Thursday, 12 November 2015

Aldeburgh: birds, poetry, swimming

Things to take to Aldeburgh:
Binoculars for watching birds on the Alde marshes; bird book
Shoes that will cope with mud and salt water
Hat, gloves, scarf (too warm for the gloves this year)
Book bag
Nytol to improve the chances of sleeping at all when there is so little time to do it
Elastic bands to put round porridge bags etc in containerless cottages
One poetry book to be read and thought over (Peter Riley’s Due North)
Swimming things
Fleece long enough to go over swimsuit to be halfway warm and decent on the way to/from the beach; mac long enough for same (and to wrap the towel) in rain. 

There’s not time during the festival to do much of these things except book buying and early morning swims, so I’ve stayed on with Jeri Onitskansky to write, walk etc for a whole week.

Aldeburgh mystery: when you’re out walking along the shore in the dark, what is the will-o’-the-wisp that sometimes appears out to sea?  Unlike fishing-boat lights, which move slowly in relation to where you are, it whizzes by in the opposite direction like a silent speedboat.

This afternoon I walked out towards the Martello tower and then along the dyke round the first wide loop of the river Alde.   I met Anna Selby, Richard Scott and Richard’s partner Dan on the way, heading for Orford Ness.  They’ve stayed on too, with Ed and RenĂ©e Doegar and Chrissy Williams; various combinations of the six appear around town, in the pub or on the sea wall.  They have a tough jigsaw puzzle going and a crazily unliterary poetry-book card game involving vital statistics such as Amazon ratings and Google hits.  Only to be played when drunk… but still just sober enough to wonder why my card for Shakespeare’s Sonnets said number of poems: 174.  

Birds!  Several small flocks of Brent geese today (I had to look them up) cropping marsh-grass as if there were no tomorrow.  Little egrets, one close enough for me watch how it lifted each marsh-green foot high and splayed it down in what to human eyes is exaggerated care: half-delight, half-disgust.  Curlews carrying out precision surgery on the mud with their bills and one on the bank close by, surveying the river so that I could admire its chocolate brown back patterned with beige sand-ripples.  Their bubbling cry went up and down the river.  Oyster-catchers and a couple of redshank(s)**; more haunting cries.  A couple of herons stalking the mudflats.  Small pale-patterned waders scuttling around in a flock, too far off to see: turnstone?  A serious birder would know at once from the choreography.  Shelducks.  Some ducks too far away to identify and it was getting dark by then; teal?  Once a squeezy lapwing sound came from the flooded fields on my right.  Suddenlyzoom!highintheskyoverheadthirtyfortysmallbirdszoomingupriver.  Then sameagainmorezoom!!lowskimmingriverfollowingitscourse.  Zigzag mix of dark and light: dunlin? 

Two hours passed in no time.  The tide was coming in: less mud for the birds, now mere shapes whose dark or light was hard to see.  The trees towards Iken on the other side of the Alde glowed as the day darkened, their yellow leaves thinned to gold coins.  A marsh harrier was gliding and tumbling over the marsh in front.  Iken’s church and the big tower stood out romantically against dappled cloud behind which was one of those late skies you expect to turn red but glows neon white.  Later there was a small red glow where the Alde was headed.  I stumbled back inland by reeds along a stream, avoiding the wettest mud by its glimmer of the sky, finding my way by the pale feathery reed-heads and the rustling of their dry horizontal leaves. 

I was benighted and said so to (American) Jeri when I got back; had to explain it and Ah, knighted by the night!  she said. 

Walking along the Alde it occurred to me that the birdscape/riverland/birdsoundtrack was reeling out against the festival background: human voices in the head. 

There were birds in some festival voices too.  John Burnside started his talk on birds in poetry by saying one of the best things of the festival.  When you go alone into the natural world, something happens to you; each time, each experience is different.  (Yes – the Alde walk!)  Then he read us Edward Thomas’ ‘The Unknown Bird’.   He talked about how birds can change in the imagination, and stand for something.  There was a blackbird night-singing in Berlin’s Tiergarten, and local English residents were going there to hear the ‘nightingale’.   That happened in the present day; John Clare had a similar anecdote from London’s outskirts. 

It is always good to hear about people’s favourite poets.  Burnside’s is, after Chaucer, Marianne Moore and he read ‘The Frigate Pelican’:

                                 He glides
  a hundred feet or quivers about
    as charred paper behaves——full
    of feints;

It’s also good to hear about their new discoveries but I didn’t catch the name of Burnside’s.  Youngish, American; Nick Lance or Rance?   Your search - "of the parrot and other birds that can speak" - did not match any documents.  It could be Nick Lantz, see here: worth following up.

Birds, he said, can help us express otherwise inexpressible aspects of personality or explore thoughts about the world.  He read ‘Evening Hawk’ by Robert Penn Warren. 

                                      His wing
Scythes down another day, his motion
Is that of the honed steel-edge, we hear
The crashless fall of stalks of Time.

The head of each stalk is heavy with the gold of our error.

Look!   Look!   he is climbing the last light
Who knows neither Time nor error , and under
Whose eye, unforgiving, the world, unforgiven, swings
Into shadow.

That’s an extract from the middle.  I avoided choosing the end because the last line-and-a-bit is even more extraordinary, not to be quoted out of context. 

Burnside’s talk was at the Baptist Chapel in Aldeburgh – packed.  I loved the fact that there was a run of events there all afternoon but had to get back to Snape for Christine Webb and the buses didn’t work.  So I stood at the chapel gates and asked for a lift.  Some kind people got me there in time to hear Christine’s excellent short reading.  She chose a varied set of stand-out poems and threaded them all together perfectly.

More birds: Helen Macdonald was at the festival, standing in for Richard Mabey who was under doctor’s orders to stay away.  She and John Burnside held a Rialto-sponsored conversation about language and nature.  It was lovely to hear her read a passage from H is for Hawk, though I was sorry that she was presented solely as author of that book and not also for her first, little-known and so far only collection of poems, Shaler’s Fish, which I wrote about here a while ago.   Maybe that was her choice.  Anyway she told me afterwards that an American publisher is going to republish the poems.  They are difficult, dense and strikingly original.  They involve birds a lot (I wonder if John Burnside has read them?)  I hope she writes more one day. 

Macdonald told a story she’d read in Walter Benjamin: after the Fall, Adam forgot all the names of the animals and renamed them all a little wrong.  She and Burnside talked about taxonomy, the fungal life-networks under the forest floor, appropriating nature… and the literary selfie, ‘here I am in the natural world’.  Burnside’s recollection that the Sami have names for birds they eat; other birds are Bird.  Macdonald’s imagining of the hawk perspective – everything nameless, exquisitely detailed, in the eternal present.  She made a plea for difference: we tend, she said, to use nature as a mirror for our own concerns, reflecting back what we want it to.  But the non-human is different and it’s important for nature writing to address that. 

They asked themselves how to communicate looming disaster, from the absence of large lapwing flocks to the deadness of our romantic/pastoral landscapes to the science of global warming.  They didn’t have an answer, but in a way their conversation and Burnside’s bird talk were the answer: go on writing and communicating in whatever way you can, make whatever connections you have to make. 

Other Aldeburgh highlights.  Impassioned conversations about the poetry of Tony Hoagland (questions of attitude to race and women) and Choman Hardi (how can/should one present utterly horrifying material, what makes it work/not work as poetry).  Kim Addonizio: smart, sassy, and other such American words.  Her craft talk on turns in poems was smart too.  “No turn, no poem.”   Turns that engineer surprise and/or reflect the writer discovering something unexpected to say; turns that enact the poem’s meaning; epiphanic turns; rhetorical structures such as past/present or present/past or a 3-way switch.  She recommended a book, Engaging Poetic Turns by Michael Theune. 

Zaffar Kunial’s reading as part of New Voices – passionately low-key, down-to-earth and soaring; time and origins, love and loss – I think that will have been among many people’s highlights.  I bought his pamphlet after his Friday evening craft talk but unwisely left it on the dining-room table and have been looking for its forceful mid-green ever since.  It seems to have been taken hostage in an early-morning rushed departure in semi-darkness, and will be posted back by a very apologetic house-mate.  You can hear ‘Poppy’, one of the poems he read, here on Soundcloud.  He also gave a craft talk on line endings with examples from Seamus Heaney and ‘Q’, one of his own poems whose line lengths he changed.  Other people’s redrafting processes are fascinating.  The two beginnings are:

[early draft]

Somewhere (thank you, father)
over the hills,
through some trap door in my mind,
despite having no calling
to speak it, and hearing of it so long ago,
I know the Urdu ishq
is love…


Somewhere (thank you, father) over the hills,
through some trap-door in my mind, despite my having
no call to speak it, and hearing of it so long ago,
I know the Urdu ishq is love.

The first version feels dreamier, more detached; the second more intense, closer. 

More things: the other three New Voices.  Kei Miller’s craft talk on the image that doesn’t quite close (thus leaving a door open for the reader).  Helen Mort’s short take on Norman MacCaig (“the long haul to lucidity”, he called his poetic progress).  Both their readings.  Mexican poet Pedro Serrano’s reading voice.  All the close readings I went to – they are free, and always so interesting.  Festival founder Michael Laskey’s return, in the otherwise sad absence for urgent family reasons of new Festival Director Ellen McAteer.  Michael introduced some events just like in old times and when I told him how lovely that was he gave me a hug.  

The Rialto had a stall!  Strategically placed between the cafe entrance and the Recital Room.  Michael Mackmin heroically manned it for two days, with occasional help from Matt Howard and me.  (Michael and Matt are both serious birders so I'm hoping they will read this blog and answer some of my bird questions.)  We sold poetry!  Lots of Dean Parkin's festival-launched first collection The Swan Machine, and magazines and pamphlets too.  We made money!  And Michael was touched by how many people passed by and said good things about the magazine, or reminded him that he'd published their first ever published poem. (He published my first ever too, so I know how they feel.) 

More things: the stars, so clear, was it Saturday night?  Orion’s belt and sworded hip swinging out over the sea.  Staying up late round our table to talk.  Pub sessions in the Cross Keys.  Sitting in a bay window overlooking the sea listening to someone playing Bach on the piano.  Not sleeping.  And swimming: every day so far.  The first swim was a record with four of us – Joanna Clark, Hannah Lowe, Jeri Onitskansky and me.  One of us was in her underwear.   The sea was rough that day (yesterday too) but has mostly been beautiful, less cold than usual in this weirdly warm November but still cold enough to shock and then cradle and then numb…  That shock is the best cure I know for sleeplessness and hangover.  Panoramas of sky and sea, shingle and coastline.  Their detail: breaking-wave- and cloud-scapes. 

The Aldeburgh will-o-the wisp – I noticed one of them last night, and then… there was a dark triangle on the shingle, denoting a fisherman.  The light was at the far end of his long fishing-rod: not far out to sea at all, but tethered. 

Just as I was finishing this there was a knock on the door and there were Anna, Chrissy, Dan and Richard looking windblown and happy/sad, come to say goodbye.  (Chrissy's blog about the festival is here.)  Jeri and I have four more days that they don’t, stretching out...

Off for a swim now. Blue sky. 

**When are multiple waders singular, and when plural?

Monday, 26 October 2015

Small publishers and poetry prizes

Do small publishers get fair access to the big poetry prizes, and if not, what are the barriers and what can be done?  I asked four small poetry publishers for their views.  It’s hard for them to come out with these themselves; that could be self-defeating. 

The background was this year’s Forward Best Collection Prize (see previous post). The Forward shortlist, and winner Claudia Rankine (left), shook up the familiar poetry prize carousel – shortlists and judging panels alike dominated by the major publishers, an apparent unwillingness to look outside the mainstream, and this reflected in a predominance of white and (to some extent) male winners.  See the audit I did of the Forward and TS Eliot Prizes nearly two years ago.  Also see that audit for some caveats; it’s not possible to write about poetry prizes without these. 

The TS Eliot Prize shortlist has just been announced and major publishers retain their grip on that; the list of poets is more diverse, perhaps reflecting a trend in poetry publishing.  

The four small publishers I questioned are experienced, hard-working and well-respected.  They come from different parts of the UK and publish a wide range of work.  One has had some success with poetry prizes, the others haven’t.  I asked about the TSE and Forward, to keep it simple, but some answers ranged more widely.  I’ve mostly presented the issues in the publishers’ own words.  Of course not all of them said everything, but responses were similar.  I’ve highlighted the one case where they disagreed.

All appreciated the helpfulness of poetry prize administrators but felt that the processes and results didn’t reflect it.  They identified three barriers to fairness: the judging system (for the TSE Prize), the timing of entries and the cost of entering prizes. 

1.  Prize administration

The Forward Prize administration was praised for being welcoming and helpful to small publishers, for example accepting books in manuscript form, having an online submissions system; and for responding constructively to criticism. 

Especially wonderful is the way [Susannah Herbert] talks to people and listens and takes criticism on board and responds, all in a completely informal and open way.

The staff at the Poetry Book Society (which runs the TSE Prize) were also praised for being helpful.

They communicate well with us and some individuals in the organisation work very hard to be accommodating, thoughtful and helpful – this is much appreciated.


the [PBS] website is awful to navigate – feels like a closed club to even us as publishers

and this contributes to a perception of lack of transparency. 

2.  The judging system

There was general frustration that the prizes are dominated by the big six.  Joey Connolly in The Poetry Review last year: “Only one of the forty PBS Choices in the last ten years has come from a non-major publisher”. 

It does all feel rather London-centric and larger-publisher orientated at times. I’d like to see many more regional indies on these lists, and poets whose work may be more at the fringes.

Specific criticisms focused on the judging system for the TS Eliot Prize.

The PBS and the TSE need a big jolt… the whole set-up is odd: the judges have 40% of their shortlist chosen for them by the other judges of the seasonal Choices... Last year [when two of the three judges had close links with the winner] was a fiasco.

Can we have some non-poets and real-life poetry readers on this panel?  .. I’d like to know WHO the [PBS selectors] are and see that there are also a diverse mix of selectors young/older, women/men, and BAME poets.

3.  Timing of entries

Poetry prizes tend to take in books for reading in advance of publication, so that when shortlists and winners are announced they aren’t out of date.  

If I want to submit for the PBS summer choice/recommendations (books published April/May/June), for example, I have to send them proofs at start of previous December.

Having to send books/proofs in early was a problem for three.  

The smaller the publisher the shorter the lead times. 

But one said:

I don't see why working to a long schedule should be more difficult than working to a tight one.

It’s probably hard for the organisers to get the balance right between timeliness and ease of entry.  Larger publishers may have a presentational /psychological advantage too if the judges are reading their entries as books or well-presented proofs rather than in manuscript form. 

4.  Cost

The cost for small publishers is often the numbers of free copies that are hurled into the abyss of prizes, review copies and comps.  It is sensible to print cheaply: perfect bound cheap editions so the unit cost is small…  My books have a high unit cost because of their production values.

It’s usually somewhere between £60-£200 worth of books to enter, plus printing off of manuscript copies, postage of around £20 – it all adds up. We write off this cost as part of what we do, but it’s a sizeable cost and it can feel like a disheartening process.

The TSE and Forward are not worse than average though there is a cost problem with the PBS Quarterly Choice:

If a book were to be selected for PBS Choice, the terms are grim. They agree to buy lots of copies, a couple of thousand, but these must be RRP under a tenner and they will buy for a very low price… It means you need to set a high cover price and a low print cost in order to make anything on it at all.

Then there’s the Costa Prize, or how “the UK’s largest hospitality company” extracts money from poetry publishers:

For the Costa, in addition to the handful of books [to enter], 20 free books if shortlisted; if you win the poetry category, publisher has to pay Costa £4,000 for ‘general promotion of the books’; if you win outright, another £5,000 on top of that.

Costa prizes.. are pretty much un-enterable for us at present… how wonderful to be shortlisted, but how awful then to try and find £4k to pay for the privilege to a private company as large as Whitbread PLC – no opt out or support for smaller publishers!

What, one wonders, are sponsors actually paying for, if the publishers have to pay for promotion?

And some other prizes:

Guardian First Book Award: in addition to the handful of books, an entry fee of £150 + VAT; if the book is shortlisted, they require 70 free books for their reading groups (..the books get to people who otherwise wouldn’t have read them..).

Dylan Thomas Prize, 20 free copies if you get to the longlist, another 20 free copies if you get on the shortlist.. [and then you] pay £500 for ‘promotional purposes’..

And the Next Generation promotion:

… Not a prize but there was a fee levied per poet, and charged if you were selected, that was the same whether you were a major or a small publisher – plus a number of books had to be sent, and no sliding scale or additional help to enter for small press publishers, despite it being ACE funded.  As a result we entered fewer poets…

5.  Solutions

Despite all this, and even through gritted teeth, these small publishers continue to enter their poets’ books for prizes.  

Not submitting is self-defeating.

The chances that they will be placed or win are remote but one can't let the author down (actually one can [some small publishers don’t enter everyone they’d like to]). 

What could be done to make it easier for them and to lessen the perception – shared widely in the UK poetry world – that prizes aren’t fair?  Which is not good for any poets or publishers, large or small. 

A.   Some changes at the Poetry Book Society/TSE Prize, which is now perceived as lagging behind the others:
o    Widen the range of judges and selectors to include reviewers, editors, poetry readers etc. 
o     Implement a code of practice, as called for in The Poetry Review last year.  To the PBS’ credit it has agreed to do this (see current Poetry Review) – which might help achieve a more varied judging panel anyway.  (The Costa and Forward Prizes said No to this idea, but then their judges are more diverse.)
o    Reform the link between the PBS Choice and the TS Eliot Prize, or remove it altogether.  One option would be to allow the TSE judges to shortlist four books from any of the PBS Bulletin’s recommended books, which would greatly widen the scope (Peter Daniels suggested this in a comment on my audit).
o     Reform the PBS Choice pricing structure so that it is less punitive to small publishers.
o  Revamp the website to make information about the prizes, PBS Choices, etc clear and easily accessible.

B.   Publishers could submit collections initially as pdfs.  Judges would then call for proofs / books at a new, longlisting stage.  (This idea came from one of the four publishers, and a couple of the others liked it.)  Might be unwelcome to judges but would level the playing-field on timing and presentation.

C.   Take the cost out of Costa and the other expensive prizes.  Could mega-plc Whitbread afford a few extra thousand pounds to make their prize more accessible?  At the very least introduce a sliding scale of fees, maybe based on turnover.  

D.  Funders of poetry prizes should consider using their power to reinforce calls for change.  For example:
o     The PBS got £22k from Arts Council England (ACE) last year as part of a 2-year grant.  ACE could make any future funding conditional on changes.  PBS also report £49k from foundations etc in their 2013-14 accounts.  Foundations could be more proactive. 
o     The Forward Foundation gets £144k for 2015-18 from ACE with which it has National Portfolio status.  It’s easy to imagine that a dialogue on diversity has taken place. 
o     Next Generation Poets 2014 received £40k from ACE.  In future, ACE could insist on a sliding scale of charges to help small publishers. 

I’d like to thank all four publishers who spent time and thought on answering my questions.  And finally, as one of them said: 

What are the real prizes? And do prizes actually put poets off writing well?