Peter Sansom in conversation with Helena Nelson
(Interview commissioned for Sphinx magazine, and still available — issue 11, see here.)
HN: Can you take me back to when you first started doing a poetry pamphlet competition? Were you the first press to do this? When was it? How did it all come about?
PS: It was 1986 and poetry competitions were quite rare then, quite new — though I suppose the National and the Arvon had been around a few years. Maybe the sudden rush of comps was a sign of the Thatcherite times — though I remember them with affection, especially the Peterloo and Mike Shields’ Orbis Rhyme International (which I used to filter). They seemed less like free-market capitalism and more of a game that anyone could enter — and though not in fact a complete lottery, there was certainly a big element of chance, like the football pools.
As for why a pamphlet competition, that was simply inspiration. Also the first Smith/Doorstop pamphlets were just out and I was looking to do more. They were by poets at my Huddersfield Poly workshops (workshops were new then, too, or ones with writing exercises were). Simon Armitage and Clare Chapman shared the first pamphlet — not having enough poems for one each. There was also a rather wonderful dayglo-green number by Ian McMillan and Martyn Wiley. Happy times. Ian judged the first competiton, together with Graham Mort, and the joint-winners were Adele Geras and Pauline Stainer.
HN: Where did the imprint name (Smith/Doorstop) come from?
PS: The rather grand oblique came first (or slash as it’ unpleasantly called nowadays). Then the Poly printer was called Roo Smith. And I knew that poetry publishers always have boxes of the things, like doorstops.
HN: Has the recession (and new 'competitors' like Templar and Flarestack) affected your number of entries? In fact, has the competition continued to grow, or does it stay about the same? What's been the pattern over the years?
PS: As T S Eliot said (he'd won the Nobel Prize by then), there is no competition among poets — and nor is there among poetry competitions, even those who have just piled in and nicked our idea. We've grown in reputation, and therefore entries, because we're good at reading poems and at choosing judges, and because the Poetry Business has grown in reputation.
Also, though it keeps the business afloat, our Competition is as much about finding poets as it is about making money. I think people like the anonymity of entering — the 'game' of it — and the fact that a number of poets will definitely be published by a certain date, rather than their mss disintegrating over time on a slush-pile. Also I'd like to think people enter not just to get into print, but to be part of our list — we do have some clout, and we're known for the care we take in editing our poets, and working with them sometimes quite closely, sometimes over years.
HN: You have a simple but professional look to your pamphlets, and they're not dear to buy. Can you say something about the aesthetic and what it's trying to achieve?
PS: I'm glad you like the look of the pamphlets. One of your reviewers pointed out they're attractive but sturdy and will fit in your pocket. The production should enhance, not get in the way of (or stand in for) the poems themselves.
I love pamphlets — they're just enough for a satisfying read — they showcase individual poems but are also generally more than the sum of their parts. Also, there's something uncommercial and risk-taking about even the most 'mainstream' pamphlets — and there’s something deathly isn't there about the idea of 'mainstream' poetry.
HN: Obviously you're not called 'The Poetry Business' for nothing. You do events, workshops, a whole set of publications under the Smith/Doorstop imprint, a magazine (The North), an annual pamphlet competition. To echo Lewis Carroll, Pray how do you manage to do it?
PS: It sounds a lot, but it’s not work, is it, not like going down the pit or being Peter Andre for a living. And we get a lot of support from writers and other organisations, not least the Arts Council. Also, we have an exceptional company manager. So much so, we've moved into residential courses now too (partnership courses with Arvon, and at a railway station in Brittany! Plus we hope woman-only groups in Malta — watch this space (or rather www.poetrybusiness.co.uk). And we're expanding our audio and such as podcasts and webcast poetry. Also we're now running our our fourth Writing School — an Arts Council initiative aimed at published poets — really a customised form of the MA I taught for ten years. Otherwise, there'd just be too many hours in a day.
HN: After years of experience of running a pamphlet competition, can you reveal anything about the likely ingredients for a winning pamphlet?
PS: Good poems are always the key. Don't worry about sequencing or subject matter. Just write good poems.
HN: I know you lost some significant grant funding a year ago - but you've kept going. How do you see the poetry publishing business in terms of balancing the books? Is it possible to keep afloat? Is such a thing as a profit possible?
PS: What a stroke of luck losing the Kirklees money! With Janet Fisher retiring, there was no reason to stay in Huddersfield (except of course that it was Huddersfield). Also, so many people were supportive about the grant cut — which was astonishing, and rather wonderful, and it showed it was worth continuing — showed the Arts Council too, maybe, because we got an uplift in ACE funding which very nearly balanced the lost revenue. There’ a lot I could say about that time. Janet was the Poetry Business, and when she retired we did think about stopping. But Sheffield is brilliant in its very different way. Now Ann has come in as co-director, we do even more editing and teaching, which is actually more fun than it sounds.
As for 'profit', we wouldn't last two minutes in the Dragon's Den, but then how many poetry presses would? The move to Sheffield was a financial low-point for us, and for a while we were almost scuppered. Even now that we've cut overheads and so on, we'd certainly fold without Arts Council support and indeed without the competition income. We've lasted for twenty-three years on the mainstay of all the independent presses: enthusiasm. I have at least had some income from the business (unlike many editors), but it has always been tiny — the business in effect always subsidised by my freelance work, for instance as company poet with M&S and the Prudential, and teaching fellowships at Leeds and Manchester.
HN: How does your magazine, The North, fit into all your other activities?
PS: The North is a part of the whole, though some people only see that part; in just the same way some people don't realise we do anything other than Writing Days or Smith/Doorstop Books. But all our activities inform and shore each other up. In some contexts (schools for instance) I'm just a poet, one often called Pete Samson (probably a performance poet), and sometimes (the university teaching) I'm not even that. Today as it happens I got a contract addressed to Peter Sampson — for some poems about meat for Morrisons (really). A couple of times at Ann Sansom's readings I've been asked what it's like being married to a poet. (It has its moments.)
But I seem to have strayed from the question. I like the fact that people like The North. We get a lot of very heartening feedback: one guy took the latest issue up to his allotment and then didn't do a stroke of work all day. That's poetry for you. And we love editing the magazine. It's quite labour-intensive, as you'll know, all that reading and re-reading, and all the articles to commission and chase up and tweak. (I don't know how Michael Schmidt does six issues of PNR a year.) But it's a lovely job, finding often quite brilliant poems, often from people we don't know or from people we thought we did but who really surprise us this time. And we're very lucky in the quality of the reviewers and other very generous actually writers, who do the articles and features such as Poets I Go Back To and the Blind Criticism. And it's great that every time (touch wood) it all comes together — because the magazine (like the Business) is made up of all these complementary but different and as it were not consciously co-ordinated elements.
HN: Sometimes people suggest that pamphlet competition entry fees (or first collection competition entry fees, like the one Salt is running) are simply a way of charging reading fees. Please don't take this question amiss, but can you comment on that?
PS: No that's a very reasonable question. I can see that some competitions do look like money-spinners and nothing but. And as I say, the comp is a big source of our income — in fact it's rather more than that, it's crucial to our profile, because it gets our other activities some attention: a North magazine flyer for instance is overlooked much more often than a Competition flyer with a North advert on it.
Something to the point here is that we once paid several arms and legs to try national-press advertising for our books: and do you know, we got no orders at all from it — not one solitary, single, lone £5.95 (as it was then) book order. But we did get quite a number of manuscripts.
Also, I wasn't just saying it — we really do depend on the competition to find many of our best and most-valued authors (all our authors are equally and extremely highly valued of course!). I guess half of our list was found through the competition — even Michael Laskey was originally a competition winner, as was for instance Jane Routh, Catherine Smith and Allison McVety, all of whom we love working with now from the first poems of a collection through to the published book. Well, naturally all our comp winners are pretty good, even the pamphleteers who are really with other book presses — like Mimi Khalvati, Daljit Nagra, Selima Hill, Stephen Knight, Matthew Hollis, Kathryn Simmonds.
HN: You've been in the business of publishing poetry, in various forms (magazine, pamphlets, books, audio) for quite a long time now. What's your feeling about the state of poetry publishing in the UK at the moment? And where do poetry pamphlets fit in?
We've just been asked this question by Inpress (who do our repping and so on) — for their website as 'Publisher of the Week'. And I'm stumped. I remember twenty years ago being on a panel with some quite important people addressing (probably an ironic or post-modernist title) 'Whither Poetry?' I had opinions then. Inpress (also ACE) are quite properly interested in this kind of thing and in such as who our target audience is. But really I'm only interested in poetry, and not even that exactly: I'm interested in poems and, to some extent, poets.
The market changes. Borders came into being and that was wonderful and now it's very sad about the closures. And Waterstones arrived and stocked a lot of a poetry for a while, including us, and now they order — centrally and take less poetry and rarely the independent presses. And never pamphlets: no lettered spine so they're invisible on shelves; and too cheap, not enough mark-up. But again that may change, with Faber coming in, their pamphlets will be stocked and may well sell — they'll have display stands and be out at point-of-sale — just because they're Faber. It's the image, the imprimateur, and it's human nature: although I'm a Bloodaxe fan, I ignored most of their R S Thomas books — and then shelled out straight away when Penguin brought out his actually quite poorly-selected Selected.
And that's partly the function of brand, isn't it (or how it's perceived): a sort of quality control. With the internet and print-on-demand it's never been easier to get poetry out there, especially bad poetry. Even in book form, it's often clear nobody's read, let alone edited some of these poems. And because it takes an effort to connect with a poem, it's upsetting to find you the reader have worked harder than the poet and publisher. And what's more it sells the poem short, the poem which could be so much more, so much more three-dimensional and alive (or which deserved a mercy killing). It also underlines why people tend to steer clear of poetry, and makes you wonder why more poets don't get beaten up.
Which is to say, it's more than ever important to make sure collections are carefully edited, and for presses to build up a trust with their readership. And this is where pamphlets win out. Because obviously a pamphlet doesn't need as many poems — it takes time to gather a whole bookful of good poems. And being shorter, a pamphlet is easier to edit and to see as a whole. Also, as readers, it's not just money we're investing when we buy poetry, and I think people are generally more relaxed and more generous with a short collection. We put our hearts and minds into it, after all, when we read poems properly — we open ourselves to them, share in that imaginative experience. A good example, if you don't mind me saying, is your own Michael Mackmin pamphlet, Twenty-Three Poems. It's rather wonderful, in fact. The poems and the format are so perfectly suited. A poem is only as good as its reader at the moment of reading, and part of that moment is how you feel about the book(let) itself.
There's one important area that was touched on earlier, and that is probably right to end on here. That pamphlets do seem rather 'uncommercial' and that poetry is, too, isn't it. It's not corporate, at any rate, it's much more grass roots and word-of-mouth, isn't it, the way poets and poems get read. Though the 'big' organisations (P.B.S. eg) and big publishers and important reviews and important anthologies, all of these affect reputations — by making poems available I guess, by making them visible — even so, poetry readers generally don't trust the blurb: we only trust the poems, the ones that speak to us. We don't want 'the next big thing', we want poems to connect with us, personally. Poetry is the most personal of the verbal arts, and there's something a bit homespun about pamphlets, as if they were made not for the market but for the reader — just one reader, actually, each one of us, who happens somehow to happen to find it. That sounds rather grand doesn't it, and down-to-earth at the same time (like the best poems!), so I'll come to a stop there.
Thanks for asking me these questions. I've enjoyed answering them.