Tuesday 2 April 2024

The Elephant in the Poetry Publishing Room

Right now, the Elephant in the Poetry Publishing Room isn’t funding, which is eternally being debated. No, there’s another issue that very few poetry publishers are prepared to discuss in public, and that’s the collapse in sales of single-poet collections.

Those sales were already low, but they’re now pitiful. And if you doubt the veracity of this statement, just take a trip over to the official Companies House website and have a look at a few sets of poetry publishers’ accounts. And read and weep.

Of course, amid the rush for that afore-mentioned funding, most publishers are only too keen to bury their disastrous sales figures. What’s more, if funding is what keeps their heads above water (rather than actually shifting units), they have little motivation to tackle the problem head-on. However, if we love books, it’s urgent that we should all discuss the reasons why customers are turning their backs on poetry collections, and then ask ourselves how we might turn things around.

First of all, what about those reasons? Well, to start with, the fall-out from the pandemic is still being felt. Audiences at festivals and in-person readings understandably remain lower than pre-Covid, given the average age of attendees. Meanwhile, online readings don’t seem to generate a similar level of interval and post-reading conversations between the poet and members of the audience (and by extension, thus bring about far fewer sales).

Moreover, the posting of free content on blogs, websites and social media is undoubtedly a major issue. Faced with such an abundance of riches, all available gratis, readers understandably wonder why they should bother investing in books.

It feels like a fundamental shift has taken place, as if the rules of the poetry publishing games have all changed, though most of the players haven’t noticed yet (or aren’t making any public acknowledgement of having done so). In this context, it’s especially important to assert the poetry collection’s value as an object, as a sensory experience, as a physical connection with the words that are printed on its pages, as an act of communication that reaches far beyond a screen. As a consequence, production values become even more important. The quality of the paper, of the cover design, of the typesetting, fonts, all become something to savour, something that lifts print-based poetry above a phone or tablet. That said, however, a balance needs to be struck between these materials and the affordability of collections, as sales are inevitably connected to retail prices.

And then there’s the permanent qualities of books against the transient nature of the internet. As readers, if we don't buy, read and treasure poetry collections, we'll be left with a random succession of poems to be scrolled through for free on a screen, consumed and forgotten in minutes.

This seems a pivotal moment for everyone involved in the poetry world. Sales aren’t an issue that only affects publishers. By extension, the problem also ripples out to poets and readers. Leaving aside the policies of ACE, if we ourselves don’t take the bull by the horns, get innovative in our poetic relationships and make an effort from all sides to embrace the importance of print-based poetry collections, we’ll lose the huge diversity of voices that are published every year in the U.K., in which case we’ll have nobody but ourselves to blame…

Monday 25 March 2024

Rogue Strands reading in London on 23rd April

We'll be hosting thoroughbreds from several top-notch stables at Rogue Strands in London on 23rd April (at The Devereux, which is an ace venue). Poets from Carcanet, Red Squirrel, New Walk, Tall Lighthouse and HappenStance for your delectation. Farmer, Stephenson, Horton, Fitzpatrick, Stewart and Riches. All champing at the bit, all raring to read for you, all gagging to gallop to the bar (speaking for Mat and myself, at least)! It would be terrific to see you there...!

Sunday 24 March 2024

Guest Poet at Acacia Publications

Over at Fokkina McDonnell's Acacia Publications, I'm this month's guest poet (see this link) with three poems from Whatever You Do, Just Don't. One of them is titled Wendsday (sic, sic, sic!). Fokkina writes... "I admire the attention to detail, precision, and economy of Matthew Stewart's poems: so much between the lines…"

Monday 4 March 2024

Scenes from a film, Nicholas Hogg's Missing Person

Cinematographic or filmic aren’t habitual adjectives when describing the vast majority of contemporary U.K. poetry, but they provide an ideal point of departure for discussion of Nicholas Hogg’s first full collection, Missing Person (Broken Sleep Books, 2023).

In the above context, the last two stanzas from
Starring Role seem especially relevant:

Then a tea with the lads,
            the ruffle-haired cub. I wander off
from the gang — cue plaintive strings (not too loud)
            as I stand and stare from a new-build shell.
A reviewer may write
            that this is rather mawkish,

the boy at a window
in an empty home. What the critic
has failed to gather, is how the man will carry
            this void
            into every room he walks
            for the rest of his life.

These lines read as a statement of poetic intent. They’re comparing an individual person to a character, a fictional scene to a supposedly factual event, highlighting the blurred lines between the two, while they’re also anticipating a potential film critic/literary reviewer’s reticence at the poem’s struck poses. And all this, of course, plays out alongside a reference to an archetypal musical soundtrack for the event or film. Via these references, Hogg is implicitly asking us questions. Are we reading a poem or watching a film? Is it fact, faction or fiction?

The endings in
Missing Person are particularly interesting. At first, they might often lead a reader to suggest that they’re taking an easy way out of the poem. However, an alternative conclusion presents itself once we view them as the closing shot in a mini-screenplay. This is when they suddenly become loaded with the connotations of Hollywood, toying with our expectations of life and cinema. One such poem is Gun (With Englishman):

I want to add a detail here, like circling birds, or a dust devil swirl.
But, no. Just a fridge. And a target with a heart
blown out.

In this extract, the first person jumps from being a protagonist to taking on the role of the screenwriter. Or even the director. At this point, the reader is made aware that the poem is blending with a scene from a film, riffing on all those stereotypical plot twists and images that the big screen imposes.

These cinematographic poems are by far the most remarkable pieces in
Missing Person. They stand out among the other strong but less striking poems that make up the rest of this collection, and are well worth the entrance fee to the book as a whole. Here’s hoping Nicholas Hogg’s future writing continues to explore and mine their potential, because they strike at the heart of a crucial issue in contemporary U.K. poetry - the blurring of the poet and the first person – and they do so with terrific, idiosyncratic insight. I recommend you read them for yourself!

Saturday 2 March 2024

Tasting Notes on YouTube

Thanks to my new YouTube channel, I’ve managed to upload the poetry film of Tasting Notes that we made back in 2013. The pamphlet might be out of print, but at least this gives the poems themselves a new lease of life…!

Tuesday 27 February 2024

Meticulous observation, Jean Atkin's High Nowhere

High Nowhere (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2023), Jean Atkin’s new collection, is packed with implicit and explicit sociopolitical ramifications that overtake the reader bit by bit, poem by poem. At first sight, it might seem a disparate book, but is highly coherent and cohesive, each section adding another layer to Atkin’s portrayal of a planet in crisis.

This above-mentioned portrayal sometimes addresses climate change directly, as in references to extinction (such as to the Tasmanian Tiger) and a poem titled
40.2 degrees. And then it homes in on other negative impacts of human activity, as in Earth’s viral load

To understand viruses, consider
how humans infest the earth.
How each one wants only to live.

At other times, however, Atkin’s approach is more indirect. One such example can be found in
A wish on the Glynch, which ends as follows:

…Wish for water
say the millstones, wish for the grain’s flow
wish for bread, says the village
bread and summer sunshine, bread and ordinary snow
bread ground for us by the Glynch brook minnow!

In this case, the poem works in synch with the rest of the book via its evocation of the loss of local roots and food sources, hinting at the disappearance of a connection with the place where we live rather than stating it outright.

And this last point takes on additional significance once the collection’s focus shifts to Iceland, where nature might appear eternal, but where modern development also intrudes, as in the final stanza of
Power Lines...

September, and I am being driven in the rain
past the new giants of Iceland, their electric spell.
I will keep listening in fear of the future,
in fear of the stories the pylons will tell.

Jean Atkin’s poetry never rants. Instead, it observes meticulously. On opening
High Nowhere, we find ourselves in the hands of a poet who trusts us to reach our own conclusions on the back of her reportage. I dare you to finish reading this book and emerge indifferent to the role of humans in the plight of the Earth. That’s the mark of Atkin’s success.

Sunday 25 February 2024

A video from the London launch

Here’s a visual taster of Whatever You Do, Just Don’t, a video from the packed London launch in which I read a poem titled The Ghost of Tim Walker (with thanks to Flo, Mat Riches’ daughter, for shooting it). Enjoy…!