Penned in the Margins

A week in poetry (and a short tour of independent bookshops)

There have been times (usually when I’m in a bit of a slump) when I have asked myself why I continue to write poetry. Apart from the pleasure it gives me, I realise it will never bring me vast numbers of readers or great wealth. Auden was right: poetry makes nothing happen. It will not change the world (although it should, of course). It is often considered precious, esoteric, obscure. But there are times when poetry rewards me for my patience, my dogged determination. Last week I gave four readings (in Oxford, London, Galway and Dublin respectively) and taught three classes. I have to admit this is not typical – four readings in the space of six days must be a record for me. But I can’t think of a better way to have passed the time.  

In Oxford, six poets spent much of the weekend discussing each other’s poems. We are all working on new books or sequences, and so coming together and critiquing over a concentrated period is invaluable. We were fortunate to have Rhona McAdam with us, on an extended visit from Canada (see her pictures of our weekend on her blog, Iambic Cafe: ). The highlight was a group reading at the marvellous Albion Beatnik on Walton Street. The Albion Beatnik is reminiscent of the first bookshops I frequented in New York as a teenager – crammed to the rafters with books, with a fabulous poetry section including lots of work in translation and American imports (I bought a beautiful CB Editions bilingual selection of Francis Ponge). The audience was crammed in too, in every available corner, and the mulled wine was flowing; the large turn-out was due to the efforts of Jenny Lewis, our host for the weekend, and a much-loved tutor in creative writing for Oxford University ( What struck me about our reading was how diverse we were as a group – we have very different formal approaches and distinct concerns – but somehow that conspired to make a truly varied evening.

Back in London, and a very different venue and line-up for the Penned in the Margins Christmas party, hosted by Tom Chivers ( Not a bookshop this time, but the flagship London branch of Aubin & Wills, the clothing store. Five of us read our poems amongst the lumberjack shirts and chunky sweaters (and all the time I was wondering what Auden would have made of it, or Eliot!). A little odd, but then again, why not? Why shouldn’t poetry be brought into places where you would least expect it? Isn’t that the problem, that poetry has been sidelined, marginalised? The thing about poetry is that it is portable, easily transmitted. So when you think of it that way, Aubin & Wills is perfect. The shop itself is all whitewashed wood, full of quirky furniture and posters advertising past readings (they’ve been hosting literary evenings in the store for some time). And fairly lights of course. Tom was a brilliant host, bringing together another diverse bill of poets. I like the energy of Tom’s evenings – he has a policy of putting on new voices along with more established writers, mixing performance poets with more page-based readers. And I won a snow dome in the Christmas quiz for knowing a line from that famous seasonal poem by Louis MacNeice!

And then it was off to Ireland. I arrived in Galway in time to have a stroll around town, and to visit Charlie Byrne’s bookshop, which is more ramshackle that the Albion Beatnik, with lots of rooms on different levels, like a book maze. It has, as you might expect, a great section of contemporary Irish poetry (I bought an anthology of the best Irish poems from 2010, edited by Matthew Sweeney – a series I haven’t seen for sale in England). Galway is one of those places where there is always music somewhere – on the street, or just audible through the open door of a bar. There was a Christmas market in Eyre Square; it felt as if it ought to be snowing, although there was just a light sprinkling of rain. I was reading for Kevin Higgins and Susan Millar duMars in their Over the Edge series ( . Kevin and Susan are terrific hosts; the last time I read for them it was in a packed little room upstairs at Sheridan’s Wine Bar, but this time we were in the spacious surrounds of the Galway City Library. As before, it was a lovely, enthusiastic audience, followed by a Christmas gathering at McGinns pub. I’m always struck when I’m in Galway by the concentration of poets and poetry-making (the wonderful Salmon Press is based there). It is a warm, welcoming city, even in the depths of December.

And finally, to Dublin. The last time I was in Dublin was about ten years ago, so the first thing I did when I got off the bus was to buy a map and get my bearings. I like Dublin because the city centre is easy to navigate on foot, and I soon found myself on Grafton Street. There was a busker attempting to hawk his collection of poetry; and groups of carollers in Santa hats singing Van Morrison and the Pogues. I made my way to the plush wood-panelled sanctuary of Hodges Figgis, that grand old Dublin institution, where I tried to limit myself to one book (airline weight restrictions are an excellent way to curb impulse poetry purchases): I bought a lovely Gallery Press edition, the Selected Poems of Seán Lysaght, a new poet to me, but recommended by Chris Meehan, one of my fellow Galway readers.

But the highlight of my trip, and possibly of my whole week, was the gathering I attended in the evening, organised by Yvonne Cullen ( I was put in touch with Yvonne through Mark Granier, a fellow Salt poet and photographer based in Dublin, who I met when he came to launch his last collection, Fade Street, in London last year ( Yvonne hosts gatherings of musicians and poets in her home in Glasthule, and everyone brings food and drink, so it’s more like a party. What a civilised and wonderful way to hear poetry. There was some gorgeous music by Dermot McNevin, and Yvonne, Mark and I read poems. It was one of those evenings that was perfect in every way. And before we all disappeared into the night, Yvonne took me through Sandycove, past terraces of little Victorian villas, to the sea, with the lights of Dublin Bay behind us, to show me the Martello Tower where Joyce and Oliver St John Gogarty lived, and where Ulysses begins, Stephen Dedalus standing on the parapet, staring out at the snot-green sea, the scrotum-tightening sea … the great sweet mother. 

Small is beautiful

Coming away from last weekend’s Free Verse book fair (laden with my bag of purchases!) I felt truly optimistic for the first time in quite a while for the future of poetry publishing. The fair was arguably an example of something positive emerging from the recession. True, there are a number of small presses which have suffered (and some which will inevitably close) in the current round of Arts Council cuts, but as many if not more have risen to prominence in the last five years, such as Cinnamon, HappenStance, Mulfran and CB editions (whose founder, Charles Boyle, organised the fair). Here is a statement of intent from the programme:

Writing is not being cut – and the job of making is the most interesting, innovative, inspiring writing available to readers is still largely that of the smaller presses. They are flexible; their overheads are minimal; they are run, most of them, by people who are mad – which is in fact their strength, because their madness is a form of obsessions not with money but with the use of language, which is where it all starts …

And so, the Free Verse fair was inaugurated in a spirit of defiance, collaboration and small-scale entrepreneurship. As the larger presses find it increasingly difficult to support their poetry lists, and, as a result, are taking fewer risks on new poets, there is growing scope for small presses (often very dynamically and successfully run by a single dedicated publisher with a vision) to discover the poetic talents of tomorrow.

I cannot remember a time in the two dozen years I have lived in this country when there have been so many presses producing such innovative and exciting work (‘a disarray of publishers’, as the programme proclaimed); apart from being a bit too young, I was not in the UK during the flowering of the small press and pamphlet movement of 70s – it seems to me from everything I’ve read and heard about that period that it was very much a revolt against the mainstream, whereas the current spawning of new small presses feels far more organic and welcoming. As the diverse selection of voices in Roddy Lumsden’s  2010 Identity Parade anthology perhaps indicated, there are no prevailing trends in poetry these days, apart from a genuine desire to try new things.

So back to the fair. Chris Hamilton-Emery gives a very good account of the atmosphere in the room in his blog: . Along with some indies who have been around for a while (such as Enitharmon, Anvil, Shearsman, and my publisher, the aforementioned Salt) there are more recent arrivals, such as Penned in the Margins and Donut, whose books are collectors’ items as well as great reads. I love my copy of Chris McCabe’s Shad Thames, Broken Wharf, which Penned in the Margins produced as a boxed edition of 200, complete with an ‘Inventory of Items Mudlarked from the Thames’ and one of those items (mine is a blue and white ceramic fragment) contained in its own brown paper bag and separately numbered and labelled. I love my growing collection of Donut Press books, beautifully designed and small enough to fit into a back pocket; their mini-edition of WS Graham’s ‘Approaches To How They Behave’ contains that single long poem, a brilliant new introduction by Sean O’Brien, and a selection of quotes from Graham himself (and all for a fiver!).

I am very much hoping this will become an annual event. Judging by the number of people who poured through the doors while I was there (and the number of people leaving with bags as heavy as mine was!) it should be.