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. . . .

Getting and spending

What a week. Ooya-hun — what a week! I warn you — this blog entry is much too long.

No post last weekend because it was the fifth birthday party. Family were staying, including my sister sleeping in the study where I write this blog on a Sunday morning. It was the most complicated event I’ve ever attempted to organise. Mid-preparations, Gina Wilson’s pamphlet was in its final stages — I took a mock-up to the party itself to give to her for final checking.

What a week. Ooya-hun — what a week! I warn you — this blog entry is much too long.

No post last weekend because it was the fifth birthday party. Family were staying, including my sister sleeping in the study where I write this blog on a Sunday morning. It was the most complicated event I’ve ever attempted to organise. Mid-preparations, Gina Wilson’s pamphlet was in its final stages — I took a mock-up to the party itself to give to her for final checking.

Gillian (artist daughter) made an amazing cake. More than 60 people, about 20 of these being HappenStance poets, came along. Robin Vaughan-Wiliams did a Risk Assessment. Poems were read from past pamphlets, recent pamphlets, pamphlets out of print, pamphlets in process and pamphlets which haven’t even got as far as a contents list. Jamie Rose of Reeds (son-in-law made music and sang one of the poems, a ballad).  I nearly cried. I was able to say my bit about poetry, whatever it may be, being less about the art of the individual than the mystery of language (to which all poets subscribe). I think I said it less pretentiously than that.

At the party, I didn’t mention being shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award for the second year. However, on Monday there was a mysterious email from PBS about jpgs.

On the Tuesday, there was an email to check whether I was coming and if so, bringing how many guests. I replied to say I couldn’t come — working flat out in college — but that two of ‘my’ poets would be there.

On the Wednesday (day of the award ceremony) there was another email, asking me to call as soon as possible, and even including a mobile number. And a similar message left on the message machine (not on my mobile though). I didn’t get home on that Wednesday until 7.45 (the college work really is driving me demented just now and it’s end of term next Friday) and when I picked up the message I thought, hm, that’s interesting (see post of 5th May).

About ten minutes later I got a text message which read: Congratulations! Hope your ears are burning!

Even more interesting. I wasn’t sure who the text was from (changed my phone recently and not all my contacts, for reasons not understood, transferred from old phone to new one). So I texted back: Congratulations on what?

And it was Davina (D A Prince), who was at the Michael Marks Event in the British Library, and with her Clare Best, who also texted me. And we had WON. So there was much jumping up and down in the HappenStance household, phone calls hither and thither. Descriptions from Davina and Clare on the phone. Tessa Ransford had picked up the cheque on my behalf and made a nice speech.

Anyway, I won’t go on about this further, except to remark that five thousand quid is a huge sum of money in terms of pamphlet publishing. My annual turnover is about eight thousand pounds. Last year there was a loss of about two. For 2008-2009 I should have come closer to breaking even but I haven’t done the books yet. So five thousand extra?!  I will be thinking very carefully how that money can be spent, apart from upgrading my Imac which will be step one. And I’ll report on that too, in Chapter Five of the Story, which goes out to subscribers.

I feel proud and pleased to get this money. And at the same time . . .  pamphlet publishing is obviously important to me, and although I willingly entered this competition for cash and kudos, this niche of publishing is not competitive in the ordinary way (except with itself, in the desire to get better and better).

The other publishers on the short list (and many who either didn’t enter or weren’t short listed) are not competitors; they are — what is the word? Not exactly ‘colleagues’ but close to that. Perhaps fellow workers, slogging away in slightly different territory. I admire the work of Templar, for example, very much. And Oystercatcher who won last year. I know little about Veer Books, would like to know more, but nothing of theirs has come in for review by Sphinx even . . . And there are some wonderful people who won’t have entered, doing remarkable work (see all the stories told in Sphinx over the last four years).

Think what a difference the Smith/Doorstop pamphlets have made over the last decade! And the publishers of the short-listed poets — tall-lighthouse, Roncadora Press, Flarestack (whose Selima Hill took the prize), Nine Arches. So far as I am concerned, there is something terrific about the activity, the dynamism that represents a small press. Without the inspiration of James Robertson’s Kettillonia, I would never have started. In Scotland alone, think of the late Duncan Glen’s Akros imprint, the very much alive Hamish Whyte’s Mariscat and Colin Will’s Calder Wood Press, and Koo Press in Aberdeen!  Think of the work of Hansel Press and  the amazing letter press-artist-poet Len McDermid! Think of the gorgeous pamphlets done by Sally Evans and Ian King of Diehard Press last year! Think of the marvellous range of publications celebrated on the Scottish Pamphlet Poetry Website!

There is plenty of celebration of individual poets — prizes galore.  This publisher’s award isn’t about an individual — it’s about the whole process of bringing the work to readers, bringing it into the light.

So it does occur to me that such sums of money, rather than going to a single prize winner, should perhaps be shared round a bit. What I want is to support this kind of activity, uphold high values of production and enterprise, increase good opportunities for aspiring and established poets, keep this bit of poetry activity vibrant and interesting. Winning is not about me as an individual — at least I certainly hope not. It’s about all the poets I’ve worked with and am still working with, the two excellent printers I use, the local post office, the man who sticks the stamps on the envelopes, Sarah who does (among other things) the website and email newsletter, Gillian who does the cover images, the subscribers — the hugely important subscribers, without which the thing wouldn’t even keep afloat.

Which is where I will stop for the moment. Much more to be said, but not yet. Thank you to all those people who have enthused, supported, helped. Thanks to the Sphinx reviewers who carry out this activity without recompense, except in appreciation and respect. Thanks to the amazing poets I’ve had the privilege of working with. And of course boundless thanks to Lady Marks for munificence and generosity towards this area of the arts.