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.




The contents of the three new pamphlets are done. Now it’s the covers.

The contents of the three new pamphlets are done. Now it’s the covers.

We are currently juggling graphics. Gillian has been drawing plates spinning, rain raining, anchors, ropes, cups and a horse-shoe (I haven’t had the horseshoe yet). I bought what I think is a lovely new typeface for these covers too, and even a set of graphic symbols for Richie McCaffery, the spinning plate man. For Niall Campbell there have been ropes and horse-shoes. For Theresa Muñoz a variety of sad faces, rain, flowers, hearts. Hers may not be finalized quite yet.

You would think it would be relatively quick, and perhaps it would be, were I better at all the arts I practise. But in fact, I make graphics bigger and smaller, fatter and thinner, darker and lighter. I move letters to and fro, decrease spaces, change details, review the back copy, worry endlessly about kerning and tracking, and whether I can do what I want to do and use the right words to describe it.

By and large, I try to stay simple. If you’re not an out-and-out expert, I reckon simple is best.

I find, as I get older, there’s increasing fascination in individual words – never mind sentences. I don’t count sheep any more at night. I lie in bed and crawl inside a word. Almost any word will do. Take ‘posture’.  Crawl up the descender and round the bowl of the ‘p’ and think about plosives and perkiness and the way ‘p’ alliterates with unique satisfaction. The police. Then ‘O’, the white space in the middle like a window – you can look through it, you can pop in and out, and to me it’s a white letter. And actually so is ‘s’ which always has a sizzle to it, a secret hiss in the middle of the word, and it’s white in a different way, a more solid way, like tipp-x. ‘t’ is pale brown and you can slide down the curve of the letter and sit in the foot, lean against it and think a while.

And so on. Except there’s syllables to inhabit too, and the sound texture of the word as it goes through and the endless connotations and ramifications. Soon I’m losture in posture. And then I’m asleep.

Rain Cloud girl
Rain cloud girl


Some aspects of HappenStance are patient drudgery.

Some aspects of HappenStance are patient drudgery.

That’s the checking and checking and checking that everything has been done, and finding it hasn’t, and checking again. And getting details in the website and details on the back cover and details to Nielsen and contracts to poets and details on flyers and copyright copies to libraries. Pamphlets in packets and stamps on the envelopes. Parcels to post office. More toner for printer, more paper for printing, more poems to process, more process to pickle. Orders from website, orders through letter box. Weighing the packets, keeping accounts, doing correspondence through letter and email and writing the blog. What a slog.

But actually, it isn’t. This week I’ve been typesetting first drafts of the three new pamphlets. This is a magical process, and a joy. And when you speak to the poets themselves, live and in person, it is an overwhelming privilege and pleasure to be involved in this magical thing we make out of language, this poetry thing. Also it is fun.

Here is a foretaste, a little of each. Richie McCaffery’s pamphlet is called Spinning Plates and here is the second part of ‘Ash’:

…..There is as much ash
… a smoked tab as there is
… a cremated finger.

…..The finger in question
…..was nicotine stained
…..and prone to point and jab.

…..God had a good long drag
…..on that one, then stubbed
… out in a rented ossuary.

That one is terse indeed. In other places he is lyrical, headstrong, windswept. Richie is a great man for words: loves them, soaks them up, collects them in his head like beautiful marbles—and then—watch them roll!

Theresa Muñoz writes simply. Great white spaces open out around her words and phrases, and she crosses continents effortlessly. Born in Canada to parents who hailed from two different countries, her mental location permanently traverses other homes, other countries. Here’s a bit from ‘Glasgow, December’:

…..Something to do with the change
… season, something about the early dark
…..and watching people stroll
…..up the flood-lit walk

…..takes me to that morning
… home, warm waking
… a white-frame house
…..with creaky doors and high windows
…..far from here, far from the roar

…..of buses braking hard in turn
…..and police sirens going off helplessly
… back lanes and the hum
…..of cheery rough voices
… the crowd
…..getting louder.

And there’s Niall Campbell (pronounced like kneel, not the river Nile), who was born on the Hebridean Island of Uist. Niall’s poems are richly sensuous. In Grez, in France, it “smells impossibly of rain: and “the bowed sky is heavy / with the deep-song of that purple colour”. In ‘Thirst’, the tap water is “almost glacial, wintered, sweetened / by the clear honey of its coldness”. And human senses pick up something not quite of this earth. Here is a bit from ‘On Eriskay’ (also a Hebridean island):

…..What a way to be seen out: confused
…..among the pearlwort and the fallow.
…..Her beach songs, like the recalled taste
…..of bucket milk, inched from her tongue.
…..Dusk grew behind the house. I watched
…..her drink the moon from a moon-filled trough.

That’s what I’ve been doing this week drinking the moon from a moon-filled trough. Amazing.