First, get the recipe from the author. 

It will look much like a Contents list, but with no indication of quantities or baking temperature.

But at least it’s a place to start.

Here, for example, in Will Harris’s debut, are the ingredients:

Mother’s Country
Halo 2
Self-Portrait in Front of a Small Mirror
Bee Glue
With Cornflowers
From ‘The Ark’ I
From The Other Side of Shooter’s Hill
From ‘The Ark’ II
Imagine a Forest

But what’s the method? And will the ingredients work?

At least some of the contents promise a recognisable cake. First collections nearly always have something autobiographical that fits into the sense of ‘self’. Because when you publish, it’s a public statement – if not about who you are, at least about who you may be. It’s personal, even if the poems aren’t.

In Will Harris’s Contents, you can see, fourth in the list, a self-portrait. Almost all poets have one, though not always explicitly titled. This one is in prose; part of the mixture. You can see ‘Identity’ too, and ‘Mother’s Country’ which has to be a bit of heritage stuff. Most poetry cakes have some heritage.

And ‘Naming’ of course. Poetry gives things names, then sometimes takes them away again. I often think about Gill McEvoy’s poem ‘Difference’. It was in a pamphlet baked back in 2007, her first collection, Uncertain Days. The poet is in a plane, looking down at the grass at the edge of the runway – ‘white clover in the grass, / a bee, a clump of yellow bedstraw, / a small brown butterfly’. All at once, the airport itself is ‘a place where species are defined / by difference’. The poet wants ‘to be out there’, on her ‘hands and knees, / naming things’.

Poets name things. At first for themselves; later (sometimes) for other people.

The name of the publication is part of that. All This Is Implied. Great name. Doesn’t sound like anything I’ve baked (or consumed) before.

Having said which, when it comes to first collections, no two poetry cakes are ever the same. Each is radically different from the next. Sometimes difference is the defining ingredient.

‘Will Harris’? Not much difference there. It’s such an ordinary-sounding name. A white-caucasian-empire-building name. But he’s not. A Victoria Sponge this is not.

All This Is Implied took a good while. The author is a thinker and a craftsman. He’s been experimenting for years, putting things into words, trying them out, breaking them up, putting them back together again. And he’s been working on prose style as well. He writes excellent prose (not all poets do). Blogging about one of the ingredients (‘Justine‘), he says: ‘I think about writing as a way of addressing race, gender, history which might embrace mixedness and confusion ….’

Will Harris is a fellow of The Complete Works III. He self-defines as BAME (Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic). He doesn’t ‘play the race card’ lightly. As he says himself in an essay on this subject, ‘ the race card is not something the non-white person can choose to play. It is what is done to you’. Do read that whole essay, and watch the YouTube film at the end. There is a context here.

So yes – this debut pamphlet does ’embrace mixedness and confusion’, though the complete confection is anything but confused. Numbered among the ingredients are: games, humour, mischief, love, and form – even rhyme. It’s not confused: it’s fused.

The end product has come out pretty well, in fact. It’s hot off the press. Want to try a slice? 

Cake in waiting


My last blog entry dealt with the ‘post-pamphlet process’. I’m mid-pamphlet this week so thought I’d share a bit of that too, rather than writing about hot cross buns. (I may write about the first stage one day, and even the buns, but not today.)

I’m working right now with Will Harris on his debut pamphlet All This Is Implied. I love this title. It caught my attention from the start and the longer I live with it, the better it seems to fit the group of poems. It’s a nice title for a type-setter too. It occupies enough space on a front jacket to open up possibilities, and I like the internal pattern of the ‘is’ in ‘This Is’, and although it does have four letter ‘i’s, which could be a lot of dots, two of them will be capitalised, so that will be fine. (You think a lot about what words look like when you’re designing books. Both Helen Evans’s Only By Flying and Laurna Robertson’s Praise Song had a very useful letter O.)

And yes, I have checked to see there are no other poetry collections called All This Is Implied, although I was already sure there wouldn’t be. You can see my head is firmly on the title as a handle, both for the cover design and for the identity of the publication as it makes its way into the world, with attendant promotion to draw attention to its existence.

But I am jumping the bun. Let me go back to where the middle stage began and how.

In the third week of March I had a tiny opening of time, so I seized it. I grabbed the Word document containing the set of Will’s poems that had confirmed my offer of publication last October (though we have been communicating for some years, and he has been ‘pencilled in’ for longer than he knows), allocated them an ISB number and put the text into an In-Design document.

That sounds quick. It’s not. The reason it’s not quick is not just because of thinking about design principles, though I’ll come to those soon.

It’s because I think each poem through again as I put it on a page. I’m thinking now not just about individual strengths and weaknesses but how the whole thing hangs together. So my brain is focussing on links between the poems, in terms of thought, idea and verbal echo. It’s really a process of thinking of the whole publication as one artefact, almost one poem.

In terms of design, any poem that’s longer than a page will start on the left of the spread, because of the way I have so often, as a poetry reader, thought a poem has come to a beautiful ending, only to turn the page and find there’s more of it, and that the actual ending is less satisfying as the earlier false one.

But this principle of starting on the left often means the poet’s intended running order changes.

Then there’s the issue of the stretched or ‘weird’ poem. Poems come all shapes and sizes these days. It’s a bit like a hall of mirrors. They may extend in any direction and some use a variety of fonts too. I’m working with an A5 page for my pamphlets, and I won’t shrink font sizes to squeeze things in – because I think it looks naff. Sometimes I conclude that a typographically ‘difficult’ poem is simply not going to work inside my page shape. If I love it, I’ll spend a lot of time messing about with it. But if it’s just a ‘liked’ poem, and there are others to choose from, it will go. (The poet’s first full collection may have bigger pages.)

Poems with long lines are another issue. They fit best on a left hand page, where they can stretch into the middle without looking odd. They don’t look so good on the right, and I may have to reduce the margin to let them breathe and avoid breaking lines. I don’t like doing that, though there are exceptions. But starting the long-line poem on the left, also means the running order of the poems may change.

I may or may not agree that the poem the poet has chosen to start or end with is the right one. (I’m more likely to agree than not.)

If there are long poems in the set – and in Will’s pamphlet one extends over three pages and another over four (unusual) – you need to feel they’re in the right place. Of course, with long poems it depends what sort of long they are. Long and wide, or long and thin. Long and reflective, or long with a story. By gum. Well – the poet has already obsessed over this for years, so the least I can do is obsess for a few days.

In this way, I arrive at an In-Design draft, more or less following the author’s original intention. Then I do a second draft in which I make more radical changes. I print it out so I can see it on paper. I make more adjustments. I print it out again, two-sided in a booklet.

I create a cover, which is a rough copy holder with a notional graphic. However, this allows my brain to go to work on what might be there, and it encourages the writer to start to think about the text on the back, since he will need to supply some bio.

I fold the pages into a mock-up, put a coloured page in for flyleaf, and post to the author.

Together with the mock-up, I normally send a contract (not because I am preoccupied with legality but because it defines terms − like how many free copies the author will get, how big the print-run I likely to be, what author discount is applicable to additional copies purchased etc).

And I send some ‘new poet information’. This includes notes on proof-reading; a note about sales and publicity, so they will understand a little more about how the whole cost and promotional side works, and a note about supplying bio. Just lately I’ve produced yet another sheet explaining what information I need them to send after the first draft.

What happens next? Sometimes it’s the phone call. Sometimes the poet reads the draft and wants to change some aspects of content substantially, or wants me to consider some newer work as well. In that case, I think about whatever they send, and do another draft, and another mock-up, and then we talk.

Very occasionally the phone call is an actual face to face meeting. But mostly my poets are nowhere near me geographically so it’s the phone. Among other things, we will talk through the poems page by page. The poet tells me where there are typos or changes. If I have messed about with something, the poet either defends the original version and I take it back, or we agree that he or she will mark a section of a poem for further thought. So that phone call is usually at least a couple of hours, and there may be another before we’re done.

Then, after making the hot cross buns – on a Saturday when electricity is free – I do another draft. By this stage, I’m probably sharing copy by pdf attached to email because the author knows what the publication will look like in print from the mock-up. The author considers draft whatever-number-it-is-by-now. Do we need to talk again? If so, we schedule a time. More likely, I need to add detail – like notes or information on the acknowledgements page, and certainly the cover is work in progress. So I’ll add whatever is to be added, remove some errors, make a change to line 6 on page 15, lines 23-25 on page 17 and so on…

Meanwhile, I’ve suggested some images to Gillian that she might work on for the cover, and she does. What she comes back with is never what I expect. But weirdly it always seems to be ‘right’ in some way or another. I mess about with her images, and my typefaces, and get some covers together, including some poet bio if the poet has sent it (they are always slow to do this because everybody hates writing it) and a sentence of my own describing the contents as I see them. (I have now been thinking about this statement for three weeks at least. Later the copy may change significantly, and the poet has input to this too.)

We try to come up with two or three options for cover design and let the poet choose. They rarely choose the one I like best. However, the reading public usually likes the cover, and so does the poet, which is all that matters. Sometimes, I will do a final mock-up, including covers and post them. It depends how much time we have at this stage, because you could go on forever tweaking a comma here, worrying about a title there. It’s good to get the thing to PRINT and hurray! But the poet (and the editor) have to be happy with what they’ve arrived at.

And then, having consumed a hot cross bun with cheese, and with the print-ready copy taken to Dolphin press, I start on the ‘post-pamphlet process’ that I wrote about last week…