Jo Bell on her new collection

KithHow did you feel when you were waiting to hear about your submission?
I’m blessed with a very casual attitude to rejection letters. One major publisher turned the book down – very graciously and for good reasons – and if Jane Commane of Nine Arches hadn’t liked Kith, I would have reassessed it and thought about what to do next. But I had faith in the book, a decent pedigree of prize winning and publication, and a strong sense of the book’s identity.

Jane and I had a good relationship from previous projects, and she was ready to publish me if the work was right for her list. It felt equal and mature – not a courtship on either side, but both of us wanting to see if this was a match that would work, and if so, what shape the book would take.

What was the editorial process like and how long did it take to complete?
A slow start, which sped up towards the end. The first task was deciding on which poems to include. Jane generously asked me to send her ‘the lot’ – a portfolio of around 100 poems, some of which were non-starters – so that we could identify where the kernel of the collection was. ‘You bring your version, and I’ll bring mine’ she said. We met on a sunny afternoon in Stratford, and put them side by side. They were almost identical in content. We were cooking on gas from then on.

The title helped, because the idea of ‘kith’ informs the whole collection. Sometimes the decision as to whether a poem should stay or go, came down to whether it was sufficiently ‘kithy’. So the sequencing was the next challenge. The writer often can’t see the wood for the trees, having planted the trees in a particular order. We shuffled a few of them around, lost a few and divorced a couple from their original context to create an arc which better serves the reader.

So far we’ve only spotted one cock-up – a single poem has been left out of the book, which we both intended should go in it. It just fell off the edge, in one of the many revisions and re-edits that we exchanged.

Shallow DOF, focus on editor and nib of pencil.

What input and advice did Jane give to you?
A good editor holds each poem to account – like John Humphrys interrogating the prime minister. So, little poem, why do you feel that you have to be a sonnet? I put it to you that you are, in fact, a ten-line poem of two stanzas.

The tweaks were specific to each poem – ‘you’ve used this word elsewhere,’ or ‘could we lose a clumsy stanza here?’ In particular, Jane called me out on a tic I have of using a conversational phrase to clear my throat as I open a poem – ‘This is how it is’ or ‘What we ought to do is this’. Some I kept as a part of the style, but more often we cut them. Jane brought a new perspective, challenged me on certain phrases and structures, and asked me to explain my choices of word or rhythm. She is discreet, endlessly modest but tireless in chivvying away at the ones that need more work.

Most of us are far too precious about changing and correcting our poems. I like a bit of slash and burn. Many of the poems had already been through a process of creative butchery with two writing groups, and I’m a fairly fierce editor of my own work, so in this final edit there wasn’t a vast amount of change. A few pieces though were completely transformed, like Kingfisher which is much shorter and much better than it was.

What was it like to hold your book for the first time?
I’m supposed to get all emotional and say ‘it was like holding a newborn babe in my arms after a difficult birth, and I cradled it tenderly and wept’, right? It isn’t ever like that for me. It was the end of a big project, delivered brilliantly by Nine Arches. No publisher could have given me a better book. I’m truly delighted with Jane’s new format, and with Heather Duncan’s artwork on the cover. But I don’t mistake the artefact for the act of communication. The poems are out there; now we need to share them around and find out what people feel about them.


How many readings have you given since its publication?
It’s been out three weeks, and I’ve done five so far. Plenty more to come this summer. Have a look at http://www.jobell.org.uk for more reading dates. I’ve got readings lined up for Swindon, Leicester, Ledbury, the Green Festival and lots of others before the year is out.

Finally, what are you working on now?
Commissions for the National Trust and the Canal & River Trust; rehearsing for a revival of my Riverlands show with Jo Blake Cave; and planning for big new projects including a live ‘happening’ in London with writer Tania Hershman. Poetry doesn’t just exist on the page and we want to make something really ephemeral and memorable.

There’s time set aside this summer and autumn, thanks to a generous sponsor, to work on the beginnings of the next collection. I want to work on them one by one, as they come to me, and not set out to ‘write a book’. Someone told me that I should get the next one out in eighteen months. That ain’t gonna happen.


For more about Jo hop to The Bell Jar.

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