I find liking poetry more difficult than I used to. What a confession!

But there are certain things I know I like. One of these is memory. I know that sounds old hat: poetry as anecdotal memoir. But I like it.b2ap3_thumbnail_little-jockya.jpg

Ruth Marden harvests scraps of her life particularly well in The Little Jockey, one of the two new HappenStance pamphlets out this month. In ‘Visiting’, for example, the poem – a short one – is book-ended by a simple verbal exchange. We’re in a nursing home (at least that’s the implied setting) and a son and daughter arrive to visit an old lady. The capital letters let us know either that she’s somewhat deaf, or that they habitually shout at her: ‘They say you are WELL!’

Perhaps ‘shouting’ is right, because these are the words they ‘assail’ her with, ‘forcing words in her good ear’.

Maybe that’s also what poems do. Force words into our good ear(s). And maybe our response is not a million miles away from the old lady’s: ‘And did you / BELIEVE them?’

So: I think ‘Visiting’ is a good little poem. It’s not ambitious. It doesn’t try to do anything clever. It doesn’t, apparently, take risks, as we’re increasingly told poems should. But it makes me smile, and from when I first read it, I remembered it. I’m on the side of the old lady. We are all – if we live long enough – on the side of the old lady.

But why would I like Ruth’s opening poem, ‘Enamelled Box’? After all, it’s in two-line stanzas, and I’ve belly-ached quite a bit about two-line stanzas lately. And it isn’t even about much.

The poet has a curious little box. She’s fond of it. She takes it out in the sunshine and puts it on the lawn. She describes the box. I have an impression of its impression on her, more than of the box itself:

Blockings and angles and lines
all jostle, all engage

in oranges, greens,
kaleidoscope-shakings of blue.

The two-line stanzas create space around the box, as I try to ‘see’ through the description, to visualise the object. Why do I like this poem? Why one earth would anyone want to read a poem about an enamelled box?

I had to think about this carefully, because I wasn’t at all sure. But I think it’s because ‘Enamelled Box’ is about liking a ‘thing’. Not a person, or animal, or even a great artwork. It’s about liking a little box enough to ‘spirit it out for an airing, / letting it shine on the lawn’. Human beings do this, don’t they? Form affections for objects that aren’t in the least logical. The affection is in the action, and in the close attention to the detail of the box, and in the jauntiness of ‘spirit it out for an airing’.

All this tells me something about the poet, which tells me something about myself. Surprisingly hard to explain my liking. But I like it a lot. And the opening lines, for me, connect with the whole pamphlet of poems (this is the very first poem in the booklet after all):

Even now, from time to time,
I am drawn in, and the pattern


When you publish poems you like, you don’t have to explain why you like them. But maybe publishers should. In this world of competing poems, why should these ones win your attention?

We all read differently. What I see is not what you see. I hope you’ll see enough of what I see to share some of my pleasure at least, but it doesn’t always work like that. Delight for me may represent ‘duh!’ for you. I’ve been reading Tim Love’s blog of May 2013 (I catch up with things late) about the way we read, and it’s curiously comforting. He says: ‘I think my poetry appreciation is a patchwork of blindspots – from poem to poem or even from line to line. I approach texts with a mishmash of innate and learnt behaviours, but usually act as if the unevenness is all in the text.’

So what we regard as ‘unevenness’ in a poem could be unevenness in us, as readers. And not reacting in the ‘right’ way doesn’t matter. What matters is reacting at all.

I spend ages trying to work out what it is that makes certain poems distinctive for me. After all, I am selling these poems. I write something on the back jacket and I want it to be both interesting and true. Not much is worse than the feeling of being cheated when you fork out for a book that has had a great write-up. And what happens? It’s just words on pages, and then more words on pages.

Tom Cleary’s pamphlet, The Third Miss Keane, has practically nothing in common with Ruth Marden’s. Chalk and cheese. (Actually, chalk and cheese can both be hard and crumbly, though you can’t grate chalk. And they both start ‘ch’, of course. But I’m wandering.)

There are memories in The Third Miss Keane. But sometimes it’s hard to know what’s memory and what’s invention. (Some of it must be invention.) But Tom Cleary handles memory quite differently. Even just flicking through the publication, the shapes contrast.

Ruth Marden’s texts occupy about half of the A5 page, tall oblongs. Tom Cleary’s are much fatter (long lines), and the rhythms are prosy – closer to the short-story end of the poem spectrum.

Ruth’s phrasing strikes me as traditionally poetic in its gentle assonance and the way line breaks draw attention to sound echoes, whereas Tom’s method is more of an easy flow: the speaking voice of someone sharing an experience that could go anywhere.

Ruth’s poems inhabit a world I know. Tom’s take me into a world I don’t. Sometimes, in fact, I am totally creeped out, as they say these days. And then, of course, I’m fascinated by the power the poem had over me.

I don’t have any difficulty knowing how to read Tom’s poems. They invite me in with no fuss and then I just keep reading them on their own terms, inside their own world. Here’s the start of ‘Birth Control’, for example:

She had her eighth baby, little Jude,
when all the students had gone home for Christmas.
She named him after the patron saint for lost causes
and hopeless cases. While she warmed
the spitting teapot, swishing it about, she told us
she wore six scapulars next to her skin
dedicated to her favourite saints. It made you itch
to think of it. We tried to keep our thoughts
away from those trussed breasts.

And here’s the opening of ‘The Wheelbarrow People Get a New God’:

The wheelbarrow people had a god who lived behind a wall.
He spoke to them every day and gave them reassurance
but he was an old god, and one day he announced his succession.
He had a son he said, James, who lived in the community.
James would soon be required to kill his father.

Wanting to know what happens next is not a bad reason for reading a poem, though not a reason I remember being mentioned in literary circles. And what happens next has to be worth discovering, of course. But it is. Try ‘Hobgoblin’.

I love it.

But will you?



The  submissions window is shut. Here’s what came through it.

There were 117 submissions in all (ten more than the previous window).

The envelopes of poems included between 6 and 70 poems, but about three quarters of them held 12, as requested on the submissions page.

I read and responded to around 1500 poems, and to their authors. It got more difficult as the month went on and my brain got fuller.

77 of those sending poems had never sent to HappenStance before.

40 were on their second, third or fourth submission. (That doesn’t mean they were making a fourth desperate bid to get a pamphlet published. For a good number of people, it’s just about getting thoughtful feedback on work in progress.)

14 were not ‘new’ poets. They had been previously published in book or pamphlet form, 6 of them by HappenStance.

4 people warmly invited to send poems didn’t send any. They know who they are!

77 were women, 40 men. Ages, so far as I could tell, varied from early twenties to eighties (people don’t always say – and why should they?). Ethnic minority poets could be numbered on one hand (I would like to see more).

30 were from Scotland (most ever)

16 were from London.

8 were from Wales (most ever)

2 from the Irish Republic.

61 from the rest of the UK (a couple of these have addresses both in the UK and France).

About 80% were HappenStance subscribers, or took out a subscription just before they sent in the poems.

I made offers to 7 people for slots in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

  • 3 of these were to poets I had been working with for some time, so I already had them in my book as ‘maybes’.
  • 2 were to established poets with more than one previous book-length publication.
  • 1 was to a HappenStance poet for a second pamphlet (rare but occasionally happens).
  • 5 were women, 2 were men. (All were too old for a Gregory Award.)
  • 2 of them live in Scotland. Both men.

Publishing schedule

  • 2015 is now full to the brim.
  • 2016 is full.
  • 2017 is beginning to fill up.

There were many good and memorable poems and poets. In my notebook (apart from the offers) I marked 22 as long-term ‘maybes’, although (with a couple of exceptions) I didn’t tell them this because it’s miserable to get up hopes if in the long-term they aren’t realised. In any case, I couldn’t publish all 22, whatever happened.

There was a problem this month, in that the reading was too intense and voluminous (if all the poems were haiku or tanka it would be fine). In some cases, I didn’t read all the poems people sent because I ran out of juice, especially where the poems were lengthy or dense. By ‘dense’ I mean long lines and filling most of an A4 page. I always read poems three times and think hard. So those kind of poems take me at least 20 minutes to process and respond to. If there are 12 of them . . .

The other problem was that I ceased to be able to do anything else but read submissions. The days were not long enough. And so I have to make some changes.

Because it is impossible to read a large number of people’s work with a possible view to publication and at the same time keep a publishing business going. There isn’t any life left to do the publishing bit. That’s why most publishers have that little notice that says ‘no unsolicited submissions’ (though they get them anyway).

I was supposed to be finishing work on two new pamphlets in July – by Tom Cleary and Ruth Marden. Both ground to a halt as I disappeared under a tide of poetry submissions.

Even now I am wabbit, and this week 16 boxes of books arrived to be packaged and promoted and all the associated activities therewith (the Choc-Lit Anthology and D A Prince’s second collection, Common Ground).

So in December, I know I can’t read 117 submissions again, or not in the same way. Besides, I have reason to suppose, if things increase as the way they have over recent years, there will be 127. When I started this, there were 30 – one a day for about a month. Please don’t think I am moaning. I invited people – nay urged them to send me poems. But I always knew my capacity had limits, and this summer I reached them.

I intend to continue an open submissions policy, but I can’t read so many poems at once again.

I am really operating two separate services.

The first of these invites people, if they feel they’re ready, to make a pamphlet proposal and include a few poems. (I hardly ever make an offer on this basis. I have only done it once in the last three years, for example, with a debut poet.)

The second (and this is the one I prefer) invites people to send me a few of their poems simply for feedback, with a personal letter giving a bit of background. The second option avoids the accept/reject situation. I hardly ever find myself in an accept/reject position, though it does occasionally happen. It is more a case of how interested I am, and over time, how much more interested I get.

Some revised details are on the submissions page. Interestingly, one thing seems to have clicked in my head lately: when it comes to approaching a publisher about a publication, six poems really is enough. (I have, nevertheless, changed my guidelines to suggest a maximum of 8 for a first submission, because I think it useful for people to get feedback on more than half a dozen, and I think I can still manage that. At least I’m going to try.)

I know poets must think, when it comes to considering a pamphlet proposal, that one would need more – more of their range or their styles or their thematic idea and so on. But it isn’t so. You can sense your own quickening of interest almost instantly, and in that case, it’s easy to send compliments and a request to see a larger set. Some people’s poems welcome you in; others don’t. It’s not just about quality; it’s about whether the reader and the poems get on. The covering letter, to me, is also important. Publishing is about a relationship, and that’s where it often begins. I always reply personally too, and that won’t change.

Thank you to all the people who trusted me with their poems in July. I know some of them found the feedback useful because they’ve written and said so. Some found the reverse, and I apologise for heavy-handedness in some cases.

And now it’s back to the business of trying to create and sell the books! And the two latest are not even in the shop yet so nobody can buy them!.