A lot has happened in poetry since I last posted, on my way to one of the most underground readings I’ve ever been to in any capacity. I guess a week is a long time. Caesura 13 was packed out – with old friends, poets, people I’ve never seen before. Before the first break I perched on a concrete floor before sorting myself out with some seating. Someone tried to knock the bottle of Pinot Noir I’d taken in for corkage as it patiently waited for me to finish my Polish tea, but I got it back before it was too drastically dented and had my corkage paid for me. What went around came around. I discovered to my relief that I still have what it takes to read in Spanish and Shetlandic. The audience listened and listened and listened, did me the good grace of chuckling at my introductions (I wanted them to) and seemed to enjoy the set. The other readers were eclectic, gracious, illuminating. I boarded the last train west with a couple of publications, emblematic in their own ways of different currents in poetry publication.
The first was Rob Mackenzie’s latest collection, The Good News, a suitably theological moniker for Rob’s second collection. It will I hope receive many reviews – it certainly deserves them but my chronologically challengedness forbids me from creating one for you here at this particular time. I mention it as it turns out the volume will be one of the last single author collections to carry the Salt imprint – a touchstone of independent poetry in Britain carrying over four hundred titles in the space of thirteen years. The most cursory insult to arithmetic computes that at over 30 a year, more than 2 and a half every month. And they’ve slowed down significantly in the past few years – suggesting that at its peak the skeleton staffed Salt juggernaut was bringing half a dozen new collections to the poetry buying market every month – a large proportion of those being debuts. I can honestly say I would personally struggle to read that much poetry – never mind typeset it, print it, design covers, price print runs, raise press releases, enter competitions, inform festivals and all the other time consuming and important aspects of doing what Salt did – publishing it.
It has been a remarkable achievement, but yesterday the publisher, one of a loose handful of independents to carry book length poetry, announced it will be publishing its last dozen or so book length collections in the coming year, and focussing their poetry efforts on the Best of British series, as well as further developing there anthologising activities. The announcement has sparked debate and comment amongst the virtual poetry community. One thing about the whole Salt project that you have to acknowledge is it’s ability to spark debate and comment. A Good Thing. And even now with its evolution from what was its initial raison d’etre (please correct me if I’m wrong), the force of nature that is team Emery have set tongues a wagging and fingers a tapping.
It is sad news for the authors. Convincing someone to publish your poetry is very, very difficult, and nobody who has published their first collection with them will relish the prospect of going back to square one to find the right fit. The reality, which no-one knows as well as Salt, is that to produce high quality, single author book length collections of poetry simply is not economic. Unless you have substantial support from an arts administration body, an educational institution or a wider publishing business, poetry publishing is a very noble, complex, spiritually uplifting and equally frustrating money pit. And recently, they’ve found that literary fiction has less barriers, and/or greater economic potential. I’m grateful to Salt for making the work of so many writers available to me over the years, and can’t really blame them for pursuing something that adds up after over a decade defying the laws of probability. I also applaud that defiance.
The other publication I left Yellow Bench with last Friday night was Theresa Munoz’s ‘Close’. ‘Close’ is Theresa’s debut pamphlet, published by Happenstance – another phenomenon in another publishing world. If it feels like there has never been less space for single author collections, there can rarely have ever been a wider variety of small press outlets. The shortlist for the Callum MacDonald Memorial Awards was published this week. This award has recognised excellence in Scottish pamphlet publishing since 1998, and carries the plumb prize for the winning author of a two week residency with Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies in Greece in July.
Happenstance are in the running this year, with ‘After the Creel Fleet’ by Niall Campbell, the virtuoso Hebridean poet. Veteran pamphleteers Mariscat are represented with ‘On Time’, by Donald MacKay. Performance phenomenon Rachel McCrum is on the platform with ‘The Glassblower Dances’ from Stewed Rhubarb. Maggie Rabatski, Saltire nominee is in there with ‘Holding’ from New Voices Press in Glasgow. ‘Nest’, by Tom Pow and Hugh Bryden is ready to fly. Hansel Co-operative Press and Woodend Publishing complete the line up with ‘Reflections’, a collaboration between Yvonne Gray and artist John Cumming.
The importance of pamphlet publication can’t be understated – and is evidenced by the combination of new voices and big hitters. To put thirty pages or less of poetry together is less of a commitment from all three parties – poet, publisher and reader – than grouping sixty four or more together, allowing more risk as well as nimbler production and distribution.
My first significant publication (okay, to date my only significant publication) was a pamphlet. My next, who knows? There is a book length collection of poems – I have long aspired to having one to my name. But why? In terms of form and content, the single author collection can appear quite an arbitrary concept. Poetry exists at the pause, the silence – the syllable and the sound. It exists in the word, the line and the image. Beyond that, we’re imposing our perceptions and values on it – even at the level of stanzas and poems.
But the book length collection remains a yardstick – often a requirement for residencies and fellowships, and one that I can’t help or resist looking at when assessing fellow poets (or the progress of their careers).
Since I started this short post the winner of the Calum MacDonald Memorial Award has been announced – Rachel McCrum’s ‘The Glassblower Dances’ won the judges approval. Stewed Rhubarb have gained practically instantaneous recognition and validation (of course, not instantaneous at all, but they’ve just started and these awards aren’t given lightly).
Which just goes to show how much is possible if you choose to make things happen. It may not give them the comfort or the material boost of a booker shortlist – but it should be encouragement, and it is applause – richly deserved applause. Weel don my jewels. Keep at it.