There is Jim C, and then there is Jim . . . C.

I should have known it was a mistake to release two publications by poets with the same first name. Both Scottish. Both charming gentlemen, whom I would not wish, in any way, to offend.

However, Jim Carruth (author of Rider at the Crossing), when abbreviated becomes Jim C. And Jim Wilson (author of Will I Ever Get to Minsk?) is also . . . er . . . Jim C Wilson, and therefore I often save files of his as Jim C.

So more than once, I have sent communications about Jim C to Jim C. I mean, Jim C Wilson to Jim Carruth. And to add insult to injury, I have kept referring to Jim Carruth’s pamphlet, Rider at the Crossing as Rider at the Crossroads.

The Two Jims will have a Christmas launch at the Scottish Poetry Library on December 15th (a Saturday afternoon), and there will be several Zaleo wines and some interesting sort of tasting going on. What are the chances that I will introduce the Crossing as Crossroads, and Jim W as Jim C?

I think I ought to say that although the two Jims are Scottish and share a first name, their poems and their personalities are nothing like each other. They are men of distinction and character. Both can be funny, but in very different ways. One is West, one is East. One is Jim C and one is Jim W.

For Jim W, the collection represents many of his best poems from the last several years, and some of them recall other great personalities from Scottish poetry, people Jim met in person and remembers here: Norman MacCaig, for example. He is a rich source of anecdote and tradition, and he always has a little mischief up his capacious sleeve.

For Jim Carruth, often known for his settings in field and farm, there is not a farm in sight. But there is much else: fun, and sadness, and the feeling of a bit of a crossroads. I mean crossing. No, I do mean crossroads. You have the sense he is mid-career as a poet, looking back and forward, appraising the road already travelled, weighing up what’s on the horizon.

Paula Jennings will not be surprised at my getting things wrong. Her lovely and unusual collection, From the Body of the Green Girl, stuck in my mind as Out of the Body of the Green Girl, and as a result I kept putting that erroneous title into bits and pieces of things, including the official registration for the publication. I had to go back and register the correction. In fact, even a few moments ago, I typed them the wrong way round. But I think she has forgiven me.

I am in many ways a perfectionist, so these things are painful. How on earth did I manage to publish four poets whose first name was Martin? (If you have just sent me a submission and Martin is your name, it will not increase your chances of success.)

My level of confusion rises when exhaustion sets in, and exhaustion, like strawberry jam with additional pectin, has certainly set this week.

As I am all too fond of reminding people, it is not easy to sell poetry. Although that literary form is still somehow regarded as rare and beautiful, most possible purchasers are content to regard its beauty from a distance. So the business of negotiating, designing and printing a small pamphlet publication is the least of it. After that, there’s the flyer to design, the book to register, the online shop to populate, the poets’ bio pages to complete, the copies to post to the National Library, the Agency for the other copyright libraries, the Scottish Poetry Library, the London Poetry Library, the authors (some in packets, some in a large box), the queues in the post office, and so on. Later, it’s review copies and fulfilling the online orders, which start trickling in.

The poets themselves will shift some copies. This is good but it won’t be enough (or it rarely is). This is where the subscribers come in, the wonderful people who formally express an interest in HappenStance, in the form of a £7.50 payment. For this, they get (at the moment) an annual chapter in the story of the press. This year, the chapters vanished completely and one day these things will have a value, so if you have Chapter 6, hang onto it. They also get a pamphlet of their choice.

After that, they also get approximately two mailshots per year by post. By good old-fashioned, and now extremely expensive, stamps. The Christmas mailshot has just gone out and this year it even contained a free gift, a small and lovely little thing designed by Jenny Elliott and her secret and mischievous Shed Press. And there’s the Christmas card: 300 were handfolded last week and enveloped.

I have always been better at giving things away then making money. So it’s a particular point of pride to me to design attractive flyers for each publication, with a sample poem on the back, and these go in the mailshot too.

Of course, I hope some people will order some pamphlets as a result of all this, not least from the two Jims, and most subscribers do order at least two or three publications a year – the point at which the subscription scheme starts to cover its costs and put some cash back in the bank. And at least those who can’t afford to buy, or who don’t fancy the current bunch of poets, get the flyers and other bits and pieces.

Over the years, the subscriber list has grown steadily. Each person has a number and I am now up to 384, I think. In real terms there are just about 300 ‘live’ subscribers, several of which have become regular correspondents and friends. I’ve lost 80ish. When I say ‘live’, some of my subscribers really have died, to my particular grief. These have included, for example, Julia Casterton, Cliff Ashby, Tom Duddy and Bertie Lomas. Others simply drop the subscription, either because they don’t like most of the poetry I’m publishing (a wholly valid reason for dropping out) or because they only subscribed because they were sending in a submission of their own, and I have not come up trumps.

Most of the poets I have, in the end, published do continue to subscribe, and there are a lot of them now. I once calculated that if I had eventually published 500 poets (I am up to about 130), and if they all continued to support the press and purchased two pamphlets a year at full price, or 4 at half price, I could continue to fund six new pamphlet poets annually, and do all the other poetry stuff I do. Or almost. Now there’s a thought.

But it’s not just the business of buying things. Or selling things. It’s the issue of a proper readership. What I hope for in the HappenStance subscribers is people who actually read the poems—and preferably tell me what they think of them. Because the current list of publications reflects something in the story of literature. This list is current and contemporary. This is some of whatever poets are doing right now, at this minute, in the UK. And at some point, folk will look back on it and maybe say, ‘Now that was quite interesting.’ Or ‘Now that was bollocks’, or ‘How on earth did they underestimate that one?’

When I was at school, and even at university, I read dead poets. Nothing against dead poets. I like dead poets. But when, back in the early 1970s, I picked up a copy of a contemporary magazine – like Poetry Review for example, which I had even heard ofI didn’t like most of it. It didn’t live up to whatever it was I expected from the rare and beautiful thing poetry was supposed to be. I didn’t know where to start to find the thing I would like or did want.

Even now, it’s difficult, isn’t it? I read a ton of poetry every year. We have to heave it away from the door in buckets. And lots of it is okay. Some is good. Hardly any is rare and beautiful. Even the best poets alive write little that’s rare and beautiful.

People sometimes ask publishers why they started. In my case, there are many answers to that question. One of mine – and I don’t often admit it, because it feels risky – is that I wanted a say in what was going on. Someone always has a say in what gets to be Literature. But actually, anybody can have a say. It’s not as difficult as it’s cracked up to be.

Besides, it’s one of the best rides at the workaholics’ theme park.





Cliff Ashby, who died last week, loved the natural world.

Cliff Ashby, who died last week, loved the natural world.

Towards the end of his long life he spent much time watching birds on the feeder outside his window. He had a wry turn of phrase, a way of mixing sly wit with a sudden absolute—for want of a better word—sincerity. Here he is on the season we call ‘spring’, for example. He was living at Loudwater Farm when he wrote this, and so the river in the poem is real enough:

Thank God for
The dispassionate Sun,
Birds that mate
In magnificent trees,
Water fowl
That splash down
On a cheerful river.

Nothing extraordinary about that is there? Maybe the word “dispassionate” is just a little surprising but all the rest is straightforward enough. The next stanza is almost a logical continuation—perhaps not quite:

Say a prayer
For the squirrel
And the cock pheasant
Disappearing into the orchard.

God is in the offing. Praise His creation, though the cock pheasant is off somewhere and perhaps just slightly up to no good.

Then the next stanza—and the voice of praise is on its third round of rallying calls. It sounds just a little weary perhaps. And then human beings arrive on the scene, and the poet is one of them, though you don’t know that yet:

Let’s hear it for
The humble lark
And linnet,
The flamboyant magpie,
Children on swings,
Old men warming chilled bones
And the simple who
Make no complaint.

He is the old man warming chilled bones in the sun, but he doesn’t tell you that. He is not “the simple who / make no complaint”. Cliff never pretended to make no complaint, and he did not like being old and frail much. Who does?

And finally there’s the last stanza, which opens with a full-throated “Hurrah”, and ends completely unexpectedly:

Hurrah for
The tiny flowers
For which I have no name,
Discovered in odd corners,
The cuckoo, still to come,
Whitethroat, swift and swallow,

And yours truly
Sitting in the sun,
Wondering where the hell
The next poem’s coming from.

And there you go—from Heaven to Hell in one Spring poem. Man is at the heart of creation, despairing of his own role in it, his own inability to create. But Cliff Ashby is not—he is never—self-pitying. He chuckles at his own inadequacy.

Cliff Ashby Cliff was born in 1919 to a strongly religious family. His father was a Methodist Minister, so there was much moving around from place to place, as his father took up new office in one church after another. He left school early—at only 13—and never acquired educational qualifications.

However, his choice to register as a conscientious objector during the Second World War led him into contact with artists and poets at the Peace Pledge Union’s community farm ‘The Oaks’ in Essex. Here he met, among others, John Middleton Murry, who had bought the farm and given it over to the Adelphi Centre, a socialist peace community, co-founded by Max Plowman.

Ashby worked as a dairyman for the next 17 years, but something had sparked off—a new world of ideas and culture—and he had started writing poetry. He never looked back. Later he was published in David Wright’s legendary ‘X’ and the two men became firm friends. In this way he also forged a lasting friendship with Charles Sisson, and came to know Martin Seymour-Smith.

Cliff Ashby’s Collected Poems, PlainSong, was published by Carcanet in 1985. It is out of print now, but second hand copies can be had easily and cheaply. I have a handful of his HappenStance pamphlets left—A Few Late Flowers—and some of the Samplers too, his very last publication.

Here are concluding lines from the last poem in Flowers, ‘A Report for Ann’ (Ann was the much-loved wife who died two decades before him):

As night reaches
Its dark conclusions
And dawn brings problems

That I must resolve,
I finally run out of words.

But we were never much
For conversation,
Understanding with a lover’s art,
Silent as the river
That slides its way
Past my bedroom window,
Making its foretold journey
To the sea
While I,
Not much time left,
Totter towards the
Final resolution.

Cliff Ashby has finally run out of words. But his words have not run out. He has left some of them with us: the best of words, and in the very best order.

It was a privilege to have known him.