Monday 19 September 2011

Free Verse: The Poetry Book Fair

If you want to support independent publishing and you love poetry and poetry books, please come along to the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair at Exmouth Market Centre, Exmouth Market, London EC1R 4QE this Saturday, 24 September 2011, from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Entry is free and as you can tell by the cool poster, it's going to be an uplifting and inspiring day which will affirm your faith in poetry and the organisations and events that support it. You can celebrate the originality of independent publishing as the following small presses will be displaying and selling their books:  Anvil, Arc, Carcanet, CB editions, Donut, Egg Box, Enitharmon, flipped eye, HappenStance, if p then q, New Departures, Nine Arches, Penned in the Margins, Rack Press, Reality Street, Salt, Shearsman, Shoestring, Sidekick, Ward Wood, Waterloo, Waywiser and zimZalla.

As the organisers point out, there are deeper motivations behind this event than merely bringing together the lovers and practitioners of the art. The fair is a symbol of cultural survival against the financial odds. Like many organisations in many areas, the Poetry Book Society and the Poetry Trust both had their funding cut by the Arts Council in the March 2011 budget guillotine frenzy:
The fair celebrates the variety and vitality of contemporary poetry. It is also a response to the decision of Arts Council England in March 2011 to cut its regular funding of two organisations... who for many years have helped make poetry books available to more readers than they’d otherwise get to, and of a number of publishers whose work (translations, new writers and neglected older ones, local writing) was in accord with ACE stated priorities. A table at the book fair is being made available to the Poetry Book Society, free of charge, to publicise its work.

For more information please contact

One tiny note to the organisers. In sending out press information for this excellent event, please notice which names you're highlighting, who you're leaving out and who you're implying is culturally important (and who isn't). The formal press release has no women mentioned on it and makes me want to ignore your event the way the press release ignores women, who, as you know, will be the majority of audience members attending and supporting the fair. You are selling the event to journalists by saying it's being opened by Michael Horovitz, pointing out that there will be a souvenir programme featuring new work by Simon Armitage and providing a big supportive quote by Benjamin Zephaniah. There are countless major women poets (entirely off the top of my head, in 3 seconds: Jo Shapcott, Carol Ann Duffy, Jill Dawson, Jackie Kay, Fleur Adcock, Lavinia Greenlaw, Liz Lochead, Malaika Booker, Bernardine Evaristo,Wendy Cope, Imtiaz Dharkar, Ruth Padel, Helen Dunmore) who could have been approached to support the event for your press release.

Your all-male trio of namedrops is all the stranger given that only one of the men (Horovitz) is actually reading at the event. It makes me want to delete your email before I click on the list, which you sent as a separate Word document with no fancy typsetting or letterhead, of your actual and excellently-curated readings, in which brilliant women are brilliantly represented. You have put together a roster of appearances that anyone who both supports women and loves poetry would be delighted to attend. Yes, we work diligently at our desks and read our sincere little scribbles out loud, ever grateful, but we also deserve the headlines, the top quotes, the honorific appointments, the big celebration, the major sell, the starry commissions, the cultural weight, the mentions and the fancy, schmancy fonts.

Here's a list of the day's readings for everyone who wants to go and listen to these wonderful contemporary poets at this necessary and thought-provoking event. The day is not just for lovers of the word but also lovers of the book and supporters of the broader creative culture in which all these things flourish:
  • 10.30-11.00 Ward Wood: Sue Guiney and Peter Phillips
  • 11-11.45 Michael Horovitz
  • 12-12.30 Happenstance Press: Jon Stone, Kirsten Irving, Lorna Dowell, Peter Daniels, Clare Best and D A Prince
  • 12.30-1 Nine Arches Press: Ruth Larbey and Matt Merritt
  • 1-1.30 Reality Street: Jim Goar and James Davies
  • 1.30-2 Rack Press: Roisin Tierney, Nicholas Murray and Katy Evans-Bush
  • 2-2.30 CB Editions: Christopher Reid and Nancy Gafford
  • 2.30-3 Carcanet: Will Eaves and Ian Pindar
  • 3-3.30 if p then q: Lucy Harvest Clarke and Tom Jenks
  • 3.30-4 Flipped Eye: Max Wallis and Kate McLoughlin
  • 4-4.30 Penned in the Margins: Gemma Seltzer and Siddhartha Bose
  • 4.30-5 Waterloo Press: Jeremy Reed, Niall McDevitt and Philip Ruthen 

UPDATE: Okay, I cannot believe I am following up a pernickety snerpickety article with a grin on my face rather than a frown, but I have now received emails from the organisers which have just confirmed that these are, pretty much, the most nicest, decentest people. You must go to their event. I am putting excerpts of the exchange up here to make you smile, restore your faith and remind everyone that we can all make a difference, small and big, and be positive... and that sometimes people are just rather wonderful.

A major producer writes to me:
Thank you for helping us spread the word! I'm sorry about the press release - we could have so easily avoided the problem with some simple rewording. I'm very glad you did click through to the list of readers though, and that you agree the day itself looks like a worthwhile one. I will do a better job of representing the mix of poets in advance material in the future - thanks for pointing this out. Thank you for such a positive post overall - hope to see you on Saturday!
I write back to her:
Thanks for such a lovely email - as soon as I put the piece up I felt bad because obviously huge, huge amounts of work, efficiency and dedication go into events like yours and I hate being That Person. I should say, I don't believe for one second that these sorts of things are deliberate, or malicious, or anything like that. It is totally obvious how diverse and wideranging the event is. I think I notice it a lot because I get sent so many press releases and these deep sorts of cultural patterns then become very obvious. Anyway, roll on Saturday, it will be a huge success I know.
 She writes back to me:
No no - as soon as I saw your post I couldn't believe I hadn't noticed it before sending out all the info. It's such a stupid mistake to make. And it's a shame, because we have put thought into getting an interesting and diverse mix of readers on the day itself. It's always good to point it out - it's too easy to become complacent, and I'm kicking myself. Anyway, thank you again for the enthusiastic post - it's much appreciated!
If that doesn't make you feel generally great and in my case a bit choked up and misty at the niceness of people, I don't know what will.... unless it's this email from a gent behind the event:
Huge thanks for helping to publicise next Saturday’s poetry book fair on your blog. As for the gender issue, point taken. I’ve never before organised anything bigger than a one-person reading, and this has been a learning curve for me: it began as a late-night whim at the time of the ACE cuts, at which time I was thinking of maybe three of the presses who’d had funding cut and another three or four, and then it just grew, and now there are more presses than the room can comfortably hold and I’ve had to turn others away. We did approach one of the major women poets you mention but she didn’t reply; one or two of the others I chose not to approach because I thought them too, well, Establishment. (Armitage and Reid were approached because, although they too are Establishment, they’ve made a point of publishing with and supporting small presses throughout their careers.) But yes, the omission of women on the press release was bad.

Why there hasn’t been an event like this in London (there are others outside London) for so long, I can’t think. If we get enough people, I’m hoping [THE WOMAN QUOTED ABOVE] - who has been amazing - and maybe one or two others, younger than me, can pick it up and do something bigger next year, maybe over two days, and turn it into an annual event.
And this is what I wrote to him, edited because I mentioned some confidential day-job details:
I am smiling very much now as I have just received an email just as lovely as yours from [THE WOMAN QUOTED ABOVE] too, confirming the feeling I got when I saw your poster and roster that you are just utterly butterly wonderful people.

I notice the gender thing a lot simply because as a hack I'm sent info about everything cultural on the planet so patterns of omission/including/bolstering of reputation become very obvious, and so often there's a no-women press release....along with a pretty much no-women actual roster, and no lovely mixed readings to leaven the grief. Your event is not, for one second, sexist, and when I saw the list of readings I was grinning and applauding. My day job is [AS AN IN-HOUSE BALLERINA FOR NASA] and I understand ...the incredible pressure producers are under [WHEN ONE'S TUTU IS ORBITING MARS].

And YES! to a bigger and longer event. You could extend to the Free Word Centre who I'm sure would get behind it, or camp out at the Southbank for 3 days? Or collaborate with the British Library... if there is anything I can do to help facilitate this in any way, please let me know, I am on board (and am not just saying that!) If you want someone to advocate, to patronise, whatever it is, give me the word.

After that I think you will agree, we are all lovely, lovely, lovely people. Have a great week, everyone reading this, and top it off by attending the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair on Saturday at Exmouth Market Centre, Exmouth Market, London EC1R 4QE  from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Entry, like some verse, is wild and funny and free.

A FINAL NOTE: I thought I should also mention Poet in the City, who have launched an extremely interesting programme of talks, readings and interviews at venues around London and is lucky to have received funding as a new organisation in this Arts Council round. Their work is excellent and includes valuable programmes involving using poetry to help sufferers of mental health issues, youth work, outreach work and much more. But, I ask myself, are they lovely? After Poet in the City sent me details of their autumn events I wrote to the man who sent me the details, POIC chief exec Graham Henderson:
dateFri, Sep 16, 2011 at 11:26 AM
subjectPoetry and mental health scheme
hide details Sep 16 (4 days ago)

Hi there and many thanks for your email about poet in the city,

A wonderful organisation and a great range of speakers and events. I am extremely impressed by your daring and diversity - making links with international writers and issues. Very exciting and extremely inspiring.

I was very interested in your 'poetry and mental health' programme and wondered if you're looking for writers to be tutors for this? I have done a lot of work in this capacity, bringing writing/storytelling/poetry/expression to [VARIOUS PLACES WITH VARIOUS ORGANISATIONS]. It is the hardest thing but also the most rewarding thing; often a far cry from the delights of the literary scene as we think of it - yet profoundly valuable. And the people are always strong, funny, inspiring. I had students who talked about certain workshops they had done (with other writers) years afterwards. I will shortly be working with [AN ORGANISATION] on a brief project going into UK refugee centres to work as a writer with families there.

I've stuck my biog in a link on my name but please absolutely ignore this if it's irrelevant. I just wanted to write in support of what you do and see if I could offer something I had some experience in, not as an expert myself but because whenever I work in these roles I come away learning so much myself about people's resilience and depth.

Best wishes, [ME]
No reply. My conclusion: they are good. But they are not lovely.