Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire

I'm using this title strictly in the Tolkienian sense: escaped from goblins, only to be trapped by orcs. The goblins in this case are poets; the orcs are comics creators. Does that make me a half-orc, half-goblin hybrid? I'm definitely not a change-the-world-one-hobbit-at-a-time protagonist. Perhaps I'm a dwarf? I quite fancy a tremendous beard for the winter.

The day after getting home from the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, I headed straight to Thought Bubble comicon in Leeds with Delightful Husband. Delightful Husband, if you don't know, is a comics writer. I edit his indie comics, for Image and Avatar, both of which are comics publishers based in the US. (I'm an editor by trade. More on this at a later date.)

The opposite of quiet beach-combing and silent book reading, taking a table at a comics convention is all about chatting excitedly to excited people, selling books, and trying to make sure everyone is fed, hydrated and gets to their events on time. Delightful Husband and his co-creator Jamie McKelvie are doing pretty well at the moment. In the main, they're there to sign people's books and banter. The more people that come, the more they need help behind the scenes to take money and track sales, that sort of thing, so I go along to help. The whole day is fuelled by nervous energy and the enthusiasm of thousands of people delighted to celebrate their solitary reading experience with a very real, visible community of others.

Comics has no "and now I will give a reading of my work…" option. Comics have to be experienced in their entirety on the page by a sole reader. (Has anyone arranged a mass-reading of new work at a convention? A twenty-minute panel of a long-awaited issue that is displayed on a giant screen, one minute for each page, with everyone's oohs and aahs mingling into each other's? They must have done. That could be fun.) On the whole though, the nature of the medium means conventions focus on the presence of creators: getting stuff signed, telling creators how much something meant to you, browsing new work on tables, and attending panels where creators and publishers discuss the medium, the industry and the stories themselves. This doesn't feel quite the same as a poetry festival, where the focus is almost always on the work, as though focusing too much on anything else would not be appropriate somehow. My impression is that people attend comicons predominantly to celebrate work they have already enjoyed, as well as then browsing giant halls full of new work and picking things up. Comicons feel like a celebration of fandom, as much as of the work itself.

And that thing of wanting to meet the creators - that's not a small or silly thing. It's a moment of connection which makes the work all the more real somehow. Look - this was made by a real person. It's not just magic. Or, if it is magic, then here is the magician whose hand you are shaking. In poetry you can also get a sense of this by watching someone give a live reading/performance of their work, but that option doesn't exist in comics. 

All of this stuff makes me want to ponder more over the ways we, in the UK, experience and celebrate poetry book publishing, and whether it's comparable (Spoiler: it's not. They're completely different artforms. But the comparison is interesting in what it throws up, I think, I hope.). I run the Poetry Book Fair that takes place in London every Autumn (I'm Director, the delectable Joey Connolly is Manager). I feel like a large thrust behind the fair is: come and see what's happened in contemporary poetry this year; browse 50 publishers' tables instead of 50 websites. That's largely because there is no single place you can go which will tell you what books are coming out this month in poetry. It's baffling. The Poetry Library isn't always sent stuff in a timely fashion and they don't have the staffing to pro-actively chase people on a monthly basis. The PBS lists things quarterly, and even then only lists what it is sent, and not everyone sends. If you try and search for the last 30 days of "poetry" on Amazon UK, you get 75 pages' worth of results due to the large amount of self-published work which is made available there. There is no single place that feels like it's tracking what contemporary poetry publishers are doing every month in a timely or comprehensive fashion. We've started setting up monthly lists of "new poetry this month" on the Poetry Book Fair website, but it's still very much a work in progress.

Another dramatic difference for poetry is that there is no single bookshop where you can go and see shelves of "New this week" "New last week" etc as you would in local comic shops up and down the country. Why do we have no local poetry shops? God knows there's enough books being published to put on sale. There's something here perhaps about reading speed - about what we want from poetry. Maybe we don't always want what's "new", but rather what's "good", or what will "endure". That statement has so many problems I don't even know where to start (though certainly the implication that comics must therefore be "ephemeral" by contrast is infuriating and utterly untrue). Let's go more safely back to bookshops. The lovely Poetry Book Shop in Hay has books by lots of different publishers, and does a good trade in first editions from what I recall, but doesn't feel hugely contemporary. That may just be me - I admit I haven't been in for a while. The radical Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham sounds amazing but has a broader scope than just poetry. Things may change in London on that front soon - there have been rumblings. Other indie bookshops have better and worse relationships with small presses. Many small presses aren't centrally distributed, which makes things more time-consuming to arrange. There are lots of problems here I'm intentionally glossing over for now. Just to say: problems.

The point I want to make is that browsing new poetry books is next to impossible, other than physically going to the Poetry Library or trawling through loads of independent websites, some of whom don't even offer any samples of the work ahead of purchase. New readers will take a chance on a new book with a press they haven't heard of if they've been pointed at it by someone / somewhere they trust. But otherwise, what is going to persuade them to take that leap, and how will they even hear about them in the first place? Social media has been an invaluable tool in helping both publishers and poets promote their work. (It also makes it easier to identify the various tribes, groups and factions.) Individual events are increasingly important to the visibility of new publications and poets, but we run into the same issue there of how people hear about them in the first place, not to mention the geographical constraints of live events. Spoken Word and Live Literature events operate slightly differently too - forgive me for focusing on book publishing for the moment. Live webcasts are a great idea. There are more and more ways round this that people are using to their advantage these days. But not all poets do readings. Some of the ones who do write work that is better experienced on the page anyway. It's a messy area. Reviews are also important in drawing attention to different publications, though I'd like to do some research in this area as I've heard conflicting things from publishers as to what effect reviews / prize shortlistings etc have on sales. Review copies are not always sent out as a matter of course. Reviews can take their time to come, too, and the limited reviewing space available in magazines is very competitive. 

There's also the issue that many indie presses are run alongside other full-time jobs, so there is precious little time and money available to make the books in the first place, let along promote them. And who's to say that just because you want to write, edit or publish poetry, that you're going to have any inclination or skill at marketing and advertising it? All of this keeps bringing me back to this disappointment that there is no central consumer hub or information service that regularly, comprehensively and impartially tells us what's new in the world of contemporary poetry publishing. There's no formal "Previews" magazine or brochure in print or online, beyond the efforts of individual presses to promote their own lists. It's no wonder that we become tribal about our presses, and our poets. Which is not to say that that's a bad thing of course, in terms of cultivating an audience for each publisher, bit by bit, but we can do more.      

Another difference to the world of comics is the majority of people who walk through the doors of the Poetry Book Fair are poets themselves (at least that's what our feedback suggests). My impression is that this is more the case with poetry than with comics. There's a sense that everyone is judging peer-to-peer, and I think there's something innately different about the medium which encourages this. Simon Armitage (on Celebrity Mastermind, no less) described poetry as "the most democratic artform" because all you need is something to write with and something to write on. Anyone can make a poem. (That doesn't mean it will be a good poem, but you can see why he said it.) The same is notionally true of comics, except that drawing ability is generally more of a barrier than using linebreaks is, though there are of course notable exceptions to this too. I think it means there's a different sense of relationship with the artform though. In the absence of career-altering sales figures for almost all poets (especially the living ones), all that remains is the work, and the ego. And when everyone who walks through the door has both, things get interesting.

We don't like thinking of indie presses as being "in competition" with each other. We don't like thinking of contemporary poetry as a "marketplace". But it is, whether you bring cash into it or not. (And I do understand the instinctive dislike of bringing cash into it. "No poetry in money etc etc". There are ways though. Which reminds me, here's some fun marketing from Penned in the Margins.) I suppose overall what I mean is: at present it feels like the landscape of contemporary poetry has a few big obvious forests and mountains on it, but much of value is hidden away in cave networks that you have to fight to find, or that you may gradually stumble across given enough time and energy. While I love the idea of secret caves filled with poetry gold, more people need to know about them if they're going to survive. I don't want to live in a cave. I want a better map.  

This is where I run out of thoughts for today, as I'm getting into the territory of Very Big Questions. Let's say I'm laying this down for further mulling over in the future. Maybe I'll say one more thing about the book fair first that seems relevant though. The list of exhibitors at the fair has expanded year on year (from an initial 22 to this year's 88). The audience has grown too (800 through the doors this year) but not at the same rate as the exhibitors. That is a point of interest to me, something solid I want to do a bit more thinking about and research into.

Anyway, Thought Bubble was great. I bought lots of interesting new books. I met Kate Beaton and talked about meat (if you don't know her work, look at this immediately). Delightful Husband djayed for DMC (yes, that one). We danced till 3am. I talked to some people about the Poetry Comics book I edited this year. I caught up with existing friends, one of whom is now being described to everyone as "Sauron Mike" (See how I'm bringing things back to the Tolkien reference at the start? Trying to fool you into thinking this blogpost might have some kind of structure? Also, I've just double-checked, and the Tolkien line is actually "Escaping Goblins to be caught by Wolves". Not an orc in sight. Oh well, dwarves it is.). We caught the train home late on Sunday night and Delightful Husband slept through the journey sprawled all over me in complete exhaustion. We are now enjoying a bit of quiet time at home with the cat.

Talking to people is exhausting. But unpredictable. And so much fun. It's great when people whose first love is an artform that must be experienced in solitude can get out and celebrate it with others.