Tuesday, 14 November 2017

"The complete commitment is their priority, putting their money...where their mouth is." John Fuller on publishing AWOL, a collaboration with Andrew Wynn Owen

Over the course of our call for pamphlet proposals, we'll have some of our existing pamphlet authors writing about their experience of having a pamphlet published with us. Here is John Fuller on his collaboration with Andrew Wynn Owen, AWOL.  

My pamphlet with the Emma Press is a collaboration with the poet Andrew Wynn Owen, who I first got to know about five years ago at Magdalen College, Oxford. He was Secretary of the John Florio Society, where at evening meetings the poems are read anonymously and then torn apart in the friendliest way possible. He tended on the whole to set tormenting technical challenges to the members rather than the more usual themes. Inevitably sonnets, villanelles and sestinas put in their appearance, but also tetratinas and ballades and more recondite forms. When we came to terza rima, my long-held prejudice in favour of tetrameters rather than pentameters for long poems asserted itself (as also the neat practice of producing the “missing” a rhyme of the first tercet as the penultimate line of a section, rather than allow a hanging line rhyming with the otherwise unrhymed line of the final tercet). When at the end of the academic year after such pleasant exhaustions Andrew left for Luxembourg, I conceived the idea of a series of meditations in the form of letters addressed to him in the kind of terza rima described, twelve sections of thirteen stanzas each. The idea was to examine in a totally light-hearted way ideas of vacation or rootlessness or vagrancy or escape (I was in a cottage in North Wales at the time) and the underlying conclusions about responsibility are hinted at from the beginning in the title I gave the sequence: AWOL. The military phrase, for “Absent Without Official Leave”, is less known than it once was, but it had a double suitability as also being an acronym for my subtitle: “For Andrew Wynn Owen, in Luxembourg.”

I was delighted to get back promptly from Andrew a sequence of responses of identical form and length, whereupon it seemed viable to try to publish the whole exchange as a pamphlet. Who better to approach than the fairly new Emma Press, who had published Andrew’s first pamphlet, Raspberries for the Ferry? Emma Wright, the artistic and entrepreneurial spirit behind the press, and Rachel Piercey, her poet co-publisher, who had won the Newdigate Prize in 2008, seemed to me to be a perfect combination of artistic dash and critical acumen. I had seen the Emma Press machine at full production tilt, having already had a poem taken for one of their superb anthologies. There are many advantages to being published by a small press. The complete commitment is their priority, putting their money (however little they may have) where their mouth is. Whereas the big London publishers, however supportive your editor, always have the suits upstairs in the finance department breathing down their necks and proposing economies, or worse. The joy of seeing AWOL take shape involved not only constructive and detailed editing but the exciting bonus of an unusual format and full-page colour illustrations from Emma herself. Not to mention prompt contracts and payments that would put many larger publishers to shame.  And sensitively-programmed launches and readings that are now rare in metropolitan publishing unless you are a very big name.

All this for a poet turned 80 who has been publishing his work for 65 years is, though you might not believe it, tremendously encouraging. I have often said at the Florio Society and elsewhere that for me to turn up and to read and be read by young poets like Andrew is rather like Thomas Hardy showing up in a roomful of Vorticists: something of a miracle to be able to communicate at all. And to be published by a young and vigorous press like the Emma Press seems just as remarkable. I always say (particularly in connection with new magazines) that the young should publish themselves, not known names. But the friendly hand held out across the generations is a wonderful thing.

I do publish new titles fairly frequently. Since AWOL there have been two books from Chatto and Windus, Gravel in My Shoe in 2015 and a long poem in ottava rima, The Bone Flowers, in 2016, and also another small pamphlet in 2016 from the excellent Clutag Press, a sonnet sequence called A Week in Bern. Sometimes I reprint pamphlet poems in larger collections, but it is often better to leave them as they are, to be sought out in their original and individuated clothing. AWOL, particularly as it is a collaboration, may best belong to the latter category. Pamphlets can be fairly utilitarian in appearance if appropriate, or they can be hand-sewn to order. They can be numbered and limited, or hawked around freely in pubs. Whatever they are like, they are a fine way of getting directly to readers, and the Emma Press does this job magnificently.

AWOL is available to order on our website. You can also find out more about our call for pamphlet submissions here.  

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