How to get your pamphlet reviewed

 ‘Is it true – what Shelley writes me that poor John Keats died at Rome of the Quarterly Review?’ [Letter from Byron to John Murray, 26 April 1821]

You have a poetry pamphlet in print. So what next? Poets both crave and fear reviews but mainly they needn’t lose sleep. ‘Publishing a volume of verse’, as Don Marquis notably remarked, ‘is like dropping a rose petal into the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.’

I think it’s easier to get echoes than it used to be, though not all echoes are as desirable as people think.

Why do people want reviews? 

  • They want a genuine reader response (as opposed to praise from their friends).
  • They believe reviews will help sell the publication (usually they make little or no difference).
  • They want attention.
  • They want to trawl them for useful blurb to go on their next book jacket (or current web page).
  • They think it’s what’s supposed to happen after you publish your writing.  
  • They want to learn. (You can learn from what some reviewers say.)

The number of poetry readers, relatively speaking, is small. The number of poetry pamphlets published every year is big. (I have no definitive statistics but it is a fact that more come to me every year than I can manage to read. At my left elbow is a pile of unread pamphlets, about 25, and 3 more arrived yesterday.)

Maybe an attention-catching review for one of these, shared on social media, would bump that pamphlet to the top of my ‘To Read’ list. It might. So how would you accomplish that?

Frankly, it’s of little use posting your pamphlet to every magazine you can think of in the hope of generating a review. It will just cost loads and you’ll end up feeling bitter. Why was Last Year’s Dead Leaves by M. J. Petticoat featured in a review when yours was ignored?

Magazine and newspaper editors have skyscrapers of books and pamphlets staring at them beseechingly – more than could be reviewed in a month of Sunday blogs. It’s a mug’s game adding your humble publication to that pile.

So what’s to be done about all this? There are really interesting reviews all the time on the web, and some on paper. If one of them is to be yours, what do you need to do?

First, spend a little time finding out how it works. Don’t send your pamphlet to a magazine editor if the magazine doesn’t publish reviews. If the magazine does do reviews, find the correct procedure. If in doubt, email the main editor and ask. Many magazines only review books, not pamphlets. It’s reasonable to suppose you stand a better chance of a review in a magazine where you’ve previously placed poems or contributed as a reviewer yourself.

When did Poetry Review last review a set of pamphlets? When did the Times Literary Supplement last pay attention to pamphlets: it has happened – but when? Have you ever seen a pamphlet reviewed in The Guardian? Does Best Poetry of 2016 (in any publication where such a round-up exists) include reference to any pamphlets?

Let me be more positive. Is your pamphlet listed on Amazon? It may or may not be. It’s certainly possible to get it there. If it’s there, has anyone posted a reader review?

Look at Shelley Day’s The Confession of Stella Moon, published earlier this year. Forty-five customer reviews – so far. More people read novels than poetry, but novelists are much better at courting customer reviews than poets. Look at Fiona Moore’s Night Letter, currently shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award for Pamphlet Poetry. Not one customer review on Amazon.

Fiona Moore’s pamphlet has received review comment, not only in a couple of paper magazines but also here and here and here. More for Moore than many. But please note that this poet writes reviews herself. She blogs at Displacement, where (among other things) she writes about poets she admires. She also regularly reviews elsewhere.

By and large, poets don’t try very hard to get reviews on Amazon. It’s a moot point whether they should. Perhaps they think responses will just pop up. Generally they don’t. You have to solicit attention. If an articulate friend really loved your pamphlet and tells you so in an email, ask them to post a few comments on Amazon (unless you’re ethically opposed to Amazon, in which case consider GoodReads, a site I like very much – although since 2013 it has been owned by … Amazon).

Some webzines accept pamphlet nominations for review – and offer them to their review team. Sabotage Reviews, which reviews pamphlets but not (usually) books follows this procedure. So the issue might be whether someone on the review team would take an interest in your publication. Is your name familiar to them? If you’ve already published poems widely, it might be. Get your name out there!

In my experience, most poets think more about getting their own work reviewed than the role they might play in reviewing other people’s. Pamphlet poets regularly ask about OPOI reviews at Sphinx Review. It is rare indeed for one of them to send an OPOI response to a pamphlet recently enjoyed.

Ink, Sweat and Tears has ‘no resident reviewers’ but accepts ‘unsolicited reviews for poetry and short story collections.’ The guideline word count for a pamphlet is 500 words. So here a reviewer would have to offer the review. The editor doesn’t organise it. You can’t review your own book (though sometimes I wonder why not).

There are blogger reviewers: Matthew Stewart at Rogue Strands.  Tim Love’s LitRefs. Dave Coates at Dave Poems. Emma Lee at Emma Lee’s Blog. John Field at Poor Rude Lines. There are lots more… You could be one of them. You can set up your own blog, or you can go to GoodReads and simply select a book and write about it.

Tim Love did a fascinating analysis of what happened to his pamphlet, Moving Parts, with the reviewers. Tim has been around for a long time in little magazines as a poet, reviewer, letter-writer; on the web as a poet, short-story writer, reviewer and blogger; in real life as an organiser and contributor to poetry groups and events. It helps.



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?



It’s a trouble-making question.

And no, I don’t look at it in that way. But others do — and it is so very tempting to find some way of ruling on what makes a good (or even ‘great’) poem. Michael Dalvean in ‘Ranking Contemporary American Poems’ (thanks to Tim Love for sending the link) claims ‘By using computational linguistics it is possible to objectively identify the characteristics of professional poems and amateur poems’.

What he says sounds perfectly reasonable: ‘Placing poems on a continuum that is based on the extent to which poems possess the craftsmanship of a professional may be a step towards explaining why some poets are “greater” than others’.

Dalvean refers to two previous studies using computational linguistics to crack poetry. The first of these (Forsythe, 2000) compared the features of regularly anthologised poems with ‘obscure’ (un-anthologised) ones. It concluded that:

successful poems had fewer syllables per word in their first lines and were more likely to have an initial line consisting of monosyllables. It was also found that successful poems had a lower number of letters per word, used more common words, and had simpler syntax. Thus, contrary to what we might expect, the more successful poems used simpler language. In essence, poems that use language that is simple and direct are more likely to be reproduced in anthologies.

A second study, ‘Kao and Jurafsky, 2012) compared 100 poems from a reputable anthology with another 100 from (oh dear) found that ‘professional poets used words that were more concrete’ and the amateurs ‘ more likely to use perfect rhymes . . . more alliteration and more emotional words . . . .’ The ‘professional poets’ also used more words. Period. Not cleverer words – a wider variety of simple ones.

Dalvean has built on these studies but added ‘a broader range of linguistic variables’, namely 68 linguistic variables derived from Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (Pennebaker, Francis, & Booth, 2001) and 32 psycholinguistic variables from the Paivio, Yuille and Madigan (1968) word norms’.

It gets complicated here (you can read the original paper if you follow the link above). The bit that grabbed me was the idea that there might be an

algorithm that is able to correctly classify poems as professional/amateur with an accuracy of 80% using linguistic variables. There are several applications for such an algorithm. For example, a publisher who needs a quick way of sorting through the voluminous submissions received on a weekly basis could first select a filtered list by running poems though such an algorithm.

Yessss! Though not yet July (my reading window) the early can’t-waiters have begun to trickle through the box. Is this the answer? There is a machine to put the poems through. It might be possible not to read them at all, but just to process them for value, like holding a £20 note up to the light to check it’s not a forgery.

Here is the link Go here to test your own poems. Alas, I put some of mine through the mangle (of course). Most of them were horribly amateur but yours might fare better.

Meanwhile, back to peeling (see below). Others peel after sitting outside in the sunshine. I peel inside (peeling stamps off envelopes) ready for an onslaught of poems in July, some of which will forget to include SAEs. The Royal Mail continues to assist, though not on purpose. . . .

Next Saturday’s NAWE event at CCA in Glasgow promises to help poets get onto the ‘professional’ spectrum, though in a more strategic manner. I’m not sure whether it’s fully booked yet, but if in Scotland, worth a look. I will be there.









I think of them as dragon-flies, some of the fastest flying insects in the world.b2ap3_thumbnail_A_verticalis.jpg

Let’s not even mention the egg stage. When writing early poems they’re more like nymphs. In fact, most of a poet’s life may well be spent in nymph form, beneath the water’s surface (submerged), using extendable jaws for nefarious purposes. The larval stage is short for some, lengthy for others. Some remain nymphs for decades. Some tend to merge, rather than emerging. But most achieve metamorphosis. The nymph climbs up some kind of stalk and is exposed to AIR. It starts to breathe, its skin splits, and out staggers . . . a flully-fledged poet, ready to feast on midges and propel itself in at least six directions.

Or perhaps it’s not quite like that. Tim Love sent me a link to a discussion paper from Devolved Voices, a 3-year research project based at Aberystwyth University. It commenced in September 2012 and they’re mapping stuff. I like ‘mapping’. It sounds like it will help you find your way (as indeed is the intention). You may recall another well-publicised document of this kind: Mapping Contemporary Poetry, released by the Arts Council England in 2010.

Poetry world is desperately confusing to anyone starting out as a writer. So how useful is this discussion document from Aberystwyth?

I liked it a lot. You could argue that it is a little retro – not enough about spoken word routes, or social networking, or new forms of publication, but it is easier to describe what has, until recently, been true than to write about a kind of emerging that is . . . still emerging. If you’re not sure whether you’ve emerged or not, a common concern, I recommend this document.

Aberystwyth propose stages of emergency. Stage 1 you get a poem, and then a couple more, published in a magazine, possibly a local publication. The nymph is just out of the egg.

Stage 2, you start to use the extendable jaws and penetrate other magazines, “probably moving beyong the confines of an immediate locale”.

Stage 3, you get poems in much better magazines: the most widely read publications. You may even get a pamphlet published (most first-collection HappenStance poets are somewhere around stage 3). You’re climbing the stalk and you have abandoned your gills.

By Stage 4, you’re doing readings here and there, you’ve got a book collection out, you might be doing a residency or teaching creative writing. You are dining on more than just midges.

At Stage 5, you’ve got a “well-established profile over a wide national/geographic area”. You might be an “established reviewer or essayist”. You could be an important predator, consuming flies, bees, ants, wasps and very occasionally (and remorsefully) butterflies. You may be fulfilling “significant cultural roles”.

(Fulfilling roles is a phrase I’ve always had difficulty with. It’s the aural pun that causes me a problem: I have an image of people filling bread rolls. Significant ones. But I digress.)

Stage 6 is the final stage. At stage 6 you have emerged. You have self-actualised. You are probably on the literature syllabus in schools and most ‘well-read’ people, even people who aren’t into poetry, have heard of you. However, you are still subject to predation by birds, lizards, frogs, spiders, fish, waterbugs, and even other large dragonflies disguised as mentors.

The writers of the Aberystwyth paper point out that “poetic emergence is distinct from poetic development: it is entirely to do with becoming prominent as a poet, rather than becoming a poet of better quality or worth.” They also observe that “poets sometimes jump stages, and sometimes go into reverse, but most reach what is called her a ‘plateau’ and remain thereafter at more or less the same point”. (I am writing this blog from a pleasant plateau partway through stage 5.)

Stages 1-3 are “emerging”. Stages 4-6 are “emerged”.

There are bands too (not the musical kind: bands as in categories). Band A: pre-collection. Band B: first collection. Band C: multi-collection. Publishers like these kind of bands.

Devolved voices also touches on factors that can affect the emergency (I know I am wilfully mis-using this term: it keeps me sane). These include prizes, fellowships, creative writing degrees, courses, mentorships etc. They talk about “tipping the publication see-saw” (another neat image if tipped up) and “premature anointing” (to be avoided at all costs).

This is a ‘discussion’ document – so do join the discussion, whether you are submerged, emerging or emerged. Facetiousness aside, it is interesting, well-written and easy to digest.

But I said it was a somewhat retro. What about the new ways? Regrettably, I think I am part of the old: most of what I do is nurture an editorial relationship with a few nymphs to help them move from stage 3 to stage 4 (the sort of thing Rialto Bridge pamphlets also mention and that the Mapping Contemporary Poetry authors approve – but then, they would.)

Things are changing. Poetry used to be literary, intellectual and dusty (though it was discussed in pubs, by men, with beer or whisky). Now the slams, the performance, the spoken word, the fun – these things are bubbling, and not only with the young. Some of the nymphs read the notices on publishers’ websites about ‘no unsolicited submissions’; they get fed up because what they write is nothing like what wins competitions; they set up their own presses; they do the business. Some of these enterprises will prove their mettle and will draw in participants of talent, ingenuity and new types of jaws and wings. They will be impatient (and why not?). They will be unreasonable.

As George Bernard Shaw said (the world consisted entirely of men in his day): “The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him. The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself. All progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

I am never very sure about the word ‘progress’. It suggests things get better. I suspect they simply get different. Human beings develop hierarchies, and people find ways to ascend. When daunted by the survival of the fittest and fastest, it’s useful to remember all this is “entirely to do with becoming prominent as a poet, rather than becoming a poet of better quality or worth.”

Given the devious dragon-fly trafficking, I’m strongly reminded of a poem by James Reeves who, despite mentoring from Robert Graves, spent most of his life at stage 5 and worked very hard to stay there. I may well have quoted this before, in some other context (blog entries proliferate on this plateau) but I don’t care. Here it is.


Important Insects 

Important insects clamber to the top
Of stalks; look round with uninquiring eyes
And find the world incomprehensible;
Then totter back to earth and circumscribe
Irregular territories pointlessly.
Some insects narcissistically assume
Patterns of spots or stripes or burnished sheen
For purposes of sex or camouflage,
Some tweet or rasp, though most are without speech
Except a low, subliminal, mindless chatter.
Take heart: those scientists are wrong who find
Elements of the human in their systems,
Despite their busy, devious trafficking
Important insects simply do not matter.








But sometimes you can get a bit too much of it.

For example, last December I published a pamphlet by Tim Love. I’m always interested when a poet incorporates in his or her name a word that is ‘loaded’ when it comes to poetry. No single word is more pregnant with emotional cargo than ‘love’.

So what does ‘love’ mean for Tim Love when he includes it in a poem? It can’t not resonate with his own name. Not that this matters all that much. I was at school with a girl whose surname was Darling, and I always envied her that. But that was before Alistair.

Anyway, sometimes synchronicity creeps into the equation. This week I took three new pamphlets to the printer. One was by Michael LOVEday. A second was by Lydia FulleyLOVE. Thankfully, the third author, Lorna Dowell has no love in her name, but she does begin with L and end with A, like Lydia, and she also has two Os, a key vowel in love.

None of this matters in the least bit, except when you get tired.

As you approach exhaustion, suddenly Lydia and Lorna start to sound remarkably similar, and the ‘L’ at the end of Michael shouts accusingly. You get fearful that you’ll end up with a front cover brandishing poetry by Lorna Fulleylove, or Lydia Dowell, and Michael Dowfull looms ominously on the horizon. . . .


Or so, allegedly, said Oscar Wilde. As snow gusts past my window, so does the flurry of tasks for this morning.

However, the new Imac (thank you Michael Marks), which has what seems at the moment to be a huge screen, (custom shrinks things) is up and running. So far I don’t seem to have lost anything vital.

Moreover, the two Po-Lites are printed and ready to send out.


Every publication, I am convinced, has a mistake in it. In fact, when I pore over the pages for the last time before taking them to the printer, I KNOW there will be something I don’t see. If it’s just one mistake, I’m always relieved.


In Martin Parker’s pamphlet No Longer Bjored the error was more significant.


When I set a publication up I put the working title in the footer, and that’s also what goes in the author contract. Then there’s an extended discussion between me and the author about what the final title should be. In this case, I thought the first title (Enough is Enough) might well cut the mustard. However, the draft front cover graphic was a picture of a bottle of wine lurching sideways in the sand, and Martin thought it might give an impression that . . . he’d rather not have.


So there was a title discussion, which ended up in the fjords with some dancing birds. And everything was resolved very happily, except I forgot to change the footer. And I failed to see it in the proofs. And the whole publication, therefore, was printed with the wrong title at the foot of every page.


I considered reprinting, despite the moral and financial pain. However, Martin came up with a better idea and now the verse erratum slip, telling the story of the wrong-footed footer, is such a delight that it is possible, as he has suggested, that everybody will want one.


In Graham Austin’s Fuelling Speculation there is, needless to say, also a mistake, though not in the footer. But I’m not going to tell you what it is. More importantly, it is a lovely, wayward collection, written by a chap who sees things from angles other poets do not.


Often an intrepid performer can make a bit of creaky Lite work brilliantly for an audience. But on the page? That’s harder. When I use comic verse with students in my other life, what makes six of them howl with laughter will leave another six looking completely lost. And that’s another problem. Printed light verse is for canny readers. But there’s a few of these around. You could be one of them. . . .


As I type, the snow outside has turned to an amazing blizzard.  I don’t think the planned trip to buy the bathroom mirror is happening today. The door of the washing machine has just refused to un-click, so everything is stuck inside. There’s another mundane challenge. Oh hell.


Meanwhile, with a bit of luck and no thanks to the Hotpoint washing machine which I have grown to hate and one of which I will never ever buy again, Tim Love’s pamphlet, Moving Parts, will be finished today.


The plan is to get it to the printer this week and it will be the last publication of 2010. Tim is not generally funny and this is not light verse. However, he has something in common with Graham Austin that I find difficult to put into words. It’s something to do with his angle of perception. I have been following Tim Love poems in the small press for over ten years and he is completely unpredictable. I used to type out his poems to try to work out what was going on in them. What he does in one is so different from what he does in another that you could be forgiven for thinking there were at least four of him.


Putting together Moving Parts has surprised me in ways I didn’t expect. The astonishing variety is there — but there are also more connections than I had anticipated. The set feels integrated. The title (which Tim chose initially and which remains) is exactly right. Parts of these poems are very moving, in terms of human emotion. But all of them are on the move: they don’t stay still easily. They often have lines you can read two or three ways. The tone changes radically from one page to another and sometimes from one phrase to another. I said this wasn’t light verse, but it is playful. He has always been a playful poet, watching himself at his own game, and sometimes discovering something that seems to surprise him too. In terms of poetry, he’s not like anybody else. That sounds a simple thing to say, but increasingly I think it’s one of my main criteria. It applies to Martin Parker;  to Graham Austin too.


Sometimes people talk about ‘voice’, as though that’s what makes poets distinctive. That doesn’t seem to me to be the right word, especially for a poet who can change voices at will. The distinctive factor might be to do with perception and playfulness. But it might not. It might be do with mastering that odd business of poetic register. We no longer have a standard way of mustering language that automatically feels like ‘poetry’. Each person has to sort this thing out for him or herself. And then that person’s ‘poetic’ register has also to be a way of using language that’s consistent with his or her individual mode of thought and expression. They have to sound like themselves, even when they’re being someone else.


Did I say there was a blizzard outside? It’s snowing in my head.





Saint Britta, whose story is lost

Someone in the Post Office (where I was spending a small fortune posting boxes and packets of pamphlets) referred to this lovely ‘Indian Summer’ — that term we use to describe a period of warmth and sunshine, after ‘summer’ is officially over. It’s been gorgeous this week, though in Scotland, this morning, it has given way to thick grey cloud again. Why Indian? I thought I’d look it up.

Immediately I discovered it wasn’t a ‘true’ Indian summer this last week. True Indian summer has to be after the first proper frost, so we’re talking October or November. And anyway, the term ‘Indian’ summer only began to be widely used in the UK, according to Wikipedia, in the twentieth century, when American influence became more potent than European, the ‘Indian’ deriving from Native American references.

Someone in the Post Office (where I was spending a small fortune posting boxes and packets of pamphlets) referred to this lovely ‘Indian Summer’ — that term we use to describe a period of warmth and sunshine, after ‘summer’ is officially over. It’s been gorgeous this week, though in Scotland, this morning, it has given way to thick grey cloud again. Why Indian? I thought I’d look it up.

Immediately I discovered it wasn’t a ‘true’ Indian summer this last week. True Indian summer has to be after the first proper frost, so we’re talking October or November. And anyway, the term ‘Indian’ summer only began to be widely used in the UK, according to Wikipedia, in the twentieth century, when American influence became more potent than European, the ‘Indian’ deriving from Native American references.

Before that, it would have been a St Martin’s Summer, named after the French Saint Martin of Tours, who died on November 8th in 397 AD. Rather a long time ago.

However, Saint Martin’s death became a good story. Corpses of saints were valuable: people made pilgrimages to pray at their gravesides, get healed and even get relics (the original tourist and merchandise industry).

Martin died in Candes-sur-Loire, later named Candes-Saint-Martin in his honour. He had converted the pagans after all and knocked down their temple (they didn’t do diversity in those days). Anyway, according to legend his body was snatched in unchristian manner by the people of Poitou, who popped him in a boat and floated him downriver to Tours, where they buried him (though not according to the website of Candes-Saint-Martin which suggests he is buried there. He was once, it seems, but he was definitely shifted).

Anyway, the ‘St Martin’s Summer’ refers to the way, according to legend, the vegetation on the river bank flowered as the saint’s stolen body floated past. It was November 8th and things definitely shouldn’t have been flowering by then.

Saint Martin himself was actually Hungarian. According to the history of Catholic Saints, he was in the Roman Army, got converted, and once he was demobbed became a Catholic and, in due course, a Saint. It must have suited him because he lived to the age of 81, a ripe old age in those dark days.

He was a popular saint, so an Indian summer in Spain is Veranillo de San Miguel or Veranillo de San Martin, depending on which date it occurs (either September 29 or November 11th). In Galicia and Portugal they celebrate Saint Martin’s day with bonfires, roasted chestnuts and wine.

In Russia, it’s ‘Old Women’s Summer’, in Bulgaria ‘Gypsy Summer’ or even ‘Gypsy Christmas’. In Sweden, it’s Brittsommar, which is linked by the name day for Saints Brigitta and Britta, celebrated by an open-air market on October 7th. Saint Brigitta was a medieval mystic with a complicated story; even her daughter became a saint. But poor Britta — she was a fourth century virgin, martyred with Saint Maura – and her story is lost! Her relics were discovered by Saint Euphronius, Bishop of Tours, (where Saint Martin is buried).

In Germany, Austria and Hungary, it’s ‘Old Ladies Summer’ (Altweibersommer) or ‘Crone’s Summer’. That is (allegedly) because of the white threads of the canopy spiders in autumn, in turn  associated with the white haired Norns, the demi-goddesses who live at the base of Yggdrasil and control our destiny.

In Scotland (but not in England, Ireland or Wales), the European Martinmas (November 11th) was one of the quarter days. That is to say the days when servants were hired and rents were due. That meant a holiday, and in religious terms an opportunity for feasting before fasting.

All of which brings me to the sorry conclusion that we have not had a St Martin’s Summer, or an Old Wives Summer, or a Brittsommar. We haven’t even had an Indian Summer. It’s too soon. What we have had is a few lovely days in late summer, early autumn, and we should be jolly grateful and get on with it.

For me, it’s been so beautiful in the garden that I found it hard to work at the desk, but nevertheless that has been necessary. Kate Scott’s pamphlet, Escaping the Cage, is more or less complete though the cover’s not done.  Three Samplers, from Isobel Montgomery-Campbell, Patrick Yarker and Tom Vaughan, are in the post in draft to their authors, who will provide a bonny signature for me to scan for the front. Parcels of the Hardy pamphlet have gone scurrying hither and thither. Two new PoemCards are ready, one by Maggie Butt for empty nesters; the other by Bruce James — the comical but melancholy tale of the Woodworm. More will follow.

My next task is to organise a subscriber mailshot, which will have all sorts of interesting things in it. The new website is about to go live; some teething problems yesterday.

And then it’s on to Martin Parker (redoubtable editor of Lighten-Up Online) and Graham Austin (two PoLites), Tim Love (pamphlet) and Alan Hill (tankas). I’m slightly behind schedule, and the accounts are also demanding my attention. A small prayer to Saint Martin about now might be useful, though I think I’ll appeal to Saint Britta, whose story was lost. I can relate to that.

I’ll plan a little chestnut roasting for next month. . . .

What makes a good poetry pamphlet publisher?

The embargo was finally lifted so that means I’m allowed to mention being shortlisted again for the Michael Marks Pamphlet Publishers’ Award. This award business can get a bit stressful. Having been shortlisted last year, and filled out all the worthy statements about activities again on the entry form this year, I wasn’t worried about winning the money (though the money would come in very handy) so much as about being NOT shortlisted. What would that have meant? It might have signified slipping smartly downhill in terms of whatever is deemed good practice.

The embargo was finally lifted so that means I’m allowed to mention being shortlisted again for the Michael Marks Pamphlet Publishers’ Award. This award business can get a bit stressful. Having been shortlisted last year, and filled out all the worthy statements about activities again on the entry form this year, I wasn’t worried about winning the money (though the money would come in very handy) so much as about being NOT shortlisted. What would that have meant? It might have signified slipping smartly downhill in terms of whatever is deemed good practice.


But what makes a good pamphlet publisher? Who sets the standard? And can you separate pamphlet publishing from any other kind? The process of publishing a pamphlet of poetry is just the same as doing a book, isn’t it? And lots of pamphlet publishers, HappenStance included, have tiptoed into book form too.

The current MM shortlist of publishers is an interesting one. It is identical to last year’s, save Veer Books takes the place of tall-lighthouse, not because tall-l has shrunk in stature but because (I believe) they didn’t enter this year. One of the tall-lighthouse publications is listed on the poets’ list, which comes as no surprise: this is an imprint doing excellent work.

The shortlisted poets include, I am glad to say, The Terrors (Tom Chivers) which was reviewed warmly on the Sphinx website and a seven striper. The other five haven’t come in to me for review (I thought David Hart’s had, but I can’t find it). Hugh McMillan’s poem (and I recommend Roncadora for stunning individuality) wouldn’t have fitted the Sphinx requirements — it’s a pull-out publication (perhaps I should change the rules?) The others just didn’t come in for review, which suggests either people are unaware, still, of the Sphinx review facility, or they just forget about it.

Accolades are nice. Encouragement is lovely. Even publicity helps a bit in terms of spreading the word and getting readers for the publications (which is what it’s all about). I should add we were only allowed to list three publications in the publicity and for sale by PBS, although all the publications for 2009 were taken into consideration.

But I would like to see more transparency about the reasoning, especially for the publishers’ award. What sort of things should be rewarded? The different organisations are doing very different things, working on different funding systems. Really hard to compare qualitatively.

Which brings me to Sphinx International Po-rating Exercise. I am trying to make it sound grand because it has taken a grand amount of time and money to organise.

Sphinx reviews include a rating of poetry pamphlets which results in a ‘stripe’ recommendation. That recommendation is stated in a subtle way at the top of the review with a stripey graphic. Count the stripes and you get it. The idea is you read the reviews first: you don’t just goggle at the number. The stripes proceed from 1 through to 10, with halves along the way.

That rating is based on four criteria, some of which are more subjective than others. I’d like to think none of them were wholly subjective, since all Sphinx reviewers are good and thoughtful readers. However, over the period of using this system and commissioning three reviews for every publication, it has seemed to me that some reviewers were using the numbers slightly differently from others. That is to say, a 5 from one person meant pretty good, while another used a 5 to signify pretty bad. Equally, the production value — which you would think could be judged objectively — sometimes produced surprisingly wide variation.

So I carried out an exercise (sometimes I feel like one of those countries in Gulliver’s Travels, somewhere up in the clouds, maybe, doing weird things that no normal person could possibly countenance. But never mind). I posted copies of the same pamphlet to 36 reviewers and asked all of them to rate using the system above. I got back 33 ratings, which I collated and from which I drew some conclusions. It allowed me to set a suggested standard for at least production quality. From now on, we know what a 7.5 looks like.

On other criteria, individual judgement is crucial. However, I have done two things. One is to interpret the numbers with a verbal statement (see below for an example on ‘Quality of Poetry’)

10 =        Shakespeare

9  =          excellent

8  =          unquestionably good work

7  =          the best poems are good; there may be some weaker or flawed poems

6  =          has noteworthy strengths, though may be inconsistent, even inside individual poems

5  =          on the fence, doubtful about quality

4  =          poor writing with occasional flashes of not bad

3  =          weak

2  =          dreadful

1  =          beyond the pale

The second thing is to send a detailed report to reviewers so they can see where their ratings sit in relation to all the others. Some people do tend to rate higher, others lower — this is normal. I believe in some national examination systems, markers are sampled and high markers are adjusted down a little and low ones adjusted up. I’m not making any adjustments. Just showing the raters where they sit in the table.

A summary version of this report (without names or attributions) may appear on the Sphinx site in due course. The detailed version goes to reviewers this week, together with more pamphlets to review, some of which will be in the running for the Michael Marks Award next year.

Now I’m starting to feel really peculiar. I am either developing a monumental obsession, or there is something in the theory that judgement in this very wayward area of the arts, needs prodding and more self-awareness.

At the end of the year, I intend to publish the Sphinx high-raters of the year. Those pamphlets which come out as 7 or above are good. If it is a 9, it is outstanding in the view of at least three people. There is no five thousand quid to accompany this accolade: instead there will be three reviews — interesting, accessible and informative. I hope good publishers will enter their pamphlets: Sphinx reviews, 21 Hatton Green, Glenrothes, Fife KY7 4SD.

If the system takes off as it should, I will need more reviewers, especially women. So if interested, contact me with an example of your writing.

You have probably had enough of my ramblings now. However, Tim Love has published an interview with me on his blog. Sorry!