No, it’s not, of course. That was just to get your attention. In fact, the number of poets in the world is catapulting into almost unimaginable statistics.

No, it’s not, of course. That was just to get your attention. In fact, the number of poets in the world is catapulting into almost unimaginable statistics.

Just now there are something like  6,897,900,000 people alive, give or take a few hundred thousand. Suppose the incidence of those human beings who write poetry is one in a thousand (I know this isn’t very scientific since some of them can’t write and some of them are babies). That means there might be 6,897,900 people who will be, have been or could grow up to be poets. Nearly seven million.

The estimated population in the heavily populated little country in which I live, the United Kingdom, is currently 61,838,154. That’s nearly 62 thousand potential poets because practically all of them WILL be able to read and write. Obviously some of them are babies and some of them are on the way out. But still . . . it’s a thought. Even if only a quarter of those are in poetry-writing ages and situations, that would be over fifteen thousand poets.

In 1821, the year Keats was polished off by tuberculosis, the UK census estimated the population at 20,983,092. (Thank you, George Simmers.) According to my manifestly unreliable calculation, that could be, say, just under twenty-one thousand poets at various stages of their existences. And considering some of them had TB already and a lot of them couldn’t read, and if they could read, would have had no access to poetry books, it’s probably about ten thousand. But I think that’s still far too high.

According to another possibly unreliable wiki source, as late as 1841, 33% of English men and 44% of women signed marriage certificates with their mark, because they couldn’t write. Apparently the level of literacy was somewhat higher in Wales. . . So I reckon of possible poets, maybe two or three thousand? (I’m sure More or Less could do better.)

Actually, Patrick Yarker could do better and looked this up too. This has been such a lovely day — I have had fun with this ongoing dialogue. Raymond Williams, in the chapter about the ‘Growth of the Reading Public’ in The Long Revolution (1961) suggests (page 187 of the Pelican edition):

Able to sign reg.      Men             Women              Total

1839                   66.3%          50.5%                 58.4%

1873                   81.2%          74.6%                 77.9%

By the end of the century Williams suggests some 95% of both men and women could sign.  His interest is more in the reading element of ‘literacy’ than in the writing, and he has nothing much to say about poets (though notes the popularity of cheap editions of poetry, and of Shakespeare, at the revolutionary end of the preceding century, as part of his argument that technology and capitalist imperatives were crucial in the process of widening the circle of the literate. He also engages with the old argument that quality must decrease if quantity expands, and suggests it is more interesting to consider the changing character of what counts as ‘literature’ at different historical moments.)

In Ron Silliman’s Blog, June 14, 2007 (thank you, Tim Love) Silliman points out that “when the New Americans were just getting started in the late 1940s, America was a nation of 150 million people, with an annual total of 8,000 book titles per year of all types, and something under 200 publishing poets. .. .”

And he goes on: “Today the US has twice as many people, but is now publishing, according to Bowker, over 290,000 book titles per year, of which some 4,000 titles alone are poetry. There must be somewhere between ten and twelve thousand publishing poets in the US today, in contrast with 200 fifty years ago.”

An American friend last week was attending an event with a thousand poets. Quite apart from the scary idea this represents, it is probably something like the same number as those writing poetry at some time in their lives in the UK in the mid nineteenth century. In one building!

No wonder people moan these days about getting their poetry published. No wonder I am bombarded by emails with poetry in them! I can’t quite hold the relative scale in my head, but there are HUGELY more people in this business than ever before. Vastly more. Mind-bogglingly more.

Does quality decrease if quantity expands? I don’t know that it does. The number of high quality writers must also, surely, expand, and it may be that the proportion of the inept to the ept (for want of a better term) remains the same. Hands up if you know any way of researching this without offending 75% of the writers you know.

But whether people are writing well or not, poetry runs in and out of what they do, because it is more than any of us as individuals. It’s something to do with the life of language and those who speak it. The more people who are up and about on a Sunday morning thinking and speaking and articulating words, the more poetry there will be (as well as more drivel, tripe, twaddle, poppycock and balderdash).

And so poetry remains extant, not extinct. Unlike the Tasmanian Tiger, which has definitely snuffed it. However, we are fascinated by what we have lost, aren’t we? Muses are most effective when absent, so it seems to me.

Cliff Forshaw‘s HappenStance pamphlet, Tiger, is at the printers just now and should come back to me at the end of this coming week, together with Chapter 5 of The HappenStance Story. The Tiger sequence originated in a residency in Tasmania when Cliff got fascinated by the way the absent beast persists in symbols and reported sightings. One of the poems in the sequence is called ‘Loop’, and here’s the loop of film that inspired it: the last Tiger in captivity, so far as we know. If you buy this pamphlet (or Jennifer Copley’s Living Daylights), you can select the other one as well for half price. What are you waiting for?

Note: one more week to enter the free Ambit subscription competition, if you are in Scotland. See previous but one blog entry.


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.