Thursday 29 November 2012

Peppermint green

X came round this morning – early, before I was dressed – to buy four of the David Wheatley pamphlets for Christmas presents. Earlier this week I went up to north London to take three of the Nick Wadley pamphlets to Y, who doesn’t do email. Coffee is made, gossip is swapped. This is pleasant, in an olde worlde way. I am a purveyor of quality literature to the gentry. The books should be priced in guineas.

Whether the practice is sustainable in its present form I doubt. This week was another of those (many) weeks in which more submissions pinged into my in-box than orders from the website. If CBe is known about at all it’s as a personal, idiosyncratic venture, and that’s fine, because that’s what it is, but somehow the books have to be sold – therefore today’s application to ACE for support for paying someone with a bit of marketing and sales know-how to come into the frame. Next year will be, I hope, a little different. More professional, you might say; while not doing without the coffee and the gossip.

It’s easy to start feeling old. The first CBe book for next year is a book of essays, anecdotal memoirs, poems, in celebration of Michael Hofmann, and the first piece, by James Lasdun, begins thus: ‘In the early eighties I was employed as one of half a dozen in-house readers at Jonathan Cape, in their old Bedford Square offices. We were all writers and it seemed to be understood that we would spend as much time keeping up with our literary pals as we did reading manuscripts. Poets and novelists would drop in for coffee, or we’d spend hours nattering with them on the phone …’ There’s that coffee again. Not just a job, and as an ‘in-house reader’ at that, but a job in which you got paid to sit around and chat.

In the bibliography in the Hofmann book, this is conspicuous: that he has published just four collections of poetry in thirty years. The first was 48 pages: slim is the usual adjective. (That’s it up above, with a review-copy slip: publication date 7 November 1983 and typed, remember typewriters? The cover colour background to the ffs is pink; the spine has faded to, as one of the contributors to the book says, peppermint green.) Nor did the other collections really test your shelf-space. Compare and contrast today: poem-writing as an academic growth industry, the Facebook groups where you sign up to writing a poem per day for a month. Is it too late to – as well as disinventing the database – start a slow poetry movement?

The mention of Christmas presents above was intended as a hint: three pamphlets for a tenner, send them as cards, they’re barely more expensive. The Nick Wadley drawings one for those who have read either everything or nothing. The Dai Vaughan poems one: love, hardly an exclusively seasonal activity but don’t rule it out. The David Wheatley one: slow drinking. The pamphlets page; or you could buy a book, a whole book.

Wednesday 21 November 2012


Why they’re looking demonic – above, the entire staff of CBe – is because they’re overworked, tired, down to focusing on one thing, which is not what I need from them.

Meanwhile, there was the small-press event at the London Review bookshop last week, packed out: see Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves Press on this.

Meanwhile, though I broadcast a need for paid sales/marketing help here and on Facebook a week or so back, and that thing was variously tweeted and re-tweeted, not a single response. Which kind of proves the point. But moves are afoot.

Meanwhile, CBe books will be in a pop-shop off Portobello Road from 10 December organised by Julian Rothenstein of the Redstone Press (you know, the diaries; but more than that). More on this in a newsletter when I get round to it.

‘Meanwhile’ used to be a word that Mark Ford used a little too often – a back-stop, a stop-gap – in his poems that rightly refused to rely on narrative or the other obvious ways of moving from here to there, but now less so.

Meanwhile, yesterday I was in Oxford for a reading at the Albion Beatnik bookshop – which has put on a readings programme that puts far bigger places to shame – by one writer (Richard Gwyn) CBe has published this year, one (Patrick Guinness) CBe will publish next year, and one (Philip Morre) whose book CBe has designed and typeset.

Meanwhile, tomorrow I seem to have committed to a 2-hour workshop on academic writing, a genre which, the more I’ve come into contact with (over the past couple of months, as an RLF Fellow), the more I flinch from. We shall start with a couple of poems.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading Cusp, published by Shearsman and edited by Geraldine Monk. From the blurb: ‘a collective autobiography’ of ‘a brief era which, in retrospect, was exceptional in its momentum towards the democratisation and dissemination of poetry’; that era being located ‘between World War II and the advent of the World Wide Web’. The North, the Midlands, Wales, the South-west (not London/Oxbridge). I haven’t finished it. There’s some sloppy writing and there’s some good writing (a fine essay by Peter Riley). That’s not quite the point. The point is to do with a number of people from a dun-coloured background (the 11-plus, engrained sexism, not an aubergine in sight) finding a way through (exceptional teachers, independent bookshops, libraries) into the excitement of reading and writing. They meet by chance, form groups and start magazines and presses and split apart (‘the difference is still the same: the old versus the new, the safe versus the experimental, the formal versus the expansive. The strain finally breaks the group …’: Tim Allen) and start from base again. Pound and W. C. Williams score heavily in the index. The avant-garde, as is pointed out more than once, can be as conservative as the mainstream, but there was a collective energy here, veering between abrasive and comfy in its oppositional stance, that makes for an instructional read. Fun, too.

Meanwhile, the TSE shortlist and the Costa shortlist and no comment. For starters, Armitage’s Death of King Arthur is billed as a translation on the title page and shouldn’t be there for that reason alone, it’s taking up someone else’s place, even besides that for all the Armitage brio it’s a dull, dull, archaic poem, leave it to the scholars. And the Poetry Book Society really does need a shake-up. For example, the idea of a book fair bringing together, inclusively, poetry publishers from across the UK – a no-brainer, and their remit, and they have an office and staff – why did they leave it to unpaid amateurs? Just saying. Why – it’s theirs on a plate if they want it – have they shown no interest at all in pulling it into what they do? And playing with it. Doesn’t have to be London: Norwich next year, then Birmingham, then X and then Y. It’s how it used to be done. No comment.

Meanwhile, I forgot to say in my record of the first dream in the last post that my children were constantly barging in during the phone call, and when I told them to clear out they went downstairs and hammered on the piano directly underneath my desk. There is no piano.

Meanwhile. The things that are happening off-stage, in the dark.

Sunday 18 November 2012

The dream life of an editor

3 a.m. – this was real time, I think, because when I woke up (someone in the house coming home late) I looked at the clock and it was 3.30 a.m. A man standing outside WH Smiths in York (he must be cold, I think) phones to tell me that he’s disappointed in my editing of his book. A word misspelt (‘sanatorium’) and a misleading sentence involving a mathematical formula (nothing wrong with the formula itself, which involved square roots and brackets and xs and ys, but the way the sentence was phrased). I remember this man, a bit: we talked, around three years ago, about his book. I didn’t copy-edit it. What I did recently was a simple typesetting job, re-running the text of the hardback edition for the new A-format paperback, and editing was not involved. I explain that I haven’t even read the book, except for for checking for bad word breaks and the like, and besides, the mistakes must have been there in the original text. But it is still my fault, apparently. And now he won’t be able to get me teaching work at Morley College of Education. I tell him even if he did, I’m so busy at present that I wouldn’t be able to do that job, which takes some of the wind out his sails (this is first time, I think, that I have ever used that expression, in either writing or speech), but he still maintains that I am in the wrong and he is the right.

Later, after I go back to sleep, another dream, a much nicer one this time, in which I become more than intimate with a woman I used to work with in the early 1980s in the copy-editing department at Time-Life. Where has she suddenly arrived from?

Saturday 10 November 2012


I went to bookartbookshop in Pitfield Street, just off Old Street tube station, because they’d asked to stock three copies of the Nick Wadley pamphlet, and they also took two copies – no, three, because someone bought one before I’d left the shop – of Days and Nights in W12, because it has images as well as text and so sneaks in. But they’re not averse to text: lots of, for example, Atlas Press books, Oulipo, Alfred Jarry, Raymond Roussel, etc. It’s a lovely shop, not least because everything’s displayed according to more arbitrary/inventive codes than basic alphabetical order. It’s hard to get out of that shop without buying. I failed. In other words, expenses exceeded income.

Which is generally the case. Twos and threes? Some double figures wouldn’t come amiss. Someone steer me out of this? See the last post, Vacancy. I’m serious.

Meanwhile: they still had, on the shelves at bookartbookshop, a couple of copies of Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch from when I last trekked in there. First edition, CBe, 2009. I brought them home. Buy five books from the website and write Lunch in the ‘instructions to merchant’ box in the check-through and I’ll add in one of these copies – a hike, I know, but these books are worth something: rare, very, and anyway I’m not officially allowed to sell them because Faber now have rights.

Meanwhile: CBe has committed to more titles for 2013 than in any previous year, and is about to agree on another that will be one of those books that define what the whole thing’s about.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Vacancy (or, teach me how to sell books)

Those who buy CBe books (Stendhal’s ‘happy few’?) know that they’re not buying from Random House. For good or ill, these words apply: niche, reticent (the brown card covers), amateurish (all the numbers are written down in a big red book, I’ve never made a spreadsheet in my life). A reason that CBe has survived for five years is that it is not a business: editing, design, typesetting and general running around are done on a voluntary basis, i.e. not costed against income. (On the other hand, the authors do get advances: pocket money, not enough to keep wolves from the door, but some recognition of an author’s dignity. I mention this only because the practice of not paying any advance at all seems to be spreading.) Another reason for survival is that a number of the books have had a good press. But you’d never guess that from the sales figures.

Sales, marketing and publicity are fields in which I’ve had zero experience. So, given that next year CBe will be publishing more titles than in any previous year, and I owe it to the authors, I’m intending to apply for funding to pay a part-time freelance Person in the coming year – a Person, ideally, who has kept track of the musical chairs of lit eds and knows without checking who is currently sitting in which seat; who knows how to bend their ears, and the ears of festival managers too; who can knock down the price for a decent reading venue, and then pull in enough people to fill it; who has a proven knack of getting books to new readers and persuading them they can’t not buy. A Person, in other words, who is not just enthusiastic about this form of publishing but who has experience (yet doesn’t mind operating out of kitchens and cafés, not an office). A Person who can set up contact networks and procedures that a less experienced other person may then be able to follow up and develop at a cost more sustainable by CBe itself.

If anyone happening to read this knows of such a Person, or has a friend of a friend who may know, give them the CBe email: Inquiries from retired bankers with literary interests and a willingness to fund parties will also be welcome.

Monday 5 November 2012


There’s a sign outside the café at Snape Maltings, which is where the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival was held this year, that tells you not to climb on the benches because you might fall off. There are a LOT of signs. It’s an arts centre, encompassing an array of different halls and studios and cafés and shops and car parks. The halls and the studios are lovely. The whole thing is six miles inland from Aldeburgh.

In its first year the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival was attended by a few hundred people; now in its 24th year, the attendance is around 5,000. (I’m not sure if that is number of people attending or number of ticket sales, which are very different things, but that’s still a big achievement.) This growth is itself the reason for the move from Aldeburgh to Snape – where the venues are more comfortable and can accommodate bigger audiences, where the whole thing has a more ‘professional’ sheen. No longer need the organisers apologise to the invited poets (a number of whom have travelled half the world to be here) for the buckets on the floor catching rainwater.

The move: good thing or bad? Me, I think they should have stayed in Aldeburgh, and fixed the roof. Among the things lost: after a reading, strolling directly onto the beach, or into the nearest pub or chip shop. The trestle tables stacked with books that were part of the set in the main reading hall, where you browsed as you chatted. The hugger-mugger of everyone being in one location (as opposed to, this year, swinging back and forth on the shuttle bus between Snape and Aldeburgh, where almost everyone staying for the weekend still lodged). Not least, and especially for townies, the SEA. But I’m not representative of the main audience the festival now attracts: regular lit&music-festival-goers, with cars, and with incomes that seem not to be severely dented by the price of tickets (£15 for a three-person reading, £7.50 for the half-hour slots, and these on top of travel and accommodation). It’s this audience that is growing, and that is quantifiable – in terms of numbers in columns on applications for funding. Neither the sea nor the old huggermuggerness can be counted in the same way.

Absolutely no criticism is implied here of those who put on the festival – who remain, as ever, wonderfully welcoming, friendly, adventurous and inventive in their programming, committed with all their hearts to the work they present, non-corporate. They themselves are a big part of the joy. There is at least this continuity. (In its 24 years, the festival has had just two directors, Michael Laskey and Naomi Jaffa.)

Little waves of idealism or contrariness are what small presses arise on, and probably festivals too, and if they’re to stay true to their roots most have a lifespan of no more than a decade. Aldeburgh has had an amazing and glorious run of over two decades. The tricky thing is the momentum of success, that it can – but doesn't have to? – put at risk the essential character of the enterprise.