My third pamphlet chat is with Sarah Barnsley published by Telltale Press. I had the pleasure of reading with her recently in Lewes…
The Fire Station began life as a larger collection, drawing together two strands I developed over several years – one, a lyrical kind of poetry, focussed on the surreal and the sublime; the other, a grittier, narrative kind of poetry, focussed on growing up in the Midlands in the 70s and 80s in sight of the fire stations where my dad was based.
I resisted the second strand for a good while until I found a way of doing it that wasn’t descriptive or self-indulgent.
When it came to arranging The Fire Station, it was quite a straightforward exercise: the first part comprises the narrative poems (characterised by images of fire, cars, swearing, violence); the second part comprises the lyrical poems (characterised by images of water, boats, love, escapes). For me they tell a story of two kinds of fire stations, the ‘real’ and the symbolic – the physical fire stations of my upbringing and the psychological fire stations that a person might develop as a means of managing emotional fire.
Were you approached by Telltale and what was the process?
I was joint runner-up in the Poetry School/Pighog pamphlet competition in 2014. Following this, co-founders Robin Houghton and Peter Kenny wrote to me about possibly joining Telltale. Work and life got in the way a little, but once I had had time to think through the invitation I accepted it with a good deal of excitement – not just the opportunity to get The Fire Station published, but also the chance to be really involved in a press innovating a democratic model of collective membership.
Since becoming a member it took less than six months to get The Fire Station out into the world (it could have been sooner, but we decided that summer was not a good time to launch). Throughout the members of the collective were incredibly supportive, meeting with me, promoting the work, giving me a slot on the summer Telltale & Friends event and so on. Robin Houghton did exceptional work with the production – and tolerated my compulsive pedantry with good humour! The Fire Station was published in September 2015 and launched officially launched at Goldsmiths, where I work, in the November.
At first, I was terrified to look at it in case there was a mistake that had slipped through! But once I dared, I was very pleased with it – cover, print quality, the size and texture of it. I already felt good about the selection as I had lived with the poems and their overarching story for so long, although I did omit a number of poems that had been in the Poetry Society/Pighog competition version in order to fit in with the Telltale ‘calling card’ pamphlet concept – they can always appear in a wider collection. The other thing I felt was massive relief – that it was finally out, and I could get on with writing something else without this project tugging at me to get published.
What’s it like to be part of a collective?
Every bit the democratic venture I had hoped and great fun too, even if I constantly feel as if I could do more. Robin Houghton, Peter Kenny, Siegfried Baber and Jess Mookherjee (our newest member) are all poets with whom I am very proud to be associated, each very different and distinctive in terms of poetic voice, and all clearly going places – in addition to Telltale pamphlets, members are published regularly in the magazines and our pamphlets have been reviewed fairly widely.
In terms of mechanics, the principle is that we share out jobs, from scouting for new poets, writing blog posts, arranging readings, typesetting and so on, and trying to make apt use of the different talents and skills that members bring; for example, I am particularly interested in reading new voices and the editorial process, so I’ve put a fair bit of time into that. It must be said that Robin and Peter, as co-founders, have done an incredible amount of work to get this all going, so hats off to them – and long may the collective thrive.
Sarah Barnsley was shortlisted for an Eric Gregory Award (2004) and the Bridport Prize (2010), she was joint runner-up in the Poetry School/Pighog Pamphlet Competition (2014). Her poems have appeared in Envoi, The Frogmore Papers, Magma, Mslexia, Obsessed with Pipework, Raindog, The Stinging Fly and anthologies by the Cinnamon Press and The Shuffle. Her debut pamphlet, The Fire Station, was published in September 2015 by Telltale Press.
I do not trust telegraph poles.
It’s the way they stand stiff
in bowler hats
of spars and starlings,
twisting their slick Jack
pine canes hard into
the railway embankment.
The old duffers.
They have this air,
check freight against
pocket watches of knots,
frown chiselled hieroglyphics
few can decode.
Nothing is said to the fence
like a child searching
Not a word to the signal box,
shut up as if it knows
what’s good for it,
nor to the abandoned
bicycle slung over the ridge
ripped from a face.
Cables seething sideways
into maroon flame insulators,
they are furious inside.
They burn with talk.
from Sarah Barnsley, The Fire Station, (Telltale Press, 2015); first published in Envoi 158