Sean O'Brien

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.  

The poet’s process

I have had a particular postcard on my desk for many years, a bit yellowed now. It was originally sent to me by the late Richard Caddel, who was at the time the co-director of the Basil Bunting Poetry Centre at Durham University library. It lists Basil Bunting’s advice to his students in Newcastle in the early 1970s. Like Bunting, I have passed this on to my students; over the years I must have shared this with nearly 300 beginning poets. It remains for me the best advice on how to write a poem:


1. Compose aloud; poetry is a sound.
2. Vary rhythm enough to stir the emotion you want but not so as to lose impetus.
3. Use spoken words and syntax.
4. Fear adjectives; they bleed nouns. Hate the passive.
5. Jettison ornament gaily but keep shape.

Put your poem away until you forget it, then:
6. Cut out every word you dare.
7. Do it again a week later, and again.

Never explain – your reader is as smart as you.

What poets must achieve is the ‘congruence of line and sense’, to quote another Newcastle-based poet, Sean O’Brien, who spoke on the poet’s process last night at the launch of the new issue of Poetry Review at the Freeword Centre in London. To balance form and content is the challenge in every poem, and each poem presents a different set of challenges. The poem is a jigsaw puzzle, a formal maze, a crossword, a mystery to be solved …