Monday, February 25, 2008

Ten Questions on Publication

Here are my responses to the Ten Questions posed at Very Like a Whale. It’s possible that I’d answer these differently from one day to another, so take them with a pinch of salt. I have published exactly one chapbook/pamphlet and am at work on the manuscript for a possible debut full collection.

1. Describe your publishing trajectory. (Where did it start? Where is it now? How long have you been at it?)

About 20 years ago, I sent poems to Iron Magazine (no longer with us) and received a kind reply from the editor suggesting I read more poetry. As he hadn’t recognised what I imagined (insanely) to be my genius, I didn’t take his advice and instead concentrated in writing song lyrics and playing in a band. Around 1998, I began writing and reading poetry again. My first published poems were in 1999, two poems in New Writing Scotland. I moved to Italy, published poems in the little magazines, and five years later moved back to Scotland where HappenStance Press was starting up. I went to the launch of the first two pamphlets, was impressed, submitted a batch of poems, fully expecting a rejection six months later, but instead got an acceptance a few days later. The pamphlet came out in December 2005. Since then I’ve been writing poems and reviews. Recently I’ve been putting together a manuscript – when it’s ready, I hope it will become my first full collection.

2. What would you do differently if you had to start all over again?

At times, I wish I’d read more poetry and learned to write it earlier in life. However, it may be that I simply wasn’t equipped to write poetry in my twenties. There’s no real point in wishing to have done things differently. Things might have worked out better if I’d been more committed earlier, but they might have turned out worse. Who can tell?

3. Why did you start seeking publication? Why do you continue?

I had written poems. Poems are there to be read and that’s why I sought publication. These days, I want a) to have my poems appear along with others’ in magazines I like and, b) to gain readers by having pamphlets and books of my work published. I could do that by self-publishing, or by uploading all my poems onto this blog, but I’ve always preferred the validation and the kudos of having other people publish my work – or not, as the case may be.

4. Does your relationship with your work change after it is published and if so, how? How does the concept of publication affect your writing in general?

I don’t think my relationship with my work changes at all after publication. As time goes past, I like some of my published poems more than others. Some poems I regret having published at all. I never try to tailor my work to appeal to editors or publishers. Of course, I read magazines I submit to and don’t send work I know they would never dream of publishing, but I write the poems I want to write, now more so than ever. No compromise!

5. Talk about putting a chapbook together. How have you done it in the past, how would you do it differently now? Why are chapbooks a good thing or not a good thing?

Helena Nelson from HappenStance asked for 10-12 poems in the initial submission. After the acceptance came through, I had to send everything I thought might work in the chapbook. Helena made comments and editing suggestions on all those poems – some got a simple thumbs-up, some got an immediate thumbs-down (my poor old villanelle!), and I made revisions to others. The process showed me the importance of a good editor. If I was doing one now, I’d probably have more idea of what poems would work together and what order they should go in etc. I like chapbooks. They are short, usually good value, and are an effective way of getting poems to a readership, especially if you are prepared to get out there and sell them.

6. What’s your advice to someone putting together a full-length poetry manuscript for the first time? Share your thoughts on the importance (or not) of narrative arc in poetry manuscripts.

Make sure there are no passengers i.e. no weak poems. Keep trying to improve it. Make sure there are at least a few really fantastic poems. I don’t think narrative arc is important in the least. It’s a curiously fashionable idea. That said, care should be taken over the order of the poems. Even if no one has a clue why you chose that order, you should know! But sheer brilliance of writing makes for a great book, arc or no arc.
Some kind of rationale behind the collection is useful for a publisher to market it and, consequently, is useful for the poet to 'sell' his/her manuscript to a publisher. But I don't think all the poems need to fit the rationale, and some may do so only by a supreme act of poetic imagination.

7. Do you personally market your publications? If so, why and how, and do you enjoy it? If not, why not?

I must have mentioned The Clown of Natural Sorrow so many times on this blog by now. There’s no escape from it. The Clown will haunt your dreams and nightmares if you read this blog too often. Or if you don’t go to the link and buy The Clown immediately! I also do readings whenever I can and generally try to flog the chapbook to anyone with even a flicker of interest in poetry. That said, I haven’t found it easy to sell my poetry. I’m not naturally into talking myself up. It’s that Scottish thing – you can’t push yourself forward too far or you’ll get a sharp “Who do you think you are?” retort. There are serious dangers in having an ego here – there’s always someone waiting to “trip you up and laugh when you fall,” as Morrissey put it.

8. Complete the following sentences: Big-name poetry publishers are…..

Usually (in the UK at least) fairly small concerns with a passion for poetry. Or tiny poetry imprints connected to huge companies that publish all kinds of stuff. They can market and distribute books wider than small publishers. They vary widely. Some might seem a little “safe” in their choices of who to publish, but others certainly aren’t. They are businesses who need to sell books, but if they were in it for the money alone, they’d publish celebrity autobiographies. So, at heart, they are a contradiction in terms – not in a bad way.

9. Small- and micro-presses are…

Usually tiny concerns with a passion for poetry. They will publish books and chapbooks that they feel will enhance their reputation, that they think will sell, and that they believe in one hundred percent. They are generally unpaid and overworked. A sense of humour is a must. They are vital for poetry, always have been and always will be.

10. Describe the ideal relationship with a publisher and the relationship with a publisher from hell.

I have a good relationship with my publisher. She put out a good quality product and I met my deadlines. Communication was good. She did what she could to help sell the book (a launch, a web presence, sending review copies etc) and I played my part as best I could. We worked well together when creating the chapbook and we get on well personally. I guess a bad relationship would entail these things not happening on both sides.


Cailleach said...

Interesting answers Rob that really illuminate some of those dark corners of poetry very well.

Anonymous said...

I think I'd been writing seriously for a couple of years before I realised there were magazines out there which actually published the stuff.

Pretty sure it would have been Roddy who produced a photocopied list of two-dozen magazines ... none of which I'd ever seen or read. Naively I started with the Sewanee Review, because of some Wallace Stevens connection ... and I always read it as 'Swanee', like the river.

Ironically, that's where my submission went down.

Ach, you're all so professional these days :-)


Rob said...

You know, Andy, twenty years ago, I also had no idea. I found a book in a library that mentioned various poetry magazines, including Iron, which offered a quick response to submissions. So I sent three poems, not even typed! - they were handwritten in black biro - and the poems were terrible (even though I didn't think so at the time). The editor was really gracious in his response.

I guess the Internet has made so much information available on how submit poems all over the world that ignorance is no longer an excuse for idiocy.

Anonymous said...

That's a whole topic in itself: the role of online community in the development of young poets. Such as the information-sharing of this questionnaire.

Back in the day, there was The Writer & Artists' Yearbook to keep you straight on what to do, but that was it.

I think someone should start a literary mag called The Swanee.


Anonymous said...

It's news to me that Sewanee and Swanee are different derivations!

What do you mean 'back in the day' re the Writers and Artists' Yearbook! The cheek! For the past two years and the year coming, it has been my sage advice that has been keeping people on track. It can be read here:


Anonymous said...

The boxes won't allow for the whole url - so cut and paste both lines above - sorry.

Anonymous said...

Grr. One last try -

Rob said...

Doesn't seem to work - a shame, as I've read the article before and it is useful. I checked the AC Black website. They seem now to have a spin-off website for the Writers and Artists Yearbook, which isn't working at the moment. Maybe it's just a temporary problem.

Anonymous said...

I should have said, "The W&A Yearbook and Roddy Lumsden were the only two things keeping me straight."

Now the two are become one? What an odd romance.


Jane Holland said...

You can't keep on referring to him as 'the editor of Iron'. Peter Mortimer! An amazing man doing a difficult job with flair, brilliance and much sympathy.

IRON is where I sent my first poems too, and finally got one accepted by Peter on my second or maybe third submission, bless him. It would have appeared in the magazine maybe early '96, opposite the specially commissioned drawing of a black cat, being a saucy little piece about a pussy-cat!

Those were more innocent times, I fear. For me, at least.

Cailleach said...

This is a great article (I got it to work fine) that I will be encouraging my workshoppers to look at. It's got it all gathered in the one spot and covers that really awful pitfall of people sending work to publishers without having gotten anything published in journals. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Rob said...

Yes, seems to work now. Let’s see if I can do a direct link to Roddy’s article