Why is it so HARD?

Why is it so hard to do publicity?

I always thought the most difficult thing to write well was – a poem. 

But there’s something else I find more difficult. And it’s writing the publicity material about the poems. It’s almost impossible. 

Why should it be so hard to put into words how something you think is remarkable is . . . remarkable?

It may be something to do with fear, fear that the describing words turn into marketing clichés and disappear down the drain. It’s fear of letting the poets down. And beneath that, there’s something else – a kind of rage about the way the world works these days. So much hype, so many shiny, empty words. I’m scared mine will disappear with the rest of the dross.

But here I am again about to launch five new publications. Five! Five things to say about five different publications. How can they all be wonderful?  

Well four of them are wonderful, and the fifth is funny. How do I know they’re wonderful?

No, wait. I don’t like ‘wonderful’. Please put it back.  I’ll have ‘remarkable’ please, and yes, I do most certainly think they’re remarkable. They made me sit up and remark. They made me sit up and remark so much that I wanted to work with these writers. And work we did. It’s taken an age to make them. You have no idea of the time spent debating commas, accents, format, poems to go in, poems to come out, running order, titles that were okay, titles that were rubbish, where to put notes, what to say on the back jacket, which design worked best on the cover, which didn’t….

The books are done. Two are at the printer’s in Berwick-on-Tweed. Three are about to make their way to Dolphin Press tomorrow morning. They’re not in the HappenStance online shop yet because they don’t fully exist yet except electronically, though that is existence.

And yesterday I spent several hours finalising the flyers and the copy for the publications list. The publications list! What a nightmare. Each time I revise it I get something wrong.The words for the new publications either start to sound tinny or I find I’ve described two books in the same way. You can’t have TWO fresh and originals. And since each one is completely different from the rest, it can’t be that hard. Can it?

Take it from me, it’s hard. Even for a bard.

But here’s what it says about the new babes on the sweated-over publications list.

Number one: a whole book, a first book, no less.. And here’s what it says on the publications list:

Noir, Charlotte Gann
Troubled, troubling and fearless, Charlotte Gann’s first collection confronts manipulation and damage, and sails into the light. A book that can be read like a film.

You may think those italics emerged easily, just like turning on a tap. Wrong. I have never before read a collection of poems that resembled a film in its clarity of image and narrative thrust. But for me, Charlotte’s book is like this. Like a noir film. With shivers.

Then there are three pamphlets, described below in alphabetical order of writer’s surname (just in case you think it’s in order of remarkableness). 

The Days that Followed Paris, Paul Stephenson.
During a night of co-ordinated terrorist attacks in November 2015, the poet was at home in Paris. He was unharmed but swept up (like the whole city) into a maelstrom of publicity and alarm. These poems, in many shapes and forms, offer a response to that unhinging experience.

Instructions for Making Me, Maria Taylor.
Poems of unfailing vitality and charm. You read them and immediately want to share them. Honestly, every poet and aspiring writer should read ‘The Horse’ …

In the Glasshouse, Helen Tookey.
Haunting and evocative work that crosses the boundaries of form and feeling, searching, experimenting, feeling its way. Between truth and fable, intuition and enquiry, something magical and beautiful emerges.

Okay, what do you think? There’s so much more to be said, but in a publications list you have to whittle it down to the bare minimum.

You can’t read any of these yet, but soon you will be able to.

My slaved-over descriptive words have two purposes. They’re trying to make you want to read the poems – of course – but they’re also trying to evoke these publications as they are – entirely remarkable, but in different ways.

I’m not mentioning the fifth yet because it’s called Down with Poetry! That heretical book will look after itself.

More on heresy soon.

Front cover of Charlotte Gann's book. It shows a dark skyline, a city skyline with windows, and behind it another shadowy skyline. The book's title is in large yellow caps in the bottom third, the the name of the author in white above it.



I’ve never thought about them so carefully before.

That sounds daft. I work with people putting first pamphlet collections together all the time. Which poem comes first is important, and the choice is never accidental.

But this was different. Last week, I was at Lumb Bank (I have never been before) with a group of poets thinking about how they might put together a first pamphlet or book. (I was tutoring for the Arvon Foundation with Helen Tookey, poet and managing editor for Carcanet Press).

You know that bit you see on people’s bio at the back of magazines: Pansy Piffledunk is working towards her first collection?

I’ve always wondered about ‘working towards’. It’s not the same as ‘walking towards’ or ‘wandering towards’. It has a sense of determination and direction. Pansy Piffledunk knows where she’s going. These days Pansy Piffledunk also has an ‘overarching theme’. She is working towards a first collection based around an imaginary group of miners’ mothers in the lost Goose Egg Gold Mine of El Dorado County.

But I don’t want to mock her. Not really. We all aspire to a degree of Piffledunk. It’s not unreasonable to feel one should be ‘working’ rather than ‘wandering’, even if the reality is different. And looking closely at first poems was fascinating, especially for someone like me who usually opens the book at the back.

We looked together at the opening poem of Niall Campbell’s new book Moontide. People loved its setting and atmosphere – the image of lighting a match in a grain store. A couple of them went away to buy the book. Lots of opening poems seem to be in some way or other about the act of writing poems (buried in metaphor).

I found an original 1992 volume of Simon Armitage’s Kid, in the Lumb Bank library, with its weird opening narrative about a man who comes to stay (alive) and leaves very much dead. And what about the haunting opener to Tara Bergins’ This is Yarrow? I won’t forget it. Another book I have to read the rest of.

During the week, although we did discuss opening poems and (briefly) structure of first collections, we mainly agreed (though we didn’t put it quite like this) that ‘wandering towards’ was okay. Wandering via the best possible poems you can write. Themes might turn out to have been arching over. Or not. Doesn’t matter really.

What does matter, if one has publication in mind, is understanding how publisher/editors think and feel. (They do have feelings.)

Writing poems is one thing. (A privilege and a joy.) Getting them published (if that’s the right choice) is another.

But poetry publishing is not a mystery. It’s not hard to find out how it works, and then plot a route towards a destination. Not half as hard as writing poems.

Pansy believes a publisher will take an interest in her work – such a keen interest that said publisher will invest time and money in making her book available to The World. She may not have noticed that the publisher’s also engaged in a creative task. She or he is working towards (and never ever arriving at) making a whole imprint come together. If Pansy isn’t interested in what the publisher is creating (except in so far as it concerns herself), why will the publisher (who doesn’t need any more poets anyway) be interested in her?

(Because my poems are so good, of course, says Pansy.)

I know I’ve used far too many brackets in this blog entry. Half of what I think these days is in parenthesis. (I don’t care.)

(I have been away for nine days. In my absence, the Christmas cactus has gone berserk. Things bloom when I am not here.