Wednesday 25 November 2015

Pattern beyond chance? The story of a poetry collection: guest post by Stephen Payne

Stephen Payne has just had his first collection, Pattern Beyond Chance, published by HappenStance.  I’ve written on Displacement about my own journey to pamphlet publication (also with HappenStance), so this seems like a good place to publish his account of his journey to a full collection. 

But first: hear ye, hear ye all.  On 5 December sixty poets are taking part in a Poem-a-Thon for Refugees – a day-long reading in London.  We are raising money to support the work of Médecins Sans Frontières with refugees in the Mediterranean.  They have two search-and-rescue ships.  They run hospitals and clinics, both mobile and static, in many of the places refugees are coming from, passing through and/or getting stuck.  Vaccination, clean drinking water, safe childbirth, medical and psychological care - they provide all these.  

Each of us is reading for 8 minutes.  I’ll be reading poems from mid-20th century Greek poet George Seferis' Mythistorema, which came out of his own experience of displacement and exile in the Mediterranean nearly 100 years ago.  Plus one poem of my own.

So far we’ve raised over £8,000 and there are still ten days to go…  If anyone would like to contribute, my fundraising page is here!  And if you’d like to come and hear us / cheer us on on the day, the Poem-a-Thon will take place from 12pm-10pm at Vout-o-Renees, The Crypt, 30 Prescot Street London E1 8BB.  Saturday 5 December.

If not now, when?

Now over to Stephen.

If there’s a pattern in the story of Pattern Beyond Chance, it’s a wonky one.  The sequence of events is nothing like a straight line from submit to accept to publish. It seems self-indulgent to tell the story, but I’m keen to acknowledge some kindnesses as well as the role of chance: the sheer contingency of the process and my own good fortune throughout.

I first emailed my publisher, Helena Nelson, in 2006, through a website called Word Doctors. This was not long after I’d moved from Cardiff University to the University of Manchester in an odd career move that had a more positive effect on my poetry, allowing me to join Poetry School classes at Linda Chase’s Village Hall — especially with Linda and Grevel Lindop.

I asked Nell if I could engage her professional critiquing service. After a short email conversation, she suggested instead that if I sent her some poems she’d be happy to give her thoughts for free. It’s better not to dwell on what this might imply for the commercial prospects of HappenStance Press; I’d say it attests to more important qualities for a poetry publisher.

Anyway, I sent a few poems, and received more critique than I’d perhaps bargained for, including overall impressions and advice, and line by line suggestions on the poems. If this was the moment of my ‘discovery’ as a potentially publishable poet, it didn’t feel like it. Contrasting my poems with the prose style of my emails, Nell was drawn to the adjective ‘constipated’. She also commented that I seemed to be avoiding poems where I was ‘at risk as a person’.

It may seem strange to say that I was pleased to receive such feedback, but it’s the truth. Something to work on. And in among the criticism, there was warmth and wit and encouragement, as well as an invitation to keep in touch as a friend.

Which is what we did, through occasional emails. I became a HappenStance subscriber and a reviewer for Sphinx. I read Nell’s own poetry, in particular Starlight on Water (winner of the 2003 Aldeburgh Prize), with its marvellous Philpott poems, and a couple of stunning poems in The Dark Horse, which had been recommended to me by Grevel Lindop as the best magazine in the UK. (And whose editor, Gerry Cambridge was to become a HappenStance poet himself. )

In July 2008, Nell visited Manchester to read for Poets & Players and to stay at Linda Chase’s house, where I was by then a lodger. Several times thereafter, Linda suggested that I submit to HappenStance, and I eventually did in July 2009.

Good news! But soon after I received it, Nell emailed to ask if I’d heard from Michael Laskey. I had no idea what she meant, but the very next day Michael’s (paper) letter arrived, offering me the Smiths Knoll mentorship for 2010: a year of tuition culminating in pamphlet publication, offered on the basis of my submissions to the magazine over the previous few years (most of which had been rejected, of course: evidence in itself about the contingent nature of poetry publishing).

I immediately asked Nell what I should do, and she unhesitatingly said that I should accept the mentorship, despite all the editorial work she had already done on my behalf. The Probabilities of Balance was published by Smiths Knoll in December 2010.

Being mentored by Michael and Joanna Cutts was fantastic, and having a published pamphlet was affirming, even if it didn’t change my life. I received few reading invitations and zero begging letters from major publishers. Three things to mention, though. One is that Nell reviewed the pamphlet herself, for Sphinx, and gave it a lovely review. Another is that Fiona Moore reviewed it beautifully on Displacement, and wrote to tell me. We discovered we were both going to that year’s Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, and agreed to meet up. Now we’re good friends, and see below.

Third, I did send my pamphlet to a well-established publisher, and received a very encouraging response, so that for a long time I was rather confident that they were going to publish a collection. But, after more than a year of interaction, something seemed to shift, and I sensed, before any formal announcement, that the decision would be No after all. I told Nell, who replied, ‘Well, if they won’t publish you I will.’

And so it has transpired. I delivered my first more-than-full manuscript by hand, at the 2014 Poetry Book Fair. Nell and I had our first editorial meeting during the 2014 Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, when Nell told me her idea for the structure of the book. One of the more distinctive aspects, she’d noted, was that the language and ideas of my academic interests inform many of my poems.  So she set me a challenge, to organize the poems according to this undercurrent, and to find some scientific quotations to introduce each theme. The next version of my manuscript, was organized into four sections —Design, Word, Mind, Time — each headed with a quotation from a scientist I revere.

From here on, much of our work was done by email, but the most intense and detailed editorial discussions took place by telephone. Nell has a deal where the first hour of a landline conversation is free. Several times, we would ring off just shy of the hour, and begin again. Perhaps some authors wouldn’t enjoy such an attentive approach to editing, but I love it. I loved it with Joanna and Michael, and I loved it again with Nell. I’m sad it’s over; I hope it might happen again.

What were our phone conversations about? The works: choice of poems (did they belong? —something it seemed possible to judge even without knowing what it meant); order of poems (were they kind to their neighbours?); punctuation of lines; poem layout. Most of the discussion was about accuracy: a tiny adjustment of cross-hairs aiming at clarity, tone or balance. A few changes were bigger. We changed a prose poem to free verse,  partly because Nell worried that it might seem a fashionable token. I’m convinced this improved that poem, because of one line break. We centre-aligned one poem; such a taboo in some parts of poetry-world, but which seemed to us right, and a bit rebellious. We had fun: poetry is too important not to have a good laugh about it.

When we both thought the collection was almost done, it was sent to Charlotte Gann, whose helpful and encouraging comments we were both thrilled to receive.

‘Pattern beyond chance’ is a phrase from a poem. It was almost the first title I thought of, and a couple of friends approved, or didn’t disapprove. Which makes it sound as though I didn’t obsess over it. Let me correct that impression, by observing some of its properties. It chimes with my pamphlet title: probabilities in one, chance in the other, the first a phrase from a poem about my son, the second from a poem about my daughter. It rhymes with my publisher, Happen beyond Stance. It is an anagram of The Payne Concert Band.

Also, as it turned out, it prompted Nell to design a patterned cover which I’m very pleased with, and which could be no other main colour, once it was mentioned, than Payne’s Grey. HappenStance Press styles itself as ‘anti-blurb’, and the cover has only a single, short quote, from ... Fiona Moore! It’s a quote from her review of The Probabilities of Balance, before we knew each other at all, but I enjoy the way it seems to cock a little snook at convention.

The flap on the hardcover also has a short puff by Nell. The publication plan was for hardback only, but one more accident changed things: the printer messed up with the bindings of many copies, and then went bust before they could repair the damage. Now I have the rare privilege of being published simultaneously in soft and hard cover. I recommend buying one of each.

A last detail to mention is the font. I’m interested in fonts, the very idea of them. My first academic article (Green, T.RG. & Payne, S.J. (1983), The Woolly Jumper: Typographical problems of concurrency in information display) was published in a journal called Visible Language, adjacent to a paper by Douglas Hofstadter criticising the suggestion that font design could be fully understood (and represented on a computer) in terms of quantitative variation of stroke thickness, length and curvature, etc. Font is pattern, but more complex and mysterious a pattern than that. Hofstadter used to say that the challenge of AI (Artificial Intelligence) is to know what an A is.

Pattern Beyond Chance is set in Trinité. When Gerry Cambridge was preparing his HappenStance pamphlet on typesetting, The Printed Snow, Nell asked him to nominate a favourite font. Gerry mentioned Trinité as highly regarded by afficionados, but expensive. In another example of love trumping economics, Nell chose to mark HappenStance’s tenth birthday with the ‘crazy’ purchase of Roman Condensed and Roman Condensed Italic, Trinité No 2 .To my eyes, it’s beautiful, and a little strange. I read about it: it has no perfectly straight lines.

Pattern beyond Chance is out from HappenStance.


  1. Dear Stephen

    Good luck with your new book which looks very interesting. May I take this opportunity to wish you and Fiona an extremely enjoyable Christmas.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish