On HappenStance Press, the reader and the poet

In these days when UK politics and world events are enough to make you despair, it’s difficult to know whether blogging about poetry and other stuff has any relevance. There are many much more important voices which need to be heard than mine. So, I post on here now more out of occasional habit and, more happily, a need to celebrate the things which give me some joy among the gloom.

It’s in that spirit that I want to write about HappenStance Press, that most discerning of British poetry publishers. I’ve mentioned before on this blog how the customer service of many other poetry publishers leaves an awful lot to be desired, lacking the courtesy even to scrawl ‘Thanks for your order’ on a post-it note when they send you a book or two. Helena (Nell) Nelson at HappenStance is the antithesis of that: every order is accompanied by some little booklets which enhance the pleasure of opening the parcel. Enclosed with my latest order, of books by Tom Duddy and Gerry Cambridge, was an essay by Nell entitled A Demand and a Promise and subtitled ‘a poetry manifesto’, which is full of wisdom, such as this:

As a publisher of poetry, what I want more than anything else of poetry—more than prizes and accolades, more than reviews and remarks—is good readers. Good readers are worth their weight in poems. I want to hang onto them by offering poems that richly repay their promise. How? I choose the work that does it for me. I don’t make that choice lightly.

Like their publishers, poets need not pander to the reader, but it’s equally prudent not to treat them with disdain, as though they must be given a code book before they can approach a poem with anything less than fear; a fear that they might interpret the poem wrongly. It must be a fair presumption that most readers of poetry, whether poets themselves or not (more on that below), are generally cultured, intelligent and able to understand and enjoy or be moved by fairly complex syntax, narrative and argument, whether obvious or slightly obscured. During an Arvon week in 2014, Jacob Polley said to me that he felt every single poem had to have a ‘point’ to it at heart. At the time, I was a bit resistant to the idea, as I believed that some poems could just operate as a superficial sound-poem or on a purely descriptive level. Now I think he was right. Poetry, like drama, is, among other things and perhaps primarily, a form of entertainment, even at its darkest; without some element of playing to, and manipulating the emotions of, the audience there is nothing to see and nothing to enjoy. In the end, the best-loved poets (and creative artists per se), like maverick footballers, are those who realise that their audience have paid to have their time occupied by a spectacle of some sort.

Yet how often do we read the phrase that so-and-so is/was ‘a poet’s poet’? That translates, more-or-less, as: only one of the elect could possibly be attuned to the high degree of skill and craft of that no doubt unjustly neglected poet’s poems. It’s akin to the bleating of ex-professional footballers that the average punter in the street can’t, for even a moment, hope to understand the intricacies of the beautiful game unless they’ve played and/or coached at its highest levels. That’s not to say, though, that poetry has to be, at one extreme, provided in an easy-read format or, at the other, that it shouldn’t challenge the reader, in the same way that no sensible football crowd wants to watch their team playing hoof-ball every game.

Nell also mentions an interesting and often-since-asserted observation by Billy Collins, made two decades ago, that, in Britain, ‘the number of poets is equal to the number of readers of poetry’. Nell, rightly I think, says that there may well be more poets than there are readers of poetry. Stop me if Ive told you this before, but 10 or 15 years ago, when I was directly employed by a certain south-west London local authority, there was an article in the staff newspaper about a member of staff who had self-published a pamphlet of his poems and who was quoted as saying words-to-the-effect that he didn’t read contemporary poets because he considered none of them to be worthy of his attention. It hadn’t seemed to occur to him that potential readers of his pamphlet might agree with him and therefore decide that his output was equally unworthy of their attention. I have no idea whether he sold any copies. I hope not. The sheer arrogance of someone wanting to write and air poems without first reading widely and absorbing the lessons of their reading into their own poetry-writing goes beyond (predominantly male) entitlement to the point of being downright peculiar. He’s probably since progressed to become one of those people who go along to open mic sessions to read their poem, invariably exceeding their time-slot, then leave at the interval so that there’s no possibility that they might feel obliged to hear too many of anyone elses poems or to look at, let alone buy, any of the books on sale. (I realise, though, that not everyone has the financial wherewithal to buy books.)

Nell also says that ‘a good and loyal reader is harder to find than a poet’. If every person who knows the value of contemporary poetry were to buy books for those who haven’t read any poems since school and tell them, with as much vehemence as necessary, that they really will enjoy the experience, then the poetry readership can grow. Despite the un-self-aware idiots like the one Ive described above, there are still many fine poets to be discovered; more, probably, than one could ever hope to read whilst living a full-ish life. Why shouldnt a book or two of poems on the beach be as common a sight as crime novels, thrillers or bonkbusters?

Having said that, Im stilly surprised when a novelist or other creative non-poet includes a poetry collection among their books of the year or summer reading whenever the Grauniad publishes such features. I get the sense that its far less common now than it was say, a century ago, for generally cultured people to keep up with newly published poetry. Leslie Stephen, father of, inter alia, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, and albeit an author on many subjects, was able to read on the last morning of his life [. . .] a new poem by Thomas Hardy (letter from Virginia to Charles Eliot Norton, 13 March, 1904). Maybe Im wrong. I hope so.

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