Penned in the Margins started life as a poetry reading series in a converted railway arch in Herne Hill, South London. I set it up in 2004, shortly after graduating, and for the first two years I ran the events as a hobby alongside my full-time job. Then in 2006 I quit to set up the company properly. So we’ve been running as a business for seven years, and over that time have organised over one hundred live events, toured five spoken word productions, and published thirty-four books.
The ‘poetry publishing market’ is almost small enough to be a contradiction in terms! There was a statistic flying around a few years ago that suggested that living poets accounted for only 10% of the poetry market, and of that proportion 90% was Seamus Heaney. I’m not sure if it’s still accurate, but it certainly gives you a clear impression of how small the cake is. It’s also very mixed, with tiny start-ups and tenacious hobbyists jostling alongside government funded presses and imprints of large commercial publishers. Having said that, plenty of people are reading poetry (often online) and are excited and challenged and entertained and unsettled by it; one of my roles as a publisher is to find new readers for the work I believe in. Each new book is an opportunity to do just that.
Can you tell me something about your titles and successes?
I hope our output is characterised by its radical diversity and openness to experimentation. Some may discern a house aesthetic, but if so it’s not deliberate but rather has developed organically. I’m interested in the whole spectrum of poetry, from lyric to performance to textually innovative. It’s hard to compare, say, Luke Wright’s Mondeo Man with Emily Critchley’s Love / All That / & OK, but I’d like to think they both fit comfortably within the press. A good proportion of our catalogue has been debut collections and many of those by younger poets, though that’s by no means a hard-and-fast rule.
The past month has been good to us! First, Claire Trevien’s poetry debut The Shipwrecked House was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award as their Readers’ Choice. Then, Melissa Lee-Houghton’s second collection Beautiful Girls received a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. We’ve had some previous successes with awards – a PBS Recommended Translation for Meghan Purvis’s brilliant translation of Beowulf, and a Special Commendation for Adventures in Form – but mostly I measure success by the quality of the book, and by our effectiveness in reaching new readers. Every book is different. Some sell very well, whilst others struggle. We’re ambitious with each new title, but you never know what’s going to be a big hit. Our best-selling and most widely reviewed book is the anthology Adventures in Form, which I edited; but I remember being very nervous when it was released. I wasn’t sure if I’d done a good job or not, or if anyone would actually enjoy reading it!
I should also note that we don’t only publish poetry. I am also interested in what I rather vaguely call ‘experimental fiction’. So in the past year we’ve released Holophin, a very funny and disturbing science fiction novella by Luke Kennard; Count from Zero to One Hundred, another novella by Alan Cunningham which is very much in the tradition of experimental European literature; and NOT AN ESSAY, a limited edition text by poet and artist Heather Phillipson.
What do you look for in a collection and how many submission do you receive a month/year?
We receive about twenty-five submissions a month, which is a very manageable amount. I reply to each one individually. Most books are commissioned, but every year I will publish maybe one or two unsolicited manuscripts.
It’s hard to say exactly what I’m looking for. A distinctive use of language ranks pretty high. Assured deployment of tone and voice – or voices (I’ve never believed all that rubbish about ‘finding your voice’). I like to see that the poet is experimenting, and by that I don’t mean ‘is writing experimental poetry’ in the generic sense, but is looking for ways of extending their range, testing the boundaries of what a poem might be, taking risks, even risks the poem does not quite pull off. I’d much rather read something that fails, that is deficient in some sense, than a poem that is so confident in its own voice that it forgets to listen.
Increasingly, too, I am attracted to poetry that, either individually or by accumulation in a collection, approaches an idea or a subject, that says something about the world outside and not just general musings of its author. A good example is Tim Cresswell’s book Soil, which manages to be both a miscellany in the grand tradition of the debut collection but also a pretty tightly honed investigation of geography and language.
Melissa Lee-Houghton’s latest collection is a Poetry Book Society recommendation – what does this mean to you as her editor and when is the book out?
I’m really delighted for Melissa – she’s a wonderful writer, really ambitious and risk-taking, and she sits slightly to the side (I think) of the main currents of contemporary British poetry. Her work draws on personal experience in a way that is both refreshing and uncompromisingly dark. Some of the best individual lines of poetry I’ve published are Melissa’s – she’s got an ear for the strange.
The PBS Recommendation is a great thing to get, as it will extend the profile of the book to those who might not otherwise have heard about it. Generally I will expect a small uplift in sales – some directly through the PBS – and it’s also something that I can use to pitch the collection to bookshops. I’m helped in this respect by Inpress, a sales and marketing agency that represents independent publishers. They work tirelessly to sell my books to the likes of Foyles, Waterstones and the big wholesalers. It’s so important to have the right processes and partners in place if you want to actually see your books on the shelves.
Beautiful Girls is out in November.
Penned in the Margins isn’t simply about publishing, what are the other areas you are involved in?
That’s right, the company has always combined publishing with producing live events. These are not always conventional poetry readings – they are more likely to be collaborations between artists working in different artforms, or spoken word theatre shows, or site-specific commissions, or even performances that exist digitally. The most recent project we produced was called Electronic Voice Phenomena and was a collaboration with Liverpool-based curator Mercy. We jointly commissioned about 15 new performance works, including four core pieces by poets Ross Sutherland, Hannah Silva and SJ Fowler, and music act Outfit. The result was a pretty sinister but I hope highly entertaining multimedia show that toured to eight venues in May, including the Sage Gateshead and Norfolk and Norwich Festival. There’s also a very active website which showcases new writing in response to the themes of sound, voice, ghosts and technology.