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Letter from London

By Annie Finch

I’m just back from a whirlwind peek at the ins and outs of the British poetry scene, and I have lots to report. Before AWP I thought I’d post a few snapshots, snap judgements, and other impressions about a poet’s lot on the other side of the big puddle. . . .
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Inside the Poetry Cafe, Poetry Society, Betterton Street


My first day in England, I head out to Magdalen College, Oxford for the memorial service of poet Mick Imlah, obviously much-beloved poetry editor of the TLS. As the elegant mourners file out into the gorgeous 15th century courtyard and the full, solemn weight of a nation’s traditions celebrates the poet, I have the first inklings that the poetry world is something different here than it is back home . . .
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Fast forward to a reading in Bloomsbury that night. Three new poets reading from their first chapbooks, just out from Rack Press. Small chapbooks, cheap wine — and a graying and respectable crowd. My own unconscious assumptions hit me in the face; I realize that in the U.S. I have grown used to the fact that most poets who are active on the scene either really are young and marginalized, or try to act as if they are.
Can it be that poetry here is simply more mainstream? During conversation at a pub called the Princess Louise that feels like the inside of a polished chandelier, my suspicion is confirmed, and a reason revealed: there is less here. Fewer reading venues. Fewer presses. Fewer magazines. Fewer design choices for book covers (many consist of a black cover with title in white type, or vica versa). In this sparser climate, it seems, more energy is held at the center, less at the fringes.
I’m not sure how much this “lessness” is simply about relative amounts of money, or even about the size of the population. It seems as if there may be something else involved also. A culture of reserve vs. willingness to take risks? The strength of connection with the past? Something to do with empowerment, with the role of class in the society? (Many informants tell that me that one aspect is sexism, a subject I will take up in a different post later on).
Whatever the cause, is certainly sobering. And I confess, it is also somewhat refreshing. My own reading turns out to be the best-run bookstore reading I’ve ever been part of. Host Todd Swift explains that he designed the series, held in the Oxfam Bookstore (a charity thrift shop for books), to fulfill his own fantasies of the ideal reading. From the reserved seats for poets to the wine and chocolate to the informed introductions to the fully attentive house, he has succeeded. I happily donate half of the night’s healthy book sales to Oxfam, and wonder why I’ve never felt quite this way after reading in the U.S..
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Here’s a guess: I think the U.K. may still have a grip on that elusive general poetry audience that the U.S. has pretty much abandoned as a chimera. It’s true, some of the passion and grit that makes U.S. poetry so exciting seem to be missing during my 3-day random conversations and samplings of British poetry events. I keep asking about open mics, and the only one I can find during my visit (except a women’s series that conflicted with my reading) is run by the Poetry Society, the single national poetry organization. It seems a strange idea–why would the Poetry Society of America, or the Academy of American Poets, or the Poetry Foundation, bother to run a cafe with an open mic, in addition to everything else they do, surrounded as they are by so many dozens of open mics? But in London, it works. The food in the cafe is awesomely good, and the open mic reading I attend is packed to the corners with people who look like they work in offices. They are there to hear an editor for the Financial Times read his poetry.

Comments (30)

  • On February 10, 2009 at 8:09 am Jason Guriel wrote:

    Welcome to Harriet, Annie, and thanks for the report and pix! The UK may or may not have something resembling that “elusive general poetry audience,” and maybe the grass looks greener, but not too long ago a friend of mine who lives in Manchester sent me a slim, chapbook-ish thing on Thomas Hardy – #14 in a series called “The Great Poets” – which appeared as a supplement in The Independent, a newspaper. I can’t comment on US newspapers, but (for what it’s worth) I don’t recall finding something like that in any recent editions of Canadian newspapers, where book sections are shrinking.

  • On February 10, 2009 at 9:00 am Steve wrote:

    Yes, in the UK– for better and for worse– the audience for new poetry (excepting a self-conscious avant-garde) looks a lot more like what Americans see as the audience for the literary novel; the semimythical “literate general readers.” When British poets look at American poets, they see an enormous nation of specialists writing for one another– but also a set of folks who can take more risks.

  • On February 10, 2009 at 9:29 am mearl wrote:

    Annie,
    Thanks for the look into the British poetry scene. You describe all sorts of differences between the English and American approaches, out of which a very interesting set of binaries emerge: “reservation and inhibition vs. willingness to take risks”, “mainstream” vs. “marginalized”, a “sparser climate” vs. what we might, reading between your lines, see as something of an overkill on the American side, and, most importantly I think, the notion that England “may still have a grip on that elusive general audience that the U.S. has pretty much abandoned as a chimera”.
    There are many implications to be teased out of your account. It’s fascinating for me because in my twenty-five years living in Europe, I have never been to England (except to Heathrow about a hundred times).
    When I first went to Berlin – the East side – in 1990 and did a reading tour of those famous old Saxony cities like Jena, where I got to stare up at Novalis’s window, and Leipzig and Hall, these places seemed more like Portugal (where I live) than Paris or Amsterdam or Brussels. These days Berlin, where I still spend time, strikes me more like the New York scene I knew in the early 1980’s.
    The point is that, where poetry is concerned, every place is different. One of the broad differences between America and Europe however, is that the MFA system has never really caught on in Europe and one of the chief consequences is that there are not as many poets, and those that there are, are more likely to be fending for themselves in whatever way, like your editor of the Financial Times. Portugal is famous for its doctor poets (Miguel Torga), it’s politician poets (Manuel Alegre) and, one of my favorite younger poets, a Professor of Anthropology, Luís Quintais. For an article on the latter, this link is active. I just checked it. (http://www.ou.edu/worldlit/onlinemagazine/2007May/20quintais-earl.pdf)
    Anyway, thanks for your impressions.
    Martin

  • On February 10, 2009 at 1:37 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    Thanks for the illuminating responses! I am blown away by the idea of a Thomas Hardy insert in the newspaper. That sort of thing may help explain why the students I taught at the Poetry School in London during another brief visit last year seemed to be coming in at such a high level of accomplishment. Just a reminder that reading poetry is still the best way to learn to write it.
    As for MFA programs, I did meet the founder of what I was told is the first MFA program (as opposed to an MA program) in the U.K.–and he’s an expat American! Given the economy, it seems unclear how quickly these will be spreading.

  • On February 11, 2009 at 8:08 am Nicholas Murray wrote:

    The “cheap wine” was provided free by a small press that has no subsidy or Foundation support or profit base or sugar daddy. We tend to think the poetry is the place where quality should be concentrated. But it’s great that you enjoyed the trip and it is interesting to see another perspective.
    Nicholas Murray
    Rack Press

  • On February 11, 2009 at 2:20 pm LH wrote:

    Annie,
    I’ve come back to Harriet just for you. Nice to see you here, and hope to see you tomorrow.
    Sina

  • On February 11, 2009 at 9:39 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    Nicholas, no offense meant about the wine! Free wine of any sort is a lovely touch that would indeed be missing at most poetry events. The Rack Books reading concentrated quality in the poetry as well as in the impressive venue, the Swedenborgian Hall.
    Annie

  • On February 12, 2009 at 9:28 am Sheenagh Pugh wrote:

    Annie, was the poet from the FT one Victor Tapner? I know him from our Masters course, and it seems unilkely there are two FT editors writing poems!

  • On February 12, 2009 at 11:00 am Jane Holland wrote:

    Good to be in touch with you while you were here, Annie, even if not quite face to face! The only thing I’d really query in your fascinating and generous post above is the part about British poetry book covers. The cover of my own latest collection from Salt – Camper Van Blues – is just sublime, and my previous two books had equally brilliant, colourful and inventive covers, all designed in-house and printed here in England. There are a very small number of presses whose covers are somewhat limited in scope, usually for financial reasons, but they are by no means the norm. Have a look at the Salt website for examples of brilliant cover designs if you’re unconvinced!
    Looking forward to future posts from you here,
    Jane

  • On February 12, 2009 at 4:06 pm Patrick Cotter wrote:

    Poetry in English, at the eastern edge of the Atlantic, is still only just emerging from the tyranny of tradition; a tyrannical vision of what constitutes “a well made poem”. Magnificent American poets like Gregory Orr , Tom Lux and James Tate would barely be recognised as writing poetry here. Fifteen years ago they would have been dismissed as purveyors of chopped-up prose. They would still find it difficult getting started here, although Tate has had a selected published here now I think, on the strength of his established American reputation.
    The great thing about the American poetry scene is that it is too big and too diverse for any one aesthetic grouping or editorial cabal to control and has a literary heritage too young to have become overly codified.
    But things are getting better here gradually. Women poets were the vanguard who broke the walls down, refusing to be dismissed as non-poets because they did not write within the established (patriarchal) tradition. Initially they would have been dismissed as being technically incompetent for writing the way they did, and the last vestige of resistance within tradition is still perceived as “sexist” as mentioned in Anne’s article. But the truth is this aesthetic prejudice has also worked against men who write outside the tradition, more so, until recently. But it is changing. The greater access to American poetry books and texts courtesy of the internet gives succour to Irish and British poets who prefer the breath-length to the iambic and who don’t feel obliged to produce uniform stanzas reminiscent of Restoration topiary.
    Anne is wrong about one thing though, in the Western European Archipelago (British Isles to the Brits) poetry reading is just as specialist as it is in North America. Yes, the major poets such as Heaney, Hughes etc have their general readership, but by and large any general readership most poets have is obtained through anthologies. It’s just sadder that the average age profile here so much greyer.

  • On February 12, 2009 at 5:32 pm Roddy Lumsden wrote:

    A few thoughts in response to Annie Finch’s piece. First, as I’m sure she realises, had she come the next week, and been guided by different hosts, she would have seen a completely different side of things – and the London scene is not representative of the country as a whole. If there are fewer reading venues, it is because there is more of a culture of paid readings – as opposed to the States where usually only college readings pay. There is plenty of grass roots stuff – but established writers are understandably reluctant to read for free: it’s not unusual for them to make the equivalent of $5000 – $15000 per year from reading fees. So there are less series, but the quality may be higher.
    The UK, per head of population, publishes far more books of poetry than the US (there are an estimated 60 first collections each year from reputable presses), and outside of the small presses, design is just as varied and classy (though I envy US typography). Poetry here IS in general more mainstream – mainly because our presses are more commercially driven, but this is too big a topic for me to deal with in a few sentences! And, yes, the general reader is alive and buying, if not in huge numbers. The sexism issue rears its head, has some truth in it, but centres on the big press editors (the UK’s poetry infrastructure is nearly all run by women). Seven of the nine biggest lists have male editors, but all but one founded those lists / presses. For three years now, the UK has published more books by women than by men, at last, and my forthcoming anthology – a UK / Irish equivalent of Legitimate Dangers – is the first major generational anthology – UK or US – to include more women than men.
    I sometimes think the US has too easily given up on the ‘general reader’ assuming that only a few popular poets can extend outside of the in-crowd and find interest. I regularly show the work of quite ‘difficult’ US poets to my students, whose interest in poetry, depending on the class, ranges from published obsessives to beginners and older people with poetry very much as a hobby. I find the work of poets such as Doug Powell and Brenda Shaughnessy goes down very well. Everyone is lapping up the poems I’m showing by the wonderful Darcie Dennigan. I’ve lost count of the number of copies of Chelsey Minnis’s Bad Bad which have been shipped over here via Amazon, often by people who I’d never believe would go for it – we’re frankly short of the sort of pzazz those writers offer us here and I think the American poetry world has accepted that such poets should expect not to be appreciated more widely.

  • On February 12, 2009 at 6:06 pm Dick Eiden wrote:

    Good article. I wish there was more. I’m currently in a workshop that’s using “New British Poetry”, edited by Don Paterson & Charles Simic (2004, Graywolf Press, St. Paul, MN). It contains informative introductions to each poet. I recommend it to all who wish to learn more about modern British poets.

  • On February 13, 2009 at 4:55 am Jane Holland wrote:

    “The sexism issue rears its head, has some truth in it, but centres on the big press editors (the UK’s poetry infrastructure is nearly all run by women). Seven of the nine biggest lists have male editors, but all but one founded those lists / presses.”
    Roddy, while I’m glad to see you acknowledge ‘some truth’ in sexism in UK poetry, I’m afraid this comment is still marvellously naive. The ‘infrastructure’ is ‘nearly all run by women’, you claim blithely – who, what, where? – yet admit in the next breath that ‘Seven of the nine biggest lists have male editors’. So what does ‘infrastructure’ mean if it doesn’t mean ‘poetry list editor’? Because you’ve said yourself on the Poets on Fire forums that magazine editors, literature officers and festival organisers have virtually no power in poetry in comparison to poetry list editors. Here’s what you said recently in reply to Chris Hamilton-Emery (Salt) on the POF forum, discussing the balance of power in UK poetry:
    “There are lots of levels of power though, and much of it benign or beneficial. I don’t think festival organisers, literature officers, literary journalists, small press editors, high profile bloggers, magazine editors or anthologists have the sort of power you are referring to …”
    So you appear to be contradicting yourself here in your eagerness to dismiss sexism in poetry as an ongoing reality. Yes, some of those poetry lists were founded by men who are still in charge of them, but that says just as much to me about sexism and a lack of opportunities for women as it does about natural justice to you. It’s a complicated argument though, with many socio-political ramifications, and I’m sure Annie will cover it in more in a later post, as she says above.
    When we have a split or near split of male/female in the top poetry editorial positions in the UK, then perhaps we can say sexism is dead. Until then, I’m with Annie on this one.
    Best wishes, Jane

  • On February 13, 2009 at 11:27 am Steven Waling wrote:

    Dick: If you want to read some really exciting British poetry, get rid of that dumb Graywolf anthology and read an anthology like Other. Or The Reality Street Book of Sonnets.

  • On February 13, 2009 at 1:41 pm Brent Cunningham wrote:

    One major difference between the UK and the US in terms of literary infrastructure is that there’s nothing like Small Press Distribution there. While I’m utterly biased as an SPD employee, I think this makes a big difference. Financially it’s tough for small poetry presses everywhere, but in the UK it’s also tough for them in terms of reach, with very little access into a broad swath of bookstores and libraries. I do feel that the Salt model, which to some degree goes around the traditional distribution model by taking advantage of the internet and digital printing, is making some changes over there–they publish so many books it’s almost like they’re becoming an SPD all to themselves–but there’s a long way to go.
    Since she herself has a book on Salt it’s interesting that Annie sees a positive side to a “lessness” that is, in part, an effect of this narrower distribution network. I’d be curious if people in the UK see Salt titles in many bookstores there? Or books by other smaller publishers?
    As Annie suggests, if a more general population of people in the UK reads poetry, mightn’t it be out of senses of national significance, history, identity, etc., not to mention a host of culturally-specific educational factors? This is important to keep in mind so that no one thinks Annie is suggesting the US should follow the English model. If the U.S. dropped its million-points-of-light infrastructural support for poetry we wouldn’t necessarily end up with the positive elements of UK poetry culture. We might just get a narrower handful of books & poets that still weren’t widely read.
    In any case, since the UK poets I personally tend to read seem to be on the fringe there (off the top of my head: Tom Raworth, Alan Halsey, Geraldine Monk, Allen Fisher, Caroline Bergvall, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, many another), I’m pretty biased on the whole question. A well-run reading is certainly nice, and there are positive effects to having energy in the center (especially for those who are acceptable to that center), but to me it’s still the fringes where interesting things are possible & happening.
    Yrs,
    Brent Cunningham

  • On February 13, 2009 at 1:42 pm Desmond Swords wrote:

    Sexism and all round petty politics relating to the British obsession with grading and pecking orders, putting people in their place etc, are, I’m afraid, all too common.
    And it cuts both ways. I have been discriminated against by people who, publicly, are the first and loudest proponents of the fairness, tolerance and diversity jag – but who appropriate this PC stance as a purely political mechanism – to accuse others of what they are most guilty of – eg, attempting to squeeze out the frame others with whom they cannot engage with due to having a problem with their God given gift for poetry.
    What you didn’t see Annie, was the furious paddle beneath the seemingly seamless glide – like a top politician being VIP’eed into the Green Zone. All the scuffing on the cobbles by the sweary blokes who have been dominant since Armo started selling his simple Northern ordinariness after Liam and Noel kicked off (what turned out to be) the plastic cultural revolution in the mid 90’s, you were steered clear of by the host prophet.
    The British have traditionally, not been very intellectual, and you saw the history alright, but a very exclusive one, whose tradition is built on sucking up to one person, regardless of their talent, who is born to the job, reflected in all the Oxo duffers who get foisted on the public in an attempt to tell them, these are the new voices, and what happens is, they are OK in the first flush of youth, when they get prizes and dough lashed at them purely on the grounds of where they wrote their earliest juvenelia, but in the longer span, when mature consciousness kicks in, they go off the boil pretty fast.
    British poetry, like the false flag revolution, is in a state of crisis, because no one can get their head round Liz Windsor and talk about the reality of the political system there, without getting sidetracked by what they call *class* and knowing one’s place.
    The tradition there started with sucking up to Copper Nose Henry 8, and from this all else stems, and is reflected in the way the brits grade grade grade, everyone according to how they sound. The plummier, the cleverer, pure tosh, and now, run by plastic toffs putting on the plummier yah and sadly, I fear there are few there with any connection to anything other than a list of names who will not live on, as most of the poo ah tray is all moi moi moi, one night shags and Men being moody, a hangover from Don and the chaps.
    gra agus siochain

  • On February 13, 2009 at 2:49 pm Roddy Lumsden wrote:

    Well, Annie hasn’t yet commented on perceived sexism. That’s a sneaky cut’n’paste job though, Jane, and I don’t see where you are reading any ‘dismissal of sexism’ in my post. As you concur – the focus of this allegation of sexism is the ‘top editors’.
    ‘Infrastructure’ refers, as I’m sure you are aware, to the groups involved with promoting, funding, educating and organising – The Poetry Society and its Council, The British Council, The Arts Councils, the various book and literary trusts, the major literary festivals, the PBS, the Society of Authors etc which predominantly have female staff, boards and directors. Some of these directors and funders are among those I noted as having among the most power in the UK poetry world, along with the (three out of four male) poetry editors of the commercial imprints (all of which have women in other senior editorial roles) and those on the judging panels of major prizes (who, though numerically more often female in the ’00s, continue to shortlist more men than women most years).
    But we’ve been through this all before elsewhere – you allege widespread sexism in our current poetry community – but I’ve heard many women poets disagree with this. There is no doubt it was a major issue until relatively recently, that it remains an issue, and I’m sure we would all welcome more women starting presses or accepting editorial roles (Faber’s first choice when Chris Reid left was a woman who turned down the role). But perhaps we can wait for Annie to comment and hope this discussion remains about wider issues about UK poetry as opposed to taking it down a cul de sac whose houses are all too familiar to us!

  • On February 14, 2009 at 1:35 pm Chris Hamilton-Emery wrote:

    Hi Jane, I ran a session to help women entrepreneurs to get into publishing. Two people came to that, two good people, but two people nonetheless. We need to do more to stimulate women to get into the business. Having said that, encouraging anyone of any gender to put their life savings on the line and publish poetry is a bit like leading everyone to the cliff edge with a pitchfork.
    Hi Brent, we do have an SPD equivalent here, its called InPress http://www.inpressbooks.co.uk/
    We’ve got around 500 active bookshop accounts in the UK, but others can talk about that. I think that Ingram are terrific in the US and have fantastic outreach. It’s good for US publishers because I can regularly sell 1,000 at 30% discount, it makes strong commercial sense. But there is a place for SPD, though I think that the model ought to divert away from distribution into advocacy and publicity. But that’s my take.
    Annie can surely be forgiven for her snapshot of the UK, and it’s valuable in what she’s seen, who she’s heard. But poetry is thriving in the UK and there are plenty of risks being taken, but Roddy is right that we can only publish what sells. At least if you what to pay your mortgage.

  • On February 14, 2009 at 5:30 pm Roddy Lumsden wrote:

    Brent, we do indeed have an equivalent of SPD – it’s called Inpress – http://www.inpressbooks.co.uk/ – I generally find these days that Salt books are in the shops at about the same level as the other big independent presses. But bookshop chains rarely now take books from small presses – the amount of money spent on returns was just too high for this to continue.
    I don’t see ‘national significance, history, identity’ as having much bearing on the literary scene here – that’s a set of assumptions based on outdated and simplistic ideas of Britishness! And you could do with updating your list of UK poets you read, even within the experimental area, as that reads mainly like a list from 1980! The Reality Street book Steven mentions above is a place to start. The Graywolf one (flawed but far from dumb) will be more suited to those whose tastes are more middle-ground.

  • On February 14, 2009 at 11:28 pm Alfred Corn wrote:

    Annie, I’m glad you’ve signed on to do a blog here and will be reading you. You were too modest to say that you gave a topnotch reading at Oxfam, so I will say so.
    A thought: If a poet from the U.K. came over here for a week or ten days and then wrote a Letter from America discussing the poetry scene in the U.S.A., chances are we Americans would feel that not enough time had been given to acquiring an in-depth knowledge of the subject. You might consider coming to stay for a longer period. Literary history shows that, when Americans go to live in the U.K or British poets come ot live in America, results are likely to be good: Pound, Eliot, Auden, Gunn, Anne Stevenson, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Charles Tomlinson, Geoffrey Hill, Ruth Fainlight, Marilyn Hacker, Michael Donaghy, Martha Kapos, Eva Salzman, Kathryn Maris, and Sandeep Parmar. And let’s certainly not overlook the exchange of Irish poets between these two geographical points of reference, either: Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Paul Muldoon, Eavan Boland, Eamon Grennan, Michael Longley, and Anne-Marie Fyfe.
    Finally, the idea that twentieth and twenty-first century poets west of the Channel are conventional and hidebound can be instantly dispelled by a survey of the work of David Jones, George Barker, Geoffrey Hill, Peter Redgrove, Tom Raworth, Carol Anne Duffy, Benjamin Zephaniah, Sujatta Bhatt, Jo Shapcott, Matthew Sweeney, and new figures like Daljit Nagra, Annie Freud, Melanie Challenger and James Byrne. It’s really time to retire competitive stereotypes about American and British poetry so that we can see what is actually there.

  • On February 15, 2009 at 7:03 pm Brent Cunningham wrote:

    Hi, Roddy,
    1980? Ouch. You couldn’t even bring yourself to give me 1990?
    Anyways, trying to catch up, perennially. No shame there. I like the Reality St. sonnet book a lot & recommend it often.
    It’s strange I never heard Inpress, thanks deeply and much for the link & info. So what’s the dynamic by which one doesn’t find Reality Street Editions itself on Inpress? Or, say, Shearsman, Etruscan Books, Allardyce Barnett, West House Books, Five Seasons, or indeed Salt itself? I’m really curious, would like to know what the factors are, do those publishers choose not to go with Inpress, visa versa, or some other reason?
    I also recalled, after posting, that for decades Peter Green and Spectacular Diseases used to do some precious distribution of US small press poetry in the UK, and perhaps limited distribution of some UK very small poetry presses? But I think not anymore.
    Really no offense was meant with that ‘national significance, history, identity’ comment, no doubt too hastily put. I was thinking of the general reading public breezing through a bookstore, not the writers or readers in the literary scenes themselves, where I really wouldn’t presume to guess at the vast motives for their reading habits, as complex as among any literati I’m sure. I admit the idea I mentioned is way outdated, but would you say it’s not a relevant factor even among the general and less informed book buyer (i.e. those well outside the literary scene)?
    Yrs,
    Brent Cunningham

  • On February 15, 2009 at 8:51 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    I’m delighted to read these illuminating comments from so many significant British poets. Welcome to Harriet, and I hope you will return to be part of other conversations on this site, even after this thread is finished. A few responses: 1. Having a book from Salt myself, with a very colorful cover, of course I agree with Jane and Chris on that score–though I admit I didn’t see a lot of Salt books (mine included) in the one bookstore I camped in, Waterstone’s near UC London. 2. My experience is that though U.S. poets who read regularly at U.S. universities make the same kind of money Roddy mentions, most are still happy to read for less or for free at bookstores and smaller venues as well. 3. Sheenagh, that was not in fact the name of this FT editor! There must be more than one. I will look it up and let you know when I find it. 4. Desmond, I did talk in depth with enough people to get some hint of the “furious paddle” though of course, I’m sure, nothing like the reality as you perceive it. 5. Brent, your point is well-taken that the lessness is not necessarily any kind of cause of the many positive things I noticed in the U.K. scene. I am really hoping that more dialogue can help each of our poetry cultures learn some positives from the other. 6. I agree with Alfred that I would really have to stay longer to get any real sense of the scene, and I would LOVE to do that. I hope it happens before too long!. And Alfred, thanks for your kind word on my reading. More on the UK in a few posts–meanwhile, thanks again to all for bringing an international perspective to the discussion!

  • On February 16, 2009 at 7:23 am Jane Holland wrote:

    Chris, I have often thought seriously about becoming a poetry editor, but as you say, it’s not the most comfortable of lifestyles and I fear what would happen to my trusting writers if I suddenly suffered une crise de nerfs and jacked it all in for a safe job down the Co-op.
    My one experience of publishing someone else’s book – Gordon Wardman’s ‘Harlowski’ in 1998, via the Blade imprint – was an almost complete disaster. I found it impossible to distribute or sell the book other than by direct sales at readings, of which we had about three, as I recall, before the budget ran dry and the wind dropped out of our (no pun intended) sails. On top of that, we had maybe five copies sold by postal orders from a flier promotion that went out with a few small mags. (That was before poetry on the internet really took off, so I guess we’d do rather better at sales promotions today.) And the worst thing was, it was an excellent pamphlet by an excellent writer and deserved far better.
    In light of that, I’m not sure I’d be terribly good at publishing poetry. I’m pretty good at editing poetry, though I say it myself, but the whole cliff-edge with the pitchfork image? Maybe not.

  • On February 16, 2009 at 12:04 pm Brent Cunningham wrote:

    Hi, Chris,
    Somehow missed your comment, but great to hear you weigh in. No doubt there’s a better forum for a thread on supply chain questions, geez, but I’ll ask you here anyways: why isn’t Salt with Inpress? Or does it use them in some way I’m not seeing?
    The Ingram/Lightning Source model that you use is working well for you, and for others, and that’s really great to see. But if the financial dynamic shifts even a slight bit, Ingram has proven itself to be even more bottom-line driven than some of its competitors. Talk to people who were with Biblio, an Ingram small press distribution project that was built up w great fanfare, then the numbers didn’t work and the rug was pulled out. Or talk to any bookseller: in general, Ingram’s great for getting bestsellers, miserable for less commercial books. In any case, one reason SPD needs to exist as a distribution entity is so that, if and as the commercial winds change, there’s still options for small presses out there.
    At the same time, I would agree that advocacy and publicity should keep growing as part of SPD’s mission. Partly why we’ve done so much recently with the web site, etc.
    yrs,
    Brent

  • On February 16, 2009 at 7:45 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    Brent and Chris, now that the supply chain topic has been launched, would you explain to the rest of us what is the difference between the Ingram model and the SPD model? I’m sure I’m not the only one who is curious, and it seems to me part of the art of blogging is following the growing tip of the discussion. . .
    (And a one-to-one note to Chris: please email me via my website–I have been trying to reach you for a while on Salt business. Thanks! Annie)

  • On February 16, 2009 at 11:11 pm Brent Cunningham wrote:

    Hi, Annie,
    well, nothing will clear out a room of non-small press publishers like this kind of discussion, but possibly we’re the only ones left by now anyways, and it’s your post I guess, so here’s some more of that nuts-and-bolts iceberg you asked for. But only since you asked! I really do know what a wonky boor I sound like when I go into this stuff, even if in a way it really is as important as the aesthetic arguments raging on all sides. It’s dryer, tho. And so far I haven’t found a way to say it as concisely as a blog comment box really demands. So: sorry!
    There’s lots of potential debate about why a micro literary publishing infrastructure should exist in the first place. Arguments in favor range from “that’s how Walt and Emily made it to us” to ideas of grassroots empowerment and “local first” culture. But assuming one does value it, the question has always been how do you make sure books that sell a relative handful of copies (thus aren’t attractive to the preexisting commercial machinery of the book industry) still have a way to reach interested readers?
    For 40 years now, SPD has been one part of that answer in the US. Bookstores and libraries don’t have time to buy from individual small publishers and need centralized places to buy their material. Meanwhile, most for-profit book distributors wouldn’t touch a lot of decent literary publishers because they tend to sell less than, say, 500 copes of each title (which describes an awful lot of great recent poetry books). Those for-profit distributors work on economies of scale, and that’s nowhere near the scale they need. Any for-profit distributor that TRIED to take on such presses (there were a number of them throughout the 70s and 80s) went out of business. All except SPD.
    The main reason SPD survived is because we’re a non-profit. The tax break, plus especially the little extra $ boost from foundations, the gov’t, and those precious precious SPD individual contributors, meant SPD could make the numbers work (just barely!), and thus take on presses where the quality was high but the numbers lower and provide them with all the services of a professional distributor (making catalogs, going to trade shows, warehousing, pick-pack-and-ship, billing, etc.). That’s still what we do.
    The model Salt uses via Ingram is more recent, and relies on recent technological advances in the field of digital printing. Digital printing (aka Print on Demand) is a whole other iceberg, but what basically happens is that it’s suddenly economically fine to print just a few copies of a book. The old model wouldn’t support sales of less than 500 in part because offset printing demanded the publisher buy at least a run of 500 books once the plates were set up.
    Ingram has developed a digital printing company called Lightning Source. Naturally Chris would be a better one for the details, but basically Lightning Source holds a digital file of the book for the publisher and prints a copy when they have an order. They get these orders via Ingram, which is a wholesaler, and in fact likely the largest entity in bookselling–they’re unbelievably massive, with warehouses everywhere, and every bookstore and library has heard of them and likely knows how to buy from them, so their reach is incredible. When you sign up with Lightning Source, your books are automatically in the Ingram database, so in a sense your distribution problem is solved instantly.
    Some downsides to Lightning Source:
    (1) There’s no marketing or publicity to speak of. That is, the bookseller or library has to hear about the book through some other route, either reviews or prizes or word-of-mouth or reading tours or something the publisher is doing, because the individual title is simply invisible among millions of Ingram’s other titles. With SPD there’s (limited) marketing and publicity going on: booksellers sit down with our catalogs and find books they didn’t set out to buy, we have bestseller lists, we talk up specific books at trade shows and on the phone, etc.
    (2) Since they’re printing the book specifically per order, Lightning Source tends either to not take returns of those books, or else to charge the publisher for those returns. This is a big problem since bookselling has an unfortunate culture where publishers and distributors traditionally accept returns of unsold books, and bookstores expect that. So stores aren’t likely to physically stock Lightning Source titles on their shelves. Instead, they’ll order them as “special orders” when customers request the books, so long as the bookseller feels like taking care of the customer that way and placing the special order.
    (3) Ingram doesn’t sell directly to individuals, so the person who wants a Salt title but doesn’t think to go into a bookstore and ask for a special order would theoretically be out of luck. As a result, a publisher who goes with Lightning Source really needs to build a great website with e-commerce capacity and market that site, which Salt has most certainly done. That’s not as necessary with SPD since you’ll be on SPD’s e-commerce site, although it’s not a bad idea for the publisher to also have an e-commerce site too.
    I should add that there’s a debate out there about the quality of digitially printed books too, but I’m on the side of thinking the technology is pretty impressive, and it’s improving. It does somewhat limit things like format, which is why Salt titles have a structurally similar look. But many companies besides Lightning Source will digitally print the book, and many SPD publishers print their books digitally now. What you get with Lightning Source is access into Ingram Wholesalers. The main downside to SPD is that even after 40 years a lot of people haven’t heard of us, so that’s a big upside if you can solve 1 through 3.
    Ok, now that we’re truly alone here…
    ys,
    Brent

  • On February 17, 2009 at 11:25 am Travis Nichols wrote:

    Not alone! Shedding light on this is vital to understanding how poetry works here in the U.S., and if more poets and publishers understood what they were getting into with book publishing and distribution, the better we would all be (less sour grapes, less heartbreak and confusion about the “first book,” etc.). So thanks, Brent.

  • On February 18, 2009 at 2:53 am Chris Hamilton-Emery wrote:

    Hi Brent, Annie, and indeed everyone!
    The POD model for distribution is very strong for literature, but has it’s own unique problems. Firstly it’s customer order driven rather than stock driven. Let’s split publisher’s sales into three categories (there are more of course) and examine them, Web sales, Trade sales and POD.
    A. Web sales are those sales a publisher can develop which are fulfilled by a distributor, taking copies from stock and selling them directly to the consumer, with the cost of postage, picking and packing often born by one copy of a book. However, these sales don’t come back. The publisher often collected the money directly and deals with the customer.
    B. Trade sales are those sales a publisher makes through the book trade, via wholesalers, or direct to bookstores and which are speculative; you are loaning the books to shops in the hope that customers will buy them there. You bear the cost of picking packing and despatching, but as a feature of some model (perhaps paying a fee as a percentage of turnover, or invoiced sales value). Payment for these sales may be three months after the actual purchase, sometimes more.
    C. POD sales can mean two things in the US. Many presses regard digital printing as POD, where they may print less than 600 copies and hold stocks. But for most Brits, POD means no stocks, and sales are made direct to customers through sales channels, most of which are online, the books non-returnable and so don’t come back. All customer care is handled by the channel partner.
    All three models can supply libraries, reading venues and so on. Supplying non-traditional venues though can be highly problematic, but let’s not go down that route.
    Almost all Salt’s US income is made up of A and C, though we deal directly with around 20 bookstores using model B, where the books are returnable to us. Model C is great because you can supply those people who want your books at a low discount and have no risk of returns.
    Model B is hugely wasteful and expensive as a method of supply. Most wholesalers will take 55% of your RRP. That increases if you’re doing a deal with a chain through a wholesaler. SPD’s model is one I’ve never come across anywhere else in the world, which is a split of the publisher’s revenue after discount. But there are a range of models for paying for distribution services.
    Models A and C are highly reliant on the publisher having a range of mechanisms to sell books, to address consumers directly and to drive sales. This is costly. Model B is largely passive and is still reliant on publishers making consumers aware that books are available, worth purchasing and in the shops (or those shops which agree to stock). They may be sent back if unsold within 5 months. Models A and C are great for cash flow, the main problem for any publishing business of any size. Model B is terrible for cash.
    Model B may appear to reach more people, but those people have to be impacted upon by sales and marketing to make them turn up at a store to buy a book. Most literature is slow selling and driven by things that don’t happen in bookstores, so Model B is wasteful unless you can reach consumers with publicity and marketing.
    Every publisher must use all three models and hybrids of them to sell books. Books don’t sell themselves. No one else will sell books for you. Everyone will want a slice of your pie. The tensions arise over cash, discount, turnover and profit (or surplus). It’s pointless increasing turnover if it’s at the expense of profit. Many businesses make that mistake. It’s all a question of balance and outreach. Most publishers are terrible at addressing consumers, to such an extent that they believe consumers don’t exist and try to find other models for income which are unrelated to book sales. That, in my view, leads nowhere fast.
    Salt aren’t with InPress because we have a cheaper distribution agreement with Gardners, Britain’s largest wholesaler, but it’s a proper distribution deal, not a wholesale deal. I don’t believe InPress works. It’s not a feature of the book trade in general and is a ghetto.
    SPD is an excellent model, but I couldn’t afford it. Largely as I have to make money from sales to live. We don’t receive enough income from other sources to run the business. So we need to maximise profit (or surplus) to stay afloat. For us, Ingrams run models A and C up above and it’s led to substantial growth. But we’ve had to develop tools to make it work.
    Hope that helps!
    All best from Blighty
    C

  • On February 18, 2009 at 3:27 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    Thanks for the crystal-clear explanation, Brent,–and thanks to you Chris for adding your insight. Travis is right, it’s important for poets to understand the bigger picture. As for me, I haven’t been able to get copies of my own Salt book to any of my last several readings in the US or the UK, which is why I am hoping you will email me, Chris. Would this situation have been better with the other system? The current distribution challenges are frustrating for authors and publishers alike, I’m sure, but from a book-lovers’s perspective, I still do feel there’s nothing like a physical bookstore full of unexpected treasures, no matter how wasteful that arrangement may be. Ah well, as Robert Creeley would have said. That can be a topic for another thread.

  • On February 19, 2009 at 8:05 am James Byrne wrote:

    I’d like to second Alfred’s endorsement of your Oxfam reading, Annie, and make a pitch for an emerging generation of young(er) British poets who frequently write with experimentalism in mind.
    I’m just finished co-editing Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century (Bloodaxe, Sept, 2009). All the poets included are under 35, without a first collection of poems and were born, or are based, in the UK and Ireland. After a year of trawling for a suitable cast, my co-ed (the poet Clare Pollard) and I have included a selection of poets who might be deemed ‘experimental’, ‘avant’, ‘mainstream’ or ‘formal’. But all of these poets—whichever camp they might appear to reside in—highlight the wish of many ‘new’ British poets to take risks in their work and aim, where possible, to extend the traditions of poetry.
    Many young poets that I’ve known—in 12 years of promoting poetry events in London—feel that the sometimes tired, low-risk, anti-imagination fustiness that has seemingly infected British poetry since the ‘Movement’ (although it presided long before) is gradually being . But, of course, the movement in British poetry IS the mainstream, for good or bad, just like it is in America, no?
    Earlier in this strand, Alfred mentioned ‘retiring’ transatlantic comparatives and to view or discover the best work being written, from whichever continent or poet. I couldn’t agree more. It’s something I’ve always tried to do as a reader, and in my own magazine, The Wolf, which has consistently reviewed books from the US and published interviews with key American poets (not as well-known as they should be here) like Carolyn Forche and CD Wright. Recently I interviewed 6 poetry editors from both sides of the water and the results led me to believe that many of preconceived stereotypes about the gulf between UK and US poetries are tenuous, if at all provable. (the link for the interview is http://www.wolfmagazine.co.uk/17_interview.php for anyone interested)
    Hope to see you back here soon Annie.


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, February 6th, 2009 by Annie Finch.