Monday, 9 September 2013

The Poetry Book Fair: the day after the day after

It was good. (This is a personal post and not the official line: I’m in there, one of the people responsible, but the main nitty-gritty is by now being done by Chrissy Williams, with this year Joey Connolly picking up the slack and more; and we haven’t yet met up for retrospect. Not that there is an official line anyway, which would imply an unofficial one. Though we don’t have to, we tend to agree.)

Here are some photos of last Saturday: the hall overall and closer in, the pub afterwards.

Most importantly, the number of people who came in through the door was up on last year. I think 697 was the number on the clicker at the end of the day – an exact number but I wouldn’t claim absolute accuracy. Last year’s figure (around 400) was compromised by the fact that there were two entrances to the main fair: through the front and through the café at the side. This year, though we had a volunteer with the clicker on the main entrance to the building throughout the day, there were changeovers, there were probably people going out and coming back in, there is (a saving grace) human error.

There are more photos on the Free Verse Facebook page, but I’m posting the above ones here because there are some people who read this blog but have nothing to do with Facebook, and vice versa – just as there are people who follow performance poetry but not page poetry, and vice versa, and trying to reach or cater for everyone isn’t easy. Even within the main hall of the book fair, I’m sure that some of the poetry on display appealed (or didn’t) to different groups of readers. Some of the enthusiastic responses to the book fair, online and in person, have used the word ‘community’ – but it’s a very diverse one, made up of groups that differ widely in their interests and loyalties.

This year the extension of the readings programme into the nearby pub, after the fair itself had closed, reflected, I think, the increased emphasis on performance and live readings in recent years. At the talking-about stage, I was sceptical – would anyone turn up? People did; it worked. Because the pub doesn’t usually open on Saturdays, we had to pay a deposit in case the bar takings were below what they required; I needn’t have worried about that one either. Though I do still think that the point of the whole thing is to be a book fair, with readings as an add-on (rather than, say, a readings festival with some books for sale).

The new venue for this year accommodated all the presses in a single ground-floor hall (which was what many people said they wanted, after last year’s event on two floors). The downside was that no one had room to stretch their legs. (And those proliferating roller banners were a nuisance.) But the relation between size of place and number of people largely determines the atmosphere of any event: it’s important that the event feels busy, even if actual numbers are not high. And jostle encourages intimacy.

Meeting and talking were as important elements as buying and selling. This is why, I think (from anecdotal evidence; we’ll get some hard figures later), sales from many of the small presses were higher than from the two tables displaying Faber, Bloodaxe and Carcanet books. The latter tables were heroically manned by Ian West of Faber Factory Plus, which is essentially a sales outfit; behind every other table were the people who had chosen, edited, designed, lived with the books they were presenting.

Ron Costley – retired text-design maestro at Faber, designer of Alan Ross’s London Magzine in the 1960s and of the London Magazine Editions on which CBe is modelled – travelled into the fair from Suffolk, his first time in London for many months. And there was Jeremy Robson, who decades ago knew well and published Vernon Scannell, about whom we talked; Robson’s own new collection will be published by Andy Croft’s Smokestack. The show goes on. If you came to the book fair and have any comments or suggestions, clicking here will take you to a brief online visitor survey.

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