Friday, 27 June 2014

Valley Press Friday Digest, #9 ('Here's Looking at You' edition)

Last week I took to Twitter to share this quote:

So where's it from? Well, I'm pleased to report it's from the introduction to Helen's second collection of poetry, Here's Looking at You Kid, which Valley Press will be publishing in 2014 - you heard it here first!

You can't buy, or even pre-order Helen's new volume yet - we're still putting the finishing touches to the text - but I'm telling you about it today (just like I discussed a November title in digest #7) because I've realised the following:

  1. I spend at least 75% of my working week on titles that won't be released for many months in the future.
  2. I have been avoiding talking about these titles because I felt it was wiser to talk about books that are out, and you can actually buy now.
  3. As a result of points 1 and 2, I will struggle to fill these blog posts on an average week (as we saw in digests #4 and #5) - because I can't tell you about 75% of the stuff I'm doing!

I could (and perhaps will) remedy this by putting the webpages for books online earlier in the production process - in fact that's quite a good idea, why didn't I think of that before! Someone make a note! But it's getting fairly late in the day, so for now I'll just concentrate on telling you more about what should be our seventh book of the year.

The official release date for Here's Looking at You Kid is the 17th October, though I plan to print copies well before that; part of the new Valley Press publishing strategy is to print and promote titles early, when it can still make a big difference (I'll let you know how that goes). I want to say right away how excited I am about this book - people have been falling over themselves to praise Helen's first volume, The Ruby Slippers, over the last few years, and I think this new offering is even better.

Part of the reason for that is how this collection was brought together: it is filled with 'Poems by Request', a fact which (as you can see below) gets a mention on the front cover. Helen is a poet constantly on tour, and she makes time at each stop to take 'requests' from the audience, for favourite poems from her oeuvre. The new collection brings these together (minus any already in Ruby Slippers); poems selected by the public and tested on audiences all over the world. Each one is someone's favourite - but which will be yours? (That's not a bad line actually... must add that to the blurb.)

So here's what looks likely to be the final cover:

I got this on my sixth attempt, which is pretty much 'par for the course' for VP book cover designs. For those who are interested, here is a rogues' gallery of all six:

The main problem I had was that the cover illustration (which is by the author - the book is fully illustrated, by the way) is the same aspect ratio as a Valley Press book; meaning if I reproduced it full-size, it would fill the whole front cover exactly, leaving no room for any text. So then, how to crop or shrink it for best effect? The other problem was how to combine the undeniably fun, hippie-esque ethic of the book, with the fact that actually it happens to be poetry, thank you very much, and poetry book covers must be serious. (Serious-ish.) I hope you like what we ended up with.

Helen was my very first 'signing' as a full-time publisher, so working with her again is like stepping back in time, in a sense. I started Valley Press over the new year, 2010/2011, and when I properly sat down to work, one of the first things I did was to write to Helen and ask if she'd be interested in doing a full-length collection (I'd read some of her self-produced pamphlets, and seen her read a couple of times - I considered myself a 'fan'). I spent my £200 'will it work' grant from the Prince's Trust on the first print run of The Ruby Slippers, and after the launch event at the Poetry Cafe, duly reported back that it had worked, and I did have a business idea worth pursuing, after all. Here are a couple of pictures from that launch, more-or-less exactly three years ago:

Oh, and for extra kicks, the launch poster:

It was all so exciting back then ... everything was a 'first', in this case the first VP event held outside Yorkshire. I sold copies of the book on the train, both there and back, to the people I was sitting across from - magical days! And you know what, I feel exactly as excited about the new book, having written all this. So I should put that to use and work on it! (See you next week.)

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

POEM CLUB #2. 'The Smell of Apples', by Richard O'Brien

Welcome to the second instalment of Poem Club! Last week, we looked at 'Lys' by Ikhda Ayuning Maharsi and discussion was focused on people's interpretations of the situation depicted: was it part of a dialogue between lovers, or a refugee and an official, or a universal feminist cry of frustration? This week, we're going to look at a poem which is stylistically very different to Ikhda's, and where the situation is relatively clear: it's a love poem, addressed to a lover and intended to solicit affection.

Richard O'Brien at the BBC Proms Plus Late in 2013 
As I did last week, I'm going to share a few of my thoughts to kick things off and then suggest some ways of approaching the poem. This round of Poem Club is closed, but you can still read my summary of the comments we received and share your thoughts about the poem in the comments section.

And now, on with the poem!

* * *

The Smell of Apples

‘And beyond these isles there is another isle that is clept Pytan. The folk of that country ne till not, ne labour not the earth, for they eat no manner thing. [...] These men live by the smell of wild apples. And when they go any far way, they bear the apples with them; for if they had lost the savour of the apples, they should die anon.’ — The Book of Sir John Mandeville
O give me the thread from the hem of your dress
              that you caught in St James’s Park
and give me the blank in the blink of your eyes
              before they adjust to the dark
and give me the space in the skin of your throat
              that you smooth away with a breath
and the infinitesimal decimal point
              between your tongue and your teeth;
then give me the drip of a droplet of water
              that found its way down through your hair
and give me the light that your body divided
              and spread like a sodium flare.

Now give me the dust that you brushed from your jeans
              on the chairs in the station café
and give me the spark that was spat from the track
              of the train that took you away
and give me the dot on the ‘i’ on the map
              of the village where you live –
the cross of the ‘t’ in a neighbouring town
              if it’s all you’ve got to give.
And then give me a signal, a cipher, a sign,
              a trinket, a token, a ring,
and I’ll follow it blind to the base of your spine
              and I’ll give you everything.

– by Richard O'Brien, from his pamphlet of love poems, The Emmores

* * * 
Emma's thoughts. I usually fail to read or properly process the title when I'm reading a poem for the first time, which means the title is often the last thing I read in my poem-reading experience. Sometimes I think 'Oh of course that's the title – I could have guessed that', but sometimes the title shines a new light on the poem and I have to read the poem again with this in mind. This goes for epigraphs too; if anything I'm even more likely to skim the epigraph without taking it fully in. In 'The Smell of Apples', the title and the epigraph work together like a key to the secret code of the poem, enriching my response to the poem once I'd gone back to the beginning and the penny had dropped.

One of the reasons I think this poem will become a classic is that it wears its epic romance lightly and focuses on the mundane but enduring realities of human attraction. The title and epigraph may indicate large-scale, life-or-death declarations, but the poem itself is concerned with minutiae and ephemera which ring true to me now and (I presume) will continue to ring true with readers who recognise the heady richness of the lover's long-lens gaze.

Your thoughts. We had two fascinating responses this week, both focusing on the depiction of romantic love in the poem. Hin-Tai Ting drew out the implied link between the people of Pytan in the epigraph, who need the smell of apples to survive away from their home, and the poem's speaker whose equivalent of apples is his sweetheart. He wondered: 'To what extent should we understand the speaker as abnormal, as a different and strange type of human being?' It hadn't occurred to me before to see the epigraph as a commentary on the speaker of the poem, as well as the key to understanding it, but I really like this idea of lovers being ludicrous creatures, capable of greatness but also immense folly. This reminds me of Elegies II.27 by the Roman poet Propertius, where the poet claims that a lover can shake off the final stages of death if called back by his mistress. I feel torn between my conviction that love is a strange and powerful force and my impatience with the tolerance which lovers-as-madmen demand, so I like the edge of bafflement in Hin-Tai's verdict on lovers: 'there is something really quite bizarre and wonderful about their life-and-death strength'.

Tom saw something else in the epigraph which had never occurred to me before: the lifestyle of the people of Pytan may offer a neat equivalent to the speaker's valiant attempts to sustain his romance, but they are also very definitely fictional. The poem is a collection of insubstantial trivia assembled with such urgency that it verges on creating something solid and living, though it's really 'a nothingness, or an almost-nothingness.' I like Tom's recognition that love is something more than the shadowplay of romance and love poetry, and I love the point he makes about the intent focus of the poem and how the list format could tip over into a parody of its own genre, so 'somewhere deep in the background there might also be a hint that a "real relationship" is more than all this stuff: it actually does involve tilling and labouring.' Hear hear!

You can read both of the comments in full below, in the comments section.

This week, I'm awarding the book to... Hin Tai Ting!

* * *
The Emmores

This episode of Poem Club is over, but you can still add your thoughts below. What do you think of 'The Smell of Apples'? Do you find it romantic? Does it work as a piece of persuasion? Would it persuade you? Is it erotic, and, if so, why? Is it really a poem about love? What's your favourite detail? What do you think we learn about the speaker and the subject of the poem? Do you like the epigraph from Sir John Mandeville, and do you think the poem would work without it? Just say what you think and what the poem makes you feel – don't be afraid of sounding stupid!

<-- POEM CLUB #1: 'Lys', by Ikhda Ayuning Maharsi
--> POEM CLUB #3: 'Trickster', by Joy Donnell

Friday, 20 June 2014

Valley Press Friday Digest, #8

After last week's excitement, a more standard and humble post for you today. If you want to properly get your 'weekly blog feature' fix, check out the first installment of Emma's 'Poem Club'; but if you must hear from me, read on...

  • The Bridlington Poetry Festival, which I have been warbling on about for the last two weeks, has now come and gone - it was really excellent, of course, and all the readers (especially those affiliated with VP) did a wonderful job. I have singularly failed to get a decent photo of any of the events - I will post my best effort below, a shot of John Wedgwood Clarke reading from Ghost Pot. Fortunately there was a proper photographer there too, so some good snaps may emerge of the other readers in time.
  • Last time I discussed the festival, I mentioned how one of my Wendy Cope books had already been signed by her, twenty-eight years ago, possibly precluding further personalisation - but as it turned out, she was happy to write something for me in 2014 as well. Here's the result of that:

  • We're nearly done already, but I do have two interesting links for you - first, an in-depth interview with the above-pictured Mr. Clarke about his new pamphlet In Between. It's fascinating stuff, though they have slyly avoided mentioning or linking to the book! Fortunately you won't find me making that mistake. Then, I was delighted to find Opera di Cera listed on the Poetry Society's 'What to read this summer' list - follow that link for a great little review by long-time VP friend Ian Stuart, who calls OdC 'a sort of Milk Wood from hell', one of the best and pithiest descriptions of the book so far.  See you next week for more news.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

POEM CLUB #1. 'Lys', by Ikhda Ayuning Maharsi

When I first started reading poetry for pleasure a couple of years ago, I found I really missed my English teachers holding my hand (figuratively) all the way, pulling out potential meanings and pointing out linguistic tricks and flair. Reading poetry is a bit difficult and can feel intimidating, especially if you're not familiar with poetic techniques. 

An understanding of poetic techniques and traditions helps the reader to discover poems' meanings, but I would also say that you don't need to know all about poetic techniques to enjoy poetry. I think the most important thing to know is that your personal response to words and arrangements of words is valid and good, and while you might be interested in what the poet intended you to feel, it's equally fine to feel and think whatever you do about the poem. It's not an exam and there is no right answer, and it's also alright not to know what you think but to have a vague hunch you do/don't like it.

Ikhda reading at the Albion Beatnik Bookstore
I'm starting 'Poem Club' because I want to celebrate the experience of reading poetry, and to
encourage more people to read poetry. So, every Tuesday I will post up a poem from an Emma Press book and begin the discussion with a few thoughts of my own. You are all welcome to add your thoughts in the comments, on Facebook, on Twitter and via email: poemclub [at] 

The following Monday, I'll collate all the comments on this same page, so everyone can share each other's experiences of the poems, and the most thoughtful commenter will win a copy of the book. To kick things off, let me introduce you to the unique worldview of Ms. Ikhda Ayuning Maharsi...

* * *


Don’t tell me about my roots
or my life before this
Don’t tell me about my unopened buds

I was born before you
so much older than you
but still I keep my colour
that you called pain eraser
that I called monument of the ripped

Something that you named maidenhead
for me it is virginity
for me it is the boring lacuna –
what on Earth happens without friction?

I have had intercourse so many times with my past
I remember on Sunday morning
big snails and slugs were vined on my buds
satisfying themselves 
with pleasure that resonated
They ate my corps
one by one 
I end
but my roots, not. 

— by Ikhda Ayuning Maharsi, from her debut pamphlet Ikhda, by Ikhda.

* * *
Emma's thoughts. I love the aggression of this poem. It begins with a barrage of snippy commands, then becomes devastatingly caustic, and ends hilariously ('Mmh/ Mmh / Mmh') but also powerfully. My personal response to this poem is that the speaker is a woman, addressing her patronising older lover or even parent. For me, it's a defiant, furious retort to assumptions about female frailty, and I love it.

I find some of the images and phrases in the poem a little baffling, but the emotion is so urgent that some meaning emerges anyway. Is 'my colour' a youthful blush which the addressee finds soothing ('pain eraser'), much to the annoyance of the speaker? What does 'what on Earth happens without friction' mean?

Your thoughts. Thank you to everyone who participated this week! I'm glad you all enjoyed reading the poem and I was really pleased with the responses we received, ranging from the literal (J Humble offered: 'To me, this is the age old question [...] of how to solve the problems of mollusc infestation in the garden.') to some wider speculation on the meaning and power of the poem.

Charles Bane Jr. found a spiritual dimension in the poem's forceful energy, seeing it as a kind of feminist gospel and picking up on the semantics in the third stanza. He emailed: 'Feminist poetry has no support from institutionalised faith, so its new spirit is found in intimacy, and a faith that will be kept with other women, whose bodies have been devoured by misogyny, but not their will. This is an important poem. Shakespeare used the word 'maidenhead', always in bombast. He couldn't recognise the brutal experience behind the word. 'Lys' is not merry; it's brutal. But it's true. And if men would only read more like it , they themselves would find the way to escape their own bonds.'

Charles's reading of the poem chimes quite a lot with my own, while Laura in the comments below and Sarah Parkinson via email read the poem in a more political way, focusing especially on the word 'roots'. Laura said: 'I think the difference between the speaker and the addressee is more of a cultural or ethnic than age/gender nature. She (I assume it's a she) doesn't want to be told about her roots, thoughts, or sexual life by someone who presumably doesn't know much about her. The speaker's defiant: stop saying you know anything about me – it's all based on nothing but assumptions – my life and experiences are so much richer than you think.'

Sarah Parkinson said: 'It took me two readings to realise that I read it as a refugee speaking to a government official, perhaps fleeing from violence/sexual aggression. The raw anger woven through the sexual imagery seems to issue from both her previous experiences and the inability/arrogance of the listener to understand them. I wonder if the 'buds', as well as having sexual overtones, relate to her inability to achieve personhood because of the constant tension of conflict – that is, who she is has been unable to develop and flourish because of her immediate needs of safety and security. At the end it's almost as though she is allowing herself to be subsumed under her previous experiences, but the last line speaks of tenacity, leaves me with a sense that all might not quite be over. It's full of very powerful imagery – I can't believe how much I read into it!'

This week, I hereby decree Sarah Parkinson wins a copy of Ikhda, by Ikhda!

* * *
Ikhda, by Ikhda
This episode of Poem Club is over now, but you can still share your thoughts below. Which bits do you especially like? What do you think it means, or, what does it mean to you? Who you do imagine the speaker is, and the addressee? Do you think it's a funny poem, or upsetting, or powerful? Does it remind you of any other poems? Just say what you think (though be nice) – don't be afraid of sounding stupid!

--> POEM CLUB #2: 'The Smell of Apples', by Richard O'Brien

Friday, 13 June 2014

Valley Press Friday Digest, #7

Last week on the blog, I promised to fill you in on my 'most difficult decision' of the year. I'll get to that, but first, some news on a new title:

  • I've had many ideas for anthologies over the last few years, including: an anthology of poets on the Yorkshire coast, an anthology of poets from a particular city, an anthology that was basically lots of pamphlets stuck together, themed anthologies (though I must now pay my dues to the true queen of this genre), an anthology comprised entirely of poems about snails, a very small and cheap anthology, and an anthology edited by VP author/poetic genius Felix Hodcroft. Any of these might still happen, but one has finally reached the point of being announceable - in fact, a combination of those last two ideas. A Pocketful of Windows, edited by Felix, will appear in late November 2014 and retail for just £3.99. I'll offer some suggestions as to the contents in the coming months, but in the meantime, here's the provisional cover:

  • The Bridlington Poetry Festival is now in full swing, and my tickets for all the Saturday events are safely stashed away... somewhere. (I'm hoping eventually, when challenged for a ticket to a Yorkshire coast poetry event, I'll be able to point to my face and say: 'this is my ticket'.) I'll report on how it went next week, but as this is my last chance to plug team VP, you'll find Mike Di Placido, Miles Salter and Patrick Lodge reading on Saturday night, 8.30-9.30pm (headlining?) They're joined by Wendy Pratt, one of the few Yorkshire coast poets who 'got away' - by the time I first discovered her, she'd been published elsewhere - but I do rate her very highly. Then on Sunday, John Wedgwood Clarke is joined on stage by Northern Irish poet Michael McKimm from 11am. All the other events will be great too - I  hope to see some of you there.

  • Oh, one more thing about Bridlington - Wendy Cope is reading, and on digging out my copy of her first collection Making Coca for Kingsley Amis, I realised I had purchased it second-hand (for 99p!) and in a strange twist of fate, it is already signed to someone called Julia, 26 years ago - shortly after the book was first released. I'm considering getting it signed again, to me; will this make the book into an interesting historical artefact? Here's my tweet, with photo:

  • While we're posting tweets: I was sitting on reception at Woodend over the weekend (as I occasionally do), and witnessed the events below:

  • Some news from the world of Love and Eskimo Snow: the book got its first review, which I have summarised on its homepage (strategically removing the bit where the reviewer said she thinks the title is a little weird!) Also, Sarah wrote this great article for Novelicious about where she writes - I especially liked the bit where she described the books in her writing room as having 'biceps'.
  • In Between is now officially 'out there' - I sent off the pre-orders yesterday. A lot of people have commented that they've seen the poems on the walls of the passageways/yards they describe; not a bad way of advertising really! I wonder what people who don't know about York Curiouser make of them? Here's a photo of John with one of the painted poems, taken by Alan Fleming:

  • Okay, so now we've got all the news out of the way - what was my 'most difficult decision', and, as teased in last week's post, how did I get out of it? It was brought on by the Poetry Book Society, who last month launched their search for the Next Generation Poets 2014 - looking for the twenty 'most exciting new poets' from the UK and Ireland, who have had their first collection published in the last ten years. No less than fifteen Valley Press poets were eligible, so when I heard about it, I automatically thought - oh, I'll enter everyone, then!
  • But, when I came to fill in the forms, I read the small print: a £20 entry fee applied per poet, meaning to enter everyone would cost £300. After picking my jaw up off the floor, I started to figure out what I should do - being an unsubsidised, entirely independent press has its advantages (I wouldn't have it any other way), but it does mean we have a certain lack of £20 notes to throw around (to say nothing of £300 cheques). They also wanted seven copies of a book by each poet, which in itself is not cheap. I wrote to the PBS asking about the charge, and it seemed they had applied it both to raise funds for the massive PR campaign that will follow the announcement of the winners, and to encourage presses to choose - 'we never thought anyone would want to enter all their writers', I was told, which left me wondering if I was just peculiar. If we equate the books we publish with our children: did the other editors have no problem choosing which of their 'children' was most eligible for 'best child of the last ten years'?

  • So, I tried for a few hours to decide who I should enter, and how much I could justify spending on this - how much I could physically afford, in fact, as I need to do a large, un-budgeted-for reprint of Eskimo Snow this month, to cover the WHSmith order I mentioned a few weeks back. Eventually I realised there was no way I could choose: all the books have their strengths and weaknesses, but I love them all regardless - and for those fifteen poets, this would be their only chance to make one of these 'Next Generation' lists. I didn't want to be responsible for standing between anyone and a chance to be selected.
  • Eventually, I came up with a solution, and here's what it was: I asked the poets to vote amongst themselves who they thought should be entered, with an understanding that I would fund entry for the writers who received the most votes. There was some grumbling, of course - 'passing the buck' was mentioned - but I was really pleased with this solution. Not only did it get me off trying to choose (and thus, to explain to anyone why I didn't choose them), but I also feel it replicates how the winners will eventually be chosen: a collection of people will read some poems, and some author bios, and vote for who they think is most suitable for the award. It won't be based on one person's thoughts, it will be decided by committee - and so it's only fitting that our entries were too. I won't be revealing who won the vote: that's not the point, and you'll find out anyway when they appear on that 'Next Generation' list - won't you? Fingers crossed!

Friday, 6 June 2014

Valley Press Friday Digest, #6

After two quiet weeks, we come to my recap for the first week of June - which has been a lot livelier, as you'll see below...

  • In Between arrived this week, and is looking good! See below for a tweet from the York Curiouser festival announcing the arrival of their copy. I'll post out VP website pre-orders next week, in time for the official release date next Friday.

  • Other tweets from the York Curiouser team that you may be interested in: a competition, which is still open at time of writing, and a picture of one of the poems from the book literally installed in a snicket - very cool.

  • On a tangentially-related note, the marvellous Bridlington Poetry Festival (established, of course, by Mr. Wedgwood Clarke in 2010) is coming around again, starting on June 12th. The dream team presently running things, Antony Dunn and Dorcas Taylor, have put together an epic programme (perfect, in fact), which features Andrew Motion, Wendy Cope, "our own" Don Paterson, four VP authors, and a football-team's worth of other much-loved poets. This, for me, is the mid-year Christmas... I'm gutted that I can't make it to the weeknight stuff (due to transport issues), but you never know what might turn up!

  • A huge milestone for Valley Press this week, as I achieved my long-held dream of having a permanent presence in Scarborough Library. As this appears to be the week I embed tweets, see below for my announcement of the new stand, with photo. (Confession: I'm going back in tomorrow to add a little sign saying 'for sale', to make it clear that these are not actually library books - though many of them can be borrowed elsewhere in the library.)

  • Last week I was hopeful that a review, and some photos, would emerge of Eskimo Snow's Edible Book launch - and the folks at Novelicious have not let me down. You can read their eloquent thoughts on the event here.

  • Next week on the Friday Digest: To avoid having an enormous post after two short ones, I'm saving the most interesting thing that happened this week ... how I was faced with the most difficult decision of 2014 so far, and then how I managed to get out of making it ... for discussion in next week's blog. Intriguing huh?