Can you tell me a bit about Flarestack Poets and its roots?
Flarestack Poets emerged in 2008, when Charles Johnson, who had been publishing pamphlets as well as the journal ‘Obsessed with Pipework’ under the Flarestack imprint since 1995, decided to focus on the journal and look for a new editor or editors for the pamphlets.
Jacqui and I had both recently had pamphlets published by Flarestack. That’s how we got to know each other; co-incidentally we both live in Birmingham and had both thought of setting up as publishers ourselves, so we realized it might be both interesting and energy-efficient to work together. Flarestack already had a formidable reputation for publishing an eclectic mix of grass-roots poetry; and it was typically generous of Charles to give us a free hand in developing our own imprint – Flarestack Poets.
We both felt strongly that we wanted to maintain the ethos of the earlier Flarestack imprint but we also agreed that we wanted Flarestack Poets to be distinctive in what it published and how the pamphlets looked. We began with a competition, for a number of reasons. One was that we were open to whatever was out there; we didn’t just want to publish poets we knew personally. I think that being based in the West Midlands, particularly as that’s where I’m from, must affect the way I respond to poetry, but we receive submissions from all over the world and we’re prepared to publish work from anywhere. The competition also raised awareness of the new Flarestack Poets and created a certain amount of excitement. And of course it brought in some revenue to support the set up of the press and publishing our first titles. We’ve never sought public funding, from the Arts Council or elsewhere. From a very large entry, submitted anonymously, we chose Wake by Cliff Forshaw and Advice On Wearing Animal Prints by Selima Hill; we also published an anthology of the best single poems, Mr Barton Isn’t Paying. We had clear ideas about appearance right from the start and we worked with designers and printers to achieve the look we still have, strongly typographical, with no image on the cover, apart from the flare logo, each pamphlet as far as possible a different colour which is carefully chosen to reflect the content as we see it, and the name of the press on the front cover, along with title and author. A number of presses don’t display their own name on the front, so that at book fairs it’s sometimes quite hard to identify them. Some people collect our books and there’s nothing wrong with branding If the content is good.
The number of poems in a saddle-stitched pamphlet is limited by the number of pages that can comfortably be fitted in between the covers; too many and the book won’t close flat. We use good quality paper inside so forty pages is probably the most we could accommodate. We pay a great deal of attention to spacing when we’re typesetting. Though we have used different fonts where appropriate for particular titles – for example Ag&Au, which has a poem about John Baskerville, is set in Baskerville Old Face as a tribute to him – our house font is Garamond which is very airy on the page and we don’t like our pamphlets to look as if we’ve squashed too many poems in. Unless there is a particular reason to, we don’t normally set more than one poem on a page and most of our titles have 32 pages of poems or less. I’m keen on using constraints in my own writing, because they stimulate creativity, and I see the constraint on length being beneficial to our pamphlets. It means that authors and we as editors have to consider everything that goes in and what doesn’t need to be there, which helps to make each book an entity in itself. In selecting, we have to be aware how the poems work together as a collection, and of the overall effect, the whole being more than the gathering together of separate poems.
Essentially, however, when all’s said and done, there is no recipe for what makes a good pamphlet. What we’ve published has surprised us; poets have understood the form, played with it, extended it, delighted us – and that’s why we’ve published their work.
Where do you see pamphlet publishing in the poetry market?
I hope that what we’ve said convinces that the pamphlet occupies a unique place in the poetry market. It’s a thing in itself – it isn’t just a bunch of poems in search of a good home, and it isn’t begging to be bedded in a full collection. Take a look at David Hart’s Misky; Claire Crowther’s Incense; or Alasdair Paterson’s Brumaire and Later for example – or indeed at any of our pamphlets. Each offers a unique experience in which form and content are inextricably linked. We believe that the form is flourishing, and that poets are beginning to see it as a particularly delicious challenge.
I’m optimistic about the future of poetry pamphlets in the world of e-readers and smartphones, because of the very particular aesthetic quality of the experience they offer. Like a number of other independent poetry publishers, we care deeply about paper, typography, colour, and layout. We think of Flarestack Poets pamphlets as small pieces of art with a cover price of £4.50 – just a bit more than a cup of coffee – making them widely affordable.
From the poets’ point of view, we publish quite rapidly once a manuscript has been accepted – weeks or months, rather than years, as is the case with longer collections from mainstream publishers.
I agree with all that Meredith has said here. I’ve come to value pamphlets more and more as we’ve gone on. At the start I had vague ideas about us ‘graduating’ to full, perfect bound collections one day, but now that’s unlikely, because, for all the reasons Meredith has said, pamphlets seem to me to be the best print vehicle for poetry. It’s a shame, though, that the poetry establishment, if such a thing exists, doesn’t recognise the value of pamphlets more. There’s only one major national award for pamphlets, the Michael Marks, compared with the Forward, the Costa, and the T S Eliot for full collections. It would be good if the Forward, amongst its many categories, introduced a pamphlet award, and if pamphlets were short-listed for the other major awards as a sign that quality matters as much as quantity.
You won the Michael Marks Award with Selima Hill’s Advice On Wearing Animal Prints, can you tell me about this and what it means to the press?
In 2010 Selima won The Michael Marks Poetry Award, which recognises an outstanding work of poetry published in pamphlet form in the UK. The award that Selima won is to the poet, not the publisher. However, that one of our first three titles won the only major British annual award for poetry in pamphlet form was wonderful. For me it was an affirmation that we’d done the right thing by starting the press and it vindicated our decision to begin by running a competition. Selima had taken a huge risk for such a well-known poet by submitting anonymously to a competition run by an imprint that hadn’t published anything yet, so it was gratifying that she won the award. Advice On Wearing Animal Prints is a terrific pamphlet, and still one of our best-sellers.
I can still remember the impact of that manuscript on first reading. It was exhilarating; and, while emotionally savage, it was also beautifully constructed and hilariously funny. When Selima came to read here in Birmingham at the launch, the audience reacted quite spontaneously with appreciative laughter. That enjoyment, shared with readers and later, with the judges of the Michael Marks, was a reward in itself. Advice on Wearing Animal Prints set a high bar for later pamphlets; but I think having one of our first pamphlets win the Michael Marks strengthened our trust in our own gut reactions.
What advice would you give to poets about submitting to you?
Look on our website at www.flarestackpoets.co.uk to find out when we’re open for submissions. We find material in a variety of ways. We’ve run competitions (in 2008 and 2012) and we’ve recently had a three month window for submissions which ended at the end of July, so it’s likely we’ll be looking again in Spring/Summer 2014. When we are open for submissions there will be guidelines on the website about how to submit work.
If we don’t publish something, it doesn’t mean we think it’s unworthy. But we can only publish a tiny proportion of what we receive, and in order for us to take something on we have both to be very enthusiastic about it and its chances of finding a readership. It has to be doing something new in terms of either form or content – preferably both.
Anyone hoping to be published by us should familiarise themselves with at least some of our titles. I used to believe that rejections saying, “Not for us” were just trying to be kind but now I realise it can be true. Having said that, the more we publish, the less easy it is to define exactly what we’re looking for, because, as Meredith said earlier, there isn’t a recipe for a good pamphlet. For me, the response to receiving a submission I would like to publish has always been physical at first, a gut reaction, yes, but also tingling and trembling and wanting to punch the air, quickly followed by the cerebral, which is about wanting to read the whole thing through again. Though it’s good if the author is active in promoting his or her work, ultimately it does depend on the poetry. We’re happy to publish debut collections as well as those from established poets. In competitions we’ve committed ourselves to publishing without knowing anything about the authors and never been disappointed, particularly as our competition winners have won the Michael Marks and been the PBS pamphlet choice. I think that before submitting anywhere, poets should ask themselves if they’re ready to be published, what they expect to get out of it, and whether they’re prepared for disappointment, both at rejection and if the book is badly received or sinks without trace: publication isn’t an end in itself but a milestone on the path of a poet’s development. Also, they should carefully research and decide which publishers they would genuinely like to be published by, then follow those publishers’ guidelines, with an individual submission to each. Sending out a circular email, beginning ‘Dear Sir’, addressed to every publisher you’ve found on the Internet, including some who don’t even do poetry, probably reduces drastically the chances of work even being looked at. And ultimately poetry publishing will increase if the market for poetry increases so anyone hoping to be published should be buying poetry if they can afford it, encouraging others to buy by persuading them how great it is and trying to get poetry into the wider world so that the people who read poetry are not only those who write it.
Her published pamphlets are ‘Blue’ (Flarestack), ‘Apollinaire’ (Perdika) and ‘Paint’ (Flarestack Poets).