This was one of the questions at the Poetry Book Fair last Saturday.
The Book Fair was exceptionally good. The atmosphere was hustling and bustling but absolutely friendly and unhierarchical. Faces you know well from the backs of prize-winning bookjackets rubbed shoulders with faces you’d never seen before. Hang on—faces can’t rub shoulders with faces. But you know what I mean.
Apart from selling books at a stall, and launching D A Prince’s new book Common Ground, and the choc-lit anthology, Blame Montezuma! (with lashings of chocolate tasting buttons), I took part in a panel event, together with Peter Hughes of Oystercatcher Press and Emma Wright of the Emma Press. Joey Connolly (Kaffeeklatsch and Poetry Book Fair manager) asked the questions. Peter, Emma and I all publish poetry pamphlets, but the way we do it, and what we look for, is (and isn’t) different.
The truth is: each poetry imprint is highly individual. It must be. It’s just like writing poems. Making a publishing enterprise is a creative act, and each person who does it does it differently. What we have in common is that we are all making this same thing, a thing that produces and sells little papery publications with poems in them. We’re probably all mad (in a good way). We are all (I think) stubborn and determined.
Anyway, one of the questions was about submissions. What were we looking for?
There wasn’t a lot of time. I answered the question truthfully, but my answer wasn’t the whole answer. So much so that I travelled back on the train thinking hard about what the answer really was.
What did I say on the day? Something like this: that I couldn’t define what I was looking for because I didn’t know what it was. If I knew what it was, I said, I would write it myself. I hoped to be open to poetry that defied all my expectations. Oh, and I also said I looked for work that could be accommodated within an A5 pamphlet format, because that’s what I make. Mundane, but true.
And yet not the whole story. When I read poetry submissions it is exciting to think I might come across something like nothing I’ve ever read before but still instantly recognisable as ‘poetry’ (whatever’s meant by that elusive term). And sometimes I think it happens. Generally it’s in the shape of individual poems, though, rather than poets. That is to say, someone sends a set of poems and one or two of them strike me as remarkable. The rest may not engage me at all, or only to varying degrees.
So, yes, I do look for the unexpected, the thing I can’t define.
But there’s more to it than that.
I look for the expected. I look for the expected but done well. I like mainstream as well as sidestream and substream.
I like traditional forms (except villanelles, sestinas and pantoums). I’m tough on form though: it has to have passed its MOT.
I like personal poems. I like love poems. I like poems that make sense. I like poems I don’t understand. I like poems that make me think hard. I like poems that make me work. I like lyrical poems. I like prosy poems.
But the Book Fair question was really about publishing. What did we look for with a view to publishing it?
It’s not just a matter of publishing. There’s the issue of selling. I have to sell the pamphlets to get the money to publish more. My most important sales outlet is the HappenStance subscriber group. Many of these people regularly buy pamphlets, and they tell me what they like (or don’t like). This feedback influences my subsequent choices. I might publish something I thought most of them wouldn’t like, but I certainly wouldn’t do that often. If I did, I’d lose them.
Some of my publications sell faster and get better feedback than others. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are the best (or the ones I personally like the best either) but it does mean they’ve gone down well with the people I sell to. So I make a mental note – like a colour in a colour chart – of where that poet fitted in, and what might either contrast well, or harmonise. I try to learn, all the time, about the readers as well as the poets. I want to offer them a range. I want to challenge them but I also want to please them.
Then there’s the fact that I publish two different kinds of poetry pamphlet. One set is from ‘established’ poets with an idea that demands pamphlet form. By the end of 2014 (If all goes according to plan) I will have published nine pamphlets, three of them in this category. I don’t actively go round looking for them at all, because I’m permanently over-committed. But if something turns up that I can’t resist . . .
The other six poetry pamphlets for 2014 are debuts, i.e. the poet’s first step into publication. These are the HappenStance bread and butter. Obviously I am looking for poets I think are ‘ready’. Or nearly ready. It does take time but, as Hamlet pointed out in somewhat different circumstances, the readiness is all.
Sometimes I see a set of poems I think are fabulous. No editing required. Just as they are. In this case, the debut poet doesn’t need me. He or she should win one of the competitions, thereby gaining both cash and kudos. So I suggest they go away and enter. If they don’t win (for reasons I can’t fathom) they come back to me.
At other times, I think a set of poems is amazing, and I also think, for a variety of reasons, they won’t win a pamphlet competition. They are too off the wall, or too emotional, or too retro, or too understated, or too something else. How hard it is to put this kind of thing into words!
But mostly I look (when it comes to debuts) for poets I can work with. Not just in a personal sense (though this is important too) but in a way that can make the work stronger, that can move the poet along a little.
In order to be a good editor, you need not just a sensible head in terms of meaning and impact and presentation and form, but also an intuitive grasp of what each poet is doing and how their method works. For some people, I feel I have that. This means I can be a good sounding bell. For others, even though I may like them—and their poems—I don’t.
The poet needs to be looking for something too, something more than just a publisher. He or she needs to feel an editor’s method and response to the work is ‘right’ for them. It takes a little while to establish this, which I why I encourage people to send small sets of poems during reading windows, and why I rarely offer to publish a pamphlet on first submission.
I used to be a college teacher, but I don’t want to be a ‘teacher’ now. I can’t teach anybody how to write poems. I can, however, work with them on poems. And for a few people I can be the sort of editor I need myself.
So that’s what I look for. All of it.
And at the same time, during each and every reading ‘window’, I hope I won’t find it, so I can have a bit of a rest. . . .