The days of three reviews per pamphlet have come to an end.

It had grown too time consuming. It was a fine thing to do but it has stopped.

Thankfully more outlets are doing pamphlet reviews these days. And the era of the poetry pamphlet is still in full swing, with the second year of the Poetry School / Pighog pamphlet competition.

So Sphinx can concentrate more on features and interviews, and maybe some other pamphletty bits and pieces. We’ll see. It’s a new year and, thanks to Zipfish, the site has a new look. Do pay a visit! And please note the news items – and let me know if you have any you’d like added.

Meanwhile, I’m deep, deep in the submissions pile. If yours is one of them, I hope to have them all returned by the end of the month and probably in time to enter them for the Pighog competition, if that seems appropriate and you have any money left after Christmas. (I am not working through the manuscripts in the same order they arrived.)

At the same time, I’m writing Chapter Eight of the Story. Phew.




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. . . .


Publishers are not to be trusted, and a poet (thank you, Oscar Wilde) can survive anything but a misprint. Yes, I did it again.

Publishers are not to be trusted, and a poet (thank you, Oscar Wilde) can survive anything but a misprint. Yes, I did it again.

We live in a marketing age and it is very easy for poets to get lost. It is necessary to promote them, or at least we’ve accepted that it is. Hence Twitter and tweeting, Facebook and fleeting, Blurb and bleating.

I do my best in this world of pzazz and huzza. However, I make mistakes. I blame the Fs. After all, I never had a problem with Cliff Ashby. It is because Cliff Forshaw’s second name also begins with . . . F.

But I should explain: when people arrive at the HappenStance website, they can elect to receive the email newsletter. Quite a lot do just this. The emails go out three or four times a year, with news of new publications and exciting (sic) events. From my point of view, this is a good thing, since it elicits a small skirmish of orders, and that’s what keeps the boat afloat, the flag flying and the metaphors mixing.

On the other hand, it is one more thing to do in the list of necessities for each new publication. Things such as:

  • registration with Nielsen
  • bio page and photo on website
  • scan cover for online shop
  • information data for online shop
  • open sales file and author address labels
  • do the marketing flyer and electronic flyer
  • do the review slip
  • ask poet for review addresses
  • remember dog chews for printer’s dogs
  • pick up publication from printer
  • check bank balance
  • pay printer
  • pay artist
  • post out review copies
  • post out complimentary copies
  • send to copyright libraries
  • send to Scottish Poetry Library
  • send to National Poetry Library
  • send author copies to author
  • send cheque or more copies to author
  • enter for PBS quarterly choice (3 copies)
  • send to my mother
  • create a storage space
  • include new publication in the diagram that helps me find where in the spare bedroom each publication is hiding
  • send out for Sphinx review (three reviewers who are not current authors)
  • mention in blog

So the email newsletter comes last. I don’t want it to be a straight repeat of what’s written elsewhere because that’s boring. So I write something new.

Last week it was something about Jennifer Copley’s Living Daylights, Chapter 5 of The HappenStance Story, and Cliff Forshaw’s Tiger.

Or it should have been Cliff Forshaw’s Tiger, but Cliff proved my downfall. I called him Geoff. I have a good friend called Geoff, whom I email every week. That could have had something to do with it.

I don’t think Cliff Forshaw gets the newsletter. He hasn’t said anything about it yet . . .





. . . evidently a LOT. So far as we know, no-one has yet selected “because of the wonderful reviews” as their top reason for purchasing a poetry magazine.

. . . evidently a LOT. So far as we know, no-one has yet selected “because of the wonderful reviews” as their top reason for purchasing a poetry magazine.

Some poetry magazines can, and do, easily solve this problem by not having any reviews at all. Others have minuscule two-liners. But still there’s the issue that too many of the reviews so often deplored are written by men. Those of you following the current Magma thread “Are literary publications biased against women?” will know all about this.

Knowing all about this, poets frequently complain that their books don’t get reviews, even by men. Or that the single review they got was horribly biassed or badly written.

Badly written? Obviously this website seeks to apply a corrective by offering three well-written reviews of each poetry pamphlet we see. Many Sphinx reviewers are women, although I am nervous about counting the precise gender distribution.

But whatever their distribution gender-wise, Sphinx reviewers are required not to sound authoritative. They give a personal response, in an accessible style. They are, like the wedding guest in The Ancient Mariner, “one of three”.

But one of three or not, a still harder task falls on their shoulders, and it’s all my fault. I’m concerned about the degree to which the language of blurb and cliché is entering reviews, the last place on earth where these manifestations should find a home. So I have a list of proscribed phrases, and it keeps getting longer.

It keeps getting longer because editors are ornery and unreasonable people, and I am one of them. And sometimes my reviewers, quite naturally, react edgily (“edgy” is officially out of bounds but I can break my own rules). George Simmers, editor of Snakeskin, and occasional Sphinx reviewer, fell upon my latest guidelines and instantly rustled up a review, in verse form, using almost all the phrases he will never use in a Sphinx review. He also makes use of the word “beige”, the colour voted most unpopular in the United Kingdom in 2002. You can read it in his blog here.

A new set of reviews will be on the Sphinx part of the website imminently, as well as an interview with two of the redoubtable guys (I’m trying to avoid the word “men” but they are) behind Pighog Press.

(If you happen to be a man, and read this, please don’t worry about your gender. In the end, the balance, in poetry reviews as well as much else, will probably adjust dramatically in favour of the gentle sex and then just a little positive discrimination will get you back on your feet in no time.)

ps Here is my current ‘to be avoided’ list:

début collection

eagerly awaited (by whom???)

any description of one poet in terms of another by making up an adjective from that poet’s name eg Larkinesque & Eliotian

the new Peter Reading (or any other poet’s name)

shows promise (patronising with faint praise)

a new voice

one to watch

upcoming poet (or worse – ‘up and coming’)

literary terms that general readers struggle with (e.g parataxis, synecdoche, metonymy)

at the height of his/her powers

emerging poet

important poet

sui generis

risk-taking, taking risks (unless you’re going to be very precise about what you see as risky or have tongue firmly in cheek)

beware of ‘edgy’ –  which is starting to become the new ‘risk-taking’ –  and ‘spiritual’

metaphorical domain

exciting new talent

demotic idiom

and please no ‘epiphanies’



The much coveted Sphinx High Stripe Award is announced annually. At least it will be. This is the inaugural announcement.

The much coveted Sphinx High Stripe Award is announced annually. This is the inaugural announcement.

All poetry pamphlets submitted (in triplicate) for review in the Sphinx area of this website receive three written responses from reviewers. Each reviewer is also asked to give a stripe rating based on 4 criteria, as follows:

  • Production quality (paper, covers, ‘feel’ and design of publication)
  • Quality of the poetry.
  • Coherence/ character/ identity (whatever!) of collection as a whole. It could have coherence in terms of deliberate fragmentation, if that was a consistent central idea.
  • Warmth of recommendation to other readers.

The three reviews are then edited into one document, with the amalgamated stripe rating published on the website in the form of a Sphinx logo bearing the appropriate number of stripes. Any publication which gets 7 or over has had a warm response.

Since this is the inaugural High Stripe Announcement, the selection has been based on all pamphlets reviewed since the system was introduced. In that time, only three pamphlets have received nine-stripe awards and therefore they are the winners in this unfunded and under-publicised competition.

They are . . . (drum roll). . .

The Announced, Ruth Valentine, Ellipsis 1/ Sylph Editions 2009 (sold out and therefore now a collector’s item)

No Panic Here, Mark Halliday, HappenStance 2009

Shadow, Alison Brackenbury, HappenStance, 2009

The careful reader will note that all three were published in 2009. No nine-stripers in 2010, then? Not yet. We are still in the process of reviewing last year’s publications. However, the following were close contenders with 8.5 stripes also in 2008/9:

Emblems, Wayne Burrows, Shoestring Press, 2009

Hem and Heid, James Robertson, Kettillonia, 2009

Amicable Numbers, Mike Barlow, Templar Poetry, 2008

Party Piece, Anna Woodford, Smith/Doorstop Books, 2009

Treasure Ground, Clare Best, HappenStance, 2009

I hope it doesn’t look like corruption in the ranks that two of the nine-stripers are HappenStance publications. One of these two, Mark Halliday’s No Panic Here, received a fairly swingeing review in issue 1 of New Walk, so it would suggest that readers either love or loathe the publication (but at least that’s interesting). I’m also alarmed to find I have managed never to notice we reviewed Anna Woodford’s Party Piece twice, so that was six readers as well as further proof that I’m losing my marbles, if I ever had any. I have no idea how that happened, although I do know I was one copy short at one point and bought another, which suggests I had five (but not six). Duh. Lovely wee pamphlet, anyway.

Congratulations to Ruth, Mark and Alison, winners. Congratulations to Mike, James, Wayne, Clare and Anna, close contenders. I may yet have some Sphinx t-shirts printed so that winners will be able to remark at poetry gatherings and festivals — ‘Been there, got the t-shirt’. If I were rich, I would send you all a sack of money.

At the moment I will put the Sphinx high-striper accolade at the top of all reviews of publications receiving 8.5 or above, so if poets or publishers want to link from their website to that page, it might boost morale and hopefully attract readers.

(thanks to Ross Kightly, who helped check the stripes).


Opening and closing

Opening envelopes, closing suitcases.

I now have a whole new vocabulary about eyes. Myodesopsia, operculum, vitreous humour, entoptic phenomena. Wonderful words and especially relevant to aging myopic people such as myself. Then there’s the less delicate word ‘floater’, which makes me think of a jelly fish.

Opening envelopes, closing suitcases.

I now have a whole new vocabulary about eyes. Myodesopsia, operculum, vitreous humour, entoptic phenomena. Wonderful words and especially relevant to aging myopic people such as myself. Then there’s the less delicate word ‘floater’, which makes me think of a jelly fish.

I acquired my first floater just under two weeks ago. I was driving to work and a little dark thread swam across my left eye.  I wondered if it was a migraine aura, though I don’t get visual disturbance with my migraines. It wasn’t. It persisted during the day in a delicate and fairly unobtrusive way. On the way home, I dropped in at our local chemist and asked the pharmacologist whether I should be worried. No, he said. Very common. For some people these things float about all their lives.

And the thread did reduce to a little blob with a grey dot in the middle of it. I got my GP to take a look at my eyes — just in case — and she said everything looked fine. Her parting words were: ‘But if you ever get something like a curtain descending over one part of your eye, a partial loss of vision, come back right away. We’d need to act on that quickly.’

I am a natural optimist and a pretty healthy person. No curtains for me. Or so I thought . . .

A week ago yesterday we drove off for a week’s holiday, with a lot of books and the potential for miles of sleep. We arrived. We unpacked. Suddenly I got a little, rather pretty, flashing arc to the right of my right eye. Like a small firework display. I sat down for a bit so see whether this was a migraine sign or what. Nothing much happened. It came and went, specially when I moved my head quickly from side to side.

While reflecting on this, I poured a small glass of wine and went to the cupboard to get some crisps. Only I didn’t get the crisps, or drink the wine, because suddenly there were swirling black rings in my right eye, so dramatic they made me giddy. It was a case of NHS 24 — could we find the number?

It was not a calm evening. We ended up — after conversations on the phone with nurses, and senior nurses and one doctor — in Aviemore (about 12 miles from where we were staying) just after midnight. There’s an all-night health centre there — who would have thought it? And the following morning, after a few hours sleep, I was in Raigmore Hospital in Inverness seeing an opthalmologist (actually two, one in training and one Master Chef).

The fear, of course, was that I might have a retina seeking to detach itself. However, that hasn’t happened.

What was going on was bits of vitreous humour coming away and, in my right eye, that  had caused a bleed, which manifested as black swirls. It is now more like looking through a bucket of dirty water with black floaty bits in the middle and these have, as the consultant suggested they would, diminished somewhat. I hope they’ll diminish more because working on screen and reading is a lot less comfortable than it was.

I can see. I spent the whole of the holiday week appreciating being able to see more than I ever have in my whole life, even though I can now see less well than I could before. I kept thinking about the doors of perception and how they can close. Somehow that made me more aware of all of my senses, especially touch. And the amazing smell and colour of the wild thyme on the hills. . .

And despite all the doom and gloom about cuts and health service and so on, what marvellous medical support! It could not have been better. Each of the professionals who spoke to me — from the NHS 24 Call Centre to the man who opened the Health Centre door in the middle of the night in Aviemore to the two opthamologists (junior and senior) in Raigmore Hospital to the hospital nurse who chatted to us in the corridor while my pupils were dilating — was so very kind and perceptive, explained so well. I felt enormously cared for. We human beings, so widely reported for atrocity and violence on the evening news, are minute by minute responsible for numerous unreported acts of kindness.

I was in the middle of writing a poem when we went away so I swiftly memorised it, just in case I couldn’t see to read it. It struck me that this would be an excellent way to slow poets down, especially those poets who write in huge swathes. There would be a new law which would decree that people could only write as many poems as they could commit to memory. Annually, they would be tested, just to check they hadn’t sneaked in a few they couldn’t recite on demand. What about it?

Overwork didn’t lead to the eye thing. Excessive reading and writing didn’t lead to the eye thing. Why first the left and then the right within a week? No idea, said the consultant. Matt, who is a mechanic by training and experience, pointed out that both my eyes were the same age and this struck me as a better answer.

But I think I will be reading a little less. And at the computer screen a little less. I was going to say ‘and in the garden a little more’ but this morning rain is hurtling down as if to reproach my temerity for watering the hanging baskets last night . . .

Lots of orders have come in so that’s task one. Lots of submissions, several of these rather interesting and some of the poets even knowing my name. And Sphinx reviews to get online this week.

I am in good humour and I hope my vitreous is too.


Sweet especial rural scene


Please, miss, my brain is full

The submissions month continues. My brain is now full. I’ve read a lot of poetry and sent back a lot of comments.

The submissions month continues. My brain is now full. I’ve read a lot of poetry and sent back a lot of comments.

The submissions month continues. My brain is now full. I’ve read a lot of poetry and sent back a lot of comments.

At the same time, many new HappenStance subscribers have arrived, which is marvellous. Perhaps it’s because I’ve stopped being backward in coming forward. Now I just say (especially to people sending submissions) ‘Please subscribe’. It doesn’t cost much and it builds the readership. And it’s the easiest way to find out how things work here.

I was worried the Michael Marks Award would mean loads of submissions and no sales. I was wrong. It increased sales slightly but made little difference to submissions. All the packets coming in are interesting; some are good (more than I can publish). The strongest have an impressive track record in magazine publication, across the UK (not just in Scotland or Wales), as well as online. There are hidden secrets, of course, in terms of which publications bring most kudos. It’s fair to assume, though, that the harder it is to get poems accepted in any one outlet, the more impressive it is when it happens.

Some poets spend ten (or more) years on style and method, placing things gradually more successfully in the best magazines. Others have work published here and there (lots on line) and think they’re ready for a pamphlet collection. It all depends what’s meant by ‘ready’. By and large, the second lot are nowhere near as good as the first, though they may be original in unpredictable ways.

Not everybody has a decade to work at it. Increasingly, people are coming to poetry late and with a sense of urgency. That’s understandable too. But poems have their own kind of time.  They won’t be rushed. Only a handful will survive  anyway. In some ways, publication is the least of it. The maturing poem (like good wine), and the privilege of making one, is the magical thing.

Meanwhile, huge effort going on in the background getting the next set of Sphinx reviews together. The website (thanks to Michael Marks) is about to get a radical overhaul. And another wee project is in hand too, involving some silliness and fun. More on that anon.

What makes a good poetry pamphlet publisher?

The embargo was finally lifted so that means I’m allowed to mention being shortlisted again for the Michael Marks Pamphlet Publishers’ Award. This award business can get a bit stressful. Having been shortlisted last year, and filled out all the worthy statements about activities again on the entry form this year, I wasn’t worried about winning the money (though the money would come in very handy) so much as about being NOT shortlisted. What would that have meant? It might have signified slipping smartly downhill in terms of whatever is deemed good practice.

The embargo was finally lifted so that means I’m allowed to mention being shortlisted again for the Michael Marks Pamphlet Publishers’ Award. This award business can get a bit stressful. Having been shortlisted last year, and filled out all the worthy statements about activities again on the entry form this year, I wasn’t worried about winning the money (though the money would come in very handy) so much as about being NOT shortlisted. What would that have meant? It might have signified slipping smartly downhill in terms of whatever is deemed good practice.


But what makes a good pamphlet publisher? Who sets the standard? And can you separate pamphlet publishing from any other kind? The process of publishing a pamphlet of poetry is just the same as doing a book, isn’t it? And lots of pamphlet publishers, HappenStance included, have tiptoed into book form too.

The current MM shortlist of publishers is an interesting one. It is identical to last year’s, save Veer Books takes the place of tall-lighthouse, not because tall-l has shrunk in stature but because (I believe) they didn’t enter this year. One of the tall-lighthouse publications is listed on the poets’ list, which comes as no surprise: this is an imprint doing excellent work.

The shortlisted poets include, I am glad to say, The Terrors (Tom Chivers) which was reviewed warmly on the Sphinx website and a seven striper. The other five haven’t come in to me for review (I thought David Hart’s had, but I can’t find it). Hugh McMillan’s poem (and I recommend Roncadora for stunning individuality) wouldn’t have fitted the Sphinx requirements — it’s a pull-out publication (perhaps I should change the rules?) The others just didn’t come in for review, which suggests either people are unaware, still, of the Sphinx review facility, or they just forget about it.

Accolades are nice. Encouragement is lovely. Even publicity helps a bit in terms of spreading the word and getting readers for the publications (which is what it’s all about). I should add we were only allowed to list three publications in the publicity and for sale by PBS, although all the publications for 2009 were taken into consideration.

But I would like to see more transparency about the reasoning, especially for the publishers’ award. What sort of things should be rewarded? The different organisations are doing very different things, working on different funding systems. Really hard to compare qualitatively.

Which brings me to Sphinx International Po-rating Exercise. I am trying to make it sound grand because it has taken a grand amount of time and money to organise.

Sphinx reviews include a rating of poetry pamphlets which results in a ‘stripe’ recommendation. That recommendation is stated in a subtle way at the top of the review with a stripey graphic. Count the stripes and you get it. The idea is you read the reviews first: you don’t just goggle at the number. The stripes proceed from 1 through to 10, with halves along the way.

That rating is based on four criteria, some of which are more subjective than others. I’d like to think none of them were wholly subjective, since all Sphinx reviewers are good and thoughtful readers. However, over the period of using this system and commissioning three reviews for every publication, it has seemed to me that some reviewers were using the numbers slightly differently from others. That is to say, a 5 from one person meant pretty good, while another used a 5 to signify pretty bad. Equally, the production value — which you would think could be judged objectively — sometimes produced surprisingly wide variation.

So I carried out an exercise (sometimes I feel like one of those countries in Gulliver’s Travels, somewhere up in the clouds, maybe, doing weird things that no normal person could possibly countenance. But never mind). I posted copies of the same pamphlet to 36 reviewers and asked all of them to rate using the system above. I got back 33 ratings, which I collated and from which I drew some conclusions. It allowed me to set a suggested standard for at least production quality. From now on, we know what a 7.5 looks like.

On other criteria, individual judgement is crucial. However, I have done two things. One is to interpret the numbers with a verbal statement (see below for an example on ‘Quality of Poetry’)

10 =        Shakespeare

9  =          excellent

8  =          unquestionably good work

7  =          the best poems are good; there may be some weaker or flawed poems

6  =          has noteworthy strengths, though may be inconsistent, even inside individual poems

5  =          on the fence, doubtful about quality

4  =          poor writing with occasional flashes of not bad

3  =          weak

2  =          dreadful

1  =          beyond the pale

The second thing is to send a detailed report to reviewers so they can see where their ratings sit in relation to all the others. Some people do tend to rate higher, others lower — this is normal. I believe in some national examination systems, markers are sampled and high markers are adjusted down a little and low ones adjusted up. I’m not making any adjustments. Just showing the raters where they sit in the table.

A summary version of this report (without names or attributions) may appear on the Sphinx site in due course. The detailed version goes to reviewers this week, together with more pamphlets to review, some of which will be in the running for the Michael Marks Award next year.

Now I’m starting to feel really peculiar. I am either developing a monumental obsession, or there is something in the theory that judgement in this very wayward area of the arts, needs prodding and more self-awareness.

At the end of the year, I intend to publish the Sphinx high-raters of the year. Those pamphlets which come out as 7 or above are good. If it is a 9, it is outstanding in the view of at least three people. There is no five thousand quid to accompany this accolade: instead there will be three reviews — interesting, accessible and informative. I hope good publishers will enter their pamphlets: Sphinx reviews, 21 Hatton Green, Glenrothes, Fife KY7 4SD.

If the system takes off as it should, I will need more reviewers, especially women. So if interested, contact me with an example of your writing.

You have probably had enough of my ramblings now. However, Tim Love has published an interview with me on his blog. Sorry!