The Friday Poem talks to Chris Hamilton-Emery, poet and director of Salt Publishing, about coming back to the poetry community, the new Salt Modern Poets list, building readerships, and writing every day “without hope and without despair”
TFP: Salt drew back from publishing single author collections of poetry in 2013 and you stepped back from Salt in 2019 to take a break and to reconnect with your own work. Now you’re back, with a new Salt Modern Poets list. What happened?
CHE: Back in 2010 I employed Roddy Lumsden as Salt’s Poetry Editor and he was soon busy making sweeping changes to the list – almost a complete change of poets. He brought it a host of new names – poets like Nuar Alsadir, John Clegg, Angela Cleland, Tim Cumming, Amy Key, John McCullough and Camellia Stafford – and very soon the new shape began to appear. It was an exciting time – even I joined his list. Roddy was running our Best British Poets too. He was also interested in taking over as Editor of Poetry in the USA. Behind the scenes, on the sales side, the market for poetry in the UK was cooling. Roddy and I kept talking about what was happening and our commissioning tried to find a way through these pressures. Pretty soon the directors realised we were going to have to do something to avoid a cash crisis. Things got very tough.
Jen and I sold our home and moved to Cromer, on the Norfolk coast. Not long after, I decided I’d have to stop publishing single author collections. We kept Roddy on to lead on the anthology publishing. This must have been around 2013. We honoured all the contracts we’d committed to, but the decision was made and soon went public. At the time, it looked like Roddy would go to the US to take over at Poetry, but things fell apart. He didn’t get the job. Not long after, Roddy became ill and slowly withdrew from the day-to-day at Salt. It was a bad time, lots of friends were hurt – it fills me with sadness.
Despite putting a pause on the commissioning of new collections, we kept publishing until 2016. The move into general fiction pretty much saved the business and transformed the whole enterprise. It was 2018 when I decided there was enough cash in the business to start publishing poetry again. We had no illusions about the market, it was purely for the art, not a commercial decision at all. Since then we’ve published twenty-three collections, some of which are reissues. A two year pause, then, but it was a colossal change in what Salt was to become. Shifting from a poetry press to a tiny trade publisher. Of course, like everyone in publishing, we’ve gone on to face even greater challenges with Brexit and COVID.
My own writing life runs alongside all this. Roddy changed my fortunes when he commissioned The Departure. But during the times we were busy reconfiguring the press my writing life seemed to dry up almost completely and I had a tremendous sense of loss about that. When Roddy sadly died I had lost my editor and my publisher and I knew I had to do something to rediscover my own writing. I joined the MA at UEA, but dropped out. Then I made the decision in 2019 to leave Salt and take up a new role as Director of Operations at The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. At that point my writing life reemerged very quickly – it was like a tap turning on. I pushed off in new directions writing about nature and climate, spirituality and, you know, the big themes. The day job had a profound effect on me, too. I was leading a team of, at times, seventy or so staff, running a large hospitality business, shop and café, eventually I took on membership and fundraising. I was studying Applied Catholic Theology.
The move into general fiction pretty much saved the business and transformed the whole enterprise. It was 2018 when I decided there was enough cash in the business to start publishing poetry again – we had no illusions about the market, it was purely for the art, not a commercial decision at all
Then my mother-in-law fell ill and died earlier this year, and over the course of those nine months, Jen and I decided we might move to Scotland. It precipitated another life change and I resigned from the Shrine, then backed out, then resigned again. A bumpy time. As things have transpired, it’s become clear we can’t move, it’s not the right time, the politics and economic issues simply don’t work for us. So we’re staying put and I’ve returned to Salt to help lead it out of recession and the dramatic impact Brexit had. Oddly, what had seemed to be this decade-long lean time with my writing had in fact been quietly productive. I began pulling together work from the 1990s on that slowly took shape as a new collection called Modern Fog. During the lockdown I entered an explosive period of new writing and am now shaping a second collection called A Department of Spectres. I’ve re-entered the poetry community, and it has been very welcoming.
I almost never talk about this period, and I know others have a very different take on events. Publishing is always a tough game, there’s so little money in it and by nature it’s fragile and brittle. For the past three years I’ve felt a million miles away from it, but it’s nice to be back.
TFP: When you opened the list to unsolicited submissions in March this year, were you inundated? What sort of poetry are you looking to publish, and has this changed? This October you’ve published collections by Kathryn Simmonds, Ken Evans, Pete Green, Aidan Semmens and Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana; one from Gerard Beirne is forthcoming next spring, and I know you have also accepted one from Emma Simon. Who else is joining your list, and do you have collections from other poets previously published by Salt in the pipeline?
CHE: I’ve broadened the Salt poetry list out in the past year or so – you’re quite right about those names and about Emma Simon’s forthcoming title, Shapeshifting for Beginners. Alongside Emma and Gerard, Kaddy Benyon, John Kinsella, Rob Mackenzie, Elisabeth Sennitt Clough and Becky Varley-Winter will be on the 2023 list with new collections. I’m very excited about the direction and the books are all terrific.
TFP: And you’ve got a fabulous website too. Salt manages to look pretty slick, possibly even slightly corporate, for a small, independent press that prides itself on staying well away from London! Before Salt, you were press production director of Cambridge University Press and responsible for around 2,500 titles a year. How hard was it to bring your technological know-how and professionalism to the world of poetry?
CHE: Thank you very much. I think every publishing house must make a claim for the attention of readers, but I know that beyond that audience one must also position one’s press in relation to bookselling chains and independent booksellers, to the media, to journalists and bloggers, to other publishing houses who may acquire rights or from whom one wishes to acquire rights, to film and televisions businesses, to investors, to banks, distributors and sales agencies, even to the governments of other countries. How one appears determines, in large part, the audiences one manages, within a broad communication strategy.
Publishing is always a tough game, there’s so little money in it and by nature it’s fragile and brittle. For the past three years I’ve felt a million miles away from it, but it’s nice to be back
I do consider my former corporate life to have fully migrated to Salt, and I’ve certainly intentionally brought those skills (such as they are) to bear on the business, as has Jen and all our colleagues and co-workers down the years too. I’m very ambitious for the press, even after twenty-three years, I want it to succeed for my writers and, indeed, for our readers. I think it’s true to say that as the business has altered it has become a general trade publisher, and more of my personal skills have been slowly brought into play with these changes in editorial acquisitions.
TFP: You’ve published some pretty high-achieving poetry books – Luke Kennard’s The Harbour Beyond the Movie was shortlisted for Forward Prize for Best Collection in 2007 and selected for The Poetry Book Society’s Next Generation Poets 2014; the debut poetry collection from Siân Hughes, The Missing, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2009 and the Guardian First Book Award and won the inaugural Seamus Heaney Centre Prize; and Alexander Hutchison’s Bones & Breath won the Saltire Society’s Poetry Book of the Year in 2013. What are your personal highlights of the Salt poetry list?
CHE: We’ve had great good fortune with some of the titles, though, naturally, I love them all. It’s quite hard to single out any personal favourites, and those you list here had a great impact not just on Salt but on my own writing. Working with Kamau Brathwaite was wonderful and extraordinary. Anthony Joseph is a tremendously gifted author and performer as well as a lovely person. I deeply enjoy working with John Kinsella – a long-time collaborator who helped me in so many ways down the decades. Víctor Rodríguez-Núñez and his partner Katherine Hedeen were a joy to work with on the Spanish translations. I truly miss John Hartley Williams and Matthew Sweeney – what astonishing talents and wonderful company. I could go on and on here, talking about the poets – wonderful Katy Evans-Bush, Rebecca Tamás, Kayo Chingonyi. Mark Waldron is a very serious talent – the quintessential Salt poet in so many ways – and I have a personal affinity with his writing. The more I write, the more I remember!
TFP: What proportion of your titles are poetry?
CHE: I haven’t looked at this for some years, let me search the bibliographic database! There are 798 poetry ISBNs out of a total 1,409 (excluding cancelled titles), 57%, is that? The list is much tighter than it once was. I published five collections this year, and will publish nine in 2023. I think that ratio will change over the next twenty years, but poetry will always be an important component of Salt’s commissioning.
TFP: How did Brexit and COVID affect Salt, and did your Just One Book campaign secure your future?
CHE: Broadly speaking, we lost 60% of turnover, so quite devastating. This year marks the beginning of a plan to revitalise the press and its financial stability. Cash has been completely run down and we need sales to lift ourselves up by our bootstraps. The first JustOneBook campaign raised around £30k – though this is some years ago now – Salt burned through that in a few months with the costs of staffing, printing, sales and marketing, and distribution. We ran the campaign twice and it certainly kept the press afloat in extremely difficult circumstances.
I’m very ambitious for the press, even after twenty-three years, I want it to succeed for my writers – and, indeed, for our readers
However, that’s not a repeatable exercise in the current climate. People are facing tremendous difficulties in the wake of Brexit, and the climbing cost of goods and services continues and affects so many families. It would be wrong, I think, to beg for help. We simply have to find the right authors and the right commercial strategy to slowly recover. It may take us five years. I think our authors all understand that money is tight, but we’re committed to supporting them and their work, to serving our readers, and to finding new ones. Lots of new ones.
TFP: What sort of poetry do you find sells well for you these days?
CHE:That’s a complex question to answer. I mean, in one sense, all the poetry sells to some degree, and our expectations of each book vary significantly. However, median sales have changed quite dramatically. At one time we’d expect to sell several hundred copies of every book but in recent years this has fallen to perhaps ninety copies. All the poetry makes a financial loss and we offset that with our core publishing in other areas. I may plan for sales of 50 copies on one book and expect 250 on another, and both may be good results if I believe in the writer and the writing.
TFP: When you are choosing poets to add to your list how much weight do you give to how well you feel that poetry will sell? How much does Salt do for its poets, in terms of marketing and sales, and how much do you expect your poets to do for themselves?
I think it is true to say that the poet sells more than the collection does. Some writers have large followings and a public persona, some engage with readers in direct ways, some perform frequently, some have what one might call reputations, some are in one way or another, marketable – though poetry is a small world and the specialist audience probably doesn’t extend beyond a few thousand people in the UK. Of course some writers break out beyond this specialist audience in ways we don’t always understand.
A poet who has developed friendships and alliances, relationships with booksellers, readers, libraries, events venues, literary development agencies and so on, certainly has more chance of finding readers for their title. Some poets don’t do any of this (some may insist they don’t and would never do this) and, as in all walks of life, some may have poor social skills, or no stage presence, or no history of performance – indeed, may be completely unknown. However the work may have struck me as having exceptional value, and I may hope that working with a poet could help them to find an audience, so the relationship is developmental, perhaps with long term ambitions for the writer. I’d take a gamble on such a writer now and again.
But your question also leads into what readers want, and, just as with contemporary practice, there isn’t a single readership for poetry but many, sometimes quite discrete, audiences that may know little of practices beyond their own sphere of experience. One can spend a lot of time investigating these different micro sectors, from campus poets to performance poetry and everything in between.
I think it is true to say that the poet sells more than the collection does – some writers have large followings and a public persona, some engage with readers in direct ways, some perform frequently, some have what one might call reputations, some are in one way or another, marketable
Nevertheless, there are other factors that come into play when building a list. As an editor you must push beyond your own tastes as a reader and be sensitive to forms of writing quite different from your own sensibilities. There’s a thrill in extending your reading into other realms, other practices, and of course sometimes one gets one’s fingers burnt, commercially speaking, but as long as you can afford those losses, it extends your experience of what poetry can be.
We have published a great deal of the British avant-garde, US LANGUAGE and post-LANGUAGE poets, alongside Australian modernists. We have published mainstream poets from the home nations, LGBTQ+ poets, children’s poets, Native American poets and translations from the Spanish-speaking world. Beside this, speaking personally, I’ve been involved heavily in sales and marketing, and I’ve seen trends in reading change quite dramatically. I’ve seen old poetry camps and coteries dissolve and the emergence of an extraordinary diversity in voices and practices we now enjoy today. The space is no longer monolithic and contested, but highly fragmented.
Finally, as a poetry publisher for the past twenty-three years, we have ourselves developed our own readerships, those who buy regularly from us, trust our judgement, or parts of it, and stay in touch with us through social media or email marketing. We reach around a quarter of a million readers in this way, though there’s no direct correlation between this and sales. Review space for poetry has diminished in the broadsheets as the broadsheets themselves have diminished, but reviews don’t really sell books, they provide context and support for sales but don’t steer it.
TFP: What about your own poetry – what kind of place are you in with it now, how has it changed, what’s your process.
CHE: Another enormous question! I’ve been writing poems for most of my life and I’m sixty this year.
Like most writers, what I write, and how I write, changes frequently, and every week you feel you’re making progress in some way – finding a new cadence, a new technique, a new impetus. If I felt I was covering the same ground I suspect I’d simply stop.
Since 2017, I’ve made a very substantial change in my writing practice, in that I write every day without hope and without despair. In doing this, I try to let the poems write themselves, taking me in off in new directions. I provide some steer in that I try to write things I would normally run a mile from – say, love poems, or nature poems, or poems of age, or historical poems, or encomiums, nostalgia verse, or poems on plants or animals, climate, travel – I want to be able to write on any matter and in as wide a manner as I can manage. What I very specifically want to get away from is any sense of voice, personal subject, or personal preoccupation. I don’t want to be left with me, because, God knows, I’d die of fucking boredom. I actively shy away from biography and personal suffering. Naturally, I’m deeply suspicious that I fully achieve my own aims here. No matter how hard you run, you never escape yourself. But I think my instincts are closer to the novelist, to create worlds other than me and, you know, populate them with believable compulsions.
TFP: And what have you come to believe about poetry, over the years – what does it mean to you, and what constitutes good poetry, in your book? (oh yes, we like to leave the big questions till last!)
What’s good is one of those impossible measures – what you loved yesterday you may hate in a fortnight’s time. However, I do believe that as one writes, rewrites and deletes, there’s a hunt going on, a pursuit inside the poem for something that feels authentically other, authentically real. Perhaps, true, though this need not be a personal truth. But it is true in itself. And sonically and emotionally resonant. A sound world, in both senses of that phrase. I respond to this in other poets’ writing and certainly to this in my own. In fact, I’d go so far to say that my absence from the text is for me part of the magic. I like sitting back, exhausted, with a profound sense of not knowing where a piece of writing has come from.
I write every day without hope and without despair
I’m working on two parallel collections, one started life in the 1990s and has suddenly coalesced as a spiritual collection of poems that often find their motifs in nature writing, and another that is composed of highly disparate, intense lyrics fuelled by abstract personas. I’m about to move house and from previous experience, I think this is likely to trigger another intense burst of new writing, and I look forward to seeing what this next decade brings as I move back into the city, and all that the city means.