although I willingly entered this competition for cash and kudos, this niche of publishing is not competitive in the ordinary way (except with itself, in the desire to get better and better).

The other publishers on the short list (and many who either didn’t enter or weren’t short listed) are not competitors; they are — what is the word? Not exactly ‘colleagues’ but close to that. Perhaps fellow workers, slogging away in slightly different territory. I admire the work of Templar, for example, very much. And Oystercatcher who won last year. I know little about Veer Books, would like to know more, but nothing of theirs has come in for review by Sphinx even . . . And there are some wonderful people who won’t have entered, doing remarkable work (see all the stories told in Sphinx over the last four years).

Think what a difference the Smith/Doorstop pamphlets have made over the last decade! And the publishers of the short-listed poets — tall-lighthouse, Roncadora Press, Flarestack (whose Selima Hill took the prize), Nine Arches. So far as I am concerned, there is something terrific about the activity, the dynamism that represents a small press. Without the inspiration of James Robertson’s Kettillonia, I would never have started. In Scotland alone, think of the late Duncan Glen’s Akros imprint, the very much alive Hamish Whyte’s Mariscat and Colin Will’s Calder Wood Press, and Koo Press in Aberdeen!  Think of the work of Hansel Press and  the amazing letter press-artist-poet Len McDermid! Think of the gorgeous pamphlets done by Sally Evans and Ian King of Diehard Press last year! Think of the marvellous range of publications celebrated on the Scottish Pamphlet Poetry Website!

There is plenty of celebration of individual poets — prizes galore.  This publisher’s award isn’t about an individual — it’s about the whole process of bringing the work to readers, bringing it into the light.

So it does occur to me that such sums of money, rather than going to a single prize winner, should perhaps be shared round a bit. What I want is to support this kind of activity, uphold high values of production and enterprise, increase good opportunities for aspiring and established poets, keep this bit of poetry activity vibrant and interesting. Winning is not about me as an individual — at least I certainly hope not. It’s about all the poets I’ve worked with and am still working with, the two excellent printers I use, the local post office, the man who sticks the stamps on the envelopes, Sarah who does (among other things) the website and email newsletter, Gillian who does the cover images, the subscribers — the hugely important subscribers, without which the thing wouldn’t even keep afloat.

Which is where I will stop for the moment. Much more to be said, but not yet. Thank you to all those people who have enthused, supported, helped. Thanks to the Sphinx reviewers who carry out this activity without recompense, except in appreciation and respect. Thanks to the amazing poets I’ve had the privilege of working with. And of course boundless thanks to Lady Marks for munificence and generosity towards this area of the arts.