It’s been over a week since 700 poetry lovers — almost twice as many as last year — walked through the door of Conway Hall for the Poetry Book Fair. We had 56 publishers exhibiting their works, along with the Poetry Library, the Poetry School and the Poetry Society — as much contemporary UK poetry as we were able to cram into one room. There were free readings every half an hour, and the entire exhausting and exhilarating day (and night) ran smoothly thanks to our small but wonderful army of volunteers. I am still in recovery.
Feedback we’ve had so far includes words like “buzz”, “bustling” and “exciting”. I remember looking up from the admin into the hall around lunchtime, and it was perhaps the first time I registered how busy it was. I had a feeling of — not sure quite what? happiness? relief? — perhaps a general gladness that it had all come together, that the room was full of people enthusiastically reading, talking about, buying and supporting contemporary poetry.
Charles Boyle and I organise the Poetry Book Fair together, this year with the invaluable added help of Joey Connolly. The fair was first held in the Church Hall at Exmouth Market, a lovely but tiny venue. Then we did it again last year at Candid Arts in Angel, with twice the number of publishers taking tables. This third year I feel that we’ve established it as a recurring event — it’s stopped being the “hopefully annual” poetry book fair and has become “The” Poetry Book Fair.
The original driving force behind it was the desire to give a direct selling platform to poetry publishers, to help them reach new readers and make physical sales in a shop floor environment. It’s also about giving that same platform to the audience though, offering a place where books may be browsed and discussed ahead of purchase, where the selection of poetry is put directly into their hands and they can speak to the publishers in person. As someone commented about the first year we held the Fair: “It’s so much better than browsing the same number of websites.”
We still have lots to do though. We need to build on the programme and the information we give out about publishers — feedback indicates that a lot of work happens after the event is over, looking up names online and perusing in private. We also need to think about how we offer this information to those who are new to poetry. We need to keep it viable for publishers travelling from outside London, maintaining the variety and range of exhibitors. We’re also facing decisions about the venue. There’s a fine line between “bustling” and “crowded”, and we need to get the balance right in terms of making the space accessible for everyone. There’s also talk of having a similar event exclusively for poetry magazines next year — more on this soon!
And, of course, we didn’t even have all the publishers there this year — I wonder whether we’ll ever really be able to get all the poetry publishers and organisations together. That remains my goal though. I would like to see everyone in the same room, given the same space, on equal footing — a single room containing everything contemporary UK poetry has to offer, to promote the readership and enjoyment of poetry. There’s always more work to be done. Roll on next year!
To find out more about Free Verse, visit www.poetrybookfair.com
Chrissy Williams’s blog: chrissywilliams.blogspot.co.uk