Alchemy: Why poetry publishers need to get it together

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In May this year, three wrestling matches were held in a library. Two small poetry publishers, Sidekick Books and The Emma Press, nominated their champions for the ‘Pamphleteers’ grand slam, roared about their scrapping prowess and set them against each other in a no-holds-bard smackdown. Pamphlet took on pamphlet, and the poetry pitted dinosaurs against dragons, witches against sinister government agencies and, most curiously of all, mackerel salad against Angela Lansbury.

Image credit: Sidekick Books

We never did find out who won. But then, that wasn’t the point. ‘Pamphleteers’, for all its bluster, was less about squaring off than teaming up. It was a statement of intent: for indie poetry to thrive, we need to move from competition to collaboration.

It’s no secret that poetry is a hard sell. I find myself hesitating before using the ‘p’ word when pitching books to shops, anticipating the lockdown that often follows. I sympathise with booksellers. When I wander into the expansive poetry section in Foyles, rather than feeling overjoyed that they give poetry more than half a shelf, I feel lost. Unless you know the name of the author you’re looking for, you face a blurb trawl or a snap decision based on a quick read through a couple of poems. It takes less time and energy to cycle back to familiar names and presses.

Shakespeare and Company bookshop
Image credit: Alexandre Duret-Lutz, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s easy for small poetry publishers to disappear this way. We don’t have fiction’s story hooks or established genres, so we struggle to stand out. Bookshops are reluctant to stock poetry, so it’s less likely to be discovered and bought, so it remains strange and threatening, so it doesn’t get stocked. But working on a small scale does grant us advantages larger presses don’t have, like flexibility, autonomy and the ability to take risks and try unusual things without waiting for approval.

These things are less effective in isolation, so instead of hiding our cards from our poetry neighbours, and scrabbling to annex an already-stretched poetry audience, we need to collaborate. To share a stage and hold our own, each publisher needs to first work out what makes them unique. For The Emma Press (who themselves got ‘engaged’ to Scarborough’s Valley Press and now share their blog) it’s a hands-on editorial approach and a hand-drawn aesthetic. For Sidekick Books, it’s an obsession with genre-mixing, games and formal meddling. Our poets publish books and pamphlets with different publishers simultaneously, so why not blur the line further?

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Emma Press and Valley Press announce their engagement; Image credit: The Emma Press

There are many excellent reasons to join forces:

1) Minimise clashes

Live launches are important to engage audiences and support authors. A joint event is a show of friendship in more ways than one: an invitation to share, not squabble over, an audience, and a sign of trust in your counterpart’s work.

2) Share ideas

Small publishers are often run by just one or two people, meaning it’s easy to become isolated and short-sighted. Bouncing ideas back and forth can help both parties crystallise their identities, strengths and weakness. It’s also good for troubleshooting and morale-boosting.

3) Build a community

By teaming up with other publishers, we foster support networks, sounding boards and a living, visible, continually changing community. We can start discussions, shape opinions and learn more about the directions in which poetry is heading. We can also cross-promote and boost each other’s marketing efforts.

Collaboration is about more than just scoring retweets, high-fives and affiliate sales. It’s about access to new countries and languages, new spaces, new voices, new ways of looking at poetry. These are not simply ideals; they’re good for the life and soul of a poetry publisher, and vital for reaching fresh audiences. Collaboration got us wrestling in the library. Now we want to see more poetry presses stepping into the ring.

Kirsten Irving is a poet and voiceover, and co-founder of collaborative poetry press Sidekick Books. She is the editor of more than ten anthologies, and her own writing has been published by Salt, translated into Russian and Spanish, and thrown out of a helicopter. 

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  1. Happened upon your article, Alchemy: Why poetry publishers need to get it together.
    I have another point / issue with publishers of poetry. I find that they often use a cookie cutter set of rules with regard submissions. And these rules stifle a certain few poets. I’m one. And I bet that there are many more.
    Here is my writing process: I write a poem and then I get it out in the wild usually on some forum where poetry is posted. I choose not to use sites where writers give feedback because they are by and large not my readers. So, general public, which means very often Facebook and a couple of other places. IMMEDIATELY after posting something magical occurs. I see the poem, where I could not before, through the reader’s eyes better than I had and changes to improve the poem occur to me. I edit the poem and re-upload it again. This process can be repeated a dozen times or more until the poem is, as a collaboration between readers and poet, in a relatively finished state. But the fact of having exposed my poem through its many incarnations on the internet, in blogs or on social media, prohibits me from submitting to publishers of literary mags. Dead in the water. I could send it in with the first “final” write and the same thing might happen with me but that would involve a series of months between incarnations and/or cost a fortune. When I read a mag I read for great work. I don’t care whether other eyes have been there before me. That fairly standard rule is not kept for music, dance, sculpture etc. Doesn’t help poets.

  2. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for your comment. We do things a little differently with submissions, asking poets to produce new work to a theme, either using a form or idea we’ve suggested, or taking their own approach. Sometimes we do some editorial back-and-forthing, as recently-written work often demands this. Many presses are happy to consider previously published work, providing it answers the brief. We weight our books towards new work in general, to build an active community around each title, but also to give readers something fresh, and to challenge poets.

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