In Conversation: The Friday poem talks to Aaron Kent, poet, editor, and publisher of Broken Sleep Books, about promoting art by low socioeconomic status authors, getting Arts Council funding of £29k, and making friends with J. H. Prynne
TFP: Pre-poetry you were a submariner in the Royal Navy. It’s a pretty big leap from the military to poetry – can you say how, and why, this happened?
AK: It’s kind of a long story, but it wasn’t an intentional career path, none of it really was. I dropped out of my A-Levels after a year, at 17 years old. I had been diagnosed with OCD and the exams caused so much stress that I spent the exam time working out patterns and timing pages etc. So I failed at AS level and left, getting a job as a barista in a coffee shop instead. I became a Barista Maestro, but the recession hit. I had fewer hours and needed work, so I joined the submarine service.
I was a SONAR operator, a warfare specialist, and a marksman, but eventually left with a medical discharge due to my insomnia and night terrors. I had been violently sexually assaulted by someone higher-up in the submarine service, so had been keen to find a way out anyway. After leaving I spent some time in a haze, trying to work out what to do with my life, or whether it was even worth staying alive, before I met my now-wife, and she helped me access group therapy.
From the age of 16, through all of this, I had been writing poetry. It sucked, but I’d been writing the whole time, so it was something I did on the long, lonely, insomnia-heavy nights. Eventually I got a BA Hons in English Literature and Creative Writing, and a Masters in Film and TV, before becoming a teacher.
I became more engaged with my own writing when I become more engaged with the writing of others
The most important part, though, was when I began to actually read poetry as an active pursuit, rather than write in a vacuum. I became more engaged with my own writing when I become more engaged with the writing of others. I found things I loved and things I hated, and by acknowledging these aspects of writing I was able to improve my own. Then I began Broken Sleep Books, because I had read Chris Kerr’s Citidyll and felt it deserved to be published and that it deserved a readership. Eventually I had a brain haemorrhage, and now I run Broken Sleep full-time.
TFP: Broken Sleep Books publishes a range of poets, from first timers to old timers, from experimental work to lyric poetry, from unknowns to household names (well, poetry households). How do you find your poets, or do they find you? How often do you open for submissions and for how long? How do you choose what to publish? And who else is involved in the process – who does what?
AK: I love a wide variety of music, I’m as likely to listen to Lorde as I am to listen to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Miles Davies, Frank Ocean, or Every Time I Die. If I like something I’ll listen to it, and won’t dismiss it because of pre-existing opinions on a genre. I feel the same with poetry, if I like it, I like it; there’s no ego or pre-existing bias, I just want to publish work that deserves to be read. That said, I am aware that something may be brilliant, but I might have missed something, or not connected in the way that was intended, so we have a team of editorial assistants and advisors who read work, and who bring a wide variety of experiences and preferences, so I can discuss books with the team, ensuring that I’m not creating a list designed purely for me but one that is deeply considered and conceived.
At first we got all of our books through submissions, but now I find there’s a bit more fluidity and that authors I admire who I’d love to publish are keen to work with me, and vice versa. That said, we get over 6000 submissions a year, and that’s where the majority of our publications come from. We have four submission windows of two months each: collections, pamphlets, non-fiction, and wildcard (for anything that doesn’t strictly fit the guidelines for the other windows). I read through the submissions and create a longlist which I share with Charlie Baylis, my assistant editor. Charlie and I knock that down to a shortlist which gets shared with the wider team, we then all agree on which books to publish.
TFP: What’s the BSB business model – does BSB get funding, does it rely on funding, do you print small or large runs or print on demand, do you expect your poets to buy a certain number of copies up front? And do you get paid? You’ve previously said you don’t rely on it financially so does that mean you have a private income?
AK: I do entirely rely on Broken Sleep Books financially; it’s the sole income for my family. We’ve got a five year old daughter and a three year old son, and we live in a converted static caravan, so we’re not even close to being financially comfortable. I don’t ask for much with regards to luxuries, as long as the children are clean, fed, warm, and happy then that’s enough for me. I’m content to live on what we need, rather than what I want, so Broken Sleep Books can survive on its monthly turnover.
We recently got ACE funding of £29k which was wonderful news, and gives Broken Sleep Books security while enabling us to pursue further avenues
We recently got ACE funding of £29k which was wonderful news, and gives Broken Sleep Books security while enabling us to pursue further avenues. We do small or medium-sized runs for books ordered from our website, which means any books shipped to the UK and EU. And we are part of a printing network in the US and Australia that we can access to print from, meaning orders to North America and Australasia can be printed direct on the continent with no shipping delays or customs issues. We’re set to join an EU printing network in the next few months too, which solves customs issues caused by Brexit. We also have printing networks in about 20 countries globally, including South Africa, Brazil, and Japan, so bookstores can order direct from there. So it’s a hybrid model.
I don’t expect authors to buy any copies, they can choose whether they want to, and how many, and I don’t ask authors to send any money to the press either, that’s not their role or burden. I had an author tell me that a press they were with took copies out of their author copies. SO this author paid for 20 author copies but only received ten, and it turns out the press took six copies out to give to the copyright libraries, and four to give to reviewers. That’s a dodgy business practice as those costs should be covered by the press; taking items somebody has bought and using them to cover your own costs is just theft.
TFP: Broken Sleep Books has had some success – you won the 2020 Michael Marks Publishers Award; Writing the Camp by Yousif M. Qasmiyeh was shortlisted for the 2022 RSL Ondaatje Prize, was a PBS Recommendation and one of the Daily Telegraph’s best poetry books in 2021; and Three Books by Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles (translated by Kristine Ong Muslim) and Our Lady of Tyres by Claire Trevien were both PSB Translation Choices. What has been your proudest moment?
AK: Honestly, just helping art by low socioeconomic status authors enter the world. Not every author we’ve published has been low socioeconomic status, but many have, and there are so many great authors we’ve published who haven’t had the connections, time, or privilege to be welcomed into the gentrified publishing scene. I’m endeavouring to de-gentrify it, to take down barriers that previously existed, and to disregard nepotism. Any time we’ve been successful is merely a recognition of authors who deserved that success anyway, and who were denied it because they didn’t come from an Oxbridge or Russell Group university, or didn’t know the right people to get their work into the right places, or who didn’t have spare time to write because they had to work extra hours to feed themselves or their family.
Art is far too often insular and exclusive, and I want to promote the working-class motto of it’s not about rising above your peers, it’s about rising with them
Art is far too often insular and exclusive, and I want to promote the working-class motto of it’s not about rising above your peers, it’s about rising with them. Those complicit in their own success due to gentrification and the privilege of gatekeepers aren’t going to give up the platforms that have enabled them for so long; they don’t want Broken Sleep bringing down the walls and allowing people in, this removes their power, their rules, their westernised canon. I’ll keep doing it, keep providing a space for low socioeconomic status people to actively or passively take part in the arts. That’s success: rising with your community – that’s the definition of success for me.
TFP: You are a Cornishman, and some of your poems have been translated into Cornish. Do you speak it? How did you find a fluent Cornish speaker to translate it, and what was the process?
AK: I don’t but Taran Spalding-Jenkin is a marvellous poet, and he was raised first language Kernewek. We’re publishing his debut pamphlet in June, and he translated a poem by me and a poem by Ella Frears for the Cornish Modern Poetries anthology, and we’re doing a Selected Poems of mine in Kernewek. Minority languages are important to me, my children are bilingual Cymraeg / English, and I was never taught to speak my own native Kernewek language. Minority languages provide vistas to ways of writing, thinking, and creating that will fade into obscurity if we allow those languages to go extinct. Chris McCabe edited the brilliant Poems from the Edge of Extinction, a book I’d recommend to anybody. Reading work from other cultures, societies, languages opens you up as a writer and a person.
TFP: You are clearly a Prynne fan. I assume the name Broken Sleep Books comes from his poem ‘Smaller than the Radius of the Planet’; “I lay out my / unrest like white lines on the slope, so that / something out of broken sleep will land / there.” What do you say to people who describe his poetry as inaccessible, incomprehensible, baffling?
AK: I love that poem, and lay out your unrest is our press slogan too. But I also know Jeremy on a personal level, having emailed him to share my admiration for his work back in 2017 / 2018. We’ve since become friends, and I think people think he is interested in poetry that is similar to the poetry he writes himself, but that’s not the case – he just loves poetry in all its myriad forms. I send him BSB bundles occasionally, and its the work that is least like his that he seems to admire most.
I think people fall at the first hurdle, which is this desire to understand his poetry, but I don’t try to understand why Miles Davies plays particular notes in Kind of Blue, I just let myself feel moved by it, and admire the moments or parts that inspire or evoke feeling in me. That’s the same with Prynne, it’s key to just enjoy the poetry, the sounds, the rhythms, the way the words jostle against each other and the music of the sounds. Just enjoy the work and how it makes you feel.
TFP: J H Prynne says you are “Unicorn flavoured”. What do you think he meant by that?
AK: I taste like a rainbow.