First pressings (3): Sarah Miles and Paper Swans Press

paper 3

Let’s welcome a special guest, today, the third in an occasional series of interviews with the folk who run small poetry presses: Sarah Miles.

I need to declare an interest. I have nothing but respect and gratitude for all those selfless souls who run themselves ragged to put published poetry in your hands, but I owe a special debt to today’s guest, who has published several of my poems  in her Press’ anthologies, and very handsome they are, too.

Sarah Miles

What I do is to send out a kind of open-ended prompt sheet, and invite these lovely folk to respond. Their generosity is wonderful. Sarah miles continues the tradition. OK. Ready? Sitting comfortably? Here we go:

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 both sitting in a room, with cake and coffee. That sort of illusion.


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

From what I’ve experienced, there is much more camaraderie between small presses, than competition. Basically, we are all in the same boat: struggling to break even, desperately trying to get great poetry ‘out there’ and scrabbling around to fund ourselves —  big bookshops won’t take our books unless we go down channels where we make about 5p a book and Amazon also takes a fair cut (plus many of us don’t agree with their ethics, and we’re a moral bunch, us publishers!). So, most of us rely on selling through our websites and this summer, I am going to try to set up a new independent website to facilitate buying from indie presses…watch this space!


My inspiration to set up Paper Swans was The Emma Press. I love their quality of books and the poetry within and, one day, voiced to a friend of mine (designer of our logo, Helen Braid), that I would so love to do the same thing and the thought of editing, publishing and producing beautiful books was something that had been a pipe-dream for a long time. She simply replied, ‘Well, why don’t you?’ The seed was planted and, in a way, I suppose she gave me the ‘permission (confidence)’ I couldn’t quite give myself and I’ll always thank her for it. I had a little bit of money set aside and gave myself a two-book deadline. If it crashed — well, I had tried. But it didn’t and, I’m happy to say, Paper Swans is going from strength to strength.


You chose to feature themed anthologies that called for submissions.  Did you have any particular criteria for you choice of theme, or were you blessed by happy accidents? You’ve attracted a lot of submissions from well-established and otherwise successful poets. What do you put that down to?

The first theme (The Darker Side of Love) was a personal choice. I think a lot of poetry is therapeutic and there’s nothing like a bad love affair to get the poetry flowing! Most people have experienced love gone wrong and I wanted to counteract all the glitter–clad romantic nonsense and publish a pamphlet for Valentine’s Day that possibly a lot more people could identify with. I also had the good fortune to have been tweeting with Maggie Sawkins, who had recently won The Ted Hughes Award, and she submitted poems from that to our very first anthology! I will always be grateful for, what has always seemed, a huge leg-up when we really needed it. She gave us credence and put faith in us from the start.



Our second theme, Schooldays, was trying to tap into an experience that most people have enjoyed or endured. Again, I wanted to produce a book that a lot of people could identify with and get something from when they read it.  From there, our anthologies have always kept that ideal of tying in with the broader experience, of both the writer and the reader. We have always kept our submissions fairly unspecific too, to allow the poet to write freely, for example, The Chronicles of Eve is about women and that covers a very wide range of interpretations and perspectives.

C of EVE Cover copy


Our most recent full anthology, Best of British, was conceived pre-Brexit and wanting to give people the chance to break away with what we were being told to think and allow them to say what Britain really means to them: it’s quirks, it’s places, it’s truth. It’s a wonderful journey through people’s memories and tales of Britain, from its back-alleys to its lochs to the longing of an expat for peanut butter.

best of

Of all the lovely small poetry press publications, which are the ones that you particularly like yourself, and why?

As aforementioned, I still adore The Emma Press; I think the quality and individuality of her books sets them apart. Mother’s Milk Books are also beautiful; I particularly liked the poetry duets pamphlets they produced. And, I have to mention Paekakariki Press who use letterpress printing which makes their books unique and beautiful. Great name, too!


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 kind of fell into a house style for the anthologies. The first two books were produced using a template I had set up and a lot of people kept telling me how much they liked it, so I kept it! As for our covers, again, the first two were similar, but I didn’t want to be restricted on cover design and I was thrilled to have Sophia Platts-Palmer design the cover for The Chronicles of Eve. She was fresh from art school and had sent me some ideas. Her work is so unusual and intriguing — I have the cover art for Eve up on my wall!


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

Definitely the hardest part about being a small press and surviving is sales and marketing. There is no money in poetry (alas) and most presses simply aim to break even, which is a real shame as the books produced are, in my opinion, far more beautiful and interesting than the ones you’ll find on the shelves of Waterstone’s. As I said earlier, large book shops aren’t interested in stocking us and, even if they do, by the time they and their supplier have taken a cut, we would end up making very little, or even a loss. So, it’s a no win situation a lot of the time. Awards like Michael Marks and Saboteur are a great way to gain some recognition and, perhaps, spur people on to go buy a book, but they are few and far between. We rely heavily on social media and trying to get our name known through word-of-mouth and poetry websites like yours. It constantly amazes me that poets seem to be so modest — often on something like Facebook, I will plug a book that a poet is published in and they will ‘like’ but not share! To all writers — please share any posts like this! Not just so we might sell a few more copies, but in doing that, more people are reading your work.

It’s funny, I have had many conversations with other poetry friends or those who work in music and there seems to be such a juxtaposition between the arts and marketing. Somehow, driving sales feels ‘wrong’ or tainting the work somehow. It doesn’t, of course, and without funding, many wonderful projects would never see the light of day, but it often doesn’t sit right with publishers and artists alike. For me, I feel that if I don’t keep pinging things on social media etc. then I am doing my writers an injustice. It’s my job to get their work to as many readers as possible. It’s also the reason I accept previously published work (apart from the pamphlet prize). It seems a shame to give a wonderful poem only one airing; much better to give it the exposure it deserves!


What next? More in the pipeline?

Yes, lots! We have recently published our first young poets anthology, with poetry from 16-18 year olds and we will shortly be announcing the winner of this year’s poetry pamphlet prize — last year’s winner, Glass by Elisabeth Sennitt Clough, won The Saboteur Award this year for best pamphlet, so that has prompted even more people to enter. Our judge, Jill Munro, has had a very tough job!

young ones

We currently have submissions open for an anthology of flash fiction and for a new project of pocket poetry, which will be ongoing. We aim to produce small, but beautiful books on various themes. All details are on our website.

Further to that, we are once again, planning an online publication for National Poetry Day later in the year and will also be at The Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in London this September, if anyone wants to come and say hello.

Well… can’t say fairer than that, can you? Sarah Miles, it’s been a pleasure to have you as our guest today. Good luck to Paper Swans Press and all who sail with her. May you go from strength to strength.



And now, some advance notice. I see that I’ve posted eleven cobweb strands this July. I normally plan to do four or five a month. So I’m having a two week break to catch my breath, and hopefully do a bit of research, and come up with fresh ideas and topics, and line up a whole load of new guests. I can promise you that I’m definitely returning with a particular guest who I’ve been hoping to feature for a very long time, and I’m really really looking forward to it. See you all then. I hope the sun shines on all of you xx







Unfinished business: Our David


our david c 2

July 29th. He’d have been 46 today, and I go on writing poems for him. I’m taken aback, every time. I think there’s nothing left to be said. But there is. There always will be. Happy birthday, lovely boy


I made this box,


ran quick lead in the veins of driftwood roots,

the silver grain of bleached board and the wind-eyes

of burnished beachstones – rose quartz, granite, flint,

bound them with silver wire to honey oak, red pine,

and clenched them tight with sea-rust iron nails.


I made this box for you


I filled it with fragments, beachcombed

sea glass, wisps of snagged wool.

I wanted you to know

the random loveliness of being alive,

to know it in your bones and blood.


I put in :


snow, to remember draughts

and rooms with cold corners;


a black handled knife, sharp as silk

in a grey-vaulted market, the scent


of cut flowers to show that fathers

give like the gods; a bicycle stammering


through stems of barley, willowherb,

to understand that gravity may be defied;


the humped glass of a brown river,

black branches snagged on the weir’s rim;


these bundled letters in different hands

and inks to show how words fall short of love.


I put in riddles:


silhouettes of mountains, oiled gun barrels,

a sheriff’s badge, a dust-blown street,


a child running in a drift of grasses,

a scrubbed deal table in a pitman’s house.



I wondered if you’d find the answers

if I might understand the questions.


I did not want to put inside my box

your cold clay mouth

this pale oak chamfered cube

and my two hands holding it, all


I wanted was you holding my box

in a high place

where you could only fly, not fall

our david c 1


I made this box” appeared originally in Much Possessed. smith|doorstop 2016

South Downs Poetry Festival: bonus tracks…Sarah Miles and Louisa Campbell


We read a poem:


Swineherd:    (Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin)

When all this is over, said the swineherd,

I mean to retire, where

Nobody will have heard about my special skills

And conversation is mainly about the weather.



I want to lie awake at night

Listening to cream crawling to the top of the jug


I want to see an orchard where the trees grow in straight lines


The extracts give you a flavour of the Swineherd’s dream……..of a life utterly different from the one he has. He doesn’t say what it involves. You understand that from what he dreams of.

Now, Pick a task or occupation. Maybe you’ve done it, dreamed of it, would hate it. Lighthouse keeper, pigs head boner, chiropodist, dentist, mudlark, lady’s maid. What will you dream of doing once it’s all over.


My workshoppers have five minutes to react to this, to write, as far as possible, without conscious thought…at the very least, without an editorial voice in their heads. I promised that if anyone wrote something they thought worth keeping they could send it to me and, all things being equal, I’d put the poem on the cobweb. And I was delighted that two writers did, and even more delighted to like the poems and to keep my promise. Here we go.     First, Sarah Miles.

window 3


When this is all over

(said the window cleaner),

I will go to a place where houses

with thatched roofs beckon the open air;

alive with insects, clicking,

keeping me awake at night.


I will sit on the fat window ledges,

my legs swinging and my thighs

spreading on the cold concrete,

absorbing the dust, the chill

and the crannies of the windowsills.


There will be no storeys,

no need for extensions or ladders.

My feet will be forever grounded,

my world will be smeared

and streaked with weather and bird-shit.


If I see suds, I will pop

each bubble,

one by one,

till there is nothing left to see

but a memory.


and Louisa Campbell

milkman 4


Delivery Song

The milk-white moon
holds a wispy finger
to his gentle mouth, whispers,
as I clink bottles on stone,
soft-step back to my float.

Puttle of tyres on road,
7, 9, 11, but not 13,
fox’s warrior stare,
hedgehog’s tippy-toddle,
all add their pulse to mine
as I long for the world to stay
like this forever: poised, hung-
over, quiet in ink blue,
ready for anything.


Sarah Miles runs Paper Swans Press and is co-founder of The Poetry Shelf along with Abegail Morley and Jill Munro.

Louisa Campbell‘s  poetry has appeared in journals including ProleAcumen, and Three Drops From a Cauldron. Her first pamphlet, The Happy Bus, is forthcoming with Picaroon Poetry.

Through the looking glass (2) : David Wilson


(To start with, an afterthought…something I came across after this cobweb strand was published. A sort of oxymoron. A postscript that comes at the beginning. As so often, it’s an insight gleaned from Clive James’ Poetry Notebook 2006-2014.

He’s writing about memorable lines, ‘tightly integrated things’ and on achieving fame …or not achieving fame.

[On U A Fanthorpe]  “It wasn’t that she wrote one thing that put everything else in the shade. Though she had been awarded, very quietly, in 2003, the Queen’s Medal for poetry, her whole output was in the shade, and then suddenly it all came to light at once: at the very end of her life, and partly because Carol Ann Duffy, who has a gift for fame, was an admirer of hers. Thus, Fanthorpe’s gift for obscurity was overcome: until then, despite her having published several volumes with a faithful minor publishing house (the much lamented Peterloo Poets) she was was read mainly by her devotees, and it is one of the laws of poetry and of the arts in general that the instructed are an insufficient audience: one must break through to the uninstructed.)


That would have made a great title for this and last week’s post: ‘the instructed are an insufficient audience.

I guess that at the heart of last week’s post was this fond wish : What I want to do is to  consider those poets who break out of the bubble, this hall of mirrors that multiplies and multiplies the image rather than the reality, and are heard by folk who aren’t that interested in poetry as such. Who are they, and how do they do it?

So here’s another take on that question, and also an opportunity to share and celebrate the poetry of someone  who I met via The Poetry Business Writing Days, whose work I’ve always liked for its quiet precision…and also, to be fair…. because of a shared enthusiasm for mountains and the stories that surround them. Climbing them? Not so much; dodgy bones and vertigo put paid to to my climbing decades ago. But the literature of mountains and mountaineering. Oh yes.

That was reinvigorated by Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Mountains of the mind‘ and its exploration of the shifting imagery of our relationship with high places. It does a job like  Raymond Williams’ The country and the city did for the opposition of ideas of urban and rural in art and literature. It’s a job which Macfarlane continues to do with books like Landmarks, and Simon Schama in Landscape and memory. And I ought to namecheck Terry Gifford, one of my tutors on the MA Creative Writing course I did; apart from writing critical appraisals of Ted Hughes, he also used to organise international conferences on the relationship of climbing and literature. Clearly, I’m not breaking new ground here. Just setting a stage on which to introduce today’s guest.

David Wilson’s not the first by any means to write poetry that goes through the looking glass to engage the attention of folk not normally keen readers of poetry, and more recently there are other collections and pamphlets that occupy the same territory.

helen and yvonne (2)

Helen Mort’s recent ‘No map could show them’ has a double reach since it also celebrates those Victorian women alpinists, and ticks the boxes of both feminists and mountaineers. The backstory of Yvonne Reddick’s Translating mountains engages in another way because of its poignant personal family history . You can check it out via the link

I’m personally fascinated by epic tales of suffering and death on high mountains. Joe Simpson’s Touching the void showed how such a story can reach out to a much wider public, just as the myths that have accreted around Mallory will engage readers who have never set foot on a rock face. And since one of the poems that David Wilson wrote which proved a breakthrough for him is about Everest, it seems a good place to introduce him.

“David  turned to writing poetry a few years ago after being
inspired by Derek Walcott’s poem ‘Midsummer, Tobago’ on the wall of a
hospital waiting room in Leeds. He then discovered the Writing Days
run by the Poetry Business in Sheffield, leading to his first attempts
at poems since primary school.
David was born and brought up in North London and studied at the
London School of Economics, followed by a Masters degree at Leeds
University, which at the time had the only indoor climbing wall in the
country and was close to excellent outcrop climbing.

He has climbed
extensively in the UK, Alps and further afield, at a standard best
described as erratic.  In mid-life he got hooked on windsurfing, but
writing about climbing led him back into it.

David’s poems have appeared in The North, Poetry News, Rialto,
Scottish Mountaineer, Climb, Alpinist and the Cinnamon anthology
Journey Planner. He has also been a prize-winner in competitions:
Poets and Players (twice), Kent and Sussex, Buxton International
Festival,  Poetry News and the Mountaineering Council of Scotland. His
first pamphlet, Slope, was published by Smith/Doorstop in 2016.


(Two things I’d want to highlight, because, I suppose, they fit the ‘looking glass’ argument. First off, his poems have appeared in serious poetry journals, but also in climbing and mountaineering journals, as well as winning a prize with the Mountaineering Council of Scotland. Second, you’ll notice that the endorsement on the front cover of Slope isn’t from a poet, but a world-famous mountaineer. You’d give an arm and a leg for an endorsemant like that. Or perhaps not, if you’re a mountaineer. But you get the point.)

David adds some thoughts on writing poetry which are relevant.

“Prior to writing poetry, I occasionally wrote fiction, both short
stories and a well-received novel.
In seeking to write about the experience of climbing, and its social
and historical context, Robert McFarlane’s Mountains of the Mind  was
one influential book, another was Wade Davis’ Into the Silence: The
Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest; and a third,  M. John
Harrison’s novel Climbers. The poets Les Murray and Norman McCaig were
helpful in gaining insight into writing about climbing and landscape.”

Praise for his poetry has come from the worlds of poetry and of mountaineering. Here’s a selection.

‘These poems bring back great memories. And I empathise with the
questions some of the poems raise.’
Chris Bonington

‘Both Helen Mort’s ‘No Map Could Show Them’ and David Wilson’s ‘Slope’
clearly show that great poetry about climbing is not only possible –
as Coleridge surely realised in his state of ‘prophetic trance and
delight’ when descending Broad Stand – but that it is very much alive
and well in Britain today, well over two hundred years after that
euphoric adventure on Scafell.’
David Pickford, Editor-in-Chief, Climb magazine.

and, to introduce the first poem:

‘A brilliantly imagistic rendering of a place. The finding of likeness
between Elvis and Everest …is truly spectacular.’
Paul Muldoon on ‘Everest’, which he awarded the 2015 Poets and Players prize.


Once it was Chomolungma,
Mother Goddess of the Earth,
a face whose veil rarely lifted,
its whiteness the White Whale’s.

Now it’s like Elvis near the end,
a giant in a soiled jumpsuit,
blank, useful for percentages,
a sheet from which the music’s fled.

What I like particularly here is how much is packed into an eight-line poem; the history of a mountain and of the death of legends; it charts a descent from the divine to the mysterious, to the popular myth, to the pathetic and shopworn. It has the kind of resonance I associate with Black Elk talking about Wounded Knee: the hoop of the nations is broken and the sacred tree is dead’.

The image of a sheet of staves which has lost all its notation resonates particularly with my images of failed ascents, the tiny black dots of climbers who vanished into whiteout.

Mind you, it would be doing David an injustice to suggest that he’s somehow caught in a niche subject. That isn’t remotely true, any more than it would be of Helen Mort or Yvonne Reddick. All I was suggesting at the start is that it does you no harm to be able to write about subjects that break the shiny walls of the poetry bubble. Because the odds are that then those readers will find all the other poems, and read them, too. Poems like this:


Duke of Edinburgh’s

After Biology’s birds and bees
Mr Palmer taught us Civil Defence,
how to raise a burned body part
above the level of the heart,
to recognise the four minute siren,
Duck and Cover if caught outside.

He prized his Mega-Death Calculator:
two cardboard discs, one over the other.
We’d offer a number in kilotons;
rotating the discs with two fat thumbs,
he’d read off deaths to the nearest ten k
within five miles of Camden Market.

The President gave his ultimatum.
Subs and missile ships sailed on.
Mr Palmer fiddled with his Calculator.
“Don’t giggle! It looks likely tomorrow
that most of our numbers will be up.”
Across a field the First Eleven trained.

The drunks who cursed outside the tube
gone in a flash. Tufnell Park white ash.
The blast hitting Highgate Hill, Marx’s Grave,
the suicide bridge on Archway Road.
Helen Shapiro and her beehive vaporised
as she walked back to happiness.


We had teachers like that at the time of the first hydrogen bomb tests; we ghoulishly pored over diagrams that told us how our houses and our skin would look if an H Bomb was dropped on Leeds. Privately, I had nightmares.

David’s poem beautifully dramatises the mindset of intelligent teenagers (I guess they were all boys) at the time of the Cuban Missile crisis. It’s the precision of location and geography that makes this work for me…and that one telling bit of ephemeral history. Helen Shapiro’s beehive hairdo. It nails one generation’s priorities, (and maybe its uncertain preoccupation with birds and bees) and horrifies with the absolutism of that verb: vaporised. I love the art of this poem, the tying up of its narrative.

The Hydrogen Bomb UK civil defence poster

David generously sent me more poems than I can use in one post, but I reckon we can manage three more. The thing I notice as I read and re-read them is their concern with mortality, the fragility of human life. Most climbing literature will return again and again to reflections on the belief of great mountaineers. Namely, that putting themselves at risk in sublimely dangerous high and inaccessible places gives then renewed insight in the preciousness of being alive. I think these poems are illuminated by this core idea. See if you agree. The first is full of innocence. I love it.

Bivouac at Harrisons’ Rocks

Leaves turn from green to grey.
On the breeze a scent of hops.
A star appears. A bat.

Beyond silver birch trees
a train sounds its two-tone horn,
slows for a bend, disappears.

We’re fifteen years old
with apple pies, cans of Sprite,
and dreams of the Eigerwand.

Above our ledge a sandstone roof,
below us the drop. Not far
but far enough.

I read a lot into that ‘far enough’…meaning: far enough to be thrilled and frightened, for the adrenalin rush; far enough to be killed if you fall off. The thing about climbing is that it’s addictive. It’s never enough. There’s always something that bit harder, that bit bigger.


The next poem Palimpsest commemorates Rachel Slater and Tim Newton who went missing on Valentine’s weekend 2016, buried in an avalanche on the North Face of
Ben Nevis. Their bodies were not found for many weeks.


How softly we climbed last winter,
touching the snow as if it were skin
on the slope that led to the routes,

knowing they were somewhere beneath us,
partners who left their tent at dawn,
her in her red jacket, him his new boots.

It could as easily have been us,
lost beneath an unreadable surface
as layers of old and new compressed.

It’s yet another poem that does so much in a small space. The title, I think, is brilliant. Not just for the obvious whiteness of snow that covers imperfection and loss, but more radically, the scraping off of a record ready for new marks and tracks. How well it connects with the first lines

How softly we climbed last winter,
touching the snow as if it were skin

‘Softly’ is exactly right. That held-breath tentativeness, that fear of the surface fragility, that precariousness. And the the softness with which you might touch a loved one. And how you might pause to touch the dead body of a loved one. I find this powerfully moving.

The final poem I chose isn’t a ‘climbing’ poem. But the voice is one I want to end with. It’s a voice that says that being hopeful is  a condition of  being alive. And I’ll settle for that on this July Sunday.

The Day

You reminded me, how years ago on the school run
I said one day we’ll just keep driving,
past the railings and bells and latecomers

to see where the day takes us,
perhaps the beach, perhaps back home,
and I’d let you decide when it should be.

It didn’t happen but knowing it was enough
you said, the best thing I ever did.
And I wonder if the same is true for me;

perhaps, when nestled among flowers
with the rear door of my limousine shut,
you might ask the man in black

to keep driving, see where the day takes us,
to hills, the sea, or just around the block
like an uncertain bride taking her time.

So, thank you, David Wilson for being our guest and being, involuntarily, part of an argument I’ve been having about the place of poetry in the oworld.

Two things coming up. Midweek we’ll have two poems from a workshop I ran. Because I like them. And next Sunday (or Monday) a tribute to another small poetry press: Paper Swans. Hope to see you then.

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