On Choosing the Wrong Name

If I had another life, and was choosing the name of my imprint again, I wouldn’t go for ‘HappenStance Press’. Before I tell you why, I’ll explain how the name HappenStance first came about.

Back in 2005 I was thinking a lot about poetry publishing, turning half an idea over and over in my head. I was on holiday, and on holiday I sleep deeply and I dream.

So I had a vivid dream in which I had set up a poetry publishing imprint called ‘Happenstance’. Next day I wrote my sister an unusually long letter. I told her about my dream. I’m going to go ahead with it, I said. I’m really going to do this. I was excited.

But was ‘Happenstance’ the right name? I liked the sound of the word, but not its connotations. I wanted an operation that was deliberate, carefully planned. The more I thought about it, the more I kept remembering W H. Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen’.

My press could reverse that, Mr Auden, I thought. It could make poetry happen. And I could take a stance on the way it happened.

But it wasn’t just happenstance. It had to be HappenStance. The second half of the word had to be capitalised and italicised because that … was the whole point. And so I began.

There was, however, so much I didn’t know. So much.

For example, I failed to see that I was the only person who would ever care about that distinctive detail: the capital S, the italicised Stance.

For everybody else it would just be Happenstance Press (there are at least two bands with the same name, as well as a Rachael Yamagata album and a brand of footwear, not to mention a dozen or so novels).

At first I used to remind people about getting the format of ‘HappenStance’ right. Especially my own poets. Most of them cocked it up, and still do. I ve stopped reminding them. I see it wrong in bios everywhere, in books, in magazines. Reviewers of HappenStance books almost invariably write ‘Happenstance’ (why should they care?).

And then, worst of all, I was forced to get it wrong myself. That’s because in some online software, the heading styles won’t accept a mixture of regular and italic font. Often, it’s one or the other, unless you save the heading as a graphic, and you can only usually do that in banners. Sigh.

So some of the headings on the HappenStance website have the Stance italicised. Others don’t. I expect if I forked out enough money it’s all fixable, but the circumstance of HappenStance has never been lucrative and the website mostly uses freeware. This is poetry, after all.

I see new presses popping up all the time, and the imprint names always interest me. When ignitionpress sprang into existence, I chuckled hollowly. All one lowercase word, right? Two words squashed together. Bold font for the first word only? Ha! Asking for trouble.

And right enough: check it out. Sometimes you see Ignition Press. Sometimes you see Ignitionpress. Sometimes you see ignitionpress. On the home page where everything ignites, there’s both ignitionpress and ignitionpress, but then the second version is white on black, and it’s hard to mix bold and regular characters in WOB.

Anyway, such is life. All I’m saying is: if I had my time again, I’d keep it simple. A nice regular font; a word with a pleasing shape and sound. That would do. Be easy to remember. Be easy to spell. Be easy to fit inside a URL.

As for Auden, that troublesome quotation about poetry not making things happen is drawn from his 1939 work ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’. The whole poem is well worth revisiting. But here’s the relevant bit, and it doesn’t say quite what I always thought:

[ … ] poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

So poetry, after all, ‘survives / in the valley of its making’. Hands off, you poetry executives! It’s a river: it flows on, it survives. It is, as much as anything else ‘a way of happening’. I like that. (Valley Press might like it too.)

But ‘HappenStance’ is the name I did choose, eighteen years ago. I have completed my main phase now, the determination to make books happen. I’m on my last titles, and although this ‘way of happening’, the poetry thing, sits central to my life, I won’t make many more publications. The launch of one of the last is next week, Tuesday 7 November at 7.00 pm at the Devereux in central London. The magical book being launched is Matthew Stewart’s Whatever You Do, Just Don’t. It includes twelve poems about a football team, something I never in a million years thought I would like. But I do. Details of the event are on the events page of the website.

Please come along to the London event and say hello if you live near enough. (Spell ‘hello’ any way you like.)

Missing the Lesser Mortal

My long-standing friend and HappenStance poet Geoff Lander has died. We were almost exactly the same age. We met as students: he was studying Chemistry and I was wrestling with English Literature. He and his friend Simon used to come and drink mugs of instant coffee with me and my room-mate Clare. I don’t recall what we talked about half a century ago, but while the connection with Simon got lost, the one with Geoff (and Clare) survived. We exchanged Christmas cards all our lives, with news and family photos.

In the last fifteen years, communication with Geoffrey (as he often called himself) was by email, from Bexleyheath to Fife and back again. He knew all about HappenStance Press and took an interest from the start, but I had no idea that after a life-changing stroke (which led to early retirement, among other things) he would start to write that poems himself. Not poems about loss or disability or acute unhappiness (all of which he experienced) but witty, rhyming pieces about politics, science and current affairs.

Geoff was a formalist. He’d tried free verse but it didn’t work for him. When he wrote without rhyme or metre, the results were wooden, whereas the pattern and challenge of a formal structure gave him wings. He read closely, carefully and widely, especially the lyricists and noble rhymers of the twentieth century: John Masefield, Rudyard Kipling, W S Gilbert, A E Housman, Hilaire Belloc. He loved Auden and MacNeice too, and even Larkin. He would find a poem he admired, analyse its form, and then try doing it himself, again, again and again.He sent me many of the results, and I would tell him what was wrong with them.

It took a while until he really got his head around metre. I love rhyme but I’m a hard taskmaster. I was tough with his: no half-rhyming cop-outs, or singulars matched with plurals. He worked intensely on this and got better and better.

Latterly, he would send me something he’d been working on for ages, and tell me it was finally ‘finished’. I would send it back, pointing out the things that needed adjusting. He would write back, ‘Have I ever told you how much I hate you?’ I loved that. Then he would really finish the poem.

He had a whole array of talents. He possessed a fine tenor voice and had sung all his life in choirs or, in earlier days, light opera. (His email address was jussiblo9@ etc, a nod to the singer he most admired: Jussi Björling.)

He played piano and violin.

He could draw, a dab hand at head and shoulders portraits and wacky cartoons. He would regularly make entomological depictions of insects: butterflies, bees.

He loved gardening, and cooking: made great bread and fabulous dumplings.

All of this was on top of his background in science: he had excelled at university and completed a PhD in Chemistry.

But he was a private person. He didn’t write about personal feelings, with the exception of rage. His fury about social inequality and shambolic politics found its way into poems. If only Boris Johnson knew how frequently he had fallen victim to Geoff’s scathing turn of phrase!

He also wrote about what he admired. I published a pamphlet of his poems about great scientists in The Lesser Mortal in 2018. It was enormously educative for me.He attended at least two local poetry groups, and would often comment wryly on how his own work didn’t fit in with contemporary expectations. Sometimes he would deliver the more ribald pieces in a mock-cockney accent, or the voice of a literary ‘toff’. Here he is, for those who would like to hear his voice, with a pastiche of Masefield:

The Craft of Poetry

The theme of Welling Poetry Group’s meeting 27.10.2018

I must go down to the library where this week’s theme is ‘craft’.
Craft in out-dated meter? Don’t be so bloody daft!
There is no skill in the triolet or the bawdy limerick
and as for the curse they call light verse—fetch me a sick-bag, quick.

No, do not waste a second on that worn-out jingo Kipling—
nobody dare admit today they like his rhythms’ rippling.
Art in the murderer Deever? or that guileless Gunga Din?
And above all else that twaddle ‘If’? —file ’em in the rubbish bin!

I must go down to the library and read them this pastiche
(its shifting-metric balderdash belongs in a passé niche).
I’ll say no one should give a damn if the odd stress get misplaced,
then laugh at the hornets’ nest I’ve stirred, outwardly po-faced.

A recording of him reading the above himself is here: https://soundcloud.com/nell_nellson/the-craft-of-poetry-geoff-lander

Geoff was variously kind, thoughtful, and infuriating on any issue on which he’d already made up his mind. At times he drove me nuts, and I loved him. Latterly his health was failing. His diabetes was an issue and so was balance and, increasingly, deafness. He was subject to fits of what he called ‘the black dog’. He decided it was time to go and took the necessary steps to secure his own speedy exit.

Funeral details for those who knew him are here: https://geoffreylander.muchloved.com/

When struggling with strong emotion, formal verse does help. Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce, etc. Geoff was especially fond of a rondeau (and even a rondeau redoublé); he wrote many of them. The poem that started him off was the well-known First World War lyric by John McCrae, ‘In Flanders Fields‘. So I chose that form to remember him with. I worked on it carefully, but can’t let him check it to see if he approves. So I hope he would understand why I changed the rules at the end, just as he did himself in making his departure.

In Lander’s Fields

A flawed rondeau for Geoff

Geoff Lander’s gone (he liked to go
without a fuss). He used to know
much about music; also why
an acid needs an alkali
and how a well-made loaf should grow.

And he could write. Short days ago
he rose, made bread, saw sunrise glow,
wrestled with rhymes. But now this sigh:
Geoff Lander’s gone.

I knew him kind to friend or foe
though on himself prone to bestow
scant praise. Geoffrey could make you cry
singing a simple lullaby —
with such a voice, a man might fly.
Geoff Lander’s flown.