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 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.