Writer Thomas McColl reflects on over twenty years of being published by small presses
At the start of this year, my first full collection of poetry, Being With Me Will Help You Learn, was published by a new small press called Listen Softly London. I hadn’t intended at this point to publish a poetry book, as over the last few years I’d been concentrating on writing prose. I’d published many short stories in literary mags and had just completed a novel, and some of the pieces I’d had published as poems in the distant past I’d completely reworked into flash fiction stories and they were now being published in magazines as well.
Still, with writing being a lonely business, I was doing my best to get myself out there too, and as I found myself doing more and more spoken word gigs – on the bill at various events, such as Oxjam in Dalston, the Saboteur Awards in Oxford and InZine Fest in Coventry – I reasoned that while I had the novel out on submission, and being as I didn’t have enough short stories to make up a book-length collection, it’d be good to collect together and publish all of my shortest pieces and therefore have a slim volume of work to sell not just at shows but online as well.
That was what occurred to me when I saw Listen Softly London’s call-out for manuscripts – so I sent in a selection of poems as requested, not expecting to be any more successful than I’d been years before in the 90s when I sent poems off to both big and small presses and always got the same form rejections.
This time, however, to my surprise, my work was accepted. Maybe it helped that I’d already met the publisher and he’d seen me perform, for Listen Softly London had been started two years previously by Dominic Stevenson as a spoken word night in South London, and he’d first had me read there as a featured writer in September 2014.
But though getting the book accepted and published was a relatively painless affair, it is, at the same time, the end result of many years work, and compiling the collection gave me a chance to reflect upon how far I’ve come with the 56 stories and poems contained within the book. Virtually all of the pieces, in some shape or form, had been previously published in so-called little magazines – some long-defunct and extremely obscure but others still going after many years and with reputations much more solid now than they had been at the time that I was in them – and though, if you go to the back of my book, you’ll find that the list of anthologies and mags I’ve been published in is long and very diverse, I guess that isn’t really too surprising considering that the oldest piece in the book was published as far back as 1994, and the newest as recently as 2015.
That’s over twenty years, and in that time so much has changed. Now, with the internet and social media, it’s relatively easy to look up magazines and competitions, and share all kinds of information, but back when I started writing poetry with a view to gaining publication, it was a case of going round bookshops and libraries, or looking up listings in Time Out and Poetry London, or coming across mags being sold at gigs. In the 90s, the two most invaluable sources in London were the much missed Compendium Bookshop in Camden and the Poetry Library in Southbank.
In Compendium Bookshop, for instance, I came across Rebel Inc – the iconic Scottish counter-culture magazine that helped launch the career of Irvine Welsh – but though the editor, Kevin Williamson, never accepted any pieces I sent, he always wrote back with helpful comments and suggestions regarding editing and content, and taking on board his advice, I managed to improve those rejected pieces enough to eventually get one accepted by the long-running radical literary mag The Big Spoon in 1994.
I’d finally arrived. After years of submitting to dozens of mags without success, I was starting to get published in reputable places, and over the next few years, as my writing and editing skills continued to improve, I began to get into some of the mags I’d peruse at The Poetry Library – Envoi, Fire, Iota, Purple Patch, Neon Highway, Equinox and the fantastically-named Ramraid Extraordinaire.
So I kept going back to the Poetry Library and, every Tuesday, checked the ‘Books/Poetry events’ section in Time Out which, though it mainly listed forthcoming gigs, also listed calls for submissions. As a result of answering two such calls, I’d ended up getting published in poster form on London’s buses (as part of Big Wide Words’ ‘Poetry on the Buses’ scheme) and in a free pamphlet brought out by Reclaim the Streets for their Street Party ’96 (which successfully blocked the Shepherd’s Bush section of the M41). It helped of course that I closely followed each brief: For the bus poster I wrote a poem called The Pub That Thinks It’s a Bus and for the Reclaim the Streets pamphlet I wrote In Search of Pedestrianland.
By the mid-90s, new zines were emerging which – though often roughly produced (and sometimes nothing more than photocopied stapled sheets) – had a new kind of attitude and a willingness to publish quality work that wasn’t being published anywhere else.
One such zine, Rising – which now has a reputation that far exceeds its production values – I found out about in 1996 by going to a poetry night called The Hard Edge Club, which had run for much of the 80s in Soho and now, after a lengthy hiatus, was being revived. Two of the organisers, Tim Wells and Joe Cairo, came along to the open-mic event Poetry Unplugged and, picking out the best performers, asked those people to come to their relaunch. I was there but wasn’t singled out, but I still went along to the relaunch, and as it turned out, none of the people they picked turned up, and no audience turned up either. So there I was, the only one – albeit someone who’d invited himself – and though I was painfully shy, with little charisma and my poems were a little half-formed, Joe and Tim agreed to give me my first paid gig the following week for the relaunch of the relaunch.
Well, my first gig went OK enough, and I went along a few more times as audiences began to pick up, and Tim even gave me a second paid gig in December, but I cringe even now as I recall how badly I did – I froze on stage, forgot my lines and started talking gibberish – I just didn’t have the temperament at the time to cut it in what was fast turning out to be a raucous take-no-prisoners event, where some of the people who would end up becoming well-known performance poets in years to come were starting to make their names (that year, John Cooper Clarke appeared there, at the start of what was to be a successful come back after years away from the scene).
But sometimes biting off more than you can chew – and in the process making a prat of yourself – can lead to good things. Already, by that point, Tim had published me in the latest issue of Rising (which he sold at the event and other gigs) and though I no longer went to The Hard Edge Club, whenever I sent him poems, he always wrote back with cheery friendly letters and published me four times in total. It really helped to keep me going, and also means I can now say I was featured in a mag that published not only early poems by spoken word legends such as Tim Turnbull, Salena Godden and Francesca Beard – but work by the great John Cooper Clarke as well.
However, in terms of performing, the gentler atmosphere of Hearing Eye at Torriano in Kentish Town suited a timid beginner like me much better, and I began to gain the confidence I needed in reading my material there. I ended up being a featured writer there on a number of occasions (I’m featured there again on 31st July), and was even included in the anthology they produced to celebrate 21 years of readings at Torriano, called In the Company of Poets (finding myself being published alongside poets like John Hegley, Dannie Abse and John Heath-Stubbs).
In any event, over the years – and one way or another – I found various good homes for my poems, and now at last, with the publication of my book, they’re all under one roof. It’s taken me over twenty years to get to this point – but some poets, of course, never manage that in a lifetime – and I like the idea of being with a small but cool independent press. Since publishing my book Listen Softly London has published a second book, by Gary from Leeds (a.k.a. Gary Hartley, ex-editor of The Alarmist and an excellent writer). Promoting my book is keeping me busy, which is just as well, for so far no-one’s taking on the novel I completed – though, to be fair, it might take twenty years for that as well, but I’ve done it once so, what the hell, I’ll just do it all over again.