Usually I don’t go, but this time I went.

Usually I don’t go, but this time I went.

Things happen in Scotland, and it’s possible to get there and back in a day. Things happen in London, and it means asking friends for a bed for at least one night. It means effectively three days away from the business. Then there’s planes or trains, and Oystercardless tubes or busses that stop and ditch their passengers. It’s a trip to a foreign city where I’m just the little iron on the Monopoly board, with no houses and no prospect of a hotel.

Nonetheless, Charles Boyle’s invitation to take part in his CB Editions Bookfair was so warmly extended, I thought I’d do it. Just for once.

Three times now I’ve missed Book Fairs I very much wanted to get to. There have been, for example, two Leicester BookFairs organized by Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves Press, (Ross is also author of one of my PoemCards) in the States of Independence series, and now there’s States of Independence (West), next Saturday in Birmingham. At these events, Robin Vaughan-Williams has been a noble HappenStance author in independent residence, and he’ll be flying the flag, as they say, on the 8th (Gregory Leadbetter is going along too).

I have, however, managed to take part in a number of the colourful poetry pamphlet fairs organized by Scottish Pamphlet Poetry, but there’s a special attraction about being part of a book fair. And while on that subject, HappenStance will be at the splendid By Leaves We Live annual Poetry Publishing Fair at the Scottish Poetry Library at the end of this month, and I’ll be doing on of the short talks (in our case a bit of a conversation) with Gerry Cambridge.

But back to Charles Boyle’s CB Editions event last week (which has been blogged about a lot. Already I feel I should have prefaced all of this with a hyperlink alert). It was held on a beautiful day – not quite as hot as it’s been in London this weekend, but still sunny and warm, so people could sit and chat outside at the various venues along the little street that calls itself Exmouth Market.  You don’t do that in Scotland in September!

The book fair itself was held in exactly the sort of church hall you would find anywhere in the UK. Slightly dilapidated but spacious, with a kitchen at the back where worthy ladies must have made teas for generations.

Book Fair (early)

There were Christmas lights (unlit, alas) trailing from the roof beams, and tables assembled all round the edges of the hall. On the stage at the front, Michael Horowitz did a weird and wonderful introduction to events, accompanied by kazoo and his own personal sound effects. Later, a singer from the street outside came in and did a few songs. Upstairs, there was a little room in which readings went on throughout the day, non-stop – and although I only made it to a couple of these, I can confirm it was a friendly little room and I should like to have heard a whole lot more of them. Not a bad place to read either, despite interesting noises from the street outside – crashes of a million bottles landing somewhere, the street singer resonating up through the window, the chiming of a clock at regular intervals.

Fiona Moore (who is to be a HappenStance poet in 2013) has described it all beautifully in her Displacement blog. I hadn’t met her before, and one of the lovely things about this day was having the opportunity to hobnob with poets, who obligingly stepped off the paper into human form. Jon Stone and Kirsty Irving, for example, were sitting beside me for most of the day being Sidekick Books, but they also read in the HappenStance relay-race slot. Kirsty has her own account of events here.

Tim Love took over the stall while our reading was going on upstairs – Tim was around for most of the day. Marion Tracy arrived (she is a forthcoming HappenStancer) and Christina Dunhill (ditto). And Peter Daniels and D A Prince and Lorna Dowell and Clare Best and Mike Loveday. Oh, and Matt Merritt was there too — here is his blog on the subject: he now, of course, represents Nine Arches (opportunity to meet Jane Commane for the first time). And Chrissy Williams, who will also metamorphose into a HappenStance pamphlet in 2012, organized  the programme of readings and was around to greet us. There was even Geoff Lander, my old friend from university, living proof that all roads meet in the end. He was a chemistry student once – now he’s turned to verse! Oh and Nancy Campbell, whom I’ve wanted to meet for years, and who brought me some beautiful postcards celebrating her newly launched How to say ‘I love you’ in Icelandic. A joy.

HappenStance poets reading

So there was something of a party spirit in the air. In fact, several parties were going on in various parts of the hall. Here is Tom Chivers’ account, for example. Katy Evans-Bush calls it a Renaissance. Ken Edwards on Reality Street gives it a mention. Honestly everybody who was anybody was there. (Well, you could be forgiven for thinking so. Some of them were actually at The London Art Book Fair, as mentioned in the Sphinx feature about Sylph Editions posted recently. In fact, as I travelled back to Vauxhall on the tube, the man sitting opposite me had a huge transparent carrier bag full of publications from that very event).

Other blogger accounts included Sue Guiney (who also read — and I actually HEARD her read, with particular pleasure), and Hilaireinlondon. Rack Press, who was there, has a paragraph about it too. And there’s Andrew Bailey, whom I didn’t quite meet. There were people matching faces with FaceBook friends, one of today’s most amusing party games. Why are people never the same height they seem to be on FaceBook?

The previous night, Chris H-E had launched the new Salt Best British Poetry 2011, and many of the poets in that volume were around, as well as Roddy Lumsden, the noble editor. It was pretty busy, especially between about 11.30 and 2.30.  Chris blogged about the event afterwards – a lovely commentary. He calls Charles Boyle “deliciously grumpy and adversarial”, a great compliment. I wish somebody would call me that. It’s so much better than “the Delia Smith of poetry”.Charles Boyle

I feel I should say Charles has been very charming to me and not at all grumpy.  His own CB Editions books were modestly displayed on a stylish little bookrack to my right, and although this corner was not always manned, people kept coming and buying his attractive books. We slid notes into the money pouch of our rival without demur. He is running a fascinating book enterprise. His books are worth buying.

Chris  Hamilton-Emery talks in his blog about the dark side of such events, how they “can be downright depressing experiences when a (seriously) amateur world collides with different levels of professional delusion and, well, trajectories of intention: from the technically proficient to the anarchically crappy.” How true this is!  I was worried it might even be true of this event, but happily it was not. There was an air of cheery professionalism about it all. Fellow publishers were, as I have found ever since I commenced on this crazy venture, undeniably friendly.

And yes, people did spend money, though not, at my table, as much as Chris suggests (“. . . people came in droves. Really. Not only did they come, they spent money; lots of money.”) A great many of the people in the hall, so far as I could tell, were poets, or aspiring poets. It would have been nice to know how many could have been classed as common readers, the species that poetry so very much needs to win back. And poets are not, in my experience, particularly wealthy. In fact, I worry periodically that poets from my own list are impoverishing themselves trying to support my enterprise: about £120.00 worth of HappenStance publications disappeared on the day, which is not half bad for these events. But I think a number of my own poets bought stuff (they are such nice people)!

So from the money side of things, going to the event did not – could not –  be rational. There was the fee for the taking of a table, there was the (in my case) plane and train fares, the car parking in Edinburgh, the tubes and so on. And most of all, the time investment.

But the meeting of the poets, the taking part in the hubbub, the learning experience –  these factors made it worth it. I wish I had spent more time talking to publishers: I didn’t really manage that, though it was great to meet Andy Ching of Donut Press, whose table was near mine. I wanted to talk to others, didn’t really have time – not even to talk to my own publisher, John Lucas, who was sitting at a Shoestring Press table himself.

Back to country mouse existence now. . . .


Two new pamphlets this week, and two new PoemCards. A frenzy of packets and packaging!

Two new pamphlets this week, and two new PoemCards. A frenzy of packets and packaging!

One was Kirsten Irving’s What To Do. Kirsten is one of the remarkable young editor/poets at the helm of Sidekick Books. (Jon Stone is the other one.) Anyone who has even glimpsed the recent Birdbook 1 will be agog to see her own first poetry collection. She has a full collection already scheduled from Salt next year but this is a chance to get a taster. She is a smashing writer. Read her!

Then there’s the irrepressible Ross Kightly, author of Gnome Balcony. Decades divide these two poets, insofar as age is concerned, but they have energy and unpredictable bounce in common. And this is Ross’s first collection too. An Australian by birth, he mixes voices and methods and sometimes mayhem. There is no holding him, and in fact, at several points he seems to be about to escape his own pamphlet.

On top of these, two lovely new PoemCards. At least I think they’re lovely. Tom Vaughan’s The Mower is a winner for Spring gardeners, lawnmower lovers, and anyone who can’t stop working. The illustration is perfect.

The other card, Stewart Conn’s, was originally devised for Valentine’s Day but it would be lovely for any romantic occasion. And it has an insert. Titled Cupid’s Dart, the dart itself (with another copy of the poem on it) is folded inside the card, ready for hurling at the heart. Really neat.

Behind the Scenes
That was the official bit. Behind the scenes, a frenzy of parceling and packaging and bone-folder folding. This is what had to be done:

  • Twelve author copies of What To Do in four different packets to author.
  • Twelve author copies of Gnome Balcony in four different packets to author.
  • One packet of fliers for What To Do in packet to author.
  • One packet of fliers for Gnome Balcony to author.
  • One box of 23 additional copies of What To Do in lieu of payment to author (packaged in a Suzuki drivebelt box, very useful)
  • One box of 23 additional copies of Gnome Balcony in lieu of payment to author (packaged in Suzuki drivebelt box)
  • Twenty author copies of The Mower to be folded, packaged and sent to author, with another twenty he had ordered and some copies of his Sampler, also ordered.
  • Twelve author copies of Cupid’s Dart to author: cards to be folded and inserts (much more complicated) to be folded.
  • Three copies of What To Do, Gnome Balcony, Michael Mackmin’s From There to Here, Peter Daniels’ Mr Luczinski Makes a Move, and Matthew Stewart’s Inventing Truth to Poetry Book Society for consideration for pamphlet choice (six years so far without a recommendation: can our special moment ever happen?)
  • Five copies of Gnome Balcony and What To Do to Agent for Copyright Libraries with accompanying letter.
  • One copy of Gnome Balcony and What To Do to British Library with accompanying letter.
  • Two copies of Gnome Balcony and What To Do to National Poetry Library with invoice, as well as copies of new PoemCards.
  • Two copies of Gnome Balcony and What To Do to Scottish Poetry Library.
  • Copies of cards and poems to Webmaster Sarah Willans, to Gillian Rose (who does the cover images), to two members of my family who get everything, two friends who get most things, and several other people.
  • Copies of Gnome Balcony and What To Do to three Sphinx reviewers.
  • Six other assorted orders despatched to customers and authors.

The Cupid’s Dart PoemCard is a labour of love. I want you to know that the folding and preparation (by hand) takes a considerable time, though it costs no more than the other cards (because I am nuts). So if you can think of anyone for whom it would be appropriate, please send for one. (You’re unlikely to get this one slipped in with an ordinary order.) And by Valentine’s Day next year, I expect a run.

I purchased all the new William Morris stamps from our local post office and had a cheery conversation with the Evil Postman, whom some of you will know of old from Chapters of the Story. I arrived on Saturday at five to twelve, and the ladies at the poet office made him wait for my two drive belt boxes to be duly labeled and put into his bags, by which time it was two minutes after twelve and he was snarling (he snarls with evil charm).

I’ll put them in the SLOW bag. That’ll mean they’ll take at least a week to get there.

I don’t believe him. He has a gleam in his eye when he says (as he always does):

You should get up earlier”.


Shakespeare said it first. Or at least Don Paterson’s version of Shakespeare’s sonnet 102 did:

That love is merchandized, whose rich esteeming
The owner’s tongue doth publish everywhere.

Shakespeare said it first. Or at least Don Paterson’s version of Shakespeare’s sonnet 102 did:

That love is merchandized, whose rich esteeming
The owner’s tongue doth publish everywhere.

Which leads DP into:

Oh yes – overpublication is a terrible thing in a poet, and only arouses suspicion. It looks like it’s coming way too easily, meaning either it’s not costing you enough, or you’re insincere, or you’re probably repeating yourself. (And it’s all too easy to do: readers like to read their poetry as if it were something rare and precious. A poet can saturate his or her market just by publishing every three years.)

Yes, it’s the opposite of ‘tell everyone if you plan to go on a diet’. The quotation is, of course, from DP’s recent commentary Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which, among other things, includes tips and advice to poets from One Who Knows. Not everyone will agree with him here, needless to say – though I do.

That’s because the pile of poems and anthologies at my elbow grows daily and there is a point at which it all becomes like too much pudding (not padding, pudding). You only look forward to dessert as a special thing, if you’re going to be able to get up and walk after you’ve eaten it.

This creates a wee problem for those poets who are hugely prolific, and possibly for  those who are currently writing a poem a day for NatPoMo. Well – it does if writing and poems and sharing them with the world are seen as hand-in-hand activities, as they are by many.

This week, on Facebook, poet and publisher Peter Daniels shared Book  Business comments from someone called Neal Goff (great name) of Egremont Associates, a firm that helps publishers sell stuff. And what does he say?

. . . in order to succeed in selling books directly to consumers . . .  publishers are going to have to step back and nurture gatherings of consumers in the consumers’ interest areas before creating content that those gatherings want. This is the antithesis of what publishers were once able to do, which was publish content and then create audience interest.

Oo-er missus. I was at one of Colin Will’s book launches yesterday – lovely readings from Geoff Cooper, Eddie Gibbons and Lyn Moir to support their new pamphlet publications. Was that nurturing gatherings of consumers? I suppose it was in a way.

As is Rob Mackenzie’s Poetry at the . . . Store this very evening, at which one of ‘my’ new poets, Matthew Stewart, launches his new pamphlet (32 pages of poems compiled carefully over several years).

But I don’t think we can nurture enough consumers to beat the book battle. Nurturing people is very time-consuming. It’s hellish trying to nurture folk and produce poetry publications at the same time. Are you being nurtured as you read this? If not, email me. I will send chocolate.

Jon Stone suggests “alternatives to the single author volume” may be the answer. More anthologies. Anthologies do seem to reach more common readers, or readers who like their theme, which can counteract the Fear of Po. The two big sources of income for poetry activity, in the days of vanishing AC funding, must surely be competitions and anthologies (take a look at Bloodaxe’s top ten titles).

This gives me a nice opportunity to work in a mention of the new Grey Hen volume, out this week, Get Me Out of Here! Poems for trying circumstances. Quirky (often funny) poems by “older women poets” of whom I am one.  A very enjoyable read and probably going to be marketed to a nurtured gathering of older women readers (there will be noteworthy exceptions). We older women (OWs) are still, I imagine, the main poetry-book-buying group in the UK. (YWs reading this: you can be an OW eventually. If you want to know what it’s like, read this book. YMs: tough.)

And there’s another excellent new anthology from Leicester-based Soundswrite, this time women from aged 25 to 98! A pleasure to read. If I were in the area, I would want to be involved with this group: a place where nature and nurture are combined. (YMs: sorry.)

But Mr Goff suggests that “the internet is the best marketing medium ever invented”. Maybe so. Maybe no. It connects with a vast number of people, theoretically, but that vast number of people is having a vast amount of stuff marketed to it every second of every hour of every day of every. . . .

Therefore, like her [Philomel], I sometime hold my tongue,
Because I would not dull you with my song.


The email newsletter went out last week flagging three new publications. But guess what I forgot?

This is what it said:

Three new pamphlets. Which will you choose?

Matthew Stewart’s Inventing Truth is a first collection, Matthew works in Spain, and there’s a sense of moving between languages and cultures behind this unusual pamphlet. The poems are almost all brief. But they’re poignant and thoughtful. Moments in amber.

Peter Daniels is a name familiar to most readers of small press magazines. He has been writing good, resonant poems for a long time. I, for one, was convinced he already had at least one full collection in print. He hasn’t, not yet, though he will have soon. This pamphlet contains some competition winners and some new poems. Like the image on the cover, he is a writer of poise, elegance and panache.

Michael Mackmin’s pamphlet Twenty-Three Poems was published by HappenStance in 2006 and sold out quickly. Best known as editor of The Rialto, Michael’s own poems are quirky, different, experimental. If I hadn’t banned the word ‘risk-taking’ from my Sphinx reviewers I might mention something about risks. Instead, I’ll just suggest you read the poems.

The deliberate mistake (not) was failing to mention the titles of the second two new pamphlets (Twenty-Three Poems is long out of print). I thought this would add an air of mystery which would make you go and look for them.

No, that’s not really true. I just cocked it up again.

However, to make it easy, here’s a link to the shop details for

Matthew Stewart’s Inventing Truth


Peter Daniels’ Mr Luczinski Makes a Move


Michael Mackmin’s From there to here

I’m very pleased with these three. Good contrasting poets. Lovely looking publications. I sez it as knows.

Shortly there will be two more. One will be by Kirsten Irving and we think it will be called What to Do. The other is by Ross Kightly and it will probably be called Gnome Balcony.

But nothing is finalised, and I am going on holiday next week. In fact, with luck I will already be on holiday by the time you are reading this. When I come back, the poets, or their muses, may have changed their minds.

Watch this gnome . . .


I once carried out a lengthy analysis of winning entries in order to pin down the secret.

I once carried out a lengthy analysis of winning entries in order to pin down the secret.

The exercise failed. All I managed to do was come up with tenuous links between winning poems, and some clear ideas about what made poets lose.

Yesterday I was at the final stage of judging the William Soutar Writing Prize, a free-to-enter Perth-based poetry competition which attracted just under two hundred entries last month. That’s a relatively small number compared to the biggies, which attract thousands and which you have to pay to enter. But at least it meant I could read all the poems.

It didn’t mean it was easy to pick the winners. My short list of 13 already excluded a couple of poems I liked a lot. It went down to 12 when I realised one exceeded the required length. (In all competitions, a surprising number put themselves out of the running by breaking the rules.)

Tim Love says “Winning competitions can be like applying for a job. The first stage is more to do with avoiding errors in order to get in the short-list. The second stage is where depth is revealed.”

I think he’s right. There were poems in my short list that would have made it to the long list of one of the major competitions. They were sound, well-made, interesting pieces of writing. With depth.

In the pile I put to one side, the non-winners, there were some fabulous lines and fragments. But in the end it’s the whole poem or nothing in a competition.

There were also the non-starters. These tend to be characterised by being presented in a centred format, often with an odd or over-large typeface, faulty punctuation — that kind of thing. It is not true (contrary to popular belief) that metre and rhyme make a poem less likely to win. But it is easier to spot weakness in formal construction, I think, than in the looser array of free verse (I was about to write ‘free dress’ — but in fact, this is partly it — how the poem is dressed.)

Back to the winners. This is the point where I became a committee of myselves. First I typed them all out again, in the same font so I wasn’t biassed by layout and typeface. Then I read them aloud. A poem is not just what it looks like and what it means: it’s how it feels in the mouth and the ear too. At least, that’s true in my book.

I had to do a bit of scouting about on the web, too, to check some background detail. When poems create a context for themselves, in terms of topical or historical reference, it’s good to check it out. Actually, I like it when the poem operates in a larger frame, when it sends its reader on a treasure hunt.

And then I sat down again with my 12 poems, all carefully typed out in Calibri. At this point, I could make a strong case for all the final contenders, and especially for particular features of each one.

But one has to decide. And that’s like the whole business of poetry publishing. In the final stages, subjective personal preference comes in. It is not enough to admire a poem. Which one do you want to learn by heart? Which do you desperately want to show your friends?

And so I did decide. But I’m not saying more about that here. It will be on the AK Bell Library website and the William Soutar website later this month  . . . with the prizes awarded at Perth Writers’ Day on March 26th.

Meanwhile, for me it’s back to the three pamphlets in hand: Peter Daniels, Matthew Stewart and Michael Mackmin, winners one and all. Oh, and check out Graham Austin’s opportunity on the HappenStance competitions page. T S Eliot afficionados might like to take a crack at this. Man in balloon with telescope