How did you manage your creativity in the lockdowns?
To be honest, it’s been challenging! I have been writing here and there, but mostly I’ve been working and editing and keeping things moving along with the press. I’ve not found as much time for my own writing as I’d have maybe have expected last spring in the first lockdown, despite no longer spending as much time travelling around as I used to. If anything, I’m now in more Zoom meetings in a week than I would ever have been in ‘real life’ and there are more, though different, demands on my time than before. But I’ve found a lot of positive creativity in other ways – in working on new books with my poets, but also teaching, and other forms of creativity (reading, cooking, knitting, dressmaking, gardening).
Walking especially has been a real lifeline for me, and the hardest parts of lockdown have been the ones like in this most recent one, when I’ve not been able to go a bit further afield. But I’ve been really fortunate to find lots of very local walks which have been restorative and a good part of my routine – and I do think that connection to place will continue to feed into my writing in future. Walking and being outdoors and much more observant – noticing the signs of changing seasons and wildlife around me, even from my backyard, that I would have overlooked before has been something of an anchor when all else in the world feels disrupted and out of kilter.
I think part of it is I feel a little like I’m in a state of absorption at the moment with regards to my own writing. The combination of constant awful news and all the hopes, fears and shifting circumstances that engenders mean that any writing feels like it is on shifting sands for the time being for me: I know I will hit a writing streak again, but for now I think I’m still taking it all in, weighing it up. Writing will be how I process of the experiences of the last year, but only when the time is right. I really admire poets who can eloquently respond in an immediate, perceptive manner to the events of our current time, but I think I tend to need to ruminate and mull things over – and for ideas for poems to ferment and come into focus over time.
How were you able to balance your writing, editing and forays into online events?
There has been a fair bit of readjustment – but I have found a fairly good balance now. Myself and my colleagues at Nine Arches have now been working from home since mid March 2020, and initially we had no idea what to expect or for how long the disruption would be for in those early days. It’s a real testament to my Nine Arches colleagues, Angela and Peggy, and our 2020 intern Sophia, that we kept going, managing to juggle everything and finding ways to adapt and settle into our new circumstances. It helps that up until 2018 I’d operated Nine Arches from home so knew how to go back to that, but I do miss all working together in our office and travelling to meet poets and going to events and festivals!
The nature of publishing and the way we work, always ahead of ourselves with a routine and plan of action for what needs doing for future books on a continual cycle, has actually been really useful. It has helped in keeping some semblance of time and structure in the strangely unshapen and amorphous days of lockdown and in-between times, and it’s actually been really useful to have this regularity and structure to hold on to.
The balance has been challenging at times as a poet and an editor – there is less distinction between working, creative and home life as it has all melded into one, but I’ve never been more busy and also, despite the pressures that entails, grateful to have been absorbed in work and the thoroughly positive business of making new books and poetry happen in the face of so much uncertainty in the last twelve months.
You have 12 new titles for 2021. What support did you need to give your poets because of these uncertain times?
This last year has been such a tough time for all our poets as they published new books, and especially in the first six months, as those forthcoming poets lost out on all their planned live events, festivals and bookshop sales. But we also got up to speed very quickly in 2020, including learning a lot of new digital skills. This did help to mitigate some of the impact of those loses, and it has been really vital to keep on reassessing and recalibrating over the last year.
Where I might have met poets just once in person to work on a book and edit their poems, I now work with our writers over several zoom calls on manuscripts, so we can take a bit more time and have plenty of space to consider our marketing and digital plans and well as our creative and editing ones. This has, I hope, enabled us to spend a bit more focused time which each forthcoming poet, and to have some new opportunities too as a result. For instance, we’ve been able to collaborate with poets and artists on book cover designs, and have short but regular meetings with both parties to come up with some very special designs. Katie Griffiths’ gorgeous cover art for The Attitudes by artist Anna Steinberg, and the beautiful bespoke design by Sophie Herxheimer for Jacqueline Saphra’s One Hundred Lockdown Sonnets are just two examples of this.
In addition, I’ve been really keen we support writers practically. This might be through continuing to commission new work from them, be it for workshops, events, reviewing and critical work or involvement in projects, in the hope it may replace some of the paid opportunities they have lost. But also through making time and space to try and stay in touch, work on new projects and show our continued support for their creativity. Probably the most key thing has been our commitment to keeping going and to publishing their books – though lots of things have moved about in out schedules, I’m really proud that not a single book was cancelled last year or this year, and we have in fact expanded our list in 2021.
We’ve also done a lot of work on staying connected to audiences and readerships digitally, as we know this is so vital for our poets in ensuring they retain a sense of their books reaching out and connecting beyond the current limitations we’ve all caught in.
Do you think online events will change the poetry scene in the future?
Yes, I hope so! It’s been a real tonic to be able to join poetry events taking place here in the UK and further afield that I couldn’t otherwise have attended. It’s really broadened the audience for poetry too, and created something both inclusive and more accessible, not least for low income and disabled audiences. At Nine Arches, we have been running a regular programme of poetry events livecast to YouTube since last summer and we’ve had incredible viewing figures on many of those. We have had people attending our events from the US, South Africa, Canada and New Zealand to name just a few. It’s been uplifting to have met with a global audience we never would otherwise have been able to reach. It’s really helped us to keep going and it’s been vital for our poets too, to be able to be present in this way. Of course I miss events in live venues and spaces, and look forward to those returning, but I hope also we can all take a more pluralistic view in future and ensure we have both live and online events on offer to our audiences – there is so much for everyone to gain in that.
Your submission window for Under the Radar opens in May. What advice would you give to poets who need help to start sending out work again?
Send us your best poems, and don’t try too hard to prejudge what you think we might like. That may sound odd, but I know from my own experience that as poets we can agonise quite a bit over what we perceive an editor or particular journal might like or expect from us. And yet so often, it’s the submissions which dare to be a bit different and forge their own path with confidence that stand out, not least as we are now reading so much new work. Poets have certainly been very busy and getting very well organised in submitting and sending out work in the last year – we have never so many submissions before! Our next submissions window is not themed and I heartily encourage poets to be bold and send us work they feel thoroughly represents them, rather than what they may think we want to read. Stand out, and be daring in what you send out.
Jane Commane was born in Coventry and lives and works in Warwickshire. Her first full-length collection, Assembly Lines, was published by Bloodaxe in 2018, and is longlisted for the 2019 Michael Murphy Memorial Prize for a distinctive first book of poetry. Her poetry has featured in anthologies including The Best British Poetry 2011 (Salt Publishing) and Lung Jazz: Young British Poets for Oxfam (Cinnamon) and in magazines including Anon, And Other Poems, Bare Fiction, Iota, Tears in the Fence and The Morning Star. She has been a poet in residence at the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth, and has led many writing workshops in a variety of locations, including in museums, castles, city centres, orchards and along riverbanks. In 2016, she was chosen to join Writing West Midlands’ Room 204 writer development programme. A graduate of the Warwick Writing Programme, for a decade she also worked in museums and archives. Jane is editor at Nine Arches Press, co-editor of Under the Radar magazine, co-organiser of the Leicester Shindig poetry series, and is co-author (with Jo Bell) of How to Be a Poet, a creative writing handbook and blog series. In 2017 she was awarded a Jerwood Compton Poetry Fellowship.
Author photo: Paul Lapsley Photography