5 minutes reading time (980 words)

The Opposite of Salt, or The Ambulance Salt

I have been about to blog about two new poetry books for some time. They are Andy Philip's The Ambulance Box and Rob Mackenzie's The Opposite of Cabbage. They have been all over the place with me. Downstairs on the table beside the settee where I read stuff. In the conservatory, where I read stuff. Beside my bed, where I mean to read stuff but usually fall asleep first. In my work bag. In my overnight bag. And in fact, I have read both with great pleasure. With greater pleasure even than usual, since both poets were HappenStance poets first. Andy was the very first HappenStance pamphlet ever! He has been out of print for years now and his little pamphlet, with the picture of the man with a dove on his head, must be a collector's item, I think.

 

You can find the poem ''Man with a Dove on his Head' in Andy's Salt collection, The Ambulance Box. I still think it is outstanding. Andy's not afraid of strong feeling. The emotive charge is electric. You feel it from the dedication to Aidan Michael Philip (the poet's son who was born and died on the same day) right through to the beautiful love poem 'In Praise of Dust'. It is a book which includes poems in both Scots and English. The intermingling feels very natural to me, very elegant. 'Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes' - the old story told in Scots - is particularly moving:

And when, suddenly,
the god stopped her and said thae words wi pain
clear in his vyce: He's turnt hissel aroun -- 
she didnae unnerstaun and quait-like said: Wha?

But the whole book is such a lovely thing to hold and read. In an age where we constantly feel books are about to disappear -- especially poetry volumes -- what a marvellous thing to have a first full collection in hardback! Both these books -- Andy's and Rob's -- are beautiful hardbacks, with loose paper jackets. The end papers are a rich dark green. The print is big enough to read properly. There's generous space about the poem on the page. Not too many poems in each volume.

Rob has even included a sestina that I like (I am deeply biassed against this form). 'A Creative Writing Tutor Addresses his Star Pupil' is clever and very funny.

I have often thought Rob is one of those poets who slips in and out of different voices with such guile that his inner truth (whatever that may be) is hard to be sure of. He likes to play. He reminds me of a boy on the way to school who stops to kick a stone around or to take an exceptionally good look at a snail. But here somehow the collection as a whole does come together: you find yourself developing a secure sense of his own precise 'voice', even when that voice is talking about the difficulty of being sure about anything. Such an interesting collection, well-balanced, varied, ending so well. Even when writing lightly, Rob doesn't write lightly:

And yes,
I am equally puzzling to myself, equally
apparent in my sky blue boots, tilting now to
this flower, now this one, this one, that one.

But there is a problem. Salt Publishing, which has produced these lovely books, is in trouble. This is significant for everyone who reads and loves poetry. No publishing imprint has worked harder than Salt has in the last few years to make a go of things, to build the readership, to make poetry sales work. They deserve support, they need support. At the moment the 'just one book' campaign asks as many people as possible to buy something from them. What better books could you buy (if you haven't already got them) than The Ambulance Box and The Opposite of Cabbage?

It looks as though poetry is not recession-proof. But hey -- look how bloody determined it is! Rob himself has a great post on the Salt situation, followed by interesting discussion.

I forgot to mention the fact that HappenStance was shortlisted for the Michael Marks pamphlet publishers award. It is nice that this has happened, though small compensation for the bigger problems with book publishing at Salt...

Already, email (and one postal) submissions have started to arrive as a result of this. Now why would you send a submission to a publisher without checking out their website and their submission requirements first? I can only say that people do this. They do it all the time.

Interestingly, the Michael Marks summary mentions that I specialise in first collections, with an emphasis on Scottish writers or writers with Scottish connections. I guess I must have written this myself because I wanted it to be true.  I do retain an intense interest in Scottish writers, and I publish at least one pamphlet each year by an author living in Scotland.

However, most of my writers are actually not Scottish, or connected with Scotland in any way. I look for what I think is good poetry, of a type I personally like. I always hope that some of this will also be being written in the country in which I live - Scotland.

I also forgot to tie up the computer story. I did get the MacBook and it did talk to my Imac, via a Firewire cable. All the wandering minstrels (I mean files) were recovered. I was assisted by a wonderful 'support agent' called Vigneshwaran, who combined charm with intense patience. It took about two hours to carry the process through. He told me what to do. I did it. After that, of course, it took much much longer to do all the updates, re-instal files etc. I lost (in HappenStance work terms) just over two weeks. But worse things happen at sea. I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the....

Discussing Wittgenstein
If you came
 

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Sunday, 13 October 2019