Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Why Does Poetry Not Sell?*

Yesterday was the first Northern Poetry Symposium. An eclectic spread of panel discussions, film screenings, readings and breakout sessions were held in the rafters of the Sage, Gateshead – the iconic Tyneside concert hall and landmark which first spearheaded the gentrification of Gateshead Quays (or, as the marketers would have it ‘NewcastleGateshead’) during the heyday of the Blair government – with the intention of gathering the North’s poetic literati under one (big, shiny, curvaceous) roof.

Opening with the provocatively-titled panel, ‘Is Poetry Relevant?’ and continuing through themed sessions which included the fascinating ‘Print Revival’ and a heated discussion of ‘Poetry in the Media’, among others, the day sought – I think with mixed degrees of success – to bring together disparate elements of the UK’s poetry scene and ask how they could begin to work together to further the cause of this most loved, and hated, forms of arts.

Organised by the recently-revived Poetry Book Society, operating under the auspices of the Newcastle-based Inpress since the original outfit spearheaded by Stephen Spender and T.S. Eliot in 1950s London folded last year, the symposium was a clever rouse on the PBS’s part to wave the flags, sound the horns and declare triumphantly: “We are still here!” It was perhaps no surprise, then, that much of the rest of the event should be taken over by conversation aimed at selling not only more PBS memberships (shamefully, I haven’t been a member for around 3 years) but more volumes of poetry: be they traditionally slim, bulky anthologies, spineless, or altogether more three-dimensional or non-dimensional at all; merely nebulous concepts affixing themselves with capital-p ‘Poetry’ badges.

The poetry world is a broad church and I am a supporter of its variety and willingness to experiment with other art forms and challenge assumptions about what a poem should be. This doesn’t stop it also being a small world: where poets know each other and factions exist and overlap and grudges can be borne for years over incidents (or non-incidents) which to the outside world would look entirely trivial. But I’m already off topic. We were here to talk sales, or their lack, and if the conclusions of the Northern Poetry Symposium are anything to go by, none of us really know why more of our books aren’t being sold, other than the fact that, you know, 99% of the population still think poetry stopped in the nineteenth century.

I can only really speak for myself and my own experiences. In February this year, I placed ten copies of my 2015 pamphlet, The Coast Will Wait Behind You, in the gift shop of The Word in South Shields on a sale-or-return basis. The plan was that The Word would take a 30% commission on the overall sales, and the books would remain on display for a few months. I went down this afternoon to see how they were doing, not expecting them to have all gone immediately, but certainly not expecting all ten to still be there. The manager of the shop explained that local titles had been selling poorly in general recently, which is fair enough: this is a library, after all; why pay for a book if you can borrow it for free?

But, something doesn’t sit right for me, and I don’t think it’s as straightforward as the pamphlet being a spineless volume (therefore less ‘dominant’ on a book shelf) or The Word being predominantly a free space, or even the folk of my hometown’s lack of interest in local poetry. If conversations at the Northern Poetry Symposium are a barometer, small press books and authors (often alongside their supposed ‘big’ counterparts) need a ‘hook’ or a cleverly-worked biography off which to propel their titles and cause the average punter to go from casually flicking through a blurb to parting with the cash at the till.

The Coast Will Wait Behind You, like Definitions of Distance before it, is a limited-run edition of poetry. Both were lovingly put together by dedicated and passionate advocates of the arts, and in the case of Red Squirrel Press, by an editor, Sheila Wakefield, whose staunchly independent commitment to publishing collections of poetry and novels by largely northern English and Scottish writers is a feat which should earn her a medal, trophies and a cabinet big enough to keep them all in.

Similarly, TCWWBY was a labour of love. Designed by the ineffable Manny Ling, and with stunning front and rear cover photos from Damien Wootten and Tim Collier (alongside kind words from Jean Sprackland, Esen Kaya and Mike Collier), the 28-page volume, gorgeously set on cream paper, is the product not only of my imagination and two and a half years of writing and editing, but the cumulative efforts of people who take care and attention to ensuring that poems are presented seriously. In short, for £5, it is a steal.

Yet. And, of course, yet. I’ve heard myself saying something like the following: “A fiver! It’s only a few sheets of paper folded into some card!” Perhaps. Or perhaps you’re paying for the thought—the long, deep ruminations which lead to the slow craft of poetry; not to mention the subsequent months of editing and revising and the time spent (nearly always with at least one other collaborator) designing, printing and trying to then sell the bloody thing!

Look, we all want people to read our work. That’s one of the main reasons we do it, isn’t it? Buying it – Christ! – that’s a different thing. On reflection, I’m not surprised the pamphlet didn’t sell at The Word. I would have dearly loved all ten copies to’ve found their way into ten new homes, where they might have enriched the lives of those who read them, but they haven’t. They’re sat in a plastic bag on my desk, waiting for the ‘hook’, which will probably be at least two more readings, where something of the personal craft, time and attention-to-detail of the book’s composition might rub off, via my especially good recitation of a poem, onto an audience member, who might then part with one of their new plastic fivers in exchange for an A5 volume of poetry published two years ago. This means, and the Northern Poetry Symposium tangentially covered it, that the role of the poet is not only to write the best poems they can (the first and foremost thing, according to Sean O’Brien, a maxim I tend to agree with), but it is also to go out banging on doors, with luminous signs above their heads, totting up change from rounds at the bar, selling to strangers in circumstances which bear absolutely no resemblance to the book shop or Amazon marketplace.

That all sounds like a rant, but I actually love doing it. One of the best readings I’ve ever done was in the upstairs room of The Blue Boar in Ludlow. Poetry at the Sitting Room, organised by the lovely Jean Atkin, was certainly not a record for hand-to-hand sales, but it was a three-hour period in my life where, listening to and being listened, I was able to remember, really, why I do this: to connect with people and feel something of their humanity. I don’t yet know when my first full-length collection will be out, and while I hope it is published by an outfit with the same fervour as Red Squirrel or Arts Editions North (ideally with an enlarged marketing budget and a general target populace altogether more prone to walking into their local Waterstone’s and buying more than one poetry book a decade), I will still be there in the room above the pub, reading poems about being from a stupid little town in the North-East, hoping that someone wants to hear something about it.

N.B. As copies of The Coast Will Wait Behind You can now only be acquired by myself, do please let me know if you’d like one and I’ll post it out to you, signed and with a little note, in exchange for a carefully-concealed fiver. I like to think of this as my own little cottage industry.

*(In quantities which precipitate the consumer-capitalist economy)?

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