A good question . . .

It certainly works for Candlestick Press, which has two titles in the top ten poetry sales in the UK listed in the current Bookseller. Everything at Candlestick is themed: Five Poems about Teachers, Ten Poems about Gardens, Thirteen Poems of Revenge. These are adorable little publications. They reach the parts other poetry doesn’t penetrate.

But nearly all the Candlestick Press publications are anthologies. That is to say, the contents are poems by several poets. Not all of them are famous or classic or dead, but some certainly are. And the editors tend to have kudos (notably Carol Ann Duffy with the Christmas pamphlets).

Themes certainly seem to boost anthology penetration. The Emma Press (keep an eye on this new imprint) first did an anthology of “Mildly Erotic Verse” (great title), has since done one on Motherhood and there’s one on Dance in the making. Send your poems now and join the Emma Press Club (another neat marketing idea).

Second Light did Parents, as well as embracing ‘Women’ as a general theme. Grey Hen has done anthologies about the sea; the bee; the Brontes, birds; trying circumstances; and “aging older women”. Bloodaxe has cats, and Irish Poets. Faber & Faber has trains.

Does the theme sell the publications? It certainly makes them stand out. Themed books lend themselves to gift purchase too, presumably. Poems about golf for a golfer. Poems about dance for dancers, motherhood for mothers.

What about single author collections? Diana Gittins’ HappenStance pamphlet Bork!, which is a sequence of poems about chickens, has certainly sold a good number of copies either to poets who keep hens, or to people with friends with hens. Many purchasers have sent for two or three copies, not one, which suggests gifts are in the offing.

I’m willing to bet Kate Clanchy’s Newborn has sold more widely than her other books, though of course I don’t know. Slattern won more prizes but I bet Newborn sold more copies. it makes a great gift for a new mum. The cover picture of the baby is a winner – I bought it myself when my daughter had her baby. And doesn’t Picador have The Book of Birth Poems edited by no other than . . . K. Clanchy.

I conclude: themes are Good Things.

This is not why I’m about to publish two pamphlets with themes. Sometimes themes just happen. The first, and most imminent themed item, is Rosemary Hector’s Knowing Grapes. The central idea is (you guessed it) fruit. The next is Helen Clare’s Entomology. Theme: insects. Will Knowing Grapes sell to fruit lovers? Will Entomology sell to . . . insect lovers? Are there any insect lovers?

Okay – the theme helps with distinguishing one pamphlet from another. But so does the picture on the cover and the name of the author and a whean of other things. The theme can also be a smokescreen. Rosemary Hector’s fruit poems, for example, are not really about fruit. Or not just fruit. This is even more true for Entomology, which may be about love.

Alas, there’s only one way to find out what these new pamphlets (and they aren’t even in the shop yet) are really about. You have to read them. You can’t read them yet though because they’re not published yet. Sometimes new publications are described as “eagerly awaited”. It’s spring. Please start cultivating your eagerness now.

In the meantime, Richard Osmond’s Variant Air, which is in the HappenStance shop, has a sort of theme. But the lynchpin is more of a style than a theme – and it belongs to Gerard Manley Hopkins. If you’re a Hopkins afficionado I think you’ll find this publication particularly compelling. But don’t take my word for it. There are better words inside the pamphlet.



  1. Until now, I’ve thought there should be some kind of narrative arc to a collection, which implies story, thereby theme. Or maybe doing a Masters thingy makes one hung-up on terms like ‘narrative arc’. Thought-provoking article, Nell, and very informative. Thank you. My conclusion: theme good. No theme fine. So that’s how ‘whean’ is spelt! Across the water it’s double-e. I think.

  2. I think it’s important to theme a pamphlet. Otherwise, it risks being simply a pile of poems.

  3. Anything to boost poetry readership…though personally I find a variety of lyric poems more stimulating than a theme. But with bouquets there’s room for both the single flower and the mixed. One small matter, and I hope you’ll forgive an impertinent question, but is the neologism [i]Entymology[/i] intended as a hybrid of entomology and etymology? a tricky title, since at first sight it looks like a misprint – a clever wordplay may be mistaken by the non-cognoscenti purchasers for illiteracy – a bit of a risk for Happenstance – but I suppose that that’s what life on the edge is all about! 🙂

  4. A narrative arc works well in supporting slighter (weaker, sometimes) components. The whole gets to be greater than the sum of. But a set of true strong poems can stand perfectly arc-less, I think. They are connected by their author.

  5. Good point Antony! My spelling error. It should be entomology. I’ve saved one of the files under the wrong spelling. I always did confuse etymology and entomology in my teens. And at primary school I was worried about the connection (in my head) between tomato and martyr. Quite right: a bit of a risk for Happen[i]Stance[/i]! 🙂

  6. I suppose my worry about themes is that they can take meaning-making away from the reader. One of the things I enjoy about reading a pamphlet or collection is finding the ‘themes’, or ‘narratives’, in the preoccupations of the poems and the way in which the author has put them together. This process is open to the individual reader to make sense of and therefore more fluid than the heavy-handed signposting of an explicit theme. I tend to look to themed collections for individual exemplar poems when needed, rather than to read through as collections. I like collections to be coherent, but I guess I don’t care for themes. I suppose a themed pamphlet is better than a themed collection though – I really didn’t like CAD’s The World’s Wife at all. A theme park of a book…

  7. You might not have liked the theme park book, Elizabeth, but it sure sold well, as well as permeating the entire educational territory. I think marketing people like themes. And teachers (many of them). I speak as a poetry peddler. Or pedlar. Or meddler. 🙂

  8. Or medlar, of course, into the autumn they stay on the tree, till eaten by blackbirds or foxes when well bletted; or taken and made into jelly for peddling . . .

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