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“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Poets and Publishers on the Nature of Risk

We asked three younger poets and four small publishers to think about the gambles they’ve taken in their careers thus far. The question we asked was, very simply, “What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken as a poet/publisher?”, but the answers reveal a need to talk more widely about the nature of risk: what it really means, what forms it can take, what we actually put on the line and what we’re hoping to gain by it. 

Jane Commane, Nine Arches

“Every single book, event or venture is a risk for smaller publishers.”

In March 2014, I decided to take a fairly big risk; I decided to quit my ‘day job’, go full time at Nine Arches, and be serious about what I was doing. Not that I hadn’t been pretty serious before, but I’d been running Nine Arches Press for almost seven years, on what had been a part time, voluntary basis. My other job (which often felt like a whole separate life) involved working in museums and archives. It helped pay the bills and was something I loved but I increasingly found myself racing to keep up with life and work. It was clear I had to choose one path, and even though it was a risk in terms of making a living, it had to be Nine Arches.

Let’s go back a few steps, and the first risk I ever took for poetry – setting up as a publisher in the first place. What does this require, and why do we do it? As any poetry publisher will tell you, there are no vast riches – sales are hard won, loyal audiences and readers only built slowly over time, and there is always the risk of only talking to other poets and not to wider readerships. I think I initially decided to start publishing because there was a gap in the midlands

region at the time for a poetry publisher, it felt like it needed to happen, and I had thought publishing a great way to keep my hand in with my own poetry writing and not get out of touch with contemporary poetry. The latter part is true, but it’s certainly more of a challenge to keep writing your own poetry and also to publish/edit too; both draw from the same kind of well of energy and creativity, but the deadlines and workload will always force your own writing to take a backseat, no matter what resolutions you make. It will, however, make you a much more fearless editor of your own poems though, so it’s not all bad.

In a sense, every single book, event or venture is a risk for smaller publishers. Much of it, like horse racing, is about studying form, keeping an ear to the ground for interesting new work, backing the ones you think show promise (and most importantly, ones that you believe in yourself) and taking calculated risks. These may be financial risks, though they may also be creative risks, leaps of faith (‘This poet is good, but with some support and editing, they could be great’) and investments of time, energy and love in what you do, for which there may be no monetary measurement or gain, but rather an overall gain more widely (beyond you as a publisher or even your poets) in terms of creating something new, starting off an idea or giving something back to the ecosystem of readers, writers, books and ideas.

Bobby Parker, author of Blue Movie (Nine Arches, 2015)

“The risk was in telling on myself – the shock of secrets For Sale on the lawn.”

I lost my family – there’s no two ways about it. I wrote myself away from them until I couldn’t find a way back. There’s a wicked truth in poetry that is, I feel, often overlooked. Tread carefully, friends. Keep your rhymes close and your line breaks closer. Take it from me: lives come undone in poetry, or in certain kinds of poetry. You try putting love back together but you can’t. It’s almost impossible. My head is full of bent heavens. Like most things, it begins with a confession. That’s how it was for me. Do you really want to see what’s under the skin? Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Sometimes there’s worms. Rarely a Roman coin. Mostly blood. So much blood! We’re not used to all that blood. I’ve been extremely lucky, writing intimately about myself and the people in my life. I’ve never felt censored. Loved ones say they believe what I’m doing is important. Can you imagine? I guess it went to my head. At first I had no idea what I was getting at, why I pushed myself so hard that writing became almost traumatic. The risk was in telling on myself – the shock of secrets For Sale on the lawn; sex, drugs & mental illness – how I’m not cut out for relationships. My parents’ tears. My ex-wife and my daughter in a house with no electricity. My girlfriend’s bad dreams. If I could go back, choose fiction instead, would things be different? Would they be better or worse if I chose another style of writing? Who knows. I have a brain, a heart and a few other parts. Maybe they’ll fit together someday. I couldn’t make it up. I honestly couldn’t. It’s like dying in reverse; I write towards my birth.

Helena Nelson, Happenstance Press

“You’ve gone over to the dark side, and you learn a lot about how it works there.”

For me, it’s not money. I’ve never invested more than I could afford to lose, and most of my publications cover their costs. The risk has to do with time, and power. You spend a lot of time on this publishing thing, and that’s time not spent on other things. Like writing poems, for example. But the power thing is more dangerous. A poet-publisher is poacher turned gate-keeper. You’ve gone over to the dark side, and you learn a lot about how it works there. You learn secrets you share, and secrets that will die with you. We all know about the desperation of poets (collective noun) who want their work published. Such individuals tend to be nice to you, at least until you’ve rejected their work — a whole lot nicer than before you turned gate-keeper. This can be seriously unhinging. Some of them offer you flowers, chocolate, dinner and even money. They seem to find you more attractive than you know you are. You get attention. You also get neurotic about whether new contacts actually like you or just think you might be useful. Even more worrying is the undeniable buzz you feel from being made a fuss of, or having people recognise your name with (honestly —this has happened to me) a small gasp. I have had to remind myself more than once that this is poetry, that branch of the arts where our heroes travel second-class on trains without body-guards. So the big risk for a poetry publisher, it seems to me, is that we start to believe the illusion. What have we really got? A chance to contribute. A limited amount of time.

Hannah Silva, theatre maker and author of Forms of Protest (Penned in the Margins, 2013)

Fifteen Years of ‘Risk’:

  1. 2000:  admirable fluency to your prose not confident or enthusiastic enough.
  2. 2001:  you write engagingly, on balance, weren’t quite enthusiastic enough.
  3. 2002:  Although it’s highly inventive, pass on this occasion.
  4. 2003:  Although it is interesting, fascinating idea, didn’t quite win me over.
  5. 2004:  unable to accept the work you submitted for publication.
  6. 2005:  No thanks.
  7. 2006:  even though the writing is exploring chaos, lacking a clear direction.
  8. 2007:  Dialogue is terse and economical. Emphasis upon linguistic technique can overshadow.
  9. 2008:  a lot of very interesting experimental strategies… distinct and powerful voice although not one we can take further.
  10. 2009:  We love you, but.
  11. 2010:  one reader thought you were doing something different and so found it hard to apply ordinary dramaturgical input.
  12. 2011:  We really enjoyed reading your work but.
  13. 2012:  very haunting, dislocated but not unsuccessful.
  14. 2013:  not taking on new work.
  15. 2014:  I don’t see Schlock! translating into a print book.
  16. 2015:  a really exciting compliment to the other experimental work you have been making but we’ve got a backlog of books and the direction for the next phase of our publications is going to be a bit different, politely decline.

16th December, 2015: I am attaching a manuscript ‘The Kathy Doll’… Thank you very much for considering my work.

Clive Birnie, Burning Eye Books

“I was told on more than one occasion that I was ‘a poetry outsider’.”

The biggest risk taken on Burning Eye wasn’t taken by me as proprietor/publisher. The money I put into Burning Eye was relatively modest – money I was prepared to lose. I was accountable financially to no other party, so if it had been a disaster Burning Eye could have retired quietly to the sidelines without most of the poetry world noticing.

Burning Eye is still a fringe dweller. I am sure for many people reading this the name recognition will be zero. Burning who? The focus on what I term ‘slamspokenwordstandupperformance poetry’ might look risky to some but always seemed a slam(sorry)-dunk to me. The poets Burning Eye publishes are a walking, talking, non-stop, hard-working advertising and (self) promotion team and a sales channel. So for me, the only genuine risk in Burning Eye was taken by the poets who entrusted their work to an unproven and inexperienced publisher. In the months I spent courting the ten poets I wanted to be on the launch list I was told on more than one occasion that I was “a poetry outsider”. This was a key reason for the negative replies. In the end only three of the original ten agreed to sign up with Burning Eye, so my pitch was clearly too risky for some (although a few have subsequently changed their minds). Had Ash Dickinson, Jonny Fluffypunk, Sally Jenkinson, Ray Antrobus and Mairi Campbell-Jack not agreed to take the punt, and had Jack Dean and James Bunting not agreed to edit the Rhyming Thunder anthology, Burning Eye would not have got past the launch plan in 2012, never mind publish the subsequent 50+ books.

There have been mistakes and calamities since but usually self-inflicted and never the result of a risk gone wrong. Those early poets taking the chance set a tone that continues to encourage other poets to see a Burning Eye book as a goal to target rather than a gamble.

John McCullough, author of The Frost Fairs (Salt, 2011)

“Now that I’ve been working on poems with dream-like or queer perspectives for a number of years, I don’t think I experience such things as risks.”

I think what counts as a risk depends largely on what kind of writing you naturally lean towards. On the surface, the surreal content of a lot of my poems might seem like a gamble given how far they stray from the realism, family poems and epiphanies encountered more frequently in poetry magazines and anthologies. I don’t usually have to worry about a publication already having taken that month another poem about a flying church of rain, the invention of the exclamation mark or a trio of drag queens in World War II. Now that I’ve been working on poems with dream-like or queer perspectives for a number of years, however, I don’t think I experience such things as risks for me as a writer.

By contrast, my second collection Space Craft is themed around emptiness and absence, and I consciously wanted to explore these topics through poetic forms that broke open or reversed what I was comfortable with. Its poems think in form using right-aligned margins or ruptured lines, and there are several pieces with diagonal shapes, two columns of text or phrases spread across large areas of space in order to enact or complicate what’s being explored. I found it an exhilarating process, one that made me feel very energized about what I was doing, which has to be one of the main reasons to write at all. A large portion of the book also focuses in a direct way on the loss of my first partner, who died from an AIDS related illness. Those poems came from a very different place to anything I’ve written before. They brought back difficult memories and I felt a responsibility to people both dead and living. For someone who’s traditionally dodged the autobiographical in favour of a range of different speakers, they felt like the biggest risk of all.

Charles Boyle, CB Editions

“I have almost nothing to lose.”

Given that I haven’t put my or anyone else’s life or livelihood in danger, I can’t say that I’ve taken any serious risks.

Leaving a salaried full-time job to go freelance a decade ago – that was a risk. Weaving in and out of heavy traffic at 70 mph on a wet road on a stranger’s motorbike – that was risky, and pretty stupid too. If I were to devote the next three years exclusively to researching the magic formula for a bestselling novel and then writing one, that too would be a risk. Publishing poetry in the way that CBe does, no.

It’s not a safe investment either, but investment was never the point. Why would anyone expect to make money from poetry? Some of the CBe poetry titles have sold barely a hundred copies; the few titles that have sold more than 1,000 copies are all fiction.

Any activity is only a risk if you have something to risk losing. I have almost nothing to lose. I’m not financially dependent on my publishing (I have a pension, I do freelance work for others); I’ve picked up enough know-how to look after the editing, design and typesetting myself; and out of all the arts, publishing poetry is the cheapest to engage in. This is a ridiculously privileged position. It enables pleasure and reduces risk. I didn’t plan it this way.

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