The Friday Poem In Conversation with Helena Nelson
Helena Nelson founded HappenStance Press in 2005 and publishes pamphlets and books under its imprint. She also runs Sphinx, a review site dedicated to promoting and reviewing poetry pamphlets using the OPOI — one point of interest — review. She writes poetry, both light and serious, and has had a number of pamphlets and books published including Starlight on Water (Rialto Press, 2003) which was an Aldeburgh / Jerwood First Collection Prize winner, and How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published (HappenStance, 2016). She blogs, she reviews, she tutors for Arvon, and she has performed widely. The Friday Poem asked her about the future of poetry publishing, the cult of personality and where to find good poetry.
TFP: Are you a poet first or an editor first? Which do you enjoy more, and which suits your nature more?
HN: I don’t believe anyone bursting with a real poem impulse could stop and say ‘oh I must get on with some editing’. What sort of poem would let you do that? Nothing’s as wonderful as writing a living poem. But you don’t get that often. If you did, why would you ever do anything else?
TFP: Does editing inform and improve your poetry, or distract you from it?
HN: Both. I think.
TFP: And at what point did you decide to wind down the features and interviews in Sphinx, and why?
HN: I didn’t decide that. There just isn’t enough time. We run a huge number of reviews for a huge number of publications. We normally OPOI everything that comes in, sometimes two or three times.
TFP: At pretty much every Arvon course I’ve ever been on there has, at some point, been a conversation about ‘banned words’ in poetry, the usual suspects being all the thees, thous and thys, Maram grass, herons, shards (unless referring to actual bits of pottery), lozenge (ok in ‘sucking a lozenge for my sore throat’ but not as in ‘lozenge of light on the hall floor’), and all Big Words such as Truth, Beauty and the like. I think John Burnside was the first to nab ‘spindrift’ in his poem ‘St Andrews: West Sands; September 2001’ and nobody else has been able to use it since. When you’re editing poetry do you have trigger words which have you reaching for the red pen?
HN: Yes, of course. And new ones that appear regularly. I talked about buzzwords on The Verb in January 2020 with Peter Sansom and Michael Schmidt. Ever since then I’ve been seeing the word ‘fist’. But I don’t use a red pen. I use a pencil. And my triggers are more likely to be common features of style and phrasing than individual words.
TFP: And how do you feel about writing courses, MAs and PhDs in creative writing, and the like?
HN: Writing courses can offer an opportunity to have fun, to make new friends, learn stuff and develop as a person. But I don’t believe you have to do a qualification of any kind to learn to write. What you have to do is read widely and read well.
TFP: To what extent can you teach someone to write good poetry?
HN: I was paid to teach in further education for more than twenty-five years. I don’t believe you can teach anybody anything. But you can help them learn.
TFP: When you receive a manuscript or a poem, does the fact that the writer has letters after their name sway your decision to publish at all?
HN: I try not to hold it against them.
TFP: You care very much about paper publications.
HN: That must be true. I spend thousands of pounds a year producing them, and many of them sit in boxes under the stairs.
TFP: What’s the appeal of a physical book?
HN: It’s real. You can hold it. You can devour it. You can smell it. You can tear it. You can write in it, and leave bookmarks and coffee stains. You can press flowers in it. When you flick through the pages you see time passing. A book gets visibly older and dustier, like a person. A volume takes up volume. Books can be personalised. They have dedication.
TFP: What’s your view of digital publishing and the rise of webzines, self-publishing, instagram poets etc — does it signify the democratisation of poetry, or is it simply an opening of the floodgates?
HN: New communication methods develop new creativity. It’s what human beings do. I like it. But by ‘democratisation of poetry’, do you mean poetry used to be made by clever people but now anybody can do it? I don’t see it like that. I figure there was always some poetry for a well-read readership, as well as some for those who don’t read at all, as well as everything else in between. Depends on your tradition. Traditional ballads, which I love, are closer to Kate Tempest than Vahni Capildeo. But one contains elements of the other. And the best of any tradition is clever. It may be consciously skilful, or it may draw its art from the music and mystery of language. ‘What is the language using us for?’ — that was W. S. Graham’s question.
TFP: What about self-publishing?
HN: Nobody takes self-publishing poetry very seriously, yet, so far as I can see. The Michael Marks Award for Poetry Pamphlets allows self-published work, but I don’t think a self-published publication has ever won that award, though it has done in Scotland at least once, where the equivalent award is the Callum MacDonald. Some self-publishing novelists are doing well. This ‘well’ is directly measured by sales and income. Serious income. But self-publishing kudos points for poetry are hard to get. No prizes to help you. No PBS recommendation. No Saboteur Award votes. I don’t think self-publishing is the way forward. But it is a way sideways. The real issue, as always, is readership.
TFP: And what about websites like The Friday Poem?
HN: I like the idea that you might find a way to put poems onto a web page and make them look attractive and readable, since most websites don’t do this. Some contemporary poets, however, write in formats that are, to put it mildly, challenging to reproduce in a webspace that will display them well across all the different gadgets people might read them on. However, I’m not a poet who works in lines 20 centimetres wide (half of them right-justified) with an A4 piece of paper in mind.
TFP: So how can a poet or a publisher develop a readership when there’s so much to compete with?
HN: You have to decide where your niche is. And I firmly believe you need to help develop readerships for other people whose work you support. That’s what you’re doing with this new project, Hilary. I think the single most important thing for any aspiring poet is to help build the readership for other poets, and of course for good poems in general. To take an active interest in, and to support the work. The circle completes itself. If your own work’s good, and your relationships are good, others will bring readers to you. It’s a community.
TFP: What do you think is the most pressing question about poetry today?
HN: The question of values and how they’re manifested. Whether poets whose work is publicly praised and promoted, especially through the big competitions — the Forward, T S Eliot, the Costa etc — and PBS selections/recommendations, always represent the best. And if there are other first-class books outside this limited group, how do we find them in the haystack of volumes that appear every year? Once upon a time, quality newspapers would have reviewed a range of new poetry. Not so much these days, and in any case their readership is smaller than it was, and less influential. There’s also the issue of the cult of personality. Whether we’re more interested these days in the personality of poets, their personal stories and histories, than in their poems.
TFP: I guess I think it’s a given that competition winners are NOT necessarily the best. Those who win single poem poetry competitions have written a poem which stands out among a whole pile of others — this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s best, it may mean that it’s attractive to a jaded eye / ear. Demonstrably competent. And maybe safe. Is there an archetypal poetry competition winning poem?
HN: There is no archetypal winner. Because competitions depend on judges, and the valuation of any judge is subjective. Highly subjective. And sometimes crazy. Where there is a judging group, they’re not likely to arrive at a unanimous decision. So each will have to modify their views to arrive at a common agreement, at least for the first prize. I suspect each of them individually gets a favourite for one of the other placings. Judges are aware of how they, and their decisions, may be regarded (and possibly criticised) by the public. So they like to choose something that they think most people will agree is good.
TFP: As a side question, what do you feel about poets withdrawing from prizes because they don’t like where the prize money comes from?
HN: I’m all for it. Let’s have some ethics! And let’s have some judges who disclose a personal connection, when it’s clearly there. I don’t enter HappenStance books for Costa because if they win the publisher has to pay some huge sum towards marketing. Lots of poets don’t get books entered for any prizes at all because their publisher doesn’t play the prize game, or because theirs isn’t selected for entry (the number may be limited).
TFP: So who decides what actually is the ‘best’ poetry? Who are the gatekeepers? The poetry editors at the big poetry publishers?
HN: They can decide who to publish, certainly, which is valuable to a poet. And a well-known brand (Cape, Picador, Bloodaxe etc) certainly helps. But it isn’t their books who necessarily win all the prizes any more. Look at the wins for Pavilion, for example, and Offord Road Books, and Nine Arches. It’s important to look hard at the Poetry Book Society and their selectors too. A PBS choice or recommendation is worth a huge amount. But who decides who the selectors are? How often does the selector or other prize judge have a personal connection with one of the books chosen? It’s a small world. I’m not suggesting it’s corrupt. Only that it’s not disinterested. None of the book competitions is ever judged blind. How can it be? But the National Poetry Competition, which is judged blind, frequently comes up with winners you’ve never heard of, though the shortlist always includes some of the usual suspects.
It’s also an issue whether being a winner yourself makes you an appropriate judge. The winner of Great British Bake Off doesn’t become the next judge.
As to how the systems of selection or competition operate, it’s different for each one, as is the shortlisting system. Some organisations give a lot of information about what goes on behind the scenes. Others less so. There is no Poetry Competition Ombudsman. There are regularly mutterings about vested interests undisclosed, and so on. But poets have always muttered. It’s not just money that’s at stake.
TFP: The idea of a Poetry Competition Ombudsman is an excellent one — I’d support your appointment to the position!
If evaluating poetry is a very subjective thing, how can you say one book is better than another?
HN: Yes, ranking poetry is highly subjective. But that doesn’t mean people can’t explain their aesthetic and their choice in considerable detail. As sometimes they do. And other readers don’t necessarily agree, any more than they did about Tracey Emin’s Bed.
TFP: Will good poetry find a publisher, eventually?
HN: Lots of good poets won’t get picked up by the big five. Neil Astley will say openly that he wants poets with a future — young enough to build a profile. But think how many books they publish per year, and how few of these are first collections. Publishers can only enter four books for any category of the Forward Prize, so they don’t want more than four first collections in a year, four with a good chance of winning. So if they get a sound and interesting collection from a good poet who they nevertheless think has little chance of placing on one of these lists, forget it.
TFP: That’s a bit disheartening.
HN: Poetry is the weirdest part of book publishing ever. The game is all played for kudos. Networking is huge. Why do poets not have agents? Because most poetry books don’t make money. Those poets who do have agents are making lots of money from performance, and the role of the agent is to get the gigs, not place the books. What titles make money? Staying Alive, Being Alive, Staying Human. Popular anthologies. Top dead poets still in copyright: Seamus Heaney, Edwin Morgan. Who buys single collections? Poets, their friends and relatives. Ordinary readers don’t buy single collections of poetry, unless they know the poet personally. So why are single collections published at all? Because of kudos. It’s a different currency.
TFP: Doesn’t anyone make money out of contemporary poetry?
HN: Candlestick Press (until Covid) made serious money out of its pamphlets. Because you can persuade an ordinary person to try ten poems about golf, or baking, or trees, if the cover is striking and the design is good. Which it is. First-rate promotion and marketing skills got their publications onto the counters in Waterstones, and in stations and airports and card shops across the UK. The common reader probably likes the idea of buying a few poems as a gift, far more than reading them. In fact, the idea of ‘poetry’ is generally classy. It’s the actuality that’s threatening.
TFP: You mention the cult of the personality. How does that affect poets?
HN: Once we didn’t even know what poets looked like: there were no photographs on book jackets, or rarely. We didn’t have the internet. We didn’t have YouTube. We didn’t have prize ceremonies in the Festival Hall. We didn’t have Zoom windows. Our reading tastes were formed by liking the way an invisible poet used words on paper. And the poetry readership, in my lifetime at least, was fairly literary, fairly niche. We began with the poetry we read at school, if we were in that kind of school.
On the other hand, these days we have literary festivals and events featuring not just poetry but ‘poetries’. There are numerous outlets, and although they often feature the usual suspects from the prize lists, they do try to feature less well-known writers as well. A huge number of poetry books are professionally published every year. The phenomenon of ‘open mic’ at local events is ubiquitous. But then another issue comes in — whether these days we expect poets with charisma, poets who can deliver their work with verve. Shy, or self-effacing people may not do well, and certainly won’t sell well. And there is a connection between sales and readership, though they aren’t one and the same.
If you have a well-known personality, if you’re known as a ‘player’, people can be interested in the folded dart you’re calling a poem, or the single word in the middle of a beautifully textured piece of card. Or a government flyer about Corona virus where the poet has blacked out nearly all the text, etc., etc. Or Don Paterson’s poem titled ‘On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him’ which is just a blank page. He says it’s one of his most anthologised poems. Defend the art of that if you will.
TFP: I think the media puff is a real problem — when everything is described in such glowing terms, how do you discriminate? Reviews? Wait fifty years and see what’s still being read?
HN: There should be a prize, in my view, for terrible marketing descriptions of poetry books. Like the bad sex writing prize. I don’t know how you discriminate. It’s impossible, so far as I can see. Ask someone who’s already read it. Someone you trust. We live in a world where, in some contexts, people can vote online for their favourite poet, and the poet who has canvassed the biggest number of votes will win.
TFP: Which new poets are you watching with interest?
HN: It makes them sound like race horses. So I don’t feel I can answer that. I’m extremely interested in dead poets. I watch them a lot, and it’s interesting how their stars brighten and fade, brighten and fade. Especially around centenaries. But dead-language poets are doing surprisingly well these days. Any amount of people do versions of Catullus and Horace.
TFP: Where do you personally find poetry you rate highly (other than on the public lists)?
HN: Good question. Personal recommendations from poets and friends I respect, usually. Sometimes I see a poem in a magazine and it stands out: I read the bio, I follow up. I do quite a bit of reviewing, especially poetry pamphlets. That makes me read things outside my comfort zone, read them properly. Not to mention the fact that there are lots of twentieth-century dead poets I’ve never read properly, as well as poets in translation from all over the world, dead and alive, people I ought to know and don’t. I bought Patricia Beer’s Collected recently. I immersed myself in Edwin Morgan last year. I’ve just consumed all of Eavan Boland in print. I’ve been moved by Annie Rutherford’s translations of the Belarusian poet Volha Hapeyeva. I meet and talk about books with groups of friends online: we all bring different ideas to the internet window, and that sets me off in a new direction. I also like poets who write good prose, and if I admire the prose, I’ll read their poems. Jen Hadfield had a lovely essay in the last issue of Magma. I ordered her new collection of poems.
But it’s also true that regularly I get stuck. Utterly and unforgivably stuck. I can read a whole issue of a worthy magazine and emerge uninspired. Or worse: exhausted. It’s the innovation and experiment, dashing all over the page, the determination to court attention. Makes my brain race. Give me a quiet poem with a core. Regularly, I fork out for new, highly-regarded collections and then feel there’s something wrong with me, because my response is so luke-warm. Often I dread new anthologies because they feel like a test of my inability to enjoy them. I’m inclined to think poetry editors/publishers have a love/hate relationship with poetry. We read so much of it. And there’s always more arriving, more and more and more, from nice people who fervently believe we love poems (we do) and therefore will think ‘more’ is good.
But they fall victim to a false premise, which goes like this: if a little of something (a small diamond) is highly desirable, then more of it (BIG diamond) must be better. Transfer this to poetry and there’s a problem. We don’t want masses of it, not at all. What we want is just a few poems: a small number of gems to read over and over, to learn by heart. Not seventeen new volumes of prose-poems, villanelles, golden shovels, pantoums and sestinas (yes, I am biased). Even when I read the Patricia Beer Collected I’m hunting for the two or three individual poems I really want to read, the ones that will lift me out of myself, the ones that will change my life.