Alchemy: Why poetry publishers need to get it together
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.
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.
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?
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.