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What C-19 is doing to poetry publishing

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Last week four poets wrote offering me the opportunity of publishing their work. When I read the first email, I was gobsmacked. The message (the same was true of the other three) made no reference to the current C-19 situation. Just the usual I have been writing for 4 years. I attach X poems on the theme of revenge/archery/cryogenics/dementia. I believe they will appeal to a wide range of readers. Do let me know if you would be interested in publishing etc. etc.

Numerous poets are at home at the moment, social distancing or self-isolating, or checking their stock of paracetamol. Clearly some of them are also pitching to publishers. Is this a good time? Ho-hum. Think about it from the publisher's point of view. In fact, that's what our best-selling title How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published suggests. It also says that 'strategy' is vital in getting work published. But it doesn't explain what you're supposed to do in the middle of a global pandemic.

What are publishers doing right now? Apart from looking for toilet rolls, there's a good chance they're worrying. About book sales. About new titles, and forthcoming books. About cancelled launches. About closed bookshops. About postponed events (where poets would normally shift some books). About having already printed too many copies. Will their distributor keep distributing, and if so (with most bookshops closed) to whom? Will their printer go under?

Meanwhile, printers are worrying about publishers. Will planned print runs go ahead? Will publishers want fewer copies? Will they defer printing until later in the year, if at all? Will they be able to service the loans on their fiendishly expensive print machines?

Everybody's doing their best. Big print companies are still running so far, with distancing protection for their staff. Publishers and event organisers are doing online launches and live streaming. Online sales are being brandished. The Poetry Book Society is working hard to turn a drama into a growth opportunity.

But the key factor is uncertainty. Nobody knows how all of this will affect the tiny niche that constitutes the poetry book market.

Whatever each publisher's long-term plan may be, the current priority is selling this year's titles. New proposals can wait.

Here, we have a mountain of boxes in the hall and under the stairs. The mountain contains new pamphlets (Nancy Campbell's Navigationand Annie Fisher's The Deal) and two books to be launched in May (Alan Buckley's Touched and Charlotte Gann's The Girl Who Cried). We have no room for more boxes.

Can I find readers for these new titles? Over the next couple of months (when, yes, I will be doing online launches) we will see. It's a fascinating chance to do things differently, and the publications are fabulous. I believe we will manage it. But there's a lot to learn. Every day the powers-that-be (or the powers-that-were) tell us something we aren't expecting.

On the good side, poetry's a long game. Publishers plan for posterity. But we need to sell books right now. It's essential to keep the cycle moving, which is how we afford to publish the next poets.

So back to your poetry publishing strategy. Perhaps you hope to place a book or pamphlet with a good publisher in the next year or so. How doyou plan round the current situation? Here's a suggestion for the next three months.

Read. Read poems. Old ones, new ones, winning ones, unnoticed ones. Make your own anthology of your favourites and notice who first published them. Learn a couple off by heart (while out on your daily walk). Get right inside them like an old coat. Note down tricks you can try yourself, lines that you love, and why. This feeds into your writing. It's the holy grail, the creative source.

Write. Make poems. Ditch them. Make more. Work on old poems and make them stronger. Send to magazines that are still going strong. Get them, if you can, accepted by top online (and paper-based) outlets, so somebody (not you) may notice and share them on social media. By all means enter competitions: the organisers need the money now more than ever, and if you win, or place, it's another good profile-raiser.

Review. You may not be confident about writing reviews, but anybody can manage two lines and a star rating on Amazon. Or a whole paragraph on goodreads, my favourite social media site (even if it is owned by Amazon). Or try an OPOI on a poetry pamphlet. Poets notice who reviews their work. Publishers notice who reviews their poets' work.

Buy books. Select judiciously. Feed your reading programme and publishers at the same time. If you think publishers don't notice who buys books from their own website, you're wrong. What's the magic factor in getting a collection published? It's when the publisher already knows your name (for the right reasons) before you make an approach.

If you absolutely cannot resist emailing publishers with proposals, at least remember to ask after their health, since they (and their loved ones) may not be in great shape. Check out the submissions page of their website first. Don't send uninvited poems (they'll delete them). Ask whether they might possibly be in a position to look at some.

Good luck —but good planning is better. After three months, review the situation and revise your strategy. You can find free planning sheets here.

p.s. If you'd like an invitation to HappenStance online launches, the first of which will be in a couple of weeks, please make sure you're signed up for notifications on the home page of the website. 


Recent Comments
Jim Laing
An interesting blog Nell especially as you could say we're not just living on the edge but living on edge right now. Like many I'v... Read More
Sunday, 29 March 2020 22:37
Guest — Nancy Mattson
Thanks for this post, thoughtful and practical as always. I will definitely order Nancy Campbell’s new pamphlet & will check out t... Read More
Monday, 30 March 2020 09:19
Guest — Finola Scott
Tank you , this is gold dust .. full of practical, sensible information, Lots of good advice , which I will definitely follow , Al... Read More
Monday, 30 March 2020 19:12
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HappenStance at StAnza

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This weekend it's all stations go preparing for StAnza, the poetry festival in St Andrews which runs from March 4-8th and to which poetry lovers from far and wide will flock. They're packing their bags right now.

An extraordinary variety and range of performers will feature. These include some I know rather well. 

For example, there's Gerry Cambridge,who will read from his new book The Light Acknowledgers on next Thursday afternoon

And there's Nancy Campbell whose HappenStance pamphlet, Navigations, is officially published on the date of her afternoon reading next Saturday (but you can get it right now, if you want a copy before that). She is featuring at a poetry breakfast too, which is live-streamed earlier that same day, so can be watched at home. So even if you can't make it to StAnza, StAnza can make it to you.

If you entered the WrapperRhyme challenge, you too (or your work, at least) will also be on display all week in J G Innes's bookshop (upstairs gallery). If you can't come, I will take photos once Jenny Elliott and I get the whole thing on display. It's looking marvellous even in its disassembled form. 

And if you think poets are not all in the same boat, you may change your mind when you see the boat in the WrapperRhyme exhibition. If you are at the festival, please come to the talk on the Friday afternoon if you can, especially if you have a WrapperRhyme on display. This event will be participative!

There will be a HappenStance flashmob again too. Not Edward Lear this year, but Hilaire Belloc's Matilda, and although all flashmobs are absolutely secret, I can reveal that early on Saturday evening in the Byre café something might happen.

Poets are often a bit intense. But they're also allowed to have fun. 


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SONNET OR NONNET?

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During the last ever reading window, there were many sonnets. This form (unlike the villanelle) is close to my heart, so sending some to me ought theoretically to be a good thing. But I've been thinking about sonnets for more than half a century (because I am OLD) and of course I've written them (or attempted to) at intervals. So I may be harder on them than anybody else.

A few centuries ago, when sonnets first became popular in courtly circles, the formal rules were clear enough, though even then not fixed. In the sonnets I most love, which include Shakespeare (of course) and Wyatt and Sydney, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edna St Vincent Millay, Elinor Wylie and Eleanor Farjeon, it's the tension between constraint and experiment that gives me pleasure. I love this particular way of tying up human consciousness in an electric box.

So I thought I might explain — as much for myself as anybody else — how I read a poem that looks like it might be a sonnet. Is it a sonnet or isn't it? And what difference does it make what you call it?

If the poem looks sonnet-ish (size and shape) my mental checklist pops up. If more than one box is ticked, I figure the poem could be thinking of itself as a sonnet. Before anybody gets aerated, I'm not suggesting any of these characteristics are essential. Only that they are to me the most obvious indicators, based on the English sonnet tradition.

Sonnet indicators

  1. Calls itself 'sonnet'
  2. 14 lines
  3. Metrical pattern: most likely iambic pentameter
  4. Lines of 10-11 syllables
  5. Shape — an oblong box, perhaps with a gap just below the middle.
  6. Lines of irregular metre but five strongly stressed syllables in each line
  7. Lines of regular length, syllabically or metrically
  8. A structured rhyme scheme
  9. An argument: opens with proposition, shifts to resolution
  10. A 'volta' (or turn in the argument/thought) at or about the ninth line
  11. An 8-line + 6-line structure (octet and sestet) (marked by stanzas or rhyme scheme or 'turn')
  12. A rhyming couplet at the end
  13. A structural pattern created by line-end words (hard to define: may not be rhyme so much as deliberate similarity)
  14. High level of compression/intensity focussed round a single idea


If the poem doesn't have 14 lines but does have a clear 'turn' about two thirds of the way through, it may well be thinking of itself in sonnet terms. George Meredith's sonnets in Modern Love (which was modern in 1862) had 16 lines each.

And if the poem has 14 lines and one (at least) of the first four is in regular iambic pentameter, it certainly suggests something. (Contemporary sonnets with no regular metre will often have at least one such line.)

But if it's in seven two-line stanzas with no 'turn', no rhyme, uneven line lengths, and no metrical pattern, I will wonder whether the term 'sonnet' is relevant.

On the other hand, if it's in seven two-line stanzas rhyming abba abba cdcdcd, I will think SONNET.

If it's in seven unrhymed, two-line stanzas of loose iambic pentameter, I will feel it's going sonnet-wards.

None of this is about being right or definitive or exclusive. It's personal. I am just trying to explain, as a practising poet and poetry reader, my thinking.

Suppose the poem calls itself: 'Sonnet for Eliza'. Eliza's sonnet has fourteen lines of irregular length, no metrical pattern, no rhyme or sound structure that I can detect, and apparently no 'volta' or any of the other features on my list. I might, therefore, assume the poet is offering it as a 'free verse sonnet'. But I find that term a bit of an oxymoron and, to be honest, I'm not convinced a free verse sonnet is something to aspire to. This is not a criticism of the poem as a poem.

However, everything that calls itself 'poem' stands in some relationship to whatever else is called 'poem', just as all visual art asserts itself in relation to a culture and tradition of visual practice. So any poem that calls itself 'sonnet' has a relationship to the sonnet tradition. Being aware of that tradition can give added aesthetic pleasure (in the same way that sampling a good malt whisky is enhanced by intimate and informed acquaintance with other quality malts).

Sometimes the relationship between a poem and its traditions is defined simply by doing none of what might be expected. So there's some mileage (though it is hardly novel) in calling something 'sonnet' when it conforms to nobody's expectations of that form. The most extreme example of this may be Don Paterson's 'The Version', a prose piece with a volta (a kind of joke about a sonnet that vanished) extending over three pages in a book titled 40 Sonnets.

When it comes to learning sonnets by heart (I recommend this to anyone trying to write them), a structured sonnet is the most pleasurable kind. Getting it by heart allows you inside the mind of the poem and therefore the poet. If the sonnet isn't beautifully constructed, you're unlikely to get far. If the manufacture is high-quality and durable, each and every phrase will seem inevitable and, at the same time, surprising.

You might start with some of the HappenStance sonnet cards. Each contains a sonnet I recommend, and we produce new ones regularly. I apologise if one of them turns out to be by me. You'll find these in the HappenStance web-shop

If you learn any one of them by heart, they'll last a lifetime — which is more than you can say for Glenfiddich.


Recent Comments
Jim Laing
Was there such a thing as a Scottish sonnet tradition?
Sunday, 09 February 2020 19:35
Helena Nelson
Not so far as I know, Jim. Though there have been many sonnets written in Scots.
Sunday, 09 February 2020 20:09
Guest — Jeremy Wikeley
Thanks for this Nell. I love the form but I think it is a very greedy one. By which I mean, there are times when I everything I wr... Read More
Saturday, 22 February 2020 17:34
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Smiles, Forests, Damsels, Knitting and Water

IMG_2580 Two new HappenStance pamphlets

We launch two new pamphlets this coming Saturday (October 5th) at the Betsey Trotwood in Clerkenwell. They are Katharine Towers' The Violin Forestand Smile Variations by Martha Kapos.

So that's five pamphlets in all this year from HappenStance, fewer than usual — yes this is true. But each is packed with rarities.

When I think of any one of them, visual images flood my mind. In The Violin Forest, there's that lovely violin on the jacket, shaded with leafy branches. And inside the poems, there's an abandoned harmonium in a Sussex wood, and a dead fox, 'laid out on the road like a fox diagram'. Some bluebells have 'finished talking' and lain down 'under the tall beeches', and an old man (a luthier, no less) 'comes / to the forest walking and tapping in winter'. To read the poems is to enter a thinking space, green and leafy. You read, and re-read. When you come out, you have that Rip-Van-Winkle feeling. How long have you been gone?

And Smile Variations — here the jacket image evokes music too. There's a stave, and odd note-like symbols, and a treble clef, all moving in a circle, dynamic and strange. Inside the poems, there's fluidity and strangeness too, even where the situation is (almost) familiar. For example, a child listening to parents talking hears their voices as 'the muffled stuff of breath, a broken river'. Soon a smile 'has escaped over high walls'. Later that smile has 'snapped shut'. Perspectives are 'perilous', 'dwindling between hills'. I'm reminded of Alice in Wonderland where the reader identifies with a child's perspective, learning to make sense — a new sense, but never a non-sense: 'Sentences open in the morning / with nothing to hold them up.'

And Rachel Piercey's pamphlet, Disappointing Alice, has Alice stuck in the desert, begging her friends to come and save her. But they won't — 'the topsoil of their affection was thinning'. What's going on? There's a medieval damsel on the jacket, with a magnificent pointy headdress, but the narrator of 'Love' has 'one hand upon the latch' and 'one hand upon the axe'. There are heroines here, certainly, but being Eve, or Cinderella or Amelia Earhart — what does it mean? Who can damsels trust to save them when the damsels may be scamming? A teenager plays Miranda in a school production of The Tempest but she alters the end of the play completely. Forget Naples. Here Miranda stands in the sand waving off 'the boat of lordly men' before going back to the island with Ariel and Caliban to 'start again'.

Then Claire Crowther's Knithoard — this is different from all the others. Of course, it comes out of knitting, that traditional women's craft, that safe woolly pursuit. But this sequence of poems calls risk, fear and fragility into its meditative frame. Loosely based on the French medieval fatras form, it comprises a series of eleven-line poems, each with an introductory couplet. You could read the entire work as being about art. Or life. Or love. Into this, the lovely language of knitting is bound. A 'notion', for example, means (there is a helpful Glossary) 'any item of knitting equipment'. In 'Tension' the speaker says 'I am instructed over and over: / Change your yarn, / use bigger notions'. 'The readiness is all', as Hamlet said, and here that preparedness is in the final section: 'I will finish abandoned garments, cast off all / those vests sleeping in bags and drawers, / all the unfinished [ ... ]'.

The last shall be first and the first shall be last. The first pamphlet to appear this year was Lydia Kennaway's A History of Walkingwhich has now walked its way into many homes. There are two footprints on the cover, each with lines from poems written into them. And the poems are all about walking, and much more. There's Buzz Aldrin bouncing across the surface of the moon; there's Little Red Riding Hood, and Goldilocks; there's a baby taking her first steps; there's an old woman who has walked, and fallen, and will never get up. There's rage and mischief, and politics and desperation, and energy and fun. And there's 'Walking for Water', the image of which stays with me perhaps most clearly of all, because of what it is not:

Walking for water is not
to see an unmissable sight.
It is not on anybody's bucket list.

It is the flight of a migrating bird,
a cruel calculation of distance, fuel
and energy burned.

[Go here to hear Lydia reading this poem precisely as it should be heard.]


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What to buy for Sebastian? And Robin? And Uncle Jock?

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There are four new HappenStance poetry pamphlets. Would your friends and relatives enjoy one of them as a seasonal gift? Which one? I don't know. love them all.   

But ever helpful, I thought I'd offer some buying tips. (All are the same price – £5.00, or £3.75 to subscribers.)

Bookmarks, D.A. Prince

A set of poems inspired by the markers we leave in books. It would appeal to the sort of person who loves reading, and leaves piles of books lying around (it comes with its own bookmark so that's a special touch). Poets should be inspired by it too: there's food for thought here about poem-stimuli. All D.A. Prince's poems have layers: you can read them for their surface meaning and immediate interest, and then go back many times over.

Honeycomb, M.R. Peacocke

This is a slender set, only 24 pages long. The poems inside are delicate, careful and emotive. The connecting theme may be age and ageing but the touch is light. It does make a good gift for the older reader, but I think those who love lyrical work would also take to it instantly, at any age. And for anyone who already knows M.R. Peacocke's work, it's a must.

The Lesser Mortal, Geoff Lander

This is a great gift for scientists —perhaps in particular scientists who don't think of themselves as poetry readers (also a good gift for artists who don't think of themselves as scientists) — or young folk planning on science degrees. The contents are beautifully formal (rhymed and metrical) and fun to read, though far from trivial in their preoccupations. Geoff Lander is meticulous in his footnotes too, added value and pleasure here.

Briar Mouth, Helen Nicholson

An unusual first collection by someone who hails from the west coast of Scotland —some of her more eccentric Scottish relatives feature here, as does her experience of growing up with a stammer. Helen Nicholson, (a founder member of Magma) writes with wit, subtlety and charm. An especially good gift for those with Scottish connections, or interested in communication (Helen is now afundraiser for a Dundee-based charity for children and young people with speech, language and communication difficulties).

And what about Now the Robin by Hamish Whyte, published earlier this year? There's a seasonal bird on the front cover, and two festive robins on the last page too (see illustration below). One of the finest feats for a poet is to write simply: Hamish Whyte does it with bells on. Now the Robin will appeal to anyone who loves sitting in a garden. And of course people called Robin.

Last but not least, there's a HappenStance poetry party next Saturday at the Scottish Poetry Library where you can see these publications and decide for yourself. Do come if you live near enough — but reserve a place because space is limited. There'll be cakes from Alison Brackenbury's Aunt Margaret's Pudding, something festive to drink, and of course some poets and poems.

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THE POETRY ELF FAILS TO WRITE THE RIGHT SORT OF BLOG

MAILSHO_20181118-122706_1 HappenStance mail in waiting

They have switched the Christmas lights on in our town and the shops (those of them that are still in business) are full of tinsel and elves.

Here at HappenStance HQ, two elves are busy putting bits of paper into envelopes. Tomorrow a mailshot goes out to the 310 postal subscribers and 100 or so electronic ones.

We have four new pamphlets out (or will have by tomorrow) and are hoping that some people will want to buy some as seasonal gifts. Poetry needs all the help it can get to find its way into people's houses. But assuming you buy one, the little folded, staple-stitched publication you will hold in your hand has weeks and weeks and weeks of activity behind it. It's the claws of Art, which extend to many activities.

First there's the acreage of time that the poet put into each line: the thought, the revision, the doubt, the risk. In some cases, this takes years. Well, you know about that.

Then there's the discussion of the poems one by one with me, the fate of the semi-colons, the ones that didn't make the cut, the titles that were changed, the order of contents — all of that business. Hours, rather than weeks, but then subsequent weeks of email exchanges about drafts (with four different poets at the same time).

There's the image on the cover and the discussions with Gillian Rose who draws them between fighting off small children. There are the images she and I rejected, and the days spent in In-Design and Photoshop trying (and frequently failing) to make the jacket look like I want it to. 

There's the title registration and uploading of jacket images to Nielsen Bookdata, and then, after an interval to allow them to be processed, the giant Amazon (oops, I haven't done Amazon yet — so add that to the list of things to do today, 21 and counting).

There's the trip with the pamphlet pages to be printed to Robert and Liz at Dolphin Press in Glenrothes, about a mile from here. Yes, this is very old-fashioned. I print them and take them. There's the review of what endpapers we have left or can use from Robert's stock. 

Then, for Robert at Dolphin, there's the making of the lithographic plates, the printing, and this time round there's the day the stapling machine broke and Robert spent three and a half hours fixing it (I think that was part way through D.A. Prince's Bookmarks, but it could have been Geoff Lander's The Lesser Mortal).

But before the stapling, there's the collating of pages (usually Robert and Liz's daughter Nicky does that), the filling of boxes. There's me driving there to pick up boxes, and me and Matt staggering along to the house with them (the hall is full of cardboard boxes and we haven't even picked up Meg Peacocke's Honeycomb or Helen Nicholson's Briar Mouth yet).

And the flyers. Each new pamphlet has a promotional flyer, so those take a while to design and make, and then they're printed by Robert in time for the mailshot, into which (this time) goes not only four flyers but a bookmark, a postcard, a Bardcard, a newsletter and (if it applies) a subscription renewal slip. The postcard was printed by Moo (costs a fortune but they do a good job), the bookmark by Solopress (cheaper and not bad). Designing and uploading and ordering these – a day for each one.

The newsletters take an age to write. Each time I'm fearful of forgetting to mention something or someone essential and obvious. The brain gets too full. Some days I could forget my own name. And there has to be a product page in the online shop for each pamphlet, and an updated poet's page for the poet, and an electronic version of everything in the right place at the right time for the online-only subscribers. All that stuff is ready now: I spent a couple of days on it last week, but it's not yet visible. (Don't publish the product till you're ready to sell it!)

Besides, first I had to update the  publications in print list, and the subscriber list, making sure as I can that the second of these is accurate and that the address labels correspond with the list (there are always anomalies because some people renew by cheque and some online, and the two systems need a human being to bring them together). That takes another half day. Then finally I print the address labels.

Matt collates all the bits and pieces for the mailshot, gets very grumpy, tells me whether we have enough envelopes of the right size, fills the envelopes and sticks on the labels, and checks them off on the list one by one, adding in reminders to those who are due to renew. He usually discovers (and brandishes) at least three mistakes I've made somewhere. The whole process takes him three days and quite a bit of backache, and I am not allowed to interrupt except with meals. Finally we put them in sacks and drive them in a pony and cart (not really – it's a small red car) to the sorting office on the other side of the town. (NB We haven't even sold one pamphlet yet.)

Then there are copies to be sent to the authors (they get twenty complimentary pamphlets), and copies sent to the copyright libraries, and Scottish poetry library, and Southbank Poetry library, and complimentary copies to old friends and supporters, and review copies hither and thither, and there's the bemused expression on the face of the lady in the post office when I arrive to buy another three hundred quid's worth of stamps. Yes, the cost is scary!

In fact, the cost in time and money and elves is all upfront. It takes faith. By this stage, the bank account is at rock bottom so we wait anxiously to see what will sell and when. New publications help to sell the ones that are already done and dusted (literally) and sitting hopefully. 

Oh, I forgot to mention the publisher's blog. That is this VERY document, which has failed miserably to do what promotional text should do – mention the most important thing first.

Well, let me see. What was the most important thing? Oh yes, the titles of the four new publications. Here I am talking about making them and the key fact of selling them and I haven't even told you anything about them. 

Nor have I mentioned the reading window NOT being in December, but in January now. That's important too. Oh bum.

Watch this space. I have just spent four hours writing the wrong sort of blog. I'll be back tomorrow. 


Recent Comments
Oliver Comins
Dear Nell - if I had some sparkly lights in your town, then I would switch them on for a short while each day...to celebrate being... Read More
Sunday, 18 November 2018 23:31
Helena Nelson
Dear Oliver -- If you came to visit, then we would get a double set of lights and have them on constantly until you went away. As ... Read More
Monday, 19 November 2018 09:41
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