2B or not 2B

Who invented the term ‘reading window’?

This space is more like the other side of the letter-box, sitting on the floor surrounded by envelopes. More keep falling on my head.

So far fifty-eight sets of poems have arrived with stamps both franked and unfranked, and five smaller sets by email (from online only subscribers). Two are at the sorting office because they were understamped (at least I assume the two notifications are for submissions envelopes). I am working my way through and replying one by one, but I’m only up to 22.

The task is absorbing and educative. But I don’t feel confident about it. Who could? Who really knows what’s what when it comes to poetry? Who can be sure she is not missing the whole point?

But one can analyse things too much. So I just start reading, and I try to read each poem as though I’ve never read one before, though this gets more difficult over the month. It’s also more difficult if the poems resemble one another. That is to say if a poet has eight poems all in three-line stanzas. (I like to think each poem has its own shape or form.)

Still, I put my anxiousness to one side, and set about suggesting this, that and the other with my new pencil.

When you bought a 2B pencil in the olden days, you had a good idea how it would write. How soft, not hard. How legible, not faint. These days decent pencils cost serious money and at Rymans (where I bought mine last week) they mainly come in packets of three.

But one brand of 2B pencil is not like another. My new pencil is not as soft as I’d like it to be, or as soft as the last three types of pencil I’ve been using. To me, it’s somewhere between HB and B. However, it has a good eraser that fits on the end, which is useful on the bus.

Because the space behind the letter-box sometimes finds its way onto a bus or train, where the process continues. But it has to come back in the end to the table in the sitting room because the laptop’s there where I log the ms and try to write some comments that’ll help me remember what feedback I gave to the poet. After the first 50, you have no idea what you said to whom, or which Peter or Janet was which (Peter, Janet – please don’t take this personally).

Specific difficulties arise. In particular this: I have a system of ticks and smiley faces. If I like a poem, I put a pencil tick on the page. If I like it so much I would publish it (if I could), I put a smiley. But this system is starting to break down. Sometimes I like poems but still think they’re not fully cooked. Sometimes I like them with a big tick and sometimes a tiny, weeny tick. Sometimes I like them and don’t remember to tick them. And sometimes the poet, bless her cotton socks, only gets two smileys over three years no matter how many poems she sends.

But there’s a more serious issue. The quality of many of these submission envelopes is high. It really is. I now see a good number of sets of poems I would like to publish. Far more than I can publish. It’s easier to say a thing should happen than make it happen.

So I’m sitting behind the letter-box looking at an increasing number of poets who have sent me several sets of work, all of which has had a warm response from me, but not quite so warm that I’ve said ‘Yes, let’s make a pamphlet of your poems.’  They are in my ‘maybe’ list, and the list is getting longer by the day. Oh but this is a difficult one! It’s like that editorial response to poems sent to a magazine that goes ‘Liked these but not quite enough.’ Meanwhile, the poems are all jostling and stiffening their collars, desperate to be loved.

How do I decide which to offer to publish? There are too many elements to mention. Sometimes it’s one individual poem. Sometimes it’s a sense of the sheer talent of the writer. Sometimes it’s knowing a set of poems is nothing like anything I’ve ever published before. Sometimes, it’s feeling the publication would blend well, or contrast well, with the others I have lined up for a certain year. Sometimes it’s having an idea about how the set of poems might be presented. Sometimes it’s the sheer energy of the poems – an energy great enough to counteract my own tiredness.

This is not a moan. Please don’t start feeling sorry for me. I like doing this reading. It’s meaningful and worthwhile, and it teaches me something. Each time, I learn new things. It is a great thing that there’s lots of good poetry happening. There cannot be ‘too much’ good poetry.

Also, I invited the poems and chose the space in which I sit. Nevertheless, there’s something else I want to say.

There are quite a number of small presses these days. But not enough. We need more small publishers. There are sets of poems that – for hugely varied reasons – don’t lend themselves to winning competitions but that can and should be published and shared.

We need more co-operatives – small groups of writers looking at this together. More people who want to learn about ways of supporting other poets, through publications and associated activities. More people with the skills of editing and typesetting (or the determination to buy them in), who can work with others to make interesting, varied, provocative, dynamic publications. More people like Emma Wright, at the Emma Press, and Duncan at Tapsalteerie. More people who, perhaps fed up with their poems being liked (but not quite enough), move into supporting other poets in the same situation. More unincorporated Rebel Incs.

Poacher can turn game-keeper. Poets can take the power into their own hands and more of them should. I don’t mean self-publishing. I mean publishing other people. People you know and like. People you don’t know but should. People whose work deserves it. It’s an extraordinary learning experience.

I could recommend a number of good poets to you. Just drop me a line.b2ap3_thumbnail_04_27_22---Letter-Box_web.jpg


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. . . .