The Bridge Over the River Po

In How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published I write about having a ‘strategy’. A plan for getting work into print, finding new readers for your poems.

For ‘new’ poets, sometimes a pamphlet publication is one of the stages in the plan, a bridge that leads to a boofull colour picture of the Forth Railway Bridge between Fife and East Lothian. The bridge is red and could be made of meccano.k. This immediately reminds me of The Three Billy-Goats Gruff who lived, appropriately, on a ‘bluff’, and soon encountered the troll (troll, troll, troll-de-roll) lurking just below the bridge that led to the ‘green, green grass’ and ‘red, red roses’ on the other side.

And indeed there are trolls a-plenty, though the green, green grass and red, red roses may not actually exist. For warnings and general advice, please see the new area of the website dedicated to How (Not) to with its own connected pages. 

However, some pamphlet bridges work brilliantly for some poets. And although getting poetry published isn’t easy, a first pamphlet is easier to accomplish than a first book.

The Rialto (also, of course, a magazine) publishes a whole series of Bridge Pamphlets), ‘designed to cross the gap between magazine and book publication for new writers or, for established writers, that between collections’. It can work. Look how many writers published in that particular bridge series have gone on to do one or more full collections.

Lately I have been especially pleased to see three HappenStance pamphlet poets crossing the bridge. Each of these poets has done much work between the pamphlet they did with me and the book that has just appeared, and the time taken from pamphlet to bridge has varied between four years and eight (please note, those of you with five-year plans). The three first collections are from different publishers, two relatively new, one in business since 1992.

There are many routes into publication and the journeys for these three poets have been different: all have had poems published in a range of magazine, but there are only a few overlaps. When you work with a poet on a pamphlet and later see him or her appear in book form, it’s very like seeing your own children achieve something rather grand. It’s even better when you read the books and think YESSSSSssssss, as I did for all three. These are good, good books.

The first is Janet Loverseed’s The Shadow Shop, published Cover of The Shadow Shop, which is predominantly green. It's green and sunny grass, over which the long shadow is cast of perhaps a woman on a long dress. Above the title in lower case italics red, and below the italic name of the author in dark Oversteps Books. Janet is a witty, subtle, gentle poet. When she first sent me poems, there were so many I liked I didn’t know where to start. But The Under-Ripe Banana (long sold out) was a favourite, and its title poem (still a favourite) is in this book. Many of the poems capture moments out of lives, the sort of moments you can’t forget like ‘The Man in the Middle’, which can change your experience of travelling on the tube forever. Or ‘An Interviewer’s Story’, which could make you think twice about talking to cute small children. So much here is lovely. I wouldn’t know where to begin with quoting, and there’s the issue, too, that the poems are small completenesses. To take bits out of them doesn’t quite work. You just have to read ‘Old Pianist’ and ‘Another Year’, and keep them safe to cheer you on dark days.

Then there’s Marion Tracy’s Dreaming of Our Better Selves, published by Richard Skinner’s Vanguard Editions. Marion’s 2012 pamphlet Giant in the Doorway was one of the stranCover of the book, which is unusual, being mainly white, with a strike of illustrative deign across the middle in black, white and red. Here there are women's faces looking weird, zigzags, stripes, trees maybe, fields maybe, leaves, squiggly bits, possibly african-isa face masks. Above the title in bold lower fast. It stretches from one side of the cover to the other. Below the author's name, fairly small, in italics. The imprint name small, black and bottom right hand corner.gest and most arresting sets of poems HappenStance has published. Its central sequence told the story of a child’s struggle to make sense of her mother’s mental illness. It sold out quickly. Since then Marion has worked tirelessly at the art. She has developed an approach and unpredictable way with words that’s totally her. Often there’s an element of the surreal, combined with a sense that what’s she’s saying is absolutely REAL. Unflinching, even. Her poems are unpredictable shape-shifters, poems to return to, to talk about, to worry away at. You never quite know what she’s going to do next. But you know she’s on the move, alert, alive and challenging. These are poems that wake you up.

And the third new book is by Theresa Muñoz, whose 2012 pamphlet Close (no copies left) touched on her experience of moving to Scotland as a Canadian. But only touched An unusual cover. The first thing you see is that it's snowing right over the cover, white blobs. At the bottom in huge lower case letters is the title SETTLE. at the top the author's name much much smaller in pale blue lower case. In the middle there is an image of a yellow circle inside a red shape. The shape is like dumb quote shape -- I don't know how else to describe it and I don't know what it is. The bottom quarter, behind the title (which is pale orange, is a strip of white that blurs into a much bluer section that then, in turns shades back towards a whitish gray at the top of the page, so that the blue of the author's name is the blue of the middle of the page. There is a tiny logo top right of a vagabond in an oven, the logo of the imprint.on it. These were spare, emotive poems, using white space to suggest much more than they said. And in the years since she wrote them, she has, in every sense, come a long way. So the new book, Settle (from Vagabond Voices), takes the issue of immigration, one of the huge concerns of our age, and deals with it head-on. It’s divided into two halves: poems about crossing cultures (dealing with her parents’ experience as Canadian immigrants and then her own in moving to Scotland), and poems inspired by digital existence, where crossing continents is as easy as the click of a mouse. There’s an essay, too, about ‘Moving to Scotland’ that enriches the context of the poems themselves, fills in the gaps. This is an intensely readable book, more than ‘just’ a book of poems. It’s about all our lives.


The CB Editions Free Verse publishers event took place yesterday in London.

Two floors of small press publishers, a fabulous reading venue, a delightful little open air cafe on hand, a baking hot day — and free wine and ham with every HappenStance purchase, thanks to Matthew Stewart’s role as wine exporter and voluntary ambassador for the Extremadura region of Spain. So the HappenStance stall got a lot of interest.

Christopher Reid kicked off the action (you can just see him above, in the middle) with charm and brevity and panache.

The day included music, workshops, conversation, book buying, book bartering, book swapping, wine and ham. And a first-rate series of readings throughout the day, organised by Chrissy Williams and announced by CB Editions publisher Charles Boyle with a very large bell (see above). CB managed to look relaxed even in the middle of this mammoth feat of organisation.

You may spot Fiona Moore (above) assisting with sales, beside Matthew Stewart in his green stripey, ham-cutting apron. People talk about the unlikelihood of pigs flying. Well, part of one did — from Spain to London — and there it is on the ham stand. You can just see the cover of Marion Tracy’s The Giant in the Doorway in the right hand corner of the photo above — the one with what look like cut-out dolls. There was a fabulous reading space (see below). Couldn’t have been better.

Marion Tracy launched her debut publication, Giant in the Doorway, with a riveting reading, in front of that glorious mirror and red drapes. I didn’t photograph her in action because I didn’t want to put her off with paparazzi flashes, but I wish I had. I am a coward with a camera.

Matthew’s reading from his second pamphlet, Tasting Notes, required two voices, so I had the opportunity of being a marketing blurb persona. This, too, was accompanied by wine and ham. You can taste the wine yourself (links from the HappenStance shop to an online wine supplier).

The day was very friendly — lots of people to talk to and everyone in that sunny good humour that accompanies an extra bit of Summer when you’re not really expecting it. Food for mind, body and spirit.

Wonderful. And did I mention the wine and ham?

Balanced, rational, reasonable, sensible, sane, sound . . . .

Just look at those respectable adjectives!

They line up like nice little soldiers, reliable and trustworthy. Then see what happens with their anonyms (of which there are many more):

Aberrant, bananas, barmy, batty, bonkers, cuckoo, daft, deluded, demented, gaga, insane, kooky, loony, loopy, lunatic, mental, nutty, psycho, rabid, raving, senseless, screwy, unbalanced, unhinged, unreasonable, unsafe, unsound, unstable, wacko, off your rocker, out of your mind, away with the fairies, lost the plot.

Mental illness isn’t funny. But all those describing words? They mock it, stick it in a safe place on the back shelf, where we keep things we don’t want to contemplate.

Because of all that, it’s hard to write about—hard to evoke that reality where the brain doesn’t work properly—without inviting horror movie scenarios or enlisting the sympathy vote. Marion Tracy’s début pamphlet, Giant in the Doorway, steers a bold course between these torturous extremes.

Giant is about childhood with a mother who lurches from ‘normality’ to insanity. Some of the poems (in the voice of the child) struggle to make sense of what’s going on, but there’s no self-pity. The narrator is (like most children) a tough little individual. At one point she herself becomes the friendly giant, protecting her older sister from the terrors.

In the second half of the collection, the poet looks back on her childhood from the point of view of an adult. She’s still trying to make sense of the relationship with her mother, in the way most of us do all our lives. Through the chaos of past events emerges a strong, clear voice. To describe confusion plainly is, in some sense, to take control:

I’m ten the bowl of stars I breathe in move my arms
up and down then out is something I have
no name for and none for this but I know it’s wrong

Giant in the Doorway will be launched next Saturday (8th September) at the Candid Arts Trust galleries in London (the Poetry Book Fair). Matthew Stewart will be launching Tasting Notes at the same time, with wine and a tapa of Iberico Ham. Both new chapbooks will be in the online shop within the next week or so.


Do you believe in synchronicity?

It was Jung who coined the term, of course, and ever since I came across it, I’ve liked it. My mother’s a great believer in meaningful coincidence (which is much the same thing) and has some extraordinary examples.

My favourite’s the story of how she met Herr Buchholz. We were on holiday in Austria in 1966. We had never been abroad before (my sister was 10 and I was just 13), and my mother was determined to practise the German she had been studying in night school. She fell into conversation with a couple who were staying with their daughter at the same hotel. Naturally they asked where she came from and discovered it was a part of England one of them already knew. Mr Buchholz had been a prisoner of war, and was detained in Cheshire, near where my mother grew up. I don’t know what he was doing: perhaps he was a land worker of some kind.

Over the days they stayed in the same hotel, they continued to chat. They discovered they had, unknowingly, been in the same location together before, albeit not in Austria. It was over twenty years previously. My mother was a young woman in her teens and was working for a GP in Bowdon. Word came round that the King (George VI) was passing through. Not one to miss the opportunity of seeing royalty go past, my mother nipped out to view the royal progression (traffic moved slowly in those days). The streets in her part of Bowdon were deserted. She was the only person standing at the roadside apart from a man she didn’t know and didn’t speak to.

That man was Herr Buchholz, and here she was talking to him, nearly quarter of a century later at a hotel in Austria. Now there’s coincidence for you! Later his daughter Charlotte came to stay with us, to improve her English, and eventually I went to stay with them, to improve my German. Charlotte and I are still in touch.

All of which brings me to this week’s happy coincidence. I went to pick up Matthew Stewart’s new pamphlet Tasting Notes from The Dolphin Press. (It isn’t listed on the website yet).

Tasting Notes is, as the title suggests, about wine. The author works as a wine exporter for a Spanish co-operative in Extremadura. He’s also, of course, the originator of Inventing Truth, which came out in 2011 (Matthew blogs at Rogue Strands). Tasting Notes is very different from Matthew’s last publication. This time, the language of wine tasting and marketing merges with something delightfully unexpected. Each of four Zaleo wines has something to say for itself, and not quite what you’d expect.

But this brings me to the synchronicity. When I picked up the pamphlets this week, they were all packed in . . . wine boxes! Naturally I loved this detail, and saw it as particularly auspicious. I am, I think, the only poetry publisher who regularly dispatches boxes of books in car parts boxes (my other half works in a garage). I’ve always delighted in the inappropriateness of the packaging — this time it was the other way around.

Matthew’s Tasting Notes, when it finally makes it into our website shop, will have a link to a site where you can buy the wine to go with it, if you’d like to. This has proved a bit complicated, so it’s not yet accomplished. But not only will you be able to buy wine, you can get some free.

At the Poetry BookFair in London, on September 8th, you’ll see we’re opening the readings with the launch of that very pamphlet and wine tasting! There will, in fact, not only be wine but, just as delicious, a chance to sample the Iberio ham celebrated in one of the poems. And afterwards, a whole complimentary glass of the blushful, if you make a purchase from HappenStance. It’s beautiful drinking, I’ve tried it, so it’s to be hoped I will be coherent. (Joke.) The event is at the Candid Arts Trust, near Angel Tube Station, easy to get to if in or near the capital. Do come along if you can: the programme for the whole day is fabulous.

Besides, there are actually two HappenStance pamphlets launching at the London Poetry Book Fair. The other is Marion Tracy’s Giant in the Doorway. More about that next week. . . .


Usually I don’t go, but this time I went.

Usually I don’t go, but this time I went.

Things happen in Scotland, and it’s possible to get there and back in a day. Things happen in London, and it means asking friends for a bed for at least one night. It means effectively three days away from the business. Then there’s planes or trains, and Oystercardless tubes or busses that stop and ditch their passengers. It’s a trip to a foreign city where I’m just the little iron on the Monopoly board, with no houses and no prospect of a hotel.

Nonetheless, Charles Boyle’s invitation to take part in his CB Editions Bookfair was so warmly extended, I thought I’d do it. Just for once.

Three times now I’ve missed Book Fairs I very much wanted to get to. There have been, for example, two Leicester BookFairs organized by Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves Press, (Ross is also author of one of my PoemCards) in the States of Independence series, and now there’s States of Independence (West), next Saturday in Birmingham. At these events, Robin Vaughan-Williams has been a noble HappenStance author in independent residence, and he’ll be flying the flag, as they say, on the 8th (Gregory Leadbetter is going along too).

I have, however, managed to take part in a number of the colourful poetry pamphlet fairs organized by Scottish Pamphlet Poetry, but there’s a special attraction about being part of a book fair. And while on that subject, HappenStance will be at the splendid By Leaves We Live annual Poetry Publishing Fair at the Scottish Poetry Library at the end of this month, and I’ll be doing on of the short talks (in our case a bit of a conversation) with Gerry Cambridge.

But back to Charles Boyle’s CB Editions event last week (which has been blogged about a lot. Already I feel I should have prefaced all of this with a hyperlink alert). It was held on a beautiful day – not quite as hot as it’s been in London this weekend, but still sunny and warm, so people could sit and chat outside at the various venues along the little street that calls itself Exmouth Market.  You don’t do that in Scotland in September!

The book fair itself was held in exactly the sort of church hall you would find anywhere in the UK. Slightly dilapidated but spacious, with a kitchen at the back where worthy ladies must have made teas for generations.

Book Fair (early)

There were Christmas lights (unlit, alas) trailing from the roof beams, and tables assembled all round the edges of the hall. On the stage at the front, Michael Horowitz did a weird and wonderful introduction to events, accompanied by kazoo and his own personal sound effects. Later, a singer from the street outside came in and did a few songs. Upstairs, there was a little room in which readings went on throughout the day, non-stop – and although I only made it to a couple of these, I can confirm it was a friendly little room and I should like to have heard a whole lot more of them. Not a bad place to read either, despite interesting noises from the street outside – crashes of a million bottles landing somewhere, the street singer resonating up through the window, the chiming of a clock at regular intervals.

Fiona Moore (who is to be a HappenStance poet in 2013) has described it all beautifully in her Displacement blog. I hadn’t met her before, and one of the lovely things about this day was having the opportunity to hobnob with poets, who obligingly stepped off the paper into human form. Jon Stone and Kirsty Irving, for example, were sitting beside me for most of the day being Sidekick Books, but they also read in the HappenStance relay-race slot. Kirsty has her own account of events here.

Tim Love took over the stall while our reading was going on upstairs – Tim was around for most of the day. Marion Tracy arrived (she is a forthcoming HappenStancer) and Christina Dunhill (ditto). And Peter Daniels and D A Prince and Lorna Dowell and Clare Best and Mike Loveday. Oh, and Matt Merritt was there too — here is his blog on the subject: he now, of course, represents Nine Arches (opportunity to meet Jane Commane for the first time). And Chrissy Williams, who will also metamorphose into a HappenStance pamphlet in 2012, organized  the programme of readings and was around to greet us. There was even Geoff Lander, my old friend from university, living proof that all roads meet in the end. He was a chemistry student once – now he’s turned to verse! Oh and Nancy Campbell, whom I’ve wanted to meet for years, and who brought me some beautiful postcards celebrating her newly launched How to say ‘I love you’ in Icelandic. A joy.

HappenStance poets reading

So there was something of a party spirit in the air. In fact, several parties were going on in various parts of the hall. Here is Tom Chivers’ account, for example. Katy Evans-Bush calls it a Renaissance. Ken Edwards on Reality Street gives it a mention. Honestly everybody who was anybody was there. (Well, you could be forgiven for thinking so. Some of them were actually at The London Art Book Fair, as mentioned in the Sphinx feature about Sylph Editions posted recently. In fact, as I travelled back to Vauxhall on the tube, the man sitting opposite me had a huge transparent carrier bag full of publications from that very event).

Other blogger accounts included Sue Guiney (who also read — and I actually HEARD her read, with particular pleasure), and Hilaireinlondon. Rack Press, who was there, has a paragraph about it too. And there’s Andrew Bailey, whom I didn’t quite meet. There were people matching faces with FaceBook friends, one of today’s most amusing party games. Why are people never the same height they seem to be on FaceBook?

The previous night, Chris H-E had launched the new Salt Best British Poetry 2011, and many of the poets in that volume were around, as well as Roddy Lumsden, the noble editor. It was pretty busy, especially between about 11.30 and 2.30.  Chris blogged about the event afterwards – a lovely commentary. He calls Charles Boyle “deliciously grumpy and adversarial”, a great compliment. I wish somebody would call me that. It’s so much better than “the Delia Smith of poetry”.Charles Boyle

I feel I should say Charles has been very charming to me and not at all grumpy.  His own CB Editions books were modestly displayed on a stylish little bookrack to my right, and although this corner was not always manned, people kept coming and buying his attractive books. We slid notes into the money pouch of our rival without demur. He is running a fascinating book enterprise. His books are worth buying.

Chris  Hamilton-Emery talks in his blog about the dark side of such events, how they “can be downright depressing experiences when a (seriously) amateur world collides with different levels of professional delusion and, well, trajectories of intention: from the technically proficient to the anarchically crappy.” How true this is!  I was worried it might even be true of this event, but happily it was not. There was an air of cheery professionalism about it all. Fellow publishers were, as I have found ever since I commenced on this crazy venture, undeniably friendly.

And yes, people did spend money, though not, at my table, as much as Chris suggests (“. . . people came in droves. Really. Not only did they come, they spent money; lots of money.”) A great many of the people in the hall, so far as I could tell, were poets, or aspiring poets. It would have been nice to know how many could have been classed as common readers, the species that poetry so very much needs to win back. And poets are not, in my experience, particularly wealthy. In fact, I worry periodically that poets from my own list are impoverishing themselves trying to support my enterprise: about £120.00 worth of HappenStance publications disappeared on the day, which is not half bad for these events. But I think a number of my own poets bought stuff (they are such nice people)!

So from the money side of things, going to the event did not – could not –  be rational. There was the fee for the taking of a table, there was the (in my case) plane and train fares, the car parking in Edinburgh, the tubes and so on. And most of all, the time investment.

But the meeting of the poets, the taking part in the hubbub, the learning experience –  these factors made it worth it. I wish I had spent more time talking to publishers: I didn’t really manage that, though it was great to meet Andy Ching of Donut Press, whose table was near mine. I wanted to talk to others, didn’t really have time – not even to talk to my own publisher, John Lucas, who was sitting at a Shoestring Press table himself.

Back to country mouse existence now. . . .