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In Praise of the Small Poetry Publishing House

Updated: Jan 15, 2023

Without the existence of small, dedicated poetry publishing houses and their willingness to take their chances on my work, I might never have published a book: this blog is a vote of thanks to them.

My publishing road began with small magazines mostly edited by dedicated volunteer editors. In 2008 with my first pamphlet from Flarestack, ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Mamma’. The editor, Charles Johnson really did print the pamphlets from a printer on his kitchen table. Next up, in 2011, was flipped eye, with editor-in-chief the writer Nii Parkes, ably assisted by my editor Jacob Sam La Rose, who published ‘The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions’. In 2014, I was fortunate to work with the brilliant Emma Wright and Rachel Piercey from The Emma Press, on my illustrated pamphlet ‘If I Lay on my Back I Saw Nothing but Naked Women’. I was a lucky poet indeed to find a home for my collection ‘All My Mad Mothers’ at the incredible Jane Commane’s Nine Arches Press. Finally, in what turned out to be a two-book year for me, I worked with fabulous editor and poet Tamar Yoseloff on the manuscript of my ekphrastic sequence, ‘A Bargain with the Light’ published by Hercules Editions.

I’ve watched each of these lone and maverick editors pick up a book of mine and run with it. These are one or two-person operations, sometimes with the benefit of ACE grants, mostly running on love, faith and a shoestring and occasional help from freelance assistants if they’re lucky.

The founders of these publishing houses are the people who keep books in their spare rooms or under their beds, designs the covers, box up the books and carry them to the post office, send out review copies and invoices. They’re the ones on the front line when the accounts have to be done, on the end of the phone when one of their writers has a crisis, they’re the ones who travel up and down the country to be at launches and festivals and readings. And that’s aside from their crucial literary duties: the reading of manuscripts, the editing sessions with poets, liaising with bookshops and event organisers and distributors and customers.

Jane Commane and I were mutually surprised and delighted – well actually I couldn’t breathe – when we found out ‘All My Mad Mothers’ was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize; a first for Nine Arches, and actually a first for any small press. It’s been a giddy few months since the announcement up until the readings. I’ve had the benefit of the Eliot Prize publicist pushing the book and getting me interviews on the radio and on Sky News. I got to enter the Festival Hall through the stage door and to hang out in the greenroom with the other poets. I had the honour of one of Ian McMillan’s legendary introductions and of walking up to the lectern accompanied by a wonderful ovation and performing my poems on that huge stage to the largest audience I’m ever likely to encounter. One of the most exciting nights of my life.

I even had the joy of sitting, feeling somewhat ecstatic and bewildered, alongside the other shortlisted poets after the reading as the audience queued to have their books signed, even being given small sprigs of lavender by one of the poets. I signed so many books that night! For me, this shortlisting is about getting my poetry out there, finding new readers and audiences. There were many great and deserving collections published over 2017 and I was fortunate indeed to find myself on that list.

The party at the Wallace Collection was so glamorous – and what delicious canapés! It was a privilege to be there. When the mighty Ocean Vuong, international poetry phenomenon, visibly shaken, a bit tearful, and thrilled to be the winner, gave a gracious acceptance speech where he spoke eloquently about the state of the world, the role of poetry and words ‘building bridges’, I thought of Jane Commane, my unstoppable editor at Nine Arches and all the bridges she has built between writers and readers. I thought of her even more when Ocean thanked his team of editors and publicists for their support.

Because it was at that point, I confess, that I briefly wished that I too had a team. And then I realised I do. How else could I have arrived at this point? As individuals, Jane Commane, Charles Johnson, Nii Parkes, Emma Wright and Tamar Yoseloff are not teams; they are passionate and dedicated pioneers. But small publishers together form kind of team of the fringes, often sharing skills and information, often working together to create events or opportunities. I thought about the team of writers at Nine Arches Press, my ‘stablemates’ who were present on that night of readings, supporting and cheering. I thought about the wider poetry community and all my friends, family, readers and students who’ve sent me messages of love and support over the past few months.

Poetry is irrepressible and has its own way of building community, of making and spreading magic. Recently my husband gave me the print that you see at the top of this post, created by Tracey Emin for the Paralympics. But in this case the gift was my husband’s gesture of faith in me and I’m offering it to all the small publishers out there, especially Jane Commane, and all the writers who might feel that the road is too hard, that the rewards too few, that you are going against the tide. Keep publishing, publishers; keep writing, writers, it’s a long game and there is always more to do.

And here’s a last word from the great man himself:

‘And so each venture Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate, With shabby equipment always deteriorating In the general mess of imprecision of feeling, Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer By strength and submission, has already been discovered Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope To emulate —but there is no competition— There is only the fight to recover what has been lost And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss. For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. ‘

T.S. Eliot

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