Who published this?

Antiphon doesn’t generally review self-published books. It’s not a deeply considered position, more an attempt to keep the numbers down, in the same way that we review UK books and pamphlets more than those from overseas. A good publisher acts as quality control – I know that if Picador has published it, I’m probably going to like it, and even if I don’t I’ll be able to see some merit in it. Self-published books run the whole gamut from wonderful, idiosyncratic beauties to slapped-together pdfs of doggerel, and until you go to the effort of reading, it’s hard to tell the difference.

As Gerry Cambridge (Scottish poet and founder of The Dark Horse magazine) states, “In general, self-publishing is regarded with suspicion by many ‘traditional’ poets… The reason for this suspicion is straightforward: it can seem to bypass the standard expectation to get some sort of editorial consensus for a body of work. It implies that you weren’t able to get the work published by the usual channels, because almost any poet I know of would rather have a full collection, at least, published by a trade publisher than do it themselves. “

The theory is that if the poetry is good enough, eventually the better magazines will publish it, and eventually a small (or major) press will pick up the poet and run for a book or two. And yet even then the poet is not home and dry; it can be harder to get a second or third collection published than a first, and the first is never going to be easy. Clare Pollard last year on her blog discussed the problems of encouraging so many emerging poets without giving them somewhere to emerge to. Helena Nelson of Happenstance Press writes: “this press publishes about a dozen pamphlets a year. 2013 was 'full' by the start of 2012. We're now looking at 2015. The answer is more likely to be 'no', than 'yes'.” Patience is a virtue in the poet.

And there’s no doubt that many poets are rushing for publication before they are ready for it – derivative writing created from exercises, threadbare metaphors, dodgy syntax, no feel for the quality required for publication. Helena again, in a blog post quoting a talk by Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books: “And he described what he has always looked for and continues to value: a poet who nurtures the talent before taking it out into the world. He spoke of the way the ‘individual voice can only be achieved in private’ though it is moving towards a public self. He spoke of the way a set of good poems is not enough. There are too many poets for the opportunities, too many sets of good poems. What is required is a voice ‘unlike anyone else’s’, a set of poems ‘consistently strong’...”

Yet there is a lot of good work out there that doesn’t fit the standard model, that doesn’t attract the eye of a major publisher. Many poets are published by tiny presses not experienced in editing, and unable to help much with publicity or marketing. Do these presses add any kudos to the poetry, or is self-publishing a better way to ensure quality?

Rose Kelleher chose to self-publish her second volume of poetry, Native Species, believing she could do as good a job: “So what’s with all this kowtowing to the authorities – authorities who are, in most cases, no more qualified to judge than you or I? They’re simply well-meaning hobbyists who happen to have enough money to start small presses. They performed a valuable service for many years, printing books that the bigger presses wouldn’t touch, and for that we should all be grateful. But we don’t need them anymore. Remember this is poetry we’re talking about: there is no money to be had.” A very good book it is, too.

I recently received a small pamphlet, 'The Great Vowel Shift', by Robin Houghton (whom we published in issue 10), published by a small press she’s set up, and it’s beautifully designed and carefully edited, and I very much enjoyed reading the sharply-written poems.

One reason for creating Antiphon as an online publication was to reach those widely spread readers who love the sort of poetry we love. Poetry comes in all shapes and sizes and I know many unpublished, self-published, small-press-published poets who deserve a readership as wide, if not wider, than some of the better-known names. Self-publishing may be a route to this, (though I believe nearly all poets benefit from the input of a good editor). How, though, are we to find the wood for the trees?


Rosemary Badcoe

Gerry Cambridge:
Self-publishing for poets, in http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/learn/poets
The Dark Horse

Clare Pollard:

Helena Nelson, Happenstance blog

Bloodaxe Books

Rose Kelleher: http://rosekelleher.wordpress.com/2013/05/23/self-publishing/

Robin Houghton: http://telltalepress.co.uk/about/