Tuesday 16 April 2024

Newsletter April 2024

The Free Verse Poetry Book Fair has woken up and will be at St Columba's Church, Pont Street, London SW1X 0BD this coming Saturday, 20 April, 11.30 am to 6.30 pm, free entry. Full details here. CBe will have a table. We have history: the first Free Verse fair, held in September 2011, was organised by CBe. Above, the one remaining poster from that year. It was a response to Arts Council cuts in funding to a number of poetry presses that year: give them, at least, a chance to show their books to the general public.

While putting that book fair together, I talked with Katy Evans-Bush and she said, Oh, you mean a draughty church hall with bearded men and big-bosomed ladies standing behind trestle tables? Yes, exactly that. I’m a Seventies guy. It was in a church hall, with the remains of last year’s Christmas decorations still hanging from the rafters. Katy said: Some readings, at least. Chrissy Williams organised the readings. So we did it, without funding, and there was a tube strike that day but people came, lots of people, and it worked. We did it again the next year, and the next and the next, and Joey Connolly joined the gang and we got Arts Council funding to pay travel costs for small presses based outside London. The point being: no hierarchy, the big publishers (Faber, Cape, et al) getting just the same space as everyone else. More presses each year, it was hard work, and the fair is now run by the Poetry Society.

That was a good thing Katy Evans-Bush told me. Here’s another good thing from Katy: Joe Hill Makes His Way into the Castle, published in February this year. Copies on the table on Saturday, of course. And copies of the French poet Jean Follain’s prose book Paris 1935, published this month. And copies of the new issue – out this week – of Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, which includes an essay by me on independent publishing. This issue (cover image below) is guest-edited by Nuzhat Bukhari – copies of her book will be on the table too, Brilliant Corners.

And copies of Caroline Thonger and Vivian Thonger’s Take Two, one of last year’s CBe titles, a joint excavation of childhood (and later) in a fractured family in London in the 1950s and 60s. An absorbing in-depth interview (70+ minutes) in which the authors speak to Stella Chrysostomou of the wonderful Volume books is here.

And copies of Spring Journal by Jonathan Gibbs. JG curates A Personal Anthology: since 2017 he has sent out a weekly email in which guest writers write about 12 short stories; their choices and the featured authors are archived on the Personal Anthology website. My own choice of stories – not my Desert Island selection, more a gathering that came together at the time I made the list – will be online on Friday of this week.

As always: 6 books of your own choice for £45, 12 for £80, free UK postage: Season Tickets on the home page of the CBe website.

Wednesday 10 April 2024

Venus of the Hours

Lost for years, then found yesterday, and the place for it also found: Venus of the Hours, screenprint by Ian Hamilton Finlay and Ron Costley, 1975. Anything that I know about designing books – and this is more to do with hunches and play within a pared-down aesthetic than anything you can pick up on a course – I learned from Ron Costley (1939–2015: obituary here: he lived in ‘book-strewn’ house), who is now back alongside some of the books he helped me put into the world.

Tuesday 2 April 2024

Paris, spring

This month’s new CBe title – following Lara Pawson’s Spent Light in January and Katy Evans-Bush’s Joe Hill Makes his Way into the Castle in February – is Paris 1935 by Jean Follain (1903–71), a prose book by a French poet I deeply admire. The translation by Kathleen Shields is the first full version in English. I think I first knew of the book from August Kleinzahler’s poem ‘Follain’s Paris’ in Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow, 1995, which mines phrases and scenes from Follain’s book. Since the start of CBe I’ve always wanted to publish Follain – back in 2008 I wrote to Christopher Middleton, asking if I could publish the translations of Follain’s poems that he was working on, but he had promised them to Peter Jay at Anvil – and now I have and it has been worth the wait.

Publication date is officially in mid-April but I’ll start sending out the pre-ordered copies this this week. There’ll be launch party on 23 April at the Centre for Literary Translation at Trinity College, Dublin – email I if you’d like to come. The photo on the cover is by Dora Maar. A Sonofabook blogpost giving the flavour of the book is below this one, here.

Next month’s title, available for pre-order on the website, is The End of Ends by the Polish theatre director Tadeusz Bradecki. It is about, writes Francis Spufford on the back cover, ‘nothing less than everything … Anyone miserable at being marooned on this island of cynical banter and self-protective irony should read The End of Ends to be reminded of what it sounds like when art is taken seriously.’ Non-fiction, but includes an embedded novel.

All new titles can be included in the Season Tickets (6 books of your choice for £45, 12 for £80) available from the home page of the website.

CBe will have a table at the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair on Saturday, 20 April at St Columba’s Church, Pont Street, London SW1X 0BD.

Saturday 30 March 2024

Leek soup: Follain and Gogol

Above, Jean Follain, Paris 1935, translated by Kathleen Shields and published by CBe this April; and Nabokov on Gogol.

I imagine that for Follain, arriving in Paris in 1924 from the provinces aged just twenty-one, first impressions must have been dominated by the press, bustle, noise and sheer variety of people. So many of them! All somehow co-habiting in the same place! In the book that he wrote about Paris after living there for ten years, he attends to the churches and gardens and monuments but it’s still people who dominate his pages: flower sellers and rag collectors and barbers and cobblers and dressmakers and saddlers and typographers and salesmen and abattoir workers, shop assistants and shoplifters, priests and policemen and prostitutes and their pimps, schoolchildren and students and retired professors and bankers and magistrates and concierges, artist’s models and musicians and lovers and lion tamers …

Nabokov in his book on Gogol delights in Gogol’s ‘spontaneous generation’ of peripheral characters who have no plot-business to be there but just are. At the end of a chapter in Dead Souls, for example, after a drunken Chichikov has gone to sleep, ‘one light alone remained burning and that was in the small window of a certain lieutenant who had arrived from Ryazan and who was apparently a keen amateur of boots … He kept on revolving his foot and inspecting the dashing cut of an admirably finished heel.’ Nabokov: ‘Thus the chapter ends – and that lieutenant is still trying on his immortal jackboot, and the leather glistens, and the candle burns straight and bright in the only lighted window of the dead town in the midst of a star-dusted night. I know of no more lyrical description of nocturnal quiet than this Rhapsody of the Boots.’

Gogol again, with soldiers spun off from an adjective: ‘the day was neither bright nor gloomy but of a kind of bluey-grey tint such as is found only upon the worn-out uniforms of garrison soldiers, for the rest a peaceful class of warriors except for their being somewhat inebriate on Sundays.’ Nabokov: ‘It is not easy to render the curves of this life-generating syntax in plain English so as to bridge the logical, or rather biological, hiatus between a dim landscape under a dull sky and a groggy old soldier accosting the reader with a rich hiccup on the festive outskirts of the very same sentence.’

Follain too enjoys spontaneous generation. A man ‘passes near the bar with flaking paintwork, with its sign in yellow letters that have forked tips and a shading effect that required a lot of work on the part of the handsome whistling painter in his bowler hat and white overalls’.


A pigeon escaped from a laboratory, missing part of its spinal cord, totters on a pavement. Some cruel girls study him; one of them, exquisite as an Italian Madonna, has her arm in a sling because she was injured by a violent, amber-skinned lover.

She used to hold little teacups between her fingers so delicately that young men in silk hats would be overcome with emotion. Once she went home through very quiet streets on the arm of an elderly gentleman and quivered when a whinnying horse broke the silence.

Inside their lodges the concierges still live among their knick-knacks and cats. […] The wireless spreads news from around the world, famous speeches, less magical than the gossip on the grapevine that the housewives peddle to the concierge on rainy evenings. They talk while their husbands grow bored, waiting for leek soup in the tiny dining room where the old parents died.

Sardine tins are treacherously attractive; when he opens them with the key that is always too small, the poor fellow who eats alone in his room sometimes injures his hands and gets a nasty cut. A small, feeble, highly strung person almost sees red when he hears a tube of macaroni snap, as hard and brittle as his next-door neighbour’s arteries, the neighbour who gesticulates with his long hands. In damp streets where stalls are laid out, fish gleam with a slight ammonia smell […]. At the entrance to a dark corridor a second cousin from the country makes an appearance, biting into a raw carrot.

And these little flourishes (hands are very important to Follain):

the painted rose decoration above a brothel door in Grenelle at high noon, the obscure graffiti on a church wall in a district built in the Second Empire, the gesture of a suburban child who in a moment of joy beneath the sky, lays his dirty little palm with outstretched fingers on the burning wall.

Paris with its lilies, muck and gold, its inscriptions on columns or mouldings on grey houses, its women at café terraces wearing hats decorated with sprigs and flowers, or the hand turning the doorknob, or the glove being taken off to reveal the hand when the evening newspapers appear.

Nabokov noted that Gogol, to achieve his effects, employed a distinctive form of ‘life-generating syntax’ that can be hard to render ‘in plain English’. Follain too. Kathleen Shields writes In her introduction: ‘Follain has developed a unique prose style. The focus shifts from habitual practices to one-off events and from general statements to specific examples. The writing piles on more and more relative and prepositional clauses, so that the information within the sentence can be presented in an unexpected order, zoning in from the general to the particular within a single phrase or disconcertingly alternating between definite and indefinite articles and between singulars and plurals … Past and present tenses can switch places within the same paragraph … I have kept as many of these unusual features as possible in English.’

Where do the whinnying horse and the second cousin with his raw carrot come from? From a very particular way of writing. This is not a guide book. Nor is it a novel – it’s something more delicate than that. ‘In this beautiful Paris there are only lies, happy or sad.’

Saturday 2 March 2024

2 pence

Alan Brownjohn died on 23 February. A fine poet and a lovely, genial, generous man. Wonderfully colourful Romanian suits. Decades ago, long before the internet, one of the newspapers, possibly even the Torygraph, though Alan would have hated it, used one of his books as an example in a piece that parsed the economics of publishing. I am almost certainly the only person who remembers that long-ago page. That says something about me: that there’s always been a nation-of-shopkeepers aspect to my interest in publishing. Let’s go again.

Say the cover price is £10. Bookshops which have set up their own account with the distributor (in CBe’s case, Central Books) buy in books at a negotiated discount off the cover price. Most independent bookshops buy not direct from Central but from the wholesaler Gardners, which has a monopoly on this, and Gardners (quote from their website) ‘normally ask for 60% discount off the RRP’. Sometimes more. So in most bookshops a CBe book with a cover price of £10 will have been bought by Gardners from Central for £4 in order to reach the bookshop. Before passing on that £4 to CBe, Central will deduct their own fee (15% + VAT) and the sales agent’s fee (10% + VAT), which brings the amount payable to CBe down to £2.80. That’s my net income per copy, and I pay 10% royalties on that (I’ve already paid the author an advance on royalties when taking on the book, often £500). So CBe’s take is now down to £2.52. The printing cost is, say, £2.50 per copy. Which leaves CBe with 2 pence.

Could I print cheaper? For large print runs the cost per unit comes down, but CBe books are short-run books. And if I’m putting a book into the world – adding to the world’s sheer stuff – I want, obviously, this book to be a decent thing, so I’m going to add in from the extras on offer, as I think right for each book: endsheets, flaps, inside-cover printing. I’m currently paying around £3 per copy, which dunks that 2-pence profit into the red.

CBe has no Arts Council funding and I haven’t even mentioned design, typesetting or time, because if I costed those in this would make even less financial sense. So not a business model. More a declaration that it can’t be done without privilege (I’m 73, no mortgage, pension, know-how picked up in previous employment: kill me) and luck; but with those it can be done. For sixteen years and still running. So yes, a model of sorts. An anti-business model. And if the whole thing feels about to collapse, every day, that feels right.

The photo above: Jean Follain, Paris 1935, translated by Kathleen Shields. One of the books I was just waiting for: the first English translation of a prose book by a French poet (1903–1971) I am not a little obsessed with. And have written about. An old-style brown-cover book with gold endsheets, it had to be (though the retro brown covers come from a printer who charges artisanal-bread prices), but I wanted a photo too, so had that (by Dora Maar, 1935) printed separately and every copy will have that photo stuck on, one by one, by me. No mainstream publisher would do this. Paris 1935 will be published in April but is available from the website now for pre-order.

Meanwhile, Gardners: they basically don’t care, because I don’t make them enough money. A book I published early in February was listed on their website until yesterday as ‘Not available to order’, despite the book being in stock at Central since before Christmas – which means that anyone asking for that book in a bookshop supplied by Gardners in the month of publication was told Sorry, can’t get it. A ‘problem with a spreadsheet’, I was told. I doubt they will have that problem with the new Sally Rooney.

The predicament I’m describing here is that of many small presses. CBe is far from alone.

And the usual: please buy the books. The difference to CBe between a book bought in a shop and a book bought from the website is, even after postage (up again in April, the fourth rise in two years), the difference between 2 pence and the cost of a flat white. And the Season Tickets: the whole backlist (the ones still in print) at your mercy.

Sunday 4 February 2024

Two months, two books

Second month of the year and the second CBe book of the year is published this coming week. Katy Evans-Bush’s Joe Hill Makes His Way into the Castle is, according to an early review (by Rupert Loydell in Tears in the Fence) a ‘persuasive, personal, original and revolutionary collection’. No ‘pallid depoliticised reservoirs of poetic sentiment,’ writes Fran Lock on the back of the book: ‘None of that here. But a humour and an honesty that persist despite it all. No little dramas of abjection, but real life. We cannot look away.’ For starters, go to the book’s website page, where you can download an excerpt that includes K E-B’s preface – in which she spells out the presence in the book of the US poet Kenneth Patchen (subject of a CBe blog post a couple of weeks ago) – and a note on Joe Hill. And then press the ‘Add to cart’ button.

There’ll be a party for the book on 14 February. Katy will be reading from the book at the Faversham Festival on 24 February.

This follows Lara Pawson’s Spent Light, which was launched at the London Review bookshop on 24 January and in less than a week had four reviews (Guardian, Financial Times, Irish Times, Spectator) and sold out its first print run. Phew. This is not how things usually work around here. I’m more used to staring out of the window and hoping the sun will come out. The reprint will be in the warehouse in the next day or so. Meanwhile, I have copies here to fulfil orders from the website page.

If you do order from the website, think about the Season Tickets on the home page: 6 books of your choice for £45 or 12 for £80 (UK only; free postage). This is ridiculously generous. If Joe Hill or Spent Light is one of your choices, you’ll be saving £3.49 (or £4.33) off the cover price.

Thursday 1 February 2024

TLS / Royal Society of Literature

Really odd piece in the TLS this week by MC about the RSL. Are you with me? Don’t worry if not, it’s an ingrown toenail in the long-running series about writers and status that no one cares about except writers. RSL = Royal Society of Literature. First two paras in the TLS are starter waffle, which is what this column does, with added pepper, and there’s a place for this and I read it.

Get to the point. Which he does in para 3: ‘According to Private Eye, the society is currently trapped in an “ideological purity spiral”’. And so it continues, lots of quotes wthin quotes, gossip, who said what to who, which is how anything bookish becomes news and gets a Guardian piece – posh people bitching.

So much of MC’s piece is in quote marks. MC himself is in quote marks: ‘We’. A couple of things I pick him up on: ‘senior RSL members’: you just mean older, don’t you? Older and whiter. You imply the new members are junior. All RSL fellows are equal, or they are not. MC’s mockery (fair enough: all selection is invidious) of the ‘specially selected’ panel that will nominate candidates for new fellowships – ‘Who selects the selectors?’ – slides comfortably past the previous old-boys club way of nominating: they selected themselves. And please, please, do not say ‘august institution’, irony is over; when Marina Warner bemoans a ‘lack of respect for older members and a loss of institutional history, which was something members cherished’, she is talking about an institution first given royal patronage by the particular King George, I forget which, there were several, who declared: ‘We do hereby declare and make known, That the Slave Population in Our said Colonies and Possessions will be undeserving of Our Protection if they shall fail to render entire Submission to the Laws, as well as dutiful Obedience to their Masters.’ That is a part of the RSL’s institutional history; I think a big part; to bemoan lack of respect for it is at the very least complacent. Why, seriously, does the RLS not ditch the Royal bit?

Sunday 21 January 2024

Kenneth Patchen rides again

Kenneth Patchen (1911–72) is not a writer familiar to many British readers, even obsessive poetry readers, but he was important to Katy Evans-Bush in her teens – which is an age at which writers can be very important – and he was important to her again during that recent period of Covid lockdowns, lock-outs, lock-ups, cock-ups. The above photo (courtesy K E-B) shows in a nutshell, or a sweetie-box, the kindling process that led to her new collection, Joe Hill Makes His Way into the Castle. For that process spelled out, go to the page for her book on the CBe website and download the extract that gives you K E-B’s preface, and a note on Joe Hill, and a couple of the poems; and then, having got that far, buy the book. Which is officially published early in February.

Kenneth Patchen didn’t just write. Writers don’t just write. Politics were important, and music and love and coffee and bluebells, and he drew and painted. Below are some of Patchen’s book covers and his poems as artworks. (Thank you, Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre, a hugely important resource.)

Friday 12 January 2024

Dog days

Since Christmas the view down from my desk chair has been this – Reggie, a dachshund I am dog-sitting – and I have been a member of the club of dog-keeping small presses. Kevin Duffy of Bluemoose Books posts regular photos of Lottie. William Boyd recalls visiting the ‘small cramped offices’ of Alan Ross, editor of the London Magazine and of the London Magazine editions (the model for CB editions): ‘Books everywhere, of course, but there were two dogs sprawled under his desk …’ Ross published Auden’s ‘Talking to Dogs’ in a 1971 issue of the London Magazine: ‘From us, of course, you want gristly bones/ and to be led through exciting odourscapes –/ their colours don’t matter – with the chance/ of a rabbit to chase or of meeting/ a fellow arse-hole to nuzzle at …’

2024 books: Lara Pawson’s Spent Light publishes on 23 January; she will be in conversation with Jennifer Hodgson at the London Review bookshop on 24 January. Katy Evans-Bush’s Joe Hill Makes His Way into the Castle will publish on 6 February – available from the website now (as is Spent Light).

Coming in April: the first English translation of Paris by Jean Follain (1903–71), a French poet I hugely admire and have written about. And The End of Ends by the renowned Polish theatre director Tadeusz Bradecki, written in the last year of his life: a non-fiction book about story-telling and everything else which happens to include an embedded novel.

There are birthdays galore in January and the 10th anniversary of Studio ExPurgamento (co-publisher with CBe of Blush and The Camden Town Hoard) to continue celebrating: party at the Horse Hospital on 23 January, free entry but reserve a ticket on Eventbrite. A not-bad birthday prsent for yourself or anyone else is a Season Ticket (6 books for £45, 12 for £80, post-free) from the website home page.

From the US-based organisation Pleasure Pie you can download 10 free zines about Palestine. Begin with Gazan Youth Manifesto: ‘Fuck Hamas. Fuck Israel. Fuck Fatah. Fuck UN. Fuck UNWRA. Fuck USA! We, the youth in Gaza, are so fed up with Israel, Hamas, the occupation, the violations of human rights and the indifference of the international community […] We want to be free. We want to be able to live a normal life. We want peace. Is that too much to ask?’