The Friday Poem In Conversation with Amy Wack
Amy Wack has been Poetry Editor at Seren Books since 1992. She was born in Florida, USA, and educated at San Diego and Columbia universities. Seren is Wales’ leading independent literary publisher, specialising in English-language writing from Wales. It publishes eight new poetry titles a year and its books are often shortlisted for, and win, major literary prizes.
TFP: Where do you look for new poets to join the Seren list?
AW: I read most of the major journals and subscribe to sites which post poetry, such as The Friday Poem. Poetry Wales magazine, under all its various editors, has always been a good source of new voices, a river that runs through Wales. The poems of Judy Brown, Siobhan Campbell and Katrina Naomi all stood out to me in the magazines. The now-classic Paul Henry first came to my attention via Cary Archard, Seren Director. Owen Sheers was brought to my notice by John Powell Ward, a poet and lecturer at Swansea University. I came across Pascale Petit via her editorship of Poetry London and have enjoyed working with her over the years.
We’ve got a couple on the Seren poetry list who also have books on the Seren fiction list — I have had Seren colleague Mick Felton to thank for this, as well as friends from the past like Penny Thomas, who now runs her own Firefly Press, and Susie Wild, who is editor at Parthian Press and has helped with hosting festivals and events in Wales. I also need to mention a several great locals who have pointed me towards good new poets: Katherine Stansfield, a wonderfully aslant poet, and wise contact, and Christina Thatcher who lectures in Creative Writing at Cardiff Metropolitan University, and I must also mention debut author Abeer Ameer whose essentially kind and witty take on things always boosts my morale.
Dai George, who’s second book, Karaoke King, is about to arrive, and who is now reviews editor for Poetry London, has also been influential in finding me new work. In recent days, the marvellous poet Zoë Brigley has stepped-in to work on a few projects for us. Writers from the early days like: Robert Minhinnick, Peter Finch, Sheenagh Pugh, Christopher Meredith, Tony Curtis, Mike Jenkins, Catherine Fisher, Hilary Llewellyn-Williams and, most particularly, Deryn Rees-Jones have also been helpful and are still on our list.
I also must mention a circle of Grand Welsh women: Gwyneth Lewis, Menna Elfyn and Gillian Clarke, who have always been encouraging and often very funny. Of course there are several big fish who have slipped out of our hands, such as Samantha Rhydderch and Tishani Doshi — we still love them.
TFP: How may unsolicited manuscripts do you get a week?
AW: I average one per day. I cut this down by asking for paper manuscripts, but I’ve never had a submissions cut-off period. I still remember the spot on the carpet in my office where I picked up Jonathan Edward’s first manuscript.
TFP: Do you ever find new poets via readings?
AW: Only rarely do I see people in readings and want to sign them up, although this has happened. There was something striking and original about Tiffany Atkinson, for example, when I saw her read at a prize-giving years ago. When Rhian Edwards’ manuscript appeared I suddenly recalled that I’d seen her perform a couple of times. I met all The Spoke poets by way of the delightful Cardiff-born author Robert Walton after hearing them come along to read at the monthly First Thursday readings in Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff. Kim Moore is another poet who had a lively reading style, though it was her debut pamphlet that floored me.
I usually make no more than minor editorial suggestions and only occasionally suggest the complete re-vamp of a poem. I will sometimes hint at a ‘direction’ but am probably just as often wrong as right. It is always important to remember that the author has a vision, and you are there to help them fulfill this
TFP: How long does it take, from acceptance to publication?
AW: We have a two-year time lag between acceptance and publication as we only publish eight collections per year. Authors must wait a couple of years, sometimes people need a few years to further refine their work.
TFP: How much hands-on editing do you do — do you get granular with the poetry at a word level?
AW: I usually make no more than minor editorial suggestions and only occasionally suggest the complete re-vamp of a poem. I will sometimes hint at a ‘direction’ but am probably just as often wrong as right. It is always important to remember that the author has a vision, and you are there to help them fulfill this.
TFP: Who chooses the book cover?
AW: We must use the corporate ‘we’ for covers, as this is a team effort. We have a designer, Jamie Hill, and a fine marketing department run by Sarah Johnson. We also have Simon Hicks, who has been with us a long time, in sales. The team usually has a good idea of what works. These days we can get more abstract and inventive with poetry covers as this particular market likes invention.
TFP: What are you looking for in a prospective Seren poet? Is it all about the poems, or are there other considerations?
AW: I confess to having an almost purely musical ear for poetry. Sometimes I will not even understand what a poem is about, I will just notice a fine-tuned intelligence and intention and a gorgeous sense of sound. There is something about good work that has a real sense of balance and something that one would have to call ‘moral’, a sense of integrity that culminates in style. This also means that socially urgent subject matter might fly over my head — an undoubted weakness — although I’m also attuned to war poetry, with a particular affinity to the Middle East, probably a reaction to being a military brat from the USA. I would also say I’ve really noticed the tendency for great poems to come from those who are over 30. It usually takes that long to develop both a voice and the technique to use it.
TFP: How big an advance do your poets get when you accept their book? What can a poet expect to get from a published collection, and how do royalties work?
AW: Sorry, that’s confidential! But we do pay about the industry standard, which is about 15%. More if a book sells well over a couple of years.
TFP: How many copies of a poetry book do you sell — what amount counts as a really good seller?
AW: Over 1000 within the first three years is good.
TFP: Does it help if the book wins or is shortlisted for a prize?
AW: A big prize, Forward, TS Eliot, or PBS recommendation or Wales Book of the Year will help sales. Good reviews also help. Personal appearance by poet is best of all, at festivals and readings.
Sometimes the ‘poetry world’ feels like a small party where everyone is getting slowly drunker, and you know you’d better leave before the fights break out
TFP: What do you find is the most / least enjoyable part of poetry publishing?
AW: The best bit for me is seeing someone realise their artistic promise, the flowering of potential. Everything else, including sales or prizes, is just icing on the cake. Likewise, I feel sad when I can’t take something on from someone I like.
TFP: What, in your experience, do bad poems have in common?
AW: They are usually evidence that someone hasn’t read enough contemporary poetry.
TFP: Neil Astley said, in an online webchat with Guardian readers ten years ago, that “most poetry is undoubtably unutterable crap … That’s what editors are there for, to sift it out (yuk)”. Do you agree?
AW: I find that there is actually a lot of very good work out there and fewer publishers to take people on. Will we still be reading any of it in 100 years? That is probably the test. No one knows. I like Neil, he’s a champion of the art form.
TFP: What’s the state of Arts Council Funding in Wales, and is Seren’s funding under threat?
AW: We have the luxury of some public funding but we don’t get the big grants available to clients of Arts Council England. The Books Council has supported us over the years as a core client for which we are eternally grateful. We’ve also had a near-miraculous burst of three-year private funding for the Cardiff Poetry Festival from The Rhys Davies Trust.
TFP: To what extent does saleability affect who and what you choose to publish?
AW: In recent times austerity, and now the pandemic, has meant less money for regional arts. When local government struggles with basic social services, the NHS and education, there isn’t a lot left over for the Arts. We haven’t had an inflation-rate rise in years, for example. We’ve had to try to make that up with sales and, as Helena Nelson mentioned in her In Conversation with The Friday Poem last month, sales for poetry collections are mostly very modest, even when bookshops are open. Amazon discounting has also severely dented profits for small presses, almost to the point where they are financially untenable. We rely a lot on poets selling their own work in readings and events and via social media.
TFP: Do your poets need to have a Welsh connection?
AW: Wales has an incredibly rich history and culture regarding poetry. Wyn Thomas, University Lecturer at Swansea, has a new book, A History of Wales in 12 Poems, (University of Wales Press), which is an artful summary of this enviable situation. The Welsh language has, in many ways, gifted this history to the new English language poetry in recent times. And so, yes, the first thing I will usually look at on a manuscript is the return-address.
I’ve tried to go out of my way to avoid long-term feuds with people. This is harder than you might imagine, particularly when you are in a gatekeeper position. I get flack all the time; “Well of course, I see (from Google) that you are from California, how can you possibly know about Welsh Poetry.”
This is one of the reasons why poets who submit to us should never be put off by a refusal. There are all sorts of non-poetical reasons why any press might not be able to take someone on. It is simply maths. We only publish eight books a year and have over 60 poets on our list, many of whom produce more than single volumes. After many years we also have a number of core authors who we try to keep on our list, leaving less room for others, and also we are obliged, as any business is, to seek out the new. But I get wonderful new work all the time. I also sometimes take on new work from people I’ve previously turned down.
TFP: What about your own work?
AW: I leave this for after 10pm when my inner critic is asleep!
TFP: Do you find much time to write?
AW: In pandemic times, I’ll admit to feeling stressed-out. I also feel there are plenty of younger people who will / might / should step in now, a new generation who will have their own ideas. I might have to go away soon and write some esoteric personal memoir or maybe a terrible novel? I can only hope to write as well as some of the better work I’ve turned down, although I might need to develop a pseudonym…
TFP: Do you find that the editorial process gets in the way of your own creative process or enhances it?
AW: This is one reason why I haven’t tried to publish my work with Seren. I also wouldn’t deliberately pick someone I knew personally to win a competition although it has happened that I’ve accidentally (because entries are anonymous) chosen someone for a longlist or confirmed someone else’s recommendation.
TFP: What’s it like, being a gatekeeper?
AW: I’ve tried to go out of my way to avoid long-term feuds with people. This is harder than you might imagine, particularly when you are in a gatekeeper position. I get flack all the time; “Well of course, I see (from Google) that you are from California, how can you possibly know about Welsh Poetry.” Sometimes the ‘poetry world’ feels like a small party where everyone is getting slowly drunker, and you know you’d better leave before the fights break out. At the same time, I value the stroppy millennials who showed me that we must take white privilege and its deleterious effects seriously.
Marianne Moore, one of my favourite authors, used to say to people who asked her if she thought teaching put people off the art of poetry, “not enough of them”. I have wished every year of my career that people would embrace traditional form more than they do. Marvin Thompson, this year’s National Poetry Competition Winner, said when someone asked him about iambic pentameter, “it gets easier after the first five years”. Ambition, people! Dedication! I also notice that I speak of authors no longer on the Seren list as if they still were. That’s because I feel that literature is larger than a single set of people or the taste of one editor.