letter-press

It’s been a busy old week, apart from Christmas trees, and untangling Christmas lights, and remembering where they all go. IT’ll be time any moment now to get the boxes of clockwork wind-ups down from the shelf in the study and put them under the tree…the annual homage to Russell Hoban and The mouse and his child. If you want the story behind this, you can have a look at a post from last Christmas. Or the one before. Here’s the link.

https://johnfoggin.wordpress.com/2014/12/20/a-christmas-story/

Where was I? Ah, yes; a busy old week. Wednesday I was reading at the Loom Lounge in the great mill complex of Dean Clough in Halifax. This was for the Square Chapel monthly poetry event organised by Keith Hutson. I’ll come back to him in a minute.

Thursday I was up the Calder valley to where it gets dark and narrow in Todmorden…it was the final monthly reading at Kava Kultura which Anthony Costello set up three years ago, and which has hosted more fine poets than you can shake a stick at. A bitter-sweet night, then, for many of us, but lovely to sit in one of the nicest coffee houses you’re likely to encounter in the company of folk like Anne Caldwell, Peter Riley, Zaffar Kunial, Keith Hutson (again), Simon Zonenblick, Clare Shaw and Kim Moore (who was giving the last of the poetry lectures that are one of the unique features of Kava readings). Basically, at least half the audience were published and accomplished poets, and none of them were reading. Egos left at the door. Wonderful.

Saturday afternoon I was reading at Word Club at the Chemic Tavern in Leeds. This is run by the indefatigable Mark Connors. All the Otley poets were there. Matthew Hedley Stoppard was there. Four hours flew by. They really did. Were there highlights? For me it was the delight of meeting two new voices for the first time, each on the open mic.. One was Alicia Fernandez. First language, Spanish; she writes with a lovely clarity and an authentic voice. And she channeled Pablo Neruda and name-checked Robert Jordan (For whom the bell tolls). Wow. And then there was Ian Harker who not only writes with an assured touch, but who also created lines and images that lodge in your mind as you hear them. His poems sound light, anecdotal, but they are layered, rich and moving. Imagine a poem about hamsters named after former Leeds United stars which sets them in a much bigger and altogether problematic universe ‘out there’. And one poem about a scientist/poet friend of his that should win prizes as well as move you to tears.His first collection will be out in 2017 and I’m looking forward to singing its praises.

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So. The first bunch of thankyous. To Keith Hutson, to Anthony Costello, to Mark Connors, and to all the hardworking, generous folk who run poetry clubs and open mic.s, and give a platform to folk who hardly know yet whether they’re poets or not alongside the accomplished and much-published. And also to all the hardworking bloggers like Kim Moore, Josephine Corcoran, Robin Houghton, Ben Banyard and all the others who do a similar job of letting new poets be heard, and finding their voice. God bless you, everyone.

And now to the main business of the day. The small presses. The ones who publish so much of the poetry on my shelves. The poor bloody infantry of poetry publishing. The ones who do it for love, (the ones like Sarah Miles and Paper Swans), much like the wonderful folk who do a similar job with their poetry magazines (take a bow Brett Evans and Prole).

It may be invidious to leave anyone out, but if I put everyone in, there’d be no time for the post. So take the wish for the deed. Just believe me; I’m grateful.

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If you’ve not come across them yet, I’m going to introduce you to Caterpillar Poetry, (Simon Zonenblick) first, and Calder Valley Poetry (Bob Horne) who were generous with their time, and wrote honestly and expansively about the business of setting up and running a small poetry press. I’ll come clean and say that they are good friends of mine, that they have both been guest poets on the cobweb, and that none of that makes a scrap of difference when it comes to my admiration for what the do and have achieved.

(interjection at this point. I’ve just spent an hour or so editing what they sent me, and realised I’ve enough for two posts. I was going to cut and paste to give the illusion/effect of a three-way conversation. But I just made an editorial decision to let each editor to tell his own story uninterrupted, and to keep the post to a manageable length. So just for know, we’ll go with Simon’s story, and I’ll share Bob’s just before Christmas.)

Simon’s story

If you could kick off by describing what you’ve done so far, that would be nice. A story is always a nice beginning. Then tackle the following questions. If it’s OK, I’ll then create the illusion of a dialogue, as though we’re all sitting in a room, with cake and coffee. That sort of illusion.

Well, I had always entertained the idea of publishing volumes of poetry, both because I know how hard it is to find openings to get published, and because it struck me as an exciting thing to do.  I have aways had an interest in self-publishing, since I was a child.  Over the years I turned out various typed up booklets of poems and stories, and I loved reading about people like the Black Mountain Poets and Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Pocket Poets the whole DIY idea.  I love independent record labels and have always been inspired by the way things like Factory Records just kicked off from the back of a fag packet, without any resources, completely unaffected by the “rules.”  So, I just enjoy publishing and am actually surprised I haven’t done more of it!

My first Caterpillar Poetry publication was my own pamphlet, Little Creatures: Poems of Insects, Small Mammals and Micro-organisms, on 8th April 2013.

That autumn I published a further slim volume, Dream Sequence.

November 2015 saw my first publication of another poet’s book – Not All Bird Song by Nuala Fagan. This involved several months of working with Nuala on the selection and editing of the poems, with Bob Horne joining us and helping to deliver the boook; it was launched at The Blind Pig in Sowerby Bridge, with supporting readings by guest poets Victoria Gatehouse, Gaia Holmes, and John Foggin.

This summer, I was delighted to publish Knowing My Place by Bob Horne, which was launched at Brighouse Library. The poem selections took place over many one to one discussions in various coffee shops and at Bob’s home. In October this year we published Steve Nash’s The Calder Valley Codex, specially chosen for Halloween publication. Steve’s poems in the Codex are all on a folkloric and at times eerie theme.

The books I have produced at Caterpillar Poetry have all been so different – my own have been from the more offbeat spectrum of my writing style, Nuala’s centred on painful memories, snapshots of family life and responses to grief and loss, and underlaid with the emotional inheritance of Irish history.  Bob’s poems were deeply rooted in the Yorkshire identity, yet flung as far afield as New York,.  Steve’s collection is by turns mischevous and dark, with a very unusual cast of characters.

There seem to be hundreds of small poetry presses about, and I imagine they struggle to make a living, competing as they do for what is essentially a niche market. Which are the ones that you particularly like yourselves, and why?

Candlestick Press make very beautiful A5 booklets, with very tactile covers and distinctive, pastel-style colours. Their books are usually short anthologies on a theme. They also include beautiful bookmarks and similar items with their publications, usually decorated in the same distinctive style as the books. I think what Bob is doing with Calder Valley Poetry is fantastic, and very exciting. I have always been a big fan of Oversteps Books, Happenstance, Indigo Dreams and Indigo Pamphlets, Two Rivers Press and Cinnamon Press. But I am also an avid collector and frequently find pamphlets and collections by unknown authors printed by obscure publishers from the 70’s and 80’s, in second hand bookshops or at library book sales. So often, these publishers have seemingly bit the dust, and no research uncovers them. Perhaps that ought to be a cautionary tale, but it drives me more to want to be a part of this slightly mysterious world, and hopefully stay the course!

Something led you think: there’s room for another. What was the trigger that persuaded you to set up your own publishing venture?

To be honest I didn’t really give an awful lot of thought to the existing numbers of publishers, because when I had the idea of publishing it was with self-publishing in mind (I didn’t expect anyone would want me, a comparative unknown with no publishing pedigree, to have anything to do with their poetry!) I was only minimally aware of the world of poetry publication, locally or further afield, and although I sent, and still send, my work to other publishers, my general assumption in life has always been that if you want to achieve something you had better set out and try to sort it out yourself, so I hit upon the idea of starting a publishing initiative through a combination of ignorance and impatience.

How about the poets you’ve chosen? Did you have any particular criteria, or were you blessed by happy accidents?

I am always moved to approach poets purely on the basis of being genuinely moved by something they have written. When I’ve come across something locally, or heard someone at a reading, I have been known to pounce! Equally, I have been approached to publish other poets and those with whom I am currently working on collections have offered something sufficiently unique to grab my attention. I want Caterpillar Poetry to publish work that is of high quality but by poets who might not, at the time of publishing, be all that well known in the wider world – or, as with Steve Nash, by poets who are well known but who have unexpected sides to their poetry that might surprise some of their regular readers. Nuala Fagan I wanted to publish as I was astonished she had only had one book before, and I had felt frustrated for some time that her poetry did not receive the right kind or amount of exposure or appreciation. To be frank, I was simply stunned that she was going largely unpublished.

This is something I feel very proud of being able to offer: all poet-publisher relationships are different, and some poets may arrive with a fully fledged idea of which poems they want to publish and in what order, but Nuala essentially gave me a blank canvas to arrange the poems into the sort of order which I felt formed them into a thematic narrative. Once I had arranged a sequence the work began on exactly how the poems would appear. This is where Bob Horne came in, and I must say that the few weeks and months the three of us spent, editing and finalizing, and getting to know the poems intimately, underlined the reasons I enjoy the publishing process.

It also set the blueprint for my publishing of Bob Horne’s collection, which is to say that we set about analysing and editing those poems just as zealously. It was interesting how Bob as the author did not initially regard the collection as overly place-specific: with the objective angle that comes from being the reader rather than the writer, I immediately latched on to what I interpreted as a very regional, autobiographical quality rooted in West Yorkshire.

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My most recent collection, The Calder Valley Codex was a chance to arrange a new collection by someone who, ever since I first discovered his poetry, had seemed like a rising star – already an award winner, a name on the live reading and performance circuit. Appearing at the same readings, and sharing many ideas about joint projects and publications, a collection seemed a natural move, and I was delighted to bring it about.

When Steve said he intended to compile a collection themed around Calder Valley folklore and ghost stories, I knew this was a great idea, and encouraged him all the way! The editing process for this book was probably the most intense of the three: with Nuala’s book I already knew a lot of the poems, and got to know all of them virtually word for word throughout the process, but the editing was three-way, and as a relative newcomer I was happy for Bob Horne to largely lead the way, his experience as a teacher providing him with certain skills in approaching a text, and similarly with his own book it was very much a case of being guided by Bob – my role being largely focused on the selection of individual poems and the choice of cover image; but with Steve, I played a more active part. We would read poems back to one another, send emails back and forth, and over a period of about six months basically re-shaped the collection into something dramatic, almost like a play in verse.

Tell us something about your design choices. Did you consciously decide you wanted a house style? Did you have any models that you wanted to borrow from?

I have yet to really define a specific look for Caterpillar Poetry, though to be fair this is less to do with laziness or haphazardness than the fact I have wanted each publication to be quite individual, and each has embodied very different themes in any case. So I have no models to borrow from; it is always a blank canvas.

Tell us something about the snags you encounter…how about how you set about the business of marketing, about getting the brand out there. It may be that it’s something you feel a bit at sea with. How do you get folk to review the stuff, for instance? How do you feel about the business of competitions for small publishers…stuff like the Michael Marks, for instance? Riff on this topic as you feel appropriate

All the snags I have encountered have related to the costs of publishing, the technological difficulties of reproducing a text into a format workable for printers, and the administrative tedium of arranging ISBN’s, barcodes and the like. The technical side can actually be quite good fun, and once I know what I’m doing or have assistance from the more experienced, then I really enjoy discussing plans with printers and seeing it go from A to B. But the administrative logistics are a nightmare. I am very happy for anyone to review Caterpillar Poetry books and love the idea of competitions and other schemes designed to shine a light on the activities of small publishers and what we have to offer.

What next? More in the pipeline?

Apart from about half a dozen micro-collections from myself, I am delighted to say that I’m working on some very exciting projects for 2017. One of these will be a chapbook or pamphlet by a well known poet and editor, whose work has been at the forefront of innovative poetry for over 30 years. Friends from the USA and the English Lake District have Caterpillar collections in the pipeline for 2017/18, and I have a pamphlet coming out to raise funds for Animal Aid – poems about grouse, with illustrations by Calder valley artists, which will be sold to support AA’s campaigns against grouse shooting. The following year I will publish an anthology on the same subject for the same cause, but the poems this time will include works by poets other than myself. I also have, still in the early stages, various prospective collaborations with artist Nicole Sky, who produced the cover art for The Calder Valley Codex.

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Any advice for them as fancies doing it? If you could have done anything differently, what would you have done?

I would probably spend a lot more time pre-planning things like printing costs, trying to become more technologically self-sufficient, and attending to the administrative nitty-gritty such as pre-ordering ISBN’s and barcodes, much earlier. I say “probably,” but anyone who knows me will tell you I will “probably” fail to keep this resolution – I’m just too disorganized!

 Anything else I’ve forgotten that you’d like to add?

Publishing poetry is tremendous fun, well worth the technical and administrative headaches.  Its a well known fact that poetry is hard to sell, so to have a bash at making this happen, and furthering the reputation of a poet, to arrange promotions, launches and readings foor writers you admire, and to see their books on a library shelf, is all part of a fantastic privilege.

And on that positive note, let me say ‘thank you, Simon Zonenblick, all the folk I’ve read with this week, and this years, and all of you regualr readers’ xxxx

Bob Horne follows very shortly.

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