The Friday Poem In Conversation with Stuart Bartholomew
Stuart Bartholomew set up the VERVE Poetry Festival in 2017 and VERVE Poetry Press in 2018. He talks to The Friday Poem about launching a multi-cultural festival, the poet-publisher partnership, and how important it is to design bright and enticing poetry pamphlet covers.
TFP: How did Verve Poetry Festival happen, and what involvement did you have with poetry before that?
SB: So, I have a sneaking impression that I was manipulated into starting a festival by my co-founders poets Cynthia Miller and Roz Goddard, and Emma Wright whose Emma Press had just landed in Brum. But I must have been in a manipulable state for that to happen! I was managing Waterstones Birmingham at the time and we had a new café that we were very keen to have events going on in, and we’d made pigeon steps in the direction of hosting poetry events — I remember Emma brought some poets to perform at a Valentine’s event in 2016 and brought Liz Berry along with her. When I heard her read, I fell back in love with poetry and remembered the power of poetry when performed well.
Before that I wasn’t engaged with poetry much at all, beyond having studied it at degree level back in the early ‘90s. But we were soon attracting great crowds at launch events in the shop — we launched Luke Kennard’s Cain in front of 100 people! And the more I met poets and saw how good our audiences were and started going to poetry nights and meeting more poets, the more obvious it was that Birmingham needed a poetry festival and that if we put one on in the shop (we chose February, as this is the quietest trading month at Waterstones) people would come.
By the end of August we had a festival planned and programmed. We decided that Birmingham needed a festival that catered for the very multi-cultural city we inhabited and would have to appeal to poetry lovers both young and old. It felt quite natural to programme a mixture of performance and page poetry events and to move quite seamlessly between different types of poetry from different cultural backgrounds and from poets with different levels of experience.
Our first festival in 2017 featured known national and lesser known local poets such as Anthony Anaxagorou, Raymond Antrobus, Mona Arshi, Dean Atta, Khairani Barokka, Helen Calcutt, Kayo Chingonyi, Geraldine Clarkson, Jasmine Gardosi, Emily Harrison, Sarah Howe, Luke Kennard, Fran Lock, Roy McFarlane, Sabrina Mahfouz, Kim Moore, Helen Mort, Daljit Nagra, Katrina Naomi, Shazea Quraishi, Deanna Rodger, Amerah Saleh, Hannah Silva and Antosh Wojcik.
TFP: How nervous were you in 2017 at the first festival?
SB: I’d never been to a poetry festival, so the madness that is VERVE came out of not knowing what we were supposed to do and focussing fully on what I thought we should do. I wasn’t nervous at all — it felt so right and so necessary! Although what did happen is on the first day I developed a steadily building and completely delusional anxiety that although I was looking at a full event, the next event would be empty. And this kept building and repeating throughout the four days until I almost burst with it before the last (sold out) event on the Sunday evening. When I got home on Monday morning I sobbed my heart out, and didn’t speak to any of my festival co-creators for three months. By which time I was ready to go again!
TFP: The festival has gone from strength to strength, winning Best Festival in the Saboteur Awards 2019, though obviously lockdown meant no festival in 2021. And Verve Poetry Press, launched in 2018, already feels like a fixture — and a player — in the poetry publishing world. How do you feel about the last few years now, looking back?
SB: I feel a strange mixture of being incredible lucky and also somehow being destined to do this. On the one hand it was almost immediately apparent that we were doing lots and lots of the right things and that people were responding to the festival really positively. We were praised for including BAME poets and also a majority of female poets, for giving opportunities to emerging poets and small presses as well as the large names, for mixing page and performance events, and for involving poetry organisations like Apples and Snakes and the Poetry School as well as local youth engagement agencies like Beatfreeks.
That Birmingham needed a poetry festival was so obvious at the time, that it really didn’t feel that it could fail. And I also feel that my long career at Waterstones, managing large businesses and event programmes, really prepared me to be able to deliver on this. But of course I feel incredibly blessed and lucky to have been in the right place at the right time (all this happened on the cusp of the poetry publishing boom) and surrounded by all the right people.
We were praised for including BAME poets and also a majority of female poets, for giving opportunities to emerging poets and small presses as well as the large names, for mixing page and performance events, and for involving poetry organisations like Apples and Snakes and the Poetry School as well as local youth engagement agencies like Beatfreeks
When the idea for Verve Press came along a year later, again feeling necessary, I was worried it wouldn’t be good enough not to ruin the name the festival had already built, but actually that hasn’t proven to be the case. I think the festival name definitely helped the press to be quickly taken seriously, but quite quickly the relationship began to be reciprocal between the two organisations, and I believe the press is now just as important for the festival as vice versa.
We have been super lucky to attract the poets we have to the press, but I also hope that they feel they have benefitted from being here too! I say this a lot, but it really is a dream come true for me. I get to read and listen to poets I love working at the press, and I get to decide who I’d like to hear read or see perform at the festival. Sometimes it is like I am designing my own poetry party and inviting others along for the ride.
TFP: The festival has been described as “giddy and flamboyant”, “a poetry party” and a “mixture of poetry fun”. Is there a risk that a focus on performance and fun excludes the quieter, more reflective, more serious areas of poetry? How has the wider poetry community received you?
SB: We talk about fun at VERVE a lot and view the festival as a celebration of all that’s good in poetry. But I don’t think we focus on performance at all. We represent it properly in a way that many poetry festivals don’t (the token slam half way through isn’t representing performance poetry to my mind) but the programme is just as full of quieter and serious poets as anything else. (I don’t think anyone would call Moniza Alvi, Pascale Petit, Jane Yeh, Mary Jean Chan, Imtiaz Dharker, Alison Brackenbury and Mimi Khalvati noisy and unserious. Also a lot of performance poetry deals with incredibly dark subject matter.)
The words ‘giddy’ and ‘flamboyant’ describe our own approach and excitement for poetry of all kinds and from all quarters. We want VERVE to be welcoming to all rather than some elite poetry club, and we want to celebrate our love of this incredibly complex and multi-facetted art form. Our applause will raise the roof, whether it’s for serious or comic, quiet or loud poetry. We want everyone to feel they can come and join our poetry party!
TFP: Lockdown has meant that many people who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to access live events have been able to be more included and involved as events have shifted online. Are you making changes to how you do things in the festival to guard against a slide back into inaccessibility?
We absolutely are! I have to admit to missing the buzz and atmosphere of live poetry readings incredibly, but I have also enjoyed the Zoom launches the press has delivered while we’ve been in hiatus — they have felt strangely intimate, like a close and secret reading in a back room somewhere. And of course, people have been able to access them no matter where they are or whether or not they are shielding / able to travel.
It is obvious that the term ‘accessibility’ has changed over lockdown. It is no longer enough to be in a venue that is fully accessible in terms of wheelchairs or to deliver events that are interpreted by people with sign language. (We will be delivering both these things at VERVE 2022.) There is a need for live streaming of events, and remote attendance possibilities in workshops, in order for the gains to access made over lockdown to endure. While we were on down time we have regrouped on all these issues, got our funding sorted out to accommodate these needs, and made this happen for 2022. And of course there is always the possibility that VERVE will have to go fully online if another lockdown should occur. (Fingers crossed it doesn’t!)
TFP: Re the 2022 festival — any chance of a sneaky peek at the line up? I know you have a Verve ‘Performance Lecture’ — what’s this about?
SB: Anthony Anaxagorou delivered our first VERVE Poetry Performance Lecture in 2019 followed by Yomi Sode in 2020. The Poetry Performance Lecture is something we programme in association with Poetry School and I love it! Essentially a poet we choose together is given time and finances to develop a lecture on a subject of their choice but there must be some poetry performed or read in it at some point. Anthony and Yomi’s lectures were both a massive success and also sold out and I know that this year’s Poetry Performance Lecture will too.
We keep our line-up an absolute secret until ticket sales launch night in mid-November, but I can tell you that as well as Poetry School, we will be collaborating on events with the Poetry Translation Centre, For Books’ Sake, the Poetry Society Young Poets, Pen-Ting Poetry, Malika’s Poetry Kitchen and The One Off Indie Poetry Press Festival, and will be featuring poets from Burning Eye Books, Bad Betty Press, Broken Sleep Books, Nine Arches Press, Ignition Press, Seren Books and Penned In The Margins as well as Faber, Bloodaxe, Chatto, Picador and Jonathan Cape. And our competition event this year is hosted by this year’s judge Caroline Bird!
TFP: How did Verve Poetry Press develop out of the festival?
SB: Something that I hoped the festival would help with was the way I felt that Birmingham poets were being ignored by poetry publishers and weren’t making it into print even though many of them were excellent. With that in mind, I gave performance slots to many of what I considered to be the best local poets at our first festival in 2017 in the hope that some of the publishers I’d invited would see them and agree. But when a year later, nothing had still happened, it became obvious that perhaps the right press for these poets didn’t exist and that perhaps VERVE festival could develop a press to go alongside it. After all, we needed someone to publish our regular competition anthologies and we already had a bookshop to sell them in.
I wanted Verve Poetry Press to be a trade facing press and so got a deal with Central Books to make sure any of our books could be ordered (and even stocked) by any bookshop both physical and online. And six months later we were picked up by the fabulous Inpress Books who also work with Nine Arches, Seren, Burning Eye, Outspoken Books, Penned in the Margins, The Emma Press and many more amazing presses.
We want VERVE to be welcoming to all rather than some elite poetry club, and we want to celebrate our love of this incredibly complex and multi-facetted art form. Our applause will raise the roof, whether it’s for serious or comic, quiet or loud poetry
Meanwhile our third ever book, Besharam by incredible Birmingham poet Nafeesa Hamid, was Highly Commended at the Forwards which kind of told me I had been right about great poets being overlooked in Birmingham. We have since published poets from across the UK and continue, like the festival, to have a broad perspective on what makes great poetry and what makes a great poet. I think there is a feeling still in quite a lot of our publishing that we are bringing books to print that should have been picked up before by someone else. I love that element of what we do.
TFP: How do you find the poets you publish? Do they come to you or do you approach them? What makes a ‘Verve Poetry Press’ poet?
SB: It started off being me approaching (initially Birmingham and West Midlands) poets but in the last two years we have had an annual open submission window for four weeks each spring. This is free to submit to but I ask for complete draft collections (either full length or pamphlet length) and I also ask for a one pager on which the poet should list their influences, what their poetry practice looks like, how engaged they are with poetry generally and what their plans are for helping to publicise their work.
Not everyone likes being asked to produce this — one poet wrote back and said he wouldn’t be submitting as he was a poet, not a student of poetry! I think everyone should be a student of poetry for life in the loosest sense but there are lots of ways of achieving this. Others really appreciate the process of the one pager, as it reminds them that being a poet isn’t just about writing poetry.
We are a tiny press, as most poetry presses are, and we don’t have the budget, time or ability to work alone on getting a poet’s work to connect with a readership. We work hard for our poets’ books but it is always better if the poet can help out too. Again there are many ways of achieving this.
TFP: In an interview for Young Poets Network recently you describe the work you do for the press and the festival — it sounds like a big job. Is this sustainable, as a business model? Have you found a way to pay yourself yet, or pay the volunteers who help you?
SB: It is a big job! It was an even bigger job when I was still working for Waterstones four days a week. And you’re right, it wasn’t sustainable. I left Waterstones in July after 29 years having secured the funding I needed to pay myself and two other incredible people (Kibriya Mehrban and Lizzie Palmer) part-time to help. We will always need volunteers to help with the actual festival, but we are able to contract more people than ever before to work for us on specific projects and no volunteers are involved in the running of the press.
Part of our funding this year has been earmarked to do some research and development on making the organisation fit for purpose, as there is definitely further work to do on making VERVE durable.
TFP: Do you ever feel that you are spread too thin? Do some poets have unrealistic expectations about what the press / having a book published can do for them?
SB: I feel that I am spread less thinly than I used to be, and I try to be as open and honest with people we publish as I possibly can. The one pager mentioned above lets people know that their book will do better if we have their help. But we have still had the whole range of approaches from our poets, some who work themselves ragged selling their book, others who are busy with other things, and everything in between.
I haven’t had too many poets upset with the sales we’ve managed to get for their books, but in the tricky waters of review coverage, prize short-lists, poetry book society recommendations — things that don’t always impact on sales very much at all — there can be disappointment. And of course, we can’t have ALL our poets at the festival, which is another difficult thing to manage well.
I’d like to spend more time on helping our poets through these things. It is really difficult being a poet at every stage in terms of the amount of rejection you tend to experience and also the difficulty in getting to a place where you have a realistic sense of what that rejection is actually telling you (not very much at all in most instances).
I think it is really important for poets to source their meaningful feedback away from the journal / publishing / festival booking merry-go-round — to connect with people who can be honest yet encouraging about their work, and build their sense of their own poetic ability to the side of all those rejections and the occasional success. So much easier said than done, I know.
TFP: In an interview on your website you say “I don’t want anyone to feel like we’re not interested in ‘their kind of poetry’ but I do want poetry that has an understanding of itself and the context it lives in.” What do you mean by this — that you are less interested in the more rarified type of poetry that doesn’t connect with the real lives of most people?
SB: I think with this answer I was trying to get at the idea of poetic connectivity. We sometimes get sent whole books of poetry from poets that have never read another book of poetry, never shown anyone their poetry before, and with no real sense of how their poetry fits or what makes it work. I think poets should read poetry, listen to poetry, dissect poetry, reassemble poetry, share poetry. I don’t think you can be a great poet in a vacuum.
I think poets should read poetry, listen to poetry, dissect poetry, reassemble poetry, share poetry. I don’t think you can be a great poet in a vacuum
Having said that I’d be lying if I said that in our open submissions I’m not more drawn to poetry that I feel has something to say and engages with the world in an observant or even a critical way. I think poetry is a great vehicle for protest and can be really exciting when the two are married well. Having said that, I can be a massive fan of quite detached poetry as long as it moves me in some way. Opacity can also have its place, but I do struggle with what I sometimes feel is senseless opacity.
TFP:You have told poets that the more they do for themselves, the more they are likely to appeal to publishers. Is this the future of poetry now — poets having to be their own marketing managers?
SB: I don’t agree that poets should have to manage their own marketing. I also don’t think they should just sit back and let the publisher do all the work. I think it should be a partnership. We actually set up our royalty system with this in mind. Poets do better financially out of the books they sell, either at events or via their own website. And we do much better from the sales we make ourselves. It needs all of us to work hard for a book to make it as successful as it can be.
At VERVE we actually have a strong marketing strategy of our own, involving shops that we approach, copies we send out for review, social media plans etc and we do this for every book we publish. But if poets know people who will review their books and shops that will stock them and join in with our social media and can think of good other things to do to help, it makes such a difference. Shazea Quraishi made hundreds of beautiful origami hummingbirds to go with her pamphlet The Taxidermist which we published last year. How amazing is that?
TFP: Many poetry book and pamphlet covers are dull. Yours are fab. Was the decision to give them bright colours and bold designs informed by your experience as a bookseller? What do booksellers want in a poetry book or pamphlet, and how might other poetry publishers do better?
SB: Thank you! The colours we use are the VERVE colours from the festival which we hope communicates our colourful approach to poetry programming. It made complete sense to bring these colours along with us to the press.
As a former bookseller, I know how important it is that covers are enticing. I also work very hard on the spines on our books for similar reasons. Quite often if you are going to get a book into a chain bookseller it will be one copy and needs to fight to be noticed on cramped shelves.
I also know that a large part of buying a book is about the object itself, not just the contents. So it is a no-brainer to try to make your titles feel collectible in some way, something to cherish, something to keep. I think that collectability factor has become much more important to customers and booksellers. You have to ask yourself why are people not reading all their books on e-readers or online, and the answer is that books are wonderful things that people like to have and share. There are lots of ways to make this happen. Brightness isn’t essential, but it helps.
TFP: What do you enjoy most about your VERVE job?
SB: This goes back to what I said earlier. I love that at the press I get to read and work with poets whose work I love and hear them read at events I create. And at the festival I get to invite them and other poets I love and admire and hear them read in the city I’m in. It is an absolute honour and a pleasure!