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18 Oct

Tony Challis Reviews the Poetry Press Talk

The social on 6 October 2011featured a talk from two UK poetry editors, who gave us an insight into the publishing process, how they choose the work they take on, and what makes a collection work.

Speaking first was Jane Commane, editor at Nine Arches Press and Under the Radar magazine. She spoke principally about a collection she had recently published, Mat Merritt’s  hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica (no easy confusion with other collections, then!). The title actually refers to a glass harmonica, that is, any musical instrument using the resonant properties of glass, as played by everyone from Mozart to Pink Floyd to you when you are feeling mellow in a bar.

Jane said that she had watched Matt develop over two years at various readings.  So – get yourself out there and read aloud whenever you can! Jane was clearly impressed by the way that, as a Leicestershire poet, he was deeply involved  in and inspired by his area. Matt works as a wildlife journalist, and Jane mentioned that there was a nature section at the end, Goose Summer.

Alex McMillen, editor of Templar Press, spoke of himself as a reader, not as a poet. But he did talk of the importance of poetry originating as oral, with text as secondary. Thus his enthusiasm for the poetry festival at Matlock. He felt the failure to appreciate the audience had led to a falling off in poetry culture. There was a problem of poetry being associated with difficulty. Poets need to think of their readers just as much as prose writers. Alex felt that prizes, such as the Forward Prize, tend to validate the poetry of a narrow academic peer group. (I was reminded of hearing Andy Croft reading and speaking about poetry recently. He is a very entertaining poet, but he said that he never won prizes and did not expect to.)

Alex said that his strategy, when poets appeared, was to begin with them having individual poems published, say in his magazine Iota, then moving on to a pamphlet, then to a collection. He was bringing out five new collections in November and 3 pamphlets. He mentioned Jane Weir as the most successful poet he had worked with, who now had a war poem on the GCSE syllabus. She had a clear idea of what she wanted to do when she came to him.

He said that he wanted to receive small collections of poems that are complete — that do not need much editing. Submitters should be confident that their work was ‘ready to go’. Many publishers, he said, are ‘patriarchal’ — they change, select and order what is submitted. Writers need to find groups of friends/writers to bounce work off and not expect this of publishers.

‘It is the marketing machine that makes or breaks a writer’, said Alex, mentioning the Costa prize, where publishers apparently have to commit at least £5k towards promotion if their writer is shortlisted.

(Just my whimsy, but I thought that Glass Harmonica made me see a girl called Monica who is fun and comic, and who likes her drink, and who makes the array of glasses before her sing!)

So — get your poems critiqued by friends, know just  what you want to achieve, and take all opportunities to get them heard.

The spoken effectiveness of poetry is very important, and I enjoy speaking and performing my poetry. But – I know people who write good poetry who are not good at reading aloud, and whose work is best on the page. What would happen to the Emily Dickinsons if declamation was all?

Tony Challis (October 2011)

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