So you wanna be a rock ‘n roll star: some thoughts on ‘being published’

To put it all in context. In the last year or so, I’ve reviewed – or blogged about – collections that I love. Kim Moore’s The art of falling. Christy Ducker’s Skipper. Fiona Benson’s Bright travellers. Jane Clarke’s The River. Work by Shirley McClure, Maria Taylor, Hilary Elfick, Tom Cleary, Bob Horne, Steve Ely, Clare Shaw., Wendy Pratt…loads of them. I’ve been asked to read manuscripts of draft collections and wished they were mine. For the last three days (with the invaIuable help of Sandra Blackford) I’ve been collating a new collection of poems by me and my friend Andy Blackford, fiddling about and agonising over sequence and continuity and beginnings and endings. I just signed a contract for a first collection of my own poems…of which more in another post. And I’m involved in a frustrating email exchange about the cover design. How did I get here? Because I never set out to get here. Let me tell you how.

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We can all dream. Write poems. Get them accepted by The Rialto, Magma, Poetry Review...all of them.Find a publisher. Bloodaxe would be nice. Get great reviews, prizes. Sit in Waterstones and sign copies while the queue stretches out of the door and along the street. We can dream, and so we should; our reach should exceed our grasp, or what’s a heaven for?  But.

Some time ago I was riffing on the various cries of pain I hear on Facebook. We’re a fragile lot, us poets, I wrote.  You find yourself, for reasons you can’t fathom, writing, or trying to write, poems; meeting other bewildered and enthusiastic folk in the same pickle. And every now and again hearing (or reading on Facebook) the complaint that someone is ‘blocked’ or ‘stuck’ or has ‘hit a blank period’. You become addicted to Anthony Wilson’s blog, and his dialogues with The Book. The self-doubt, the angst…and the casual indifference of the mephistophilean Book. You understand every bit of it. But.

You go on writing, and maybe you get some poems accepted by magazines. And for a bit you feel sort of content. And then folk start asking: have you got a collection out yet? And you look at the growing files of poems you’re more or less pleased with. Your ouevre. And that ‘what shall I write about?’ morphs into ‘when will I be published?’. More specifically, ‘I want a collection’. Which morphs into ‘When will I be famous?’. And then poet-envy. Then doubt. Despair. Oblivion.

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It doesn’t have to be like that. This won’t be one of those helpfully informative ‘how to’ posts. I leave that to folk who are better at it than me ..lovely folk like Roy Marshall (https://roymarshall.wordpress.com/). Specifically, the post you want is at the end of this link https://roymarshall.wordpress.com/2015/01/28/putting-a-poetry-pamphlet-together/ .  And  other lovely folk like Josephine Corcoran (https://josephinecorcoran.org/), for instance. Everyone’s route to a collection is different. ( I nearly wrote ‘journey’ and caught myself just in time). This was mine.

I had one abortive attempt at taking the business seriously a few years ago, when I did a part-time Creative Writing MA. To be honest, I really did it because I was semi-retired, and struggling to cope with free time. I thought that committing to a course would put some discipline into my life. It didn’t, but that’s another story. On the other hand, I was struck by the diffuse ambition of my (much younger) fellow students. None of them asked questions about how to make their work better. But they constantly asked about how you set about getting published. I didn’t get it. I genuinely thought it was hard enough to actually learn something about the craft of writing, and to actually write some poems. In the end I didn’t do much of either, and I got an MA, and that was that for some time.

But. I’d got a taste for it, even if I didn’t acknowledge it. It was Poetry Business Writing Days that set my feet right. You learn from the company you keep; I was taken along for the first time by Julia Deakin, to whom I shall be eternally grateful. I sat in rooms with people who seemed to write as though writing, and getting it right, was enough. I was comfortable in their company. Eventually, though, the conversation would turn to magazines and pamphlets and collections, and I realised after all that just writing better wasn’t enough. What was the point, if no one was reading your stuff? But.

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Why would they would be reading yours? Who would notice? How will they find it in the multiverse of books and bookshelves and libraries  and bookshps? I remember saying to Ann Sansom that I couldn’t see why folk would pester publishers. Or why poetry publishers put themselves through it. There’s no money in it for anyone, that’s for sure. Or you might get published by someone who it turns out isn’t that bothered about the most important thing in your life.

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Something that’s stuck in my mind since then is an anecdote that Simon Armitage put in his account of walking the SW Coast Path and reading at various venues along the way. (Walking away. Faber). He’s staying overnight at what was the home of Peterloo Poets…who, inter alia, were the publishers of U.A.Fanthorpe. At some point, they simply went out of business. And left behind thousands and thousands of unsold copies, gradually falling prey to dust and damp. There you go. No one’s going to see your stuff on those crowded shelves, and eventually you’ll be remaindered or pulped. It’s a profoundly depressing thought. But.

You send stuff out, you enter competitions, you do open mics. You realise (well I did) that even if someone offers to publish you, it could be over a year before anything happens. And maybe you think you haven’t the patience for it. That’s what I felt like, but at the same time there’s something deeply unsatisfying about a whole bunch of poems that sit there in their Wordfiles, that have no physical heft. As it happened, still struggling to cope with semi-retirement, I enrolled in a bookbinding course at the Tech in Leeds. Learned very simple techniques, learned kettlestitching, all about endpapers, about boards, and even about embossing. Decided that for my assessment projects, I’d make books of my own poems. So I did.

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Two things happen. Well, they did for me.

The first is that when you go through the business of choosing and sequencing your poems, you realise that you didn’t really know your own work. You knew it, if you knew it at all, as this poem or that poem. And then it hits you that there are themes and preoccupations you were barely aware of. It’s fascinating and possibly unnerving. I’m reminded that last week, Roy Marshall (see above) was guest poet at The Puzzle Hall Poets and said, in passing, that he was surprised how many birds there were in his poems…especially since, unlike Steve Ely, say, he knows next to nothing about birds. That chimed with me. I’ve just assembled a collection and realised that I write a lot of poems with birds in. And a lot with God .. or gods…in.It’s an odd thing for a card-carrying atheist to discover that he may be in the wrong club after all.

The second is that when you have your homemade book in your hands, you’re the only one who knows it’s homemade. You can head off to an open mic. and read from it. At which point you realise the snag. There’s only one copy. Someone asks: where can we get that?(if you’re lucky) and there it is. A seed’s been sown. So what do you do if you want multiple copies? The answer is ridiculously simple. You make a template. You page set your poems. You design a cover and think of a smart title, and you type that seductive line: Poems by Me. You find a nice printer, show him the layout…just take in your memory stick…sort out a price and you pay for a properly printed batch of poems. If you’re active on Facebook and you go to open mic.s and you have lots of poetry chums (and I’ll bet the farm you have) you’ll have no problem selling 50 or more. That’s what I did. I did one, and that went well, so I did another. I used any ‘profit’ to pay for a reprint, and each of mine have gone through three reprints. I’m still selling the odd copy via the My Books link at the top of the page.

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Not all small printing firms will do perfect binding …forget the chapbook. A pamphlet, though is perfectly realistic. Stapled. Have a look at the pamphlets you’ve collected here and there. Size varies, but don’t go smaller than 12 X 18.5 cm, whatever you do. (A5 is nice.14.5 X 21 cm)  And learn from the best. Design a dust jacket. If you want to see just what a difference a dustjacket makes, look no further than the Poetry Business pamphlet competition winners. Hide the staples…which just look amateurish. It really is that simple. One other thing. If you want to persuade a bookseller to take some copies, you need to get an ISBN. You can find all sorts of isbn. suppliers on line. Just make sure you get get one that comes with a bar code. Bookshops need the barcode, usually. And note that unit costs are cheaper if you buy  more than one. Because you may develop a taste for it. You want to be published? Just do it. And feel that surge of pure joy when you collect your box of fresh-printed  pamphlets, and you just want to have that smell of new paper and ink in your life for ever. Two of my happiest memories are seeing the big smiles on the faces of Kim Moore and of Jane Clarke when their brand new collections came out. Is there a downside? Depends how you judge the market. Accept pretty well that whatever your plans, you’ll be torn between a book that goes out of print and a box of as-yet-unsold stuff. Like this.

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There are other ways of doing it and you choose one that you think suits you. I enter a lot of competitions, and the prize for some of them is to have a pamphlet or a chapbook published. That’s how I come to have copies of Larach to sell. Quite a lot at the moment, because the publisher let me have all his remaining copies at a generous discount. I suppose it’s officially out of print, now. But if you go to My Books, I’ll sell you one. I’ll sell you lots. At the moment I’ve another (jointly authored) pamphlet collection on a shortlist. We’ll see what happens with that. Whatever happens, we’ve had the pleasure of squencing, and editing and discovering things we didn’t know about our poetry.

Other choices? Well there’s the sheer hard slog route. Kim Moore, for instance, has indefatigably submitted to journals and magazines for years and built up a portfolio of published work (as well as winning the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition) that she could take to a publisher and have published as a collection. The art of Falling [Seren 2015] is, as I never tire of saying, a stunner. Or my mate Keith Hutson, who maintains a rigorous routine of writing every morning, of submitting and submitting (about 60 poems published in major journals over the last two/three years), and is rewarded with the breakthrough of being asked to put together a pamphlet. It’s out now. Routines [Poetry Salzburg 2016]. And that’s a stunner, too. Or if you work at your open mics and submissions, you gradually become aware of small poetry publishing firms. We’ve got two in Calderdale: Caterpillar Poetry and  Calder Valley Poetry. And in Wakefield, The Currock Press. Find what’s around you. Make friends with them. Email them. Talk to them. But here’s the thing. Don’t sit around mithering about wanting to be published. If you really want it, you’ll do it.

I started off by making handmade books, just for the fun of it. Then I got a printer. Then I won a competition. Then I won another. I’m a lucky boy. My first collection’s coming out in November. I may even post pictures of it. Or, like Jane Clarke, go to sleep with it under my pillow. You’ll never be a rock ‘n roll star. That’s not what it’s about.  But whatever you do, just do it. You know you want to.

7 thoughts on “So you wanna be a rock ‘n roll star: some thoughts on ‘being published’

  1. Well, you’ve encouraged me to come out about my self published collection! You may see a few copies at the Blind Pig! Stephanie x

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