The Friday Poem talks to Hamish Whyte of Mariscat Press about current Scottish Galvanisers, the timidity of contemporary review culture, and to blurb or not to blurb
TFP: There’s a part in your book Morgan and Me where you refer to Edwin Morgan as a Scottish Galvaniser. I wonder who you would say were the Scottish Galvanisers now – who has taken up Morgan’s role of giving inspiration, advice and encouragement to young writers (and while we’re here) who are the exciting, experimental and interesting young Scottish writers and poetry publishers working now?
HW: My joke come back to haunt me! We were on a train and passed a warehouse with a sign – SCOTTISH GALVANISERS. “Ah,” said Eddie, “That’s what we need.” And I thought, we have one. There’s nobody around now like Eddie Morgan. He was a terrific encourager and adviser, especially of the young. He had time for anyone – and not just in poetry. He was a great supporter of Alasdair Gray, for example, in the writing of his novel Lanark, which had great success in the 1980s – Alasdair gave him the typescript of the novel as a thank you – which Eddie went on to donate to the Mitchell Library. Just one illustration of his generosity.
But there are plenty of fine poets and other writers about, enabling and encouraging – Donny O’Rourke, Janie McKie, Kathleen Jamie, Louise Welsh, Ryan Van Winkle, for instance – although many of them do so from the confines of the various creative writing courses. The Glasgow poetry network, St Mungo’s Mirrorball, skippered by the redoubtable Jim Carruth, has a wonderful mentoring scheme, Clydebuilt, for up and coming poets (current mentor, the editor of The Dark Horse magazine, Gerry Cambridge). There’s the Scottish Book Trust New Writers awards. And since 2014 the Edwin Morgan Trust has run a bi-annual competition for poets under the age of thirty (with money left for this purpose by Edwin Morgan – he continues even after death to galvanise!). Prizewinners include Niall Campbell, Penny Boxhall and Alycia Pirmohamed.
Among the Scottish small presses, I particularly admire Duncan Lockerbie’s Tapsalteerie Press (Aberdeen) and Helena Nelson’s Happenstance Press (Fife). They continue to publish interesting and often challenging work, with high production values – they’re willing to take risks. I should declare an interest here, as Nell has published some of my own work – Scottish Testimonies recently out, to get in a plug! Furth of Scotland there are a lot of presses doing good stuff – Bad Betty, Broken Sleep, Ignition, for example.
As for exciting, experimental and interesting young writers, I probably don’t know as many young writers around as I should, but I could mention Colin Herd (surreal, funny), our own Mariscat poet Michael Stephenson (moving family poems, translations from Chinese) and a young chap I heard at the Shore Poets open mike session recently, Philip Cook (Welsh Sappho).
TFP: Nice to hear that Ryan Van Winkle is still doing his thing – I remember being interviewed by him for a podcast at the Scottish Poetry Library about ten years ago. We had a lot of fun.
I do think there is a timidity around, a tendency to describe rather than criticise, as if trying to avoid anything that might be quoted on the back of a book
Gerry Cambridge recently published a piece in The Dark Horse by Maitreyabandhu which discusses contemporary review culture and asks where are the ‘unpredictable’ poetry critics. Gerry writes in his editorial that critical honesty is only possible now if a critic is a) of independent means and so not reliant on the poetry world for income or economic survival; b) not a poet themselves, and thus with no reputation or standing within the poetry subculture to imperil; or c) brash, heedless of consequence, or constitutionally incapable, or distrustful, of groupthink. He says: ‘These are qualities and circumstances so rare in current poetry as to barely exist.’ Do you think this is true, in Scotland and in the UK generally?
HW: I’m tempted to say, “Next question?” Poetry reviewing is such a fraught subject at the moment. I’m inclined to agree with Gerry and I think Maitreyabandhu’s essay should be required reading for poets and poetry reviewers. Even if poetry criticism (and I’m including reviewing here) hasn’t completely “degenerated into promotional copy”, in his words, I do think there is a timidity around, a tendency to describe rather than criticise, as if trying to avoid anything that might be quoted on the back of a book. I don’t enjoy current poetry reviewing much – I read the reviews in Poetry Review, PN Review, the TLS, the Guardian, Sphinx, The Friday Poem (of course) and not much else, or at least I start the reviews but have a tendency to skip to the final paragraph – where I’m usually disappointed by the lack of a rounding-off judgement.
Too often poetry is reviewed for things other than the poetry, “the substitution of socio-political concerns for artistic imagination” as Maitreyabandhu puts it.
I suppose what I want is honesty, which is what I gather you ask of your reviewers. There are not many reviewers as fearless as Alan Dent in his MQB magazine – he takes no prisoners. You’ll probably guess, that as far as critics go, I’m of the Jarrell-, Kermode-, Hamilton-, Hirsch-worshipping generation. I was heartened by Simon Armitage’s (exasperated?) remarks in his recent Oxford lectures on the lack of form in contemporary poetry and the “general drift towards inaccessibility” (often, I would say, ironically, in pursuit of diversity and inclusivity) and his annoyance at having to do “quite a lot of work” on some poems see TLS review by Seamus Perry, 19 August 2022 (although I feel the reader has to do some work!)
In conclusion, I am not of the opinion that poems by a white male middle class Scot have to be reviewed by a white male middle class Scot. And, like a politician, I’m not sure I’ve answered your question.
TFP: Well, I think you have partly answered it, which is better than most politicians! And I have to agree with your point about the pursuit of inclusivity leading, paradoxically, to greater inaccessibility. Re Armitage’s Oxford lectures, he implores readers, “don’t be intimidated or made to feel foolish by poets whose work is inexplicably obscure: they’re probably first-rate thinkers but lower-rank writers, for whom the challenge of textual clarity is a difficulty too far”, and asks why poetry shouldn’t engage with the next level of difficulty, which is to be clear.
So, when it comes to reading a poem, how much work is too much work? And, as a reader, doesn’t one have to feel confident, if there’s clearly a lot of work required, that it will be worth it? When poets demand the focused attention of a reader for a certain period of time shouldn’t they (we?) meet our side of the bargain and be sure to give the reader something worth working for?
I was heartened by Simon Armitage’s (exasperated?) remarks in his recent Oxford lectures on the lack of form in contemporary poetry and the “general drift towards inaccessibility”
Armitage also talks about how, as Oxford Professor of Poetry, he has the privilege to disagree with students who demand ‘that literature be nothing beyond a set of personal reassurances or political validations’. Is this the sort of thing you think Maitreyabandhu is hitting at with “the substitution of socio-political concerns for artistic imagination”?
(NB Where Armitage writes about Rupi Kaur’s ‘vast and rapid commercial success’ I can’t help but see the word ‘vapid’ – do you think this is intentional?)
HW: I’ll say again, I do think the reader of poems should put in some work. It is a collaboration. I’m not keen on ‘easy listening’, in music or poetry. Sometimes the reader has to work hard, sometimes not. Part of the pleasure of reading poetry is filling in the gaps. I remember being impressed by a crime novel (I’m an addict) by Loren Singer, That’s the House Over There, in which everything is seen through the eyes of one character (the policeman) whose was the only voice – you had to guess questions, for example, from his answers. I tried this in a poem, ‘Interview’, in which all the reader is given is the answers. Probably not a very fruitful process in our case here! The poem can be seen as a skeleton, to be clothed by each reader.
There’s a view that readers should be given some help and a lot of books have ‘Notes’ at the back. Edwin Morgan notoriously refused to include notes, saying readers could look things up – even more easily now with the internet – though I did manage to persuade him to include biographical notes for his collection, Book of Lives. I’m not against notes – they can be useful and provide a glimpse into a poet’s working.
You ask, if there’s a lot of work to be done, is it worth it? I suppose that’s the question in reading any poem. You won’t know till you’ve read it. Just to read a poem can be work enough. And there’s probably something to be learned even with poems you don’t like or enjoy or find really difficult.
You mention Armitage’s phrase, the next level of difficulty, which is to be clear. One of the most difficult things of all, I think, for a poet. I look back on my sixty years of writing poems and think that’s what I’ve been striving for and have only realised it relatively recently. I’ve certainly over the years tried to move away from metaphor, feeling that it can actually get in the way of clarity. I’m modernist in that way. But it’s difficult. A poem while devoid of metaphor can be a metaphor itself. I like Robert Lowell’s ‘say what happened’.
And I agree with Armitage and Maitreyabandhu about contemporary poetry content lacking ‘artistic imagination’. I was at a poetry reading once where a poet listed the contents of his fridge interminably – maybe it was a metaphor for something. Think what William Carlos Williams did in a few lines in ‘This is Just to Say’.
(And yes, I think Armitage means us to see the word ‘vapid’ in that statement – he’s too astute not to.)
Can I say here that just as I probably don’t read as many contemporary poets as I should, I wonder if contemporary poets haven’t read enough poetry of the past. I have favourite poets of today – Liz Berry, Sharon Olds, Anne Carson, Raymond Antrobus, for example (which shows where my taste lies I suppose) but so many older ones – Sappho, Catullus, Dryden, Burns, Byron, Browning, Rossetti, Williams, Bishop, Plath, Reznikoff (I could go on and on). My advice to any poet asking about writing has always been, ‘read’.
I’ve certainly over the years tried to move away from metaphor, feeling that it can actually get in the way of clarity. I’m modernist in that way
TFP: Can I ask you about blurbs? We occasionally review collections and pamphlets where the hyperbolic blurb oversells the poetry. It creates a set of expectations for the reader which the poetry – while possibly very good – doesn’t (could never) fulfil. You write blurbs for Mariscat books which presumably are designed to sell the publication. How do you write these, and how hard is it to resist overselling?
My fear is that the sort of puff increasingly found on poetry book jackets can result in disappointment, and – worse – that it can make poetry readers think the fault must be in them. A few poets might privately applaud, but surely any more seriously-intentioned poets want to fight against this?
HW: A contentious issue I find, in the publishing world. To blurb or not to blurb. There’s even a book about them now – Blurb Your Enthusiasm by Louise Wilder. Plus, what about endorsements? I do both at Mariscat.
I agree that they can oversell. Jim Campbell when he was writing the J.C. column for the TLS used to have a competition for the most meaningless and incomprehensible blurb, and he was not lost for examples. As you say, they can oversell the poetry and put the reader off. Helena Nelson, of HappenStance Press, usually writes blurbs which are minor works of criticism in their own right, but does not include endorsements. Others do the opposite.
I try to write fairly succinct blurbs that I hope describe the contents: main themes, style, whether moving or witty (humour in poetry another subject for discussion). I suppose there is a temptation to go over the top, but I try not to. The word ‘exciting’ comes to mind – on so many books – and it may be true of course. I’d be wary of it. I sometimes ask a writer I think might be sympathetic to write a few words and sometimes reprint appropriate quotations from reviews of earlier work. But I always include a poem or part of a poem (usually the title poem) on the back cover. The best blurb is a poem. This gives the person who picks up the book an instant taste of what to expect.
I must say when browsing to find a crime novel I’m persuaded if it’s endorsed by the likes of Ian Rankin, Laura Lippman or Stephen King or other authors I like. I trust them, I feel they’re being honest. And I feel the same about books of poems – if Anne Carson says ‘Read this’, I’d give it a go. So obviously this kind of thing works!
TFP: What have you’ve learned from your time in publishing – about poets, and about what works in publishing.
HW: What have I learned over the years? That a pamphlet needs as much care as a book – it’s the same process. The thrill of bringing poems from writer to reader has never gone away. There’s always the fascination and privilege of reading new work submitted to us and the hope of discovering something extra-special – we believe in and get a lift from all the work we publish, but – and I’m sure every publisher feels this – there’s an extra fillip to be entrusted with – for example – unique works such as Eddie Morgan’s autobiographical Love and a Life or Alyson Hallett’s Toots.
The thrill of bringing poems from writer to reader has never gone away
What I haven’t learned is how to sell books properly – we still bumble along with launches, readings and word of mouth. So many bookshops have never been amenable to spineless pamphlets. Since lockdown we’ve developed our mailing list and that has proved useful. Also, and no surprise, that some poets can be prickly – and not necessarily the big names. Everyone gets put through the Mariscat process – a meticulous going through a collection poem by poem. We’ve learned variety and flexibility. I’m not keen on imposing a house style on every publication, as some presses do – every poet and publication is unique, so should have different demands of cover design, typeface and so on. I do admit our pamphlets are all usually the same format (i.e.size), but that’s all. Our brilliant designer Dalrymple makes each production distinctive.
And I met my partner Diana (Hendry, poet and children’s author) through Mariscat, when she submitted poems. And yes, I did publish them. She’s now a stalwart of the press, having moved from editorial assistant to assistant editor – I couldn’t do without her – her critical eye and instinct are invaluable. We’ve been together for half of Mariscat’s life.
TFP: How did Mariscat start? And – inevitably – how does the money side of things work – do you get any funding, does the Press make money, to what extent do you support it?
HW: Sometimes when I open the Mariscat cupboard and look at the piles of unsold pamphlets, I wonder if it’s worth it. So much depends on chance, what will sell and what won’t, it’s mostly unpredictable. It all started really by accident, forty years ago. My friend, the late Kevin McCarra (lover of poetry and football), and I wanted to publicise the translations into Glaswegian of the Roman poet Catullus by another friend, David Neilson.
We borrowed a typewriter from the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow, typed up the poems (with a full stop the size of a golf ball) and got them run off as a cheapo pamphlet by Prontaprint. It actually sold well – we even got David on the BBC Radio One Roadshow reading the poems. That was all it took. We were bitten by the publishing bug. I had recently got to know Edwin Morgan. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the new enterprise and for the next thirty years would offer us material for publication – we became his de facto Scottish publisher. We couldn’t have had a better start. In 1984 we published what I still think of as our greatest achievement, his Sonnets from Scotland – best-selling, award-winning.
In the early days we had funding from the Scottish Arts Council (Kevin was good at filling in the forms) and sales of our bigger names – Eddie and Gael Turnbull – enabled us to publish new poets as well. In 1997 after Kevin was seduced away to London (to write about football for the Guardian), I continued on my own, concentrating on pamphlets and being self-funding – no more hoops to jump through.
In general, each pamphlet funds the next. It is a shoestring operation
In general, each pamphlet funds the next. It is a shoestring operation. And like many a small publisher, there occasionally have to be interventions (à la Bank of England), simply to keep going. We pay our poets ten per cent royalties on sales and have done since the beginning, as a point of principle (there’s so much that writers are expected to do for nothing) – so that’s another cost on top of design and print. Now and then we’ll get a donation from a well-wisher and winning awards, like the Callum Macdonald (in Scotland) and the Michael Marks does help. But no, the press doesn’t make money.
TFP: What sort of poetry do you hope to publish? You’ve got some big names on your list – Michael Longley, Jackie Kay, Hugo Williams – did they approach you? I see from the website that subs are currently closed – do you have plans to reopen them, or do you find poets to publish via another route?
HW: Yes, at the moment we’re closed to submissions. We have enough material, already gathered, for next year (including Blake Morrison – who approached us in February) – and I don’t like to look too far ahead. I’m always threatening to stop, but we’ll see.
We like a variety of authors – established writers, new writers and in-betweeners. It’s the usual mixture of sources – what comes through the letter box, what we hear at readings, what is recommended to us – and pestering poets we know and like. You mention big names – some we approached and some approached us. We’re not afraid to ask, (Diana’s good at asking) and, as we discovered, poets like to be asked. Usually folk are pleased to be published by Mariscat – we’ve built up a good reputation. An example. We heard the Irish poet Frank Ormsby read his poems about Parkinson’s, which he has, at the Scottish Poetry Library, and thought they were wonderful. At the break my partner Diana rushed up and bagged them for Mariscat. We had one of our best launches at the No Alibis bookshop in Belfast (Michael Longley and Ciaran Carson in the packed audience). I think the poems are now used in teaching nurses. Douglas Dunn and John Glenday, for instance, were also pleased to be asked, John so much that he asked us to give him a subject to write about!
TFP: And what about Testimonies – how did that come about?
As for Testimonies (Scotland 1623-1965) – I’ve long been a fan of the American poet Charles Reznikoff (a fellow Objectivist with Carlos Williams) and particularly his epic Testimony: the United States (1885-1915), poems based on law reports from the various states. In the introduction to my 1993 anthology of Glasgow poems, Mungo’s Tongues, I called for someone to produce a similar work, based on the city’s court records. Nobody took me up, so I decided to do it myself and cover the whole of Scotland. I’ve spent several years combing Scottish trial records for suitable material, making basically ‘found’ poems – retrieving lost stories and forgotten voices. I could only work on a little at a time, the subject matter is so grim. What is remarkable – or maybe not so – is the mixture of the terrible and the trivial – life in fact. Our friend Elizabeth Cook has described the poems as ‘nuggetty with reality’ and I’ll settle for that. And a thank you to Nell Nelson of HappenStance Press for taking a chance on it. As for what’s next, poems or press – who knows?
|↑1||see TLS review by Seamus Perry, 19 August 2022|