The Friday Poem talks to new Seren Poetry Editors Zoë Brigley and Rhian Edwards about what they each bring to the job, new plans for Seren, and new poets for the Seren list
TFP: What’s the plan for Seren? Amy Wack was Poetry Editor for 30 years. Are you new brooms or can we expect more of the same?
Zoë Brigley (ZB): Before joining Seren, I worked quite closely with Amy and co-editor Kristian Evans on producing 100 Poems to Save the Earth (Seren, 2021). Rhian and I definitely want to emulate the encouraging spirit Amy brought to all the projects she worked on.
We want to publish the best poetry from Wales and beyond, and we’re open to writers traditionally marginalized in publishing. In Wales, particularly, many of our writers from marginalized backgrounds might also be working class and not have middle class connections or resources. They need support to develop those connections and resources, and as editor of Poetry Wales and at Seren my role is not only to publish but also to help writers develop.
In editing Magma Poetry 79 on ‘Dwelling’ in 2021 (again with Kristian Evans and Scottish writer Rob Mackenzie), I was very grateful to get funding from the Arts Council of England to run an extensive mentoring programme for new and beginning writers who had some association with the magazine. It was a wonderful roster of events with workshops by Polly Atkin, David Morley and Vidyan Ravinthiran, as well as brilliant US writers Ruth Awad, Rosebud Ben-Oni and Marcus Jackson. I’m hoping to do more of this. We had a great workshop on listening this year for new and beginning writers, run by Nick Makoha through Poetry Wales.
Rhian Edwards (RE): We are hoping to bring the same versatility and calibre of poetry to the Seren list as Amy Wack, but also more diversity in terms of under-represented writers. Amy Wack enabled the small Welsh publisher that is Seren to compete on an international level. This is a legacy we are adamant that we want to continue. We want to nurture, champion and promote our writers on the existing Seren list, as well as scout out and launch the careers of emergent Welsh poets.
I was one of Amy’s protégées and she was my editor for over 10 years, so I’m very much indebted to both Seren and Amy for my poetic success and being able to forge a career as a jobbing poet in Wales. Amy also became a dear friend because of her personableness and attentiveness, which is something we also hope to emulate.
This year we gave the Seren Cardiff Poetry Festival the theme of wellness. This felt very fitting after lockdown, and the cancellation of so many poetry festivals. But it was also because so many poets moonlight in the wellness field as mindfulness practitioners, meditation practitioners, yogis, acupuncturists, therapists, ecological spokespeople, marathon runners etc. This felt like a wonderful way of bringing their second talent to the foreground. Each day we also had a reading slot called ‘Published During the Pandemic’ so that poets, and not just our Seren poets, were able to have the live launch and audience they couldn’t have during lockdown.
ZB: Yes! The festival was amazing and you can see videos from it by the brilliant Taz Rahman who has a great YouTube channel Just Another Poet, and whose debut collection will be out with Seren in 2024. Footage of our festival events will be available soon on the Seren website.
We want to publish the best poetry from Wales and beyond, and we’re open to writers traditionally marginalized in publishing
RE: We are also starting a Seren Poetry Podcast, which will be launched on National Poetry Day. This will include readings and interviews with Kim Moore, Christopher Meredith, Ros Hudis, Eric Ngalle Charles, Carolyn Jess Cooke, Ben Wilkinson, Ilse Pedler and Polly Atkin. This will give our authors a platform to discuss their poetry in more detail, as well as reciting their work. Usually poets don’t get much longer than 25 minutes for a feature reading, so they don’t get much of an opportunity to read from their previous work or extrapolate upon their work, with usually a rushed Q&A at the end of a reading. However, the one-hour podcast, the long-form conversation, lends itself to poetry so well. It will give our writers an opportunity to bring their work to new readers and listeners, not just reading from their latest collection but also giving them an opportunity to revisit their earlier work. We are also publishing four new pamphlets every year.
TFP: Amy was not a particularly hands-on editor – she said, “the author has a vision, and you are there to help them fulfil this,” and she tended to let her poets find their own way (this was my experience anyway) – is this how you both work, or will you be getting more granular with manuscripts?
ZB: A truly great gift that one writer can give another is to read a manuscript with care and attention. I like to get into the detail, but I agree with Amy that it is important to respect an author’s vision. The editor – in my view – should be a tool to make poems the very best that they can be.
RE: As a Seren poet, I have known Amy for over twelve years and worked with her over two full collections and an illustrated pamphlet. In my case, Amy was always very attentive, touching base, thinking of opportunities to maintain my poetry presence, hence the illustrated pamphlet between collections. She would also send me details of poetry residencies, competitions etc. that she thought may be of interest. And she would always respond almost immediately.
Regarding the poetry itself, Amy was quite hands-off. But she has always been very candid that this was her approach, she has stated that many poets come to her with highly polished and thoroughly revised manuscripts and she regarded her role as an enabler to actualise the writer’s vision. It was always my tendency to work, re-work, revise and workshop my manuscripts within an inch of their lives before they even found their way into Amy’s inbox. Also by her own admission, others manuscripts needed more work and editing, where she would adopt a more hands-on approach. In a workshop setting, I’m renowned to be something of a butcher.
ZB: That sounds scary. (laughs) But she’s a pussy cat really.
RE: (laughs) Well to be fair, in my role so far as poetry editor, I have found that the only amendments I have brought to the manuscripts so far have been tweaks, fileting to make the lines cleaner, spotting misattributions, inconsistencies with tenses etc.
TFP: Is Amy working on a new collection and will you be publishing it?
ZB: Amy is working on a nonfiction project. Right, Rhian?
RE: Amy is working on a memoir. We haven’t seen any pages yet. I would love to publish Amy!
ZB: I think she has some poems up her sleeve too, and she writes beautifully about the more-than-human.
TFP: Where will you be looking for new poets to join the Seren list? Have you got anyone lined up, or in mind? Will poets need to have a Welsh connection?
ZB: Well, we’re excited about our list for 2023 – 2024 which has just been announced. Amy’s final choices as editor will be out at the beginning of the year – Glyn F Edwards’s In Orbit, a moving collection about loss, and Nerys Williams’ Republic, a thought-provoking personal history of Wales in the 1980s and 90s. We have a great pamphlet by Zakia Carpenter-Hall coming out – I first came across her poetry when I published her long poem about wildfires, ‘Flesh and Tree’, in Poetry Wales – and also some new writers we found in the submissions inbox.
We have made the submission process easier by enabling poets to submit their manuscripts by email. By the same token, we have made our lives more difficult, because now we’re absolutely inundated
RE: We have made the submission process easier by enabling poets to submit their manuscripts by email to firstname.lastname@example.org and not just hard copy through the post. By the same token, we have made our lives more difficult, because now we’re absolutely inundated. And we do have some exciting new poets lined up because of this. For instance, we discovered the wonderful Rachael Clyne and her collection You’ll Never Be Anyone Else, which chronicles her Jewish upbringing in Lancashire, her migrant heritage, domestic violence, her acting past and the recurrence of her alter ego ‘Girl Golem’.
ZB: Another new writer, Rachel Carney, continues our tradition of platforming poets writing about disability (like Hannah Hodgson with her striking debut this year). Carney writes about dyspraxia and neuro-diversity. She was a very committed attendee at our monthly event First Thursday – both the in-person version and the virtual one that started up in lockdown and is continuing now in hybrid form. That was where we first noticed her work. We also have the incredible debut from prize winning poet Vanessa Lampert: Say It With Me (which was a hard copy submission).
And of course we have some great established poets on our lists with brilliant new work. Damian Walford-Davies’s Viva Bartali! is based on the life of a cyclist who was a courier during World War Two for a secret network offering safe passage to Jewish people through Mussolini’s Italy. I am also very excited about Kathryn Gray’s second book which explores celebrity culture and Hollywood – such great work! Lynne Hjelmgaard has a beautifully written new collection out too.
RE: We also have the much anticipated second collection Cormorant from our Seren poet and key member of the Spoke poetry collective, Elizabeth Parker, which we are very excited about. We have a wonderful pamphlet coming out by the art critic, writer and poet Sue Hubbard about the life and times of Welsh artist Gwen John, as well as the long awaited pamphlet Flamingo by Kathryn Bevis.
ZB: Kathryn was one who initially submitted work to Poetry Wales, and then you saw her read with Seren poet Hannah Hodgson, right?
RE: Yes, that was a great online reading. I was absolutely steamrollered by her performance. It’s very rare that I cry at a reading, especially an online reading, but I was in absolute tatters. We often scout for poets at in-person and online events, which is why First Thursday is such an invaluable resource for us and for poets looking to get published.
ZB: And with Taz Rahman’s debut, I encountered his work as his mentor for the Literature Wales scheme Representing Wales for writers of colour. You’re a mentor on that this year, aren’t you?
RE: Yes, this year, it’s aimed at working class poets, and I’m mentoring Alix Edwards, who is a great mentee.
ZB: Right! But because I had been Taz’s mentor, I was so glad that the editors, the board, and staff agreed unanimously that his book had to be published by Seren. One thing that people might not know about the process of being signed to Seren is that once we like a particular book, we then have to present it to the Seren board, as an extra ethical layer of oversight.
TFP: What sort of poetry do you want to see more of, either at Seren or more generally in the poetry publishing world? And what are your pet hates? What do you advise poets who want to submit to you at Seren NOT to do?
ZB: I actually have quite eclectic tastes. I enjoy reading mainstream and innovative poetries, and in fact boundaries between these categories are often artificial constructs. I just enjoy poetry that is doing its particular kind of poetic work exceptionally well. Our submissions inbox is open to everyone, writers from Wales and beyond, and the door is open for writers from groups traditionally marginalized: people of the global majority, queer poets, working class writers, and disabled or neuro-divergent poets too.
RE: I’m not a huge fan of cryptic crossword poetry where I’m just left with a migraine at the end of the poem. I like poetry that doesn’t take itself too seriously and has the courage to poke fun at itself and the writer. I like poetry that is playful, inventive and full of verve. I have always been more interested in human relationships and the conflicts and absurdism endemic in them. I loathe sloppy and lazy rhyme-manship, generalised and hackneyed imagery and tortured clichés. Be specific, be original. Make me wish I had coined the phrase myself!
ZB: We do expect poets to engage with promoting their books. It needs to be a team effort. We are lucky to have a brilliant team member in Sarah Johnson who tirelessly works on getting our books out to the world. She was recently listed as a Rising Star in publishing by The Bookseller. We have a great designer Jamie Hill, Simon Hicks gets poetry collections on shelves as our sales and marketing manager, and we have our new bright, young marketing officer Natalia Elliot. Mick Felton, our publisher, also works tirelessly. It’s a close-knit team and we really care about the books we publish.
… we manage to punch above our weight and compete with the big five poetry publishers
RE: We are a small publishing house with a small team and yet as a publishing house we manage to punch above our weight and compete with the big five poetry publishers (Bloodaxe, Carcanet, Faber, Chatto & Windus, and Picador). We have an incredible marketing team in Sarah Johnson, who was recently promoted to deputy publisher and Natalia Elliot. We are also one of the few publishers who create events to showcase their new and existing writers.
Thanks to Amy, we are one of the few publishers who host a monthly poetry event, First Thursday, both online and in person, to promote new books and our existing list, but also other writers published by other publishers, with an open mic as a way of scouting new talent.
Thanks to Amy once again, we are one of the few publishers, who host an annual poetry festival. This year’s festival took place in July at the Atrium Theatre in Cardiff, with 29 events, both online and hybrid, 10 workshops and 19 panel discussions and readings, not only to showcase our own authors but also poets from all over the world.
And of course, online readings and launches are now an essential part of our promotional package. Given that Zoe lives part of the time in Ohio and given the fact I’m a single mum and struggle to find or afford childcare for in-person readings, the online element means we can have Zoom meetings with our new and existing poets and host and attend poetry readings from across the pond and from the comfort of our own living rooms.
ZB: Accessibility is very important to us, and both Sarah Johnson and Frances Turpin, my right-hand woman at Poetry Wales, work really hard to make all our promotional materials and events as accessible as we can. We’re still trying to learn as much as we can about how we can do that.
TFP: What does poetry funding look like, in Wales generally and for Seren in particular, for the near future?
ZB: We are extremely lucky to have funding from the Books Council of Wales, who I find very encouraging. Arts Council of England has far vaster funds to distribute but here in Wales we must do a great deal with less. Those submitting should bear in mind that we do have to make space for Welsh writers in particular, but there will always be room at Seren for great writing from everywhere.
RE: What a lot of people don’t realise is that we have to apply for our Books Council of Wales funding almost two years in advance. This is why writers often have to wait at least two years for publication, which we can appreciate can be very frustrating for a writer with a finished collection. This is why even though Zoë and I started as poetry editors in February 2022, our selection of poets does not commence until Spring 2023 and is already full until June 2024.
ZB: That’s not meant to be discouraging – only to highlight the timeline.
Listen to the Seren Poetry Podcast – a new podcast dedicated to poetry and poets where Seren poets talk about their influences, writing techniques and inspiration, as well as the themes they have chosen to write about and the people, events and other elements that have influenced them.