The Friday Poem In Conversation with Sharon Black
Originally from Glasgow, Sharon Black now lives in the Cévennes mountains of southern France. She took over Pindrop Press in 2016 and runs it from France with a HQ in Glasgow. The Friday Poem spoke to her about the impact of Brexit, living and writing in two languages, and what’s new with the Press
TFP: Maybe you could start by telling us a bit about how Pindrop was set up.
SB: Well, Pindrop was already a successful small poetry press when I took it over in 2016. Jo Hemmant founded it in 2010, and after a few years – during which she published my debut collection To Know Bedrock – she was looking to move onto other things. I was on the look-out for a new challenge, mooted the idea of taking it over, and she said yes. At which point Pindrop became, maybe not my baby but my toddler at least.
TFP: And what has changed since Brexit, for you personally.
SB: When Brexit was announced in 2016 I honestly didn’t imagine much would change in the day-to-day life of either my family, my own poetry, or of Pindrop. How naive I was! That said, my husband and I did think this would be a good time to finally apply for French citizenship, after 15 years of living here, raising a family and running a business. Three and a half years later we finally received our French passports (we have dual UK-French nationality).
TFP: What about the impact of Brexit on your poetry?
SB: I was surprised to find that, post-referendum, placing my third collection was so difficult: two UK presses I approached turned it down simply on account of where I lived, one well-known publisher stating outright: “We are only publishing British residents at present”. I realise that this may have been on account of Arts Council funding issues, or of them just not liking my work, but the fact is I did find it significantly tougher to place this collection than my first two. And there was me imaging that the arts would be actively looking to forge and strengthen links with the EU that it was being forced to leave behind! I’m not saying parochialism was to blame, but it did make me wonder.
TFP: And how has Brexit affected the practical side of running a poetry press in the EU?
SB: Oh la la, it’s a customs nightmare! It took me ages to get a VAT number for intra-EU transportation which allows customs taxes to be paid online. Duties seem arbitrary. Sometimes I am charged 25 euros for a delivery of 20 books, sometimes nothing. Often they are held up at customs at the port of entry and I get an email asking me to release them by providing my VAT number, even though it is already in the system. Sometimes they take over a month to get here. It would be quicker to send them by donkey.
I use the print-on-demand company Lightning Source, based in Milton Keynes, to print my books. Previously it might have taken two weeks for an order of books to arrive, but since 1st January 2022 it now takes anything up to six weeks for them to get here. And then there’s the books going the other way! I keep all my stock in my home office, so when someone buys a book through the Pindrop website, or via a bookseller, I post it off from here. Until the start of this year, a book would arrive at a UK address within a few days. Now it can take up to a month. All I can do when a customer emails to ask if their order has been forgotten, is apologise and ask them to hang on just a little longer. (I should stress that most books do arrive quite quickly, these are just the outliers).
Sometimes books take over a month to get here. It would be quicker to send them by donkey
Finally, there’s the issue of me receiving books at this end: some UK presses have simply stopped sending books or journals to the EU on the basis it is too costly and time-consuming. Recently, I ordered a pamphlet by Wayleave Press costing £5, and when it arrived the postie, embarrassed and apologetic, said she was required to take 15 euros (around £13) in customs fees before she could hand it over. I refused on principle, and back it went to the UK. The other week, a book I’d ordered from Nine Arches Press arrived and I had to pay 12 euros before the postman would give it to me – the same as the cost of the book.
Some presses get round this fee-to-customer by posting off books without completing a customs form. Larger presses with registered business addresses can’t do this. Jane Commane, editor of Nine Arches, told me in a recent email: “We’ve had many French customers receive their items without VAT, with others charged or items rejected by Customs and sent back to us – there doesn’t appear to be any regular pattern or reasoning and even in between different countries the application of VAT seems to vary even across items of same value.” The whole thing – four months on from the 1 January 2022 kicking-off point – is a mess.
TFP: Here in the Tarn (France) we have also had to pay customs charges higher than the value of the actual item posted, and had some things sent back by customs for no reason. One magazine never arrived at all. For us this is inconvenient but for you this must be a threat to the business?
SB: Absolutely. Just today I had to pay 21 euros to receive a box of 20 books – cost price £60.79 – from my printers. That’s almost a third of the price again. And the thing is, I never know from one order to the next how much I’m going to have to pay so it’s impossible to build it into the cost of an order going out.
TFP: So will Pindrop continue to be viable? It would be a shame if not.
SB: I’m looking at a few options – getting the books printed in France, and / or having someone in the UK receive and distribute them. I’m fairly confident I’ll find a way to make it work.
TFP: Do you find that living outside the UK helps you get some kind of perspective on the UK poetry world? What (if anything) do you miss about it?
SB: Not really, no. I only started writing poetry after I left the UK, so I don’t have the kind of perspective that comes from shifting from one place to another. I’ve only ever known myself, as both a poet and an editor, as an outsider. But in terms of what I’d like? Being part of a poetry community. Having around me a bunch of other writers with whom I can write, share feedback, organise readings, attend workshops and so on. I can do this virtually, of course, but nothing quite beats sharing a space with other people on the same page. Literally, in this case.
That said, I’ve always felt like an outsider and am comfortable in that role, so living in France – in particular rural France – suits my character. I don’t know what kind of poet or editor I’d be if I lived in Glasgow where it’s easy to find other writers. I suspect I’d yearn to be away from them!
TFP: Tell us more about your ‘French’ collection – how much of it is in French and do you find yourself writing in French or writing in English and translating it?
SB: The collection is called The Red House – a translation of ‘la Maison Rouge’, the last silk spinning mill in France, now a museum of Cévenol culture and history in St Jean du Gard, a village close to where I live in the Cévennes. I started the collection by chance – the museum had just opened, I went along for a visit and was transported by the history on display as well as by the sheer exuberance and vision of the project.
Previously the museum had been housed in a tiny maison de village where you had to bend down to go inside and everything was cramped and dusty and difficult to reach, but fascinating. The curator Daniel Travier had been campaigning for years to get it moved to bigger premises. La Maison Rouge – the mill closed in 1965 – was a fitting venue as silk was such a big part of Cévenol life in the 19th century.
Almost from the moment I wandered in, I started writing. I’d never been a history buff but it opened up a door in me. The Cévennes is a largely unknown and overlooked part of France, but in fact has a pivotal place in the history of le Midi. As a historically Protestant part of a Catholic country, many battles during the religious wars of the 17th and 18th centuries were fought here, and the region as a whole became a refuge for the Protestant minority. The remote, steep valleys and inhospitable plateaus were an easy place to hide in and avoid capture. Ever since, the Cévennes have been a place of shelter for outsiders and artists.
I started the collection by chance – the museum had just opened, I went along for a visit and was transported by the history on display as well as by the sheer exuberance and vision of the project
I think that’s partly what attracted me to the region. When my husband and I first rolled up in our battered second-hand Citroen CV I fell in love with the rugged hills, the lack of pretension, and the vast unpolluted wilderness of the valleys and the causses.
Many of the poems sprang from the objects in the museum. Others are about my life here and what is was like to live and raise a family in such a remote place. We have two daughters and both went to local schools. At one point their primary school was a single class of about 15 children aged from six to 12 taught by one teacher. At another, their teacher would take them off into the forest for the afternoon with his accordion and bunch of folk songs. It was a very different upbringing from the one I’d had in Glasgow.
At first we lived in a tiny hamlet high up a mountain where our water supply was a local spring. The pipes ran along the forest floor and would freeze up in winter. We had to drive down to the village fountain to fill up jerry cans for drinking water and for cooking. Later we moved to another valley, where we still live, right by a river. We swim in it very day, even in winter. It’s tough here but invigorating, and we have no neighbours so we are surrounded by hills and wildlife.
A lot of the poems in the collection are about our relationship with the natural world, its vital importance, its power, and the humility that we are forced to accept in the face of it. We’ve had many encounters with animals over the years and some poems explore those.
A third strand of the collection – I like to think of them as strands because it brings to mind the silk mill where the museum is housed – is the lives of my neighbours and friends here. Goat herders, foresters, homesteaders, hunters, fishermen, farmers – these are the people who make up the Cévennes today. They are an inspiration because they work so hard – far harder than I do – often for little financial return. But they make ends meet. They know the value of the land we live on, the secrets of the soil. If there’s ever a global panic, a social meltdown, I know where I’d want to see it through.
TFP: Is much of the collection in French?
SB: It’s funny you ask that because just the other day I went through the manuscript again and put some of the French words and phrases into English! Very little of the collection is in French in fact. But hopefully its Frenchness comes across. I’ve left in a number of French words and phrases because I want to give a flavour of the language and the culture as a whole. Also, the French language – which is not my mother tongue although I am fairly fluent now – is a preoccupation so it was important that I wrote about that and included some examples.
TFP: So you generally write in English?
SB: Yes. Though it’s true that in conversation, especially with bilingual friends, I often use a combination of both languages and that is fantastic. You have twice the number of ways of saying the same thing, each with the subtlest of differences. It’s like a colour palette where each blend of a pair of colours has its own name. But although I speak in French and think in French for much of my daily life, I don’t often write in French. English is always my starting point.
TFP: Have you translated any of your poetry into French?
SB: Yes, recently, with the help of a French friend. There’s a writing group in my valley who organise an open mic evening every few months, and I wanted to be able to contribute. So with the help of my friend Anne, I now have about six of my poems which I can read in French. Actually, translating my work into French has been a fascinating project. It’s tough to find a way of conveying the same nuances in a different languages! It’s given me a whole new respect for literary translators.
TFP: What’s your editorial style at Pindrop? Hands on and granular, or leaving the poet to find their own way?
SB: I’m very hands on. I’ll usually get back to poets with a swathe of suggestions about their MS on everything from tightening the text to queries about particular words or phrases. And I check every figure and fact. Crucially, though, I never insist on a change – unless it’s to correct an inaccuracy – the poet has to have the last word. The collection must remain theirs and they have to be absolutely happy with the result. But I do suggest changes if I think these can improve the collection, and I enjoy this part of the process. It’s a dialogue.
It’s nice to feel you’re helping to birth something important into the world that might inform as well as entertain and uplift
TFP: Where do you find poets to publish?
SB: They approach me, with a sample of poems, which is what I ask for on the website. Only very rarely so I reach out to a poet myself – if I’ve seen them perform, or if I come across a poem that I particularly love in a journal and see from their bio they haven’t yet had a collection published. But I get so many good manuscripts coming my way that I really don’t need to do this.
TFP: What makes a ‘Pindrop’ poet?
SB: It’s a really difficult question to answer without resorting to cliches about poetry that is surprising, fresh or breaking new ground!
The kind of poetry I like is extremely varied – everything from the irreverent haikus of John Biggam’s The Day Brad Pitt Bought My House For Nothing to the historical documentary of Cherry Smyth’s Famished, to the biography of Jane Salmons’s The Quiet Spy, and the delicate lyricism of Jonathan Totman’s Night Shift. There really isn’t any subject or style that I’m looking for or that I don’t want to see. But I have to love the work.
TFP: Who is your most recent discovery, and what do you like about them?
SB: I’ve just published two debut collections that I’m very excited about. They share a common thread, namely history.
Objects for Private Devotion is a gorgeous collection of poems that reveal the land, traditions and history of the Orkney isles, where the author Lydia Harris lives. Harris has a visceral relationship with this landscape, which she explores through poems of water, moss, fossils, brochs, handbells and graves, fusing archaeology, palaeontology, folk history and prayer. Apart from the fact it is very beautifully written, I love it because it is set in Scotland – albeit an area I don’t know – and because many of the poems use unearthed objects as a medium through which the islands’s voices emerge, in much the same way that my recent poems use artefacts in our local museum as starting points.
The Quiet Spy is a fascinating account of the life of Frank Foley, a British Secret Intelligence Service Officer from Somerset who, as a boy, wanted to be a priest, but ended up working undercover in Berlin where he helped 10,000 Jews to escape Nazi persecution before the outbreak of the Second World War. It’s a riveting story which draws on archive material as well as personal letters and an understanding of the complex character of 1930s Berlin.
Apart from its brutal honesty and lyrical depth, I think the fact that Foley’s death in 1958 went almost unnoticed in Britain is one of the things that attracted me to the manuscript. It’s nice to feel you’re helping to birth something important into the world that might inform as well as entertain and uplift.