The Friday Poem In Conversation with Emma Dai’an Wright
The Emma Press is an independent publishing house specialising in poetry, short fiction, essays and children’s books. It was founded by Emma Dai’an Wright in Winnersh, Berkshire, in 2012 and is now based in The Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham. Emma Press books have won the Poetry Book Society Pamphlet Choice Award, the Saboteur Award for Best Collaborative Work, and the CLiPPA (the Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award). The press was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award for Poetry Pamphlet Publishers in 2014, 2015, 2018 and 2020 and won the award in 2016. The judges said, “As well as having a remarkable list of poets they pay close attention to every aspect of the pamphlets they publish. This is a vibrant, thoughtful press bringing a great energy and sense of endeavour to their work.”
TFP: Why did you set up the Emma Press? Was it in response to a perceived need or gap in the market?
EDW: Initially it was a way for me to get experience with illustrating and to exercise my creativity and freedom. In 2011 I’d escaped a toxic house share and moved back home; I’d left my ebook admin job at a big publishing house because there wasn’t any scope for development or creativity and also one of the toxic housemates worked there; and I’d understood that being not-rich in my generation meant that I would never be able to own a home or have much financial stability. So I thought that I might as well do something I really wanted in my life, which was to make nice things.
TFP: Can you outline how you set the press up, how it has become the organisation it is now?
EDW: At the same time as I was hoping to practise illustrating, my friend Rachel Piercey was putting some poems together, so I illustrated those and made the first Emma Press book: a poetry pamphlet called The Flower and the Plough, which launched in 2013. I’d learned about typesetting in my job before, and Rachel encouraged me to give her editorial tips. I tried different ways of selling the book. I really enjoyed the whole process, not just the illustrating, so I wanted to do more. I had the idea for the next book, an anthology of mildly erotic verse, and I was fully committed by then. I wanted to see what could happen if I gave it my all for a couple of years.
I think my role is to try and expand the definition of what is published and worthy of being read, but at the same time I can’t be everything to everyone
TFP: What does it mean, in practical terms, to be a ‘BAME-led, feminist, radical’ organisation?
EDW: I think it’s good to recognise that all editorial choices are subjective, and influenced by who individual people are. It might feel like a choice is based on what is objectively ‘good’, but really it just comes down to what one person or a few people like — they like it and therefore they think it is good. Why do they like it? Maybe because people they respect write in a similar style, or because they themselves write like that. I think it’s easy to forget all that when you aren’t from an under-represented or marginalised community within the UK publishing scene, but if you are then of course you’re aware of it all the time. So that bit of text from my old ‘About Us’ page on the website was meant to point out that I was very much aware of it. And then ‘radical’ means that I am trying to change things, and shake things up in terms of what is published. I know ‘BAME’ isn’t the ideal term now, and I’m feeling a bit more comfortable talking about who I am, but it was useful for a while. We’ve updated the ‘About the Emma Press’ page to reflect our current feelings about what the Press is, so do check it out!
TFP: What connection did you have with poetry before you set up the Emma Press? Do you write yourself?
EDW: I didn’t have any! I’d enjoyed some poetry at school and at university, but I’d also found it quite impenetrable without guidance from teachers, and the fact that we’d get examined on whatever we’d read somewhat sucked the fun out of it. When I read Rachel’s poems for the first time they really resonated with me, and getting to do some editorial work on them made me feel empowered to have my own response to the text which I could then carry into reading other poetry, so that’s when my love of poetry really began. Then I was discovering other contemporary poets and more different styles of poetry. I don’t write poetry myself — I’m just a fan.
TFP: You design and illustrate many of the books you publish. Was this an important part of why you set the press up in the first place?
EDW: The visual and physical aspect of the books is really important to me. I like things that are cohesive and satisfying so I want a book to feel good in the hands and I want the page layouts and cover design to complement the text. I haven’t always achieved this, but I’m always happy when it comes together. Since we’ve started worked with a local printer, The Holodeck, and started commissioning more illustrators, I think we’re getting closer to my original vision of what Emma Press books could be.
TFP: You work “across all areas of the business, from commissioning, editing, typesetting, illustrating, marketing and sales” — that’s a pretty tall order. Is this easier, now you have ACE funding and two employees?
EDW: In the first place, it made it possible for me to do this at all — I had to be able to do an approximate job in all those areas in order to keep going and save money wherever possible. I also had to grow the business in order to be able to move out of my parents’ house and then escape yet another toxic living environment, so there were definitely several years where I felt I was somehow juggling 10 jobs and the main cost was to my health. I was so relieved when my application for ACE funding as part of the Elevate scheme was successful at the start of 2020, as it meant I could finally breathe again and make some plans that weren’t based on draining me to a husk. I’ve now taken on yet another job — being a manager of my two part-time employees — but the benefits are huge, both mentally and organisationally.
TFP: How does it feel to be a gatekeeper?
EDW: It feels good! I am very conscious that I’ve invented this role for myself and set myself up alongside more established gatekeepers. I think my role is to try and expand the definition of what is published and worthy of being read, but at the same time I can’t be everything to everyone. I’m not trying to replace these people who imply that they are the only ones who can decide what is good — I believe that more, different things should be published. I think there should be more publishers, from more different backgrounds, and that’s the way we’ll get to have a healthier publishing industry.
There has been so much positive feedback about the increased accessibility of events, as well as justified frustration that it was indeed possible all along, that it would be a terrible act of hostility to stop
TFP: You are clearly a fan of the poetry pamphlet form — what do you like about it?
EDW: I think it’s very accessible, for both writers and readers. A full collection can be great, but you have to wait a long time as a writer till you can produce one let alone publish one, and for a reader it’s a big commitment. There’s a time and a place for collections, but up to now I’ve mostly been interested in trying to reach people at the earlier stages of their poetry-writing and poetry-reading journeys, to give them encouragement and hopefully draw them into the community. That said, this year we will be publishing our first full-length poetry collection for adults, by Rakhshan Rizwan. She is the author of poetry pamphlet Paisley, which we published in 2017, and children’s poetry collection My Sneezes Are Perfect which we published last year. I think my new rule might be that I’ll only publish collections by people who have children’s collections with us already.
TFP: How has Covid affected the functioning of your press? Online events (launches etc) have increased access for many people — do you think this will continue once the pandemic recedes? What’s your commitment to maintaining this sort of accessibility?
EDW: I feel like so many people in the arts have put so much effort into learning about staging online events that it would be weird to abandon all that as soon as the pandemic is over, not least because I doubt there will ever be a clear point where the pandemic is over. There has been so much positive feedback about the increased accessibility of events, as well as justified frustration that it was indeed possible all along, that it would be a terrible act of hostility to stop. I really enjoy running online events, and being able to reach people who wouldn’t usually have been able to make it out to the launch parties in cafes and pubs. I completely get the nostalgia for the old days and the exhilaration of being in a room with people, but I also remember how hard my relentless calendar of events made it to manage my depression and anxiety — the cost was enormous.
TFP: You publish poetry, children’s books, short stories, non fiction. Do you make money out of the poetry pamphlets or do they need to be subsidised by ACE funding or other areas of the press, eg the anthologies?
EDW: It used to be that the anthologies sold a lot more than the pamphlets, so it sort of balanced out, but again the mental toll of doing anthologies was so massive that I’ve had to stop those too. The last poetry anthology was the Anthology of Illness, edited by Amy Mackelden and Dylan Jaggard, which came out in 2020,. The first (and last) prose anthology, Night-time Stories, edited by Yen-Yen Lu, will come out this year. I love being able to showcase lots of writers and explore a theme, but I think it takes a much more mentally robust person than me to handle reading submissions, making selections, working with authors and editors on edits, sorting contracts, typesetting and proofing, and all the other admin. Or possibly I just burned through my resilience by doing 27 anthologies in nine years and I should have spread it out more.
Now, I’d say the pamphlets are subsidised by the handful of bestsellers we have: Falling Out of the Sky: Poems about Myths and Monsters edited by me and Rachel Piercey, Moon Juice by Kate Wakeling, Postcard Stories by Jan Carson, and Tiny Moons by Nina Mingya Powles.
TFP: Some of your publications don’t fit neatly into the usual publishing boxes — postcard stories, art squares, mini short stories, whole pamphlets of prose poems, and sometimes with enclosures (a lucky charm / ex lib’s sticker) — do you like playing with form / subverting people’s expectations?
EDW: I like to match the physical form of the book to the text, which means in some cases I’ve created formats because I liked the text and felt it needed a particular page size and type of illustration to present it at its best. The Art Squares are a good example of that, as the large square format has ended up accommodating quite straightforward poetry pamphlets as well as an experimental mix of poetry and prose and picture book for adults, and who knows what else in future. I get very inspired by book artists, and though I’m limited by time and budget I do feel I need to enjoy the freedom of being a publisher and being able to make books I like.
I like to match the physical form of the book to the text, which means in some cases I’ve created formats because I liked the text and felt it needed a particular page size and type of illustration to present it at its best
TFP: You publish lots of stuff in translation. Do poets from other parts of the world approach you, or do you go looking for them?
EDW: I used to do a lot of hunting, because I was particularly looking for children’s poetry books from different countries, but that was a bit difficult as children’s poetry in translation isn’t in high demand in the UK so books weren’t often included in catalogues or there weren’t samples available. At the moment, I have good relationships with a few translators and they sometimes recommend titles to me, but I’d like to take a more active role in finding translations again one day. We’ve got two translations in the Emma Press Poetry Pamphlets series and I’d love to have more, and to flesh out the selection of languages on our list from the slightly random collection of translations we have now, which is based on British Council publicity drives and who I’ve bumped into at various points.
TFP: If you were giving advice to someone just starting out in the world of poetry publishing, who wanted to do the sort of thing you have done, what would you say to them?
EDW: I’d say just do it! If you have a sense of what you like, you can work out most things by reverse-engineering them, and learn the rest by asking around. You learn best by doing something for real, and then you can improve the next time — if you wait until everything is perfect you’ll never start and also the stakes might start to feel quite high. At its core, publishing should be fun and empowering for you, the publisher.
Photo credit: Lianna Basdeo