‘I haven’t discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things. […] I don’t think my first language can be written down at all. I’m not sure it can be made external you see. I think it has to stay where it is; simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organs.’
This debut collection of twenty short stories offers an unusual, often eccentric and original insight into a nameless narrator’s reclusive lifestyle – a life of solitude that suffers nothing for it. In an age where no-one is ever quite alone as the buzz of an email, the ding of a text or the ring of a phone call continuously draws one away from the present moment, Claire-Louise Bennett’s beautifully poetic and reflective prose offer a strange and unfamiliar quietness. The chaos of modern life is pushed aside, as the reader enters a rustic cottage in Ireland with rugged, wild landscapes and harsh weather.
At first the narrator’s pedantic speech can come across as frustrating, suggesting a superior and slightly self-inflated sense of self, but readers should persevere as her peculiar ways grow on you. Her habits and reflections become endearing as her anonymity almost gives readers a sense of embodying the character themselves, vicariously living her day-to-day routines, thoughts, feelings and movements as she depicts her inner life and relation to the world around her.
An intimacy grows as the narrator’s humanity, cracks and flaws break through the initial layer of hard outer shell, revealing that underneath there are the whimsical, weird and subtle insights that people often experience, yet never truly share with another – the moments usually missed, left unsaid and forgotten. This collection is filled with delicate details of a life that stands still long enough to grasp the music and wonder of the world.
Many often fear the idea of being alone, equating alone to unhappy, lonely and unfulfilled, but the nameless narrator demonstrates the enriching life that can be led in one’s own company, where being unconventional and reclusive is still full of valuable, deep, sometimes unnerving and often quirky moments of self-discovery. In Henry Thoreau’s words, the narrator is brave enough to confront how ‘the mass of men [or in this case women] lead lives of quiet desperation’, and find ways of overcoming the monotony of life, the anxieties of it, as well as the flaws that cannot be changed. She faces herself and depicts a sense of being comfortable in one’s own skin, with all its bumps and blemishes. The narrator reflects on how life is just as much about what does happen as it is about what does not, where daydreams function as a way of enduring the frustrations of life and returning her to her ‘original sense of things’.
There is time, and there is quietness, to simply be. It is difficult to truly express the way in which Bennett encapsulates a feeling of seeing the world through new eyes, and how when life is stripped bare, one can start to recognise the small things again, like the way the rain catches in leaves, or tiny droplets attach themselves to delicate strands of grass ‘appearing, for all the world, like a squandered chandelier dashing headlong down the hillside.’
Bennett articulates the hindrances of life, of language’s incapacity to fully capture the essence of living, as the narrator declares that ‘I haven’t discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things. […] I don’t think my first language can be written down at all. I’m not sure it can be made external you see. I think it has to stay where it is; simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organs.’ Thoughts and desires seethe beneath the surface, and like a confidant, the reader accesses this inner world of a mind left to wander.
Comfort seeps through the narrator’s musings, revealing how one can relish one’s own peculiarities, offering an abundance of feelings that go against the grain and reflect the workings of an internal dialogue which has been given the time and freedom to truly consider itself. Whilst life may dictate a certain mode of normalcy, the narrator expresses feelings of disconnect, boredom, restless desire, erratic or unhinged eccentricity and wonderful impulses and thoughts unaligned with what is expected, articulating a far more human essence, in my opinion. The narrator reveals anxieties, moments of self-doubt and considerations on what she thought to know as true about herself and takes the reader through a journey of miniature self-discoveries along with often amusing, unique and bizarre inner dialogues of external happenings.
Bennett does not shy away from revealing the darker side of an individual’s inner thoughts, where the narrator is often led down paths of disturbing desires, considerations and actions, and other times must face elements of herself she wishes she had not realised existed, that are both sad and funny all at once:
‘perhaps the reason why I’d drunk so much for so long was because I enjoyed feeling enthusiastic about men and since that enthusiasm, which I so very much enjoyed, could not be brought about by any other means, I’d no choice but to spend a good part of my time becoming drunk.’
There is a randomness to her musings, ‘a method in the madness,’ with plenty of wit and quirk. The narrator has a stand-off in the dark with cows, an event that is all at once ridiculous and somewhat unsettling:
‘The cows stopped and continued several times over and always in the same rhythm, and even though, as they got nearer, I felt increasingly aberrant, I managed, actually, to defend my position at the gate.’
Strangely enough, Bennett manages to depict a full and engrossing image of a woman who is at once intimately connected to the reader, and an utterly elusive enigma, since the reader learns neither name, age, nor true circumstances of the narrator’s life. In the final story the reader is left with a third person narrative, a past haunting impression of a little girl – the little girl who lives on inside the narrator who even then felt more grounded to the earth and her inner thoughts, than others. There is a strange echo of a life lived that continues on after closing the last page.
Fitzcarraldo Editions is an independent publisher specialising in contemporary fiction and long-form essays. Founded in 2014, it focuses on ambitious, imaginative and innovative writing, both in translation and in the English language. Each book, designed by Ray O’Meara of the Office of Optimism, is published as a paperback original with French flaps, using a custom serif typeface (called Fitzcarraldo).
Review by Isabelle Coy-Dibley
Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster, where her research predominantly considers inscriptions of the female body within women’s experimental writing.
O’Connor reviews the recent Literary Criticism and the Small Press symposium at the University of Westminster, organised by Dr. Georgina Colby, Dr. Kaja Marczewska and Dr. Leigh Wilson as part of The Contemporary Small Press project, as a hub for bringing together writers, readers, publishers and theoreticians with an interest in the impact of small press publishing on literary production.
“A recent symposium held at London’s University of Westminster, Literary Criticism and the Small Press, focused on the means of production in literature as a shaping influence on literary writing. It’s an area of criticism largely ignored to date, but given the corporatisation of mainstream publishing, one that is badly in need of some attention. To what extent is literature tailored for commercial objectives? Just how much of what reaches the bookshops is decided not by writers but by those who, as one writer put it, “couldn’t write fuck on a venetian blind”?”
Quoting Dr. Leigh Wilson, O’Connor raises the question of ‘aesthetic ownership’ as literature becomes more and more generic and increasingly ‘morphs into content’ (O’Connor).
“Dr Leigh Wilson, convenor of the small presses’ symposium and co-founder of the contemporary small press network: https://thecontemporarysmallpress.com/ puts it like this, “If someone goes to McDonald’s and their Big Mac isn’t the same as always, that’s a failure”. Wilson distinguishes between the legal ownership still belonging to writers, and the notion of aesthetic ownership – the particular writing style, unique trace of ownership as human stain on the writing that says “you can tell this is mine because of the way it’s written”. Wilson fears that it is this aesthetic ownership, gained in the years following the copyright act and the modernist developments of the 1920s and ’30s, that is now in question.”
If you think it’s fine to judge a book by its cover – and typeface, paper and page layout! – this is the event for you. Come for an evening of discussion, demonstration and investigation into all that goes into making books as objects with other keen readers, practitioners and local small press publishers.
Reading and Being Read: Readers, Writers, Publishers
Friday 23 September 2016, 6-8pm – POSTPONED
Mezzanine Café, Library of Birmingham
The last few years has seen an explosion of new small presses and independent publishers around the country, publishing new and exciting fiction and poetry. If you are a keen reader and want to know more about the difference being a small press makes to how they work and what they publish, come along to hear from two local small presses, The Emma Press and Ayebia Press. They will each be presenting one of their writers, who will read from recently published work.
The Contemporary Small Press interviews writer Lara Pawson, whose book This is the Place to Be will be published by CB editions in September.
Lara, you were at the first Contemporary Small Press Symposium run by the University of Westminster in February 2015, how did that event impact on your decision to choose a small press publisher for your book?
Massively. I went to that because I’d seen something tweeted by Tony White, the writer who also has Piece of Paper Press. I went, very much inspired by Tony, and I went because I though I know that small presses are doing interesting things, I want to learn more about small presses. At that point I had written my piece that has now become the book, This is the Place to Be, which was initially called Non-Correspondence, and I wrote that in 2014. So it wasn’t that I’d gone there looking for a small publisher. I’d gone there because of Tony White and because of the kind of work that I’m working on – I’m working on a novel at the moment – and the way that that is progressing, I feel that it probably won’t fit with a conventional ‘market’. My hunch is it’s more likely to be taken up by a small press. So I went with the hope of meeting like-minded people, seeing what kind of people were in that world, a bit of ‘networking’, and also that I might learn something. And I did feel really inspired by it.
Afterwards at the book fair, I went around all the tables looking at the books, and when I got to the CB editions table Charles was standing there, I saw The Notebook by Agota Kristoff. I had seen that performed by Forced Entertainment at Battersea Arts Centre the year before, and I said ‘Oh my God, you’re publishing Agota Kristoff’ I told him I’d seen it – incredible play. [Then we started talking and exchanged contact details and stayed in touch] and he said to me ‘if you’ve got anything you’d be interested in publishing with me, just send it my way and let me have a look’ And I didn’t really think much more about it until a year ago when I was on my way back from Wales and I was in the car with a former performer, who had performed with Forced Entertainment, and he had asked me about my work and I was telling him about the Non-Correspondence monologue, and he said to me ‘why don’t you get it published as a book, that sounds like it’s a book’ and when I got back I thought ‘oh I should get in touch with that man Charles’.
And I think that, going to the symposium, I just felt very excited that there were a lot of people there doing very interesting, brave things. In a world that you quite often feel is closing in on you all the time and you have to conform and you have to compete with all these people to get your product into the market, there I was amongst people who seemed to be interested in the work for what the work is and I felt very liberated and excited by that. So when Charles said yes he’d publish it, I just felt like I’d hit the jackpot, even though I hadn’t literally hit the jackpot in terms of dollars. I felt very lucky. These people are doing very interesting things, and they’re sort of creating what they want to exist.
Now that I’m working with Charles and CB editions I’ve been slowly making my way through some of the books he’s published, and I’ve just been astounded by how great they are. All these wonderful things that are being produced. In the world of the small presses, it feels like you’re creating something and I think when you live in the over-developed world, which I like to call the northern hemisphere and especially the UK, you kind of feel that everything’s been done, and it’s closed and locked – and I think for me what that conference, the symposium did for me, and did again last week and that’s why I went again because I thought I know it will open my eyes, it’ll open my horizons, and this time I heard about Commune Editions and I thought I really want to explore all of these things.
What’s your experience of being published by CB editions?
I’ve only published one book before this book. The book that’s being published by CB editions is called This is the Place to Be, my first book was called In the Name of the People and it was about Angola, a non-fiction, published with IB Tauris, so I’d already had a lovely experience of working one to one with my editor, and it was a very positive experience. So it’s kind of, again, incredible to be working with Charles and it’s even better than that was. Because Charles is basically a one-man-band, he does the design, he does the layout, he does everything. So I sent him my text, he had a read, he gets back to me, we go for coffees, and it’s been a very personal microexperience. Instead of spending so much of our lives sitting behind screens and not being in touch with people, or being in touch with people miles away. We both live in London so we meet in town for a coffee or something and we talk about various stages of the book planning. It just feels very close up and intimate.
CB editions tend to have uniform covers – they used to be those beautiful brown covers, but Charles has recently changed that, and I entered into that process while he was in the middle of making that change. So in fact my book when it comes out won’t look like lots of the other CB editions books, but Charles sent me some suggestions of how it could be and was very happy for me to choose. Then I went to his house where the books are produced and I sat in his front room with his cats and we looked at different covers on the screen and looked at fonts and it was great. I met his wife who’s a painter and I felt like it was a really special day, and I found myself thinking ‘why can’t all books be produced like this?’ It was really good fun. I just love the fact it’s such a personal experience.
I think the small presses are much more flexible and there’s a kind of speed and elasticity which feels in some ways much more appropriate in a way to the world that we live in where everything changes so quickly and you can produce stuff online and produce a digital book ‘like that’ [*snaps fingers*] but these small presses are producing hard books, quality paper books, in months, so I really love that. I’m quite impatient and I’m quite spontaneous so for me that’s just great.
I remember at the first symposium you were angry at the suggestion by some panellists that writers and small press publishers shouldn’t expect to make a living from it and should accept poverty as a choice in exchange for the privilege of writing non-mainstream books. What’s your opinion on that now and can you clarify your thoughts for us?
The idea that it’s noble to not be paid. What’s noble about not being paid? It’s important, we all have to live, we all have to get by in the world, and I think that the idea that writing and producing works of art, be it fine art or writing or poetry or theatre or whatever, that the people who produce it don’t need to earn a living from it is something I really dislike. I think it’s just a sort of fanciful idea, presumably reproduced by people who either don’t appreciate art and don’t think it has a value or by some people who have a lot of money and don’t need to be paid for the work they’re doing or what they’re creating. So I don’t think we as writers and artists and people who are producing this stuff should encourage a culture of not earning. I think it’s a real problem.
That said, in a way you might accuse me of hypocrisy but I also understand that here I am being published by a very small publisher. I’m not being paid huge sums, I am being paid a sum of money for it, but a very small sum of money. Certainly not enough to live off or pay my mortgage with. I have an agent, who did send my book to another publisher that didn’t want it, I suppose I could’ve gone around looking for more big publishing houses with more money. But I think with this particular book, because it was originally written as a performance, as a looping monologue that was performed at the Battersea Arts Centre as a kind of theatre-performance-sound piece I never expected it – and I was paid for that by the way, I was paid a sum of money for that piece of work and I was paid again when it went to Brussels, so I got paid for the times that that was produced. But when it became a book – I never expected it to become a book and it’s been expanded a bit, it was initially 20,000 words and it’s now 35,000 words, so still very small, but when it became a concrete plan that it was maybe going to be published as a book, I saw that as a bonus, as a kind of surprise and so I wasn’t thinking primarily that I must get lots of money out of this. My priority was that I wanted it to be published with a publisher that was respected for the quality of writing that they produced.
But I feel really strongly about being honest about the money side of it. I wouldn’t be able to do this if I wasn’t a partner with someone (my husband, I’m married) who has a full time job. If he was not earning money there would be no way that I could do this. I’d be doing other things as well. I do do other things to earn money but I don’t earn enough to live off without my husband’s contribution. So I’m fortunate, I don’t think it’s a model that should be pursued. I don’t think it’s something to be proud of. I don’t think it’s noble not being paid. I think I’m very privileged and fortunate and it’s not fair on people who haven’t got money or haven’t got a partner who can support them, what are they supposed to do: just sort of think it’s noble to produce a book and breathe in air? People need to live. And you need time to write, you can’t work full time and write. Some people do do that, but it’s a really hard thing to do.
So I’m just very uneasy, particularly when I hear academics, who are very often on salaried jobs, talking about the idea that it’s somehow superior not to be paid. It’s not true, we need to live. It’s elitist, it’s exclusive. There’s a minority of people out there with private money, but we don’t just want work to be produced by those people, we want work to be produced by everybody, so that we get a mix of voices and input. So yeah, I really bristle at people who promote poverty, I just think it’s bullshit.
Will you be looking for a small press publisher for your third book?
The publishers that are producing books I like are often small presses, but not only. There’s plenty of good books produced by the ‘normal publishing industry’ that I really like. There’s lots of books that get produced by all sorts of publishers that I really like. But the books that sort of fire me up, apart from the old classics, tend to be with the small press. So I might well [look for a small press for book 3] but I’m also quite mindful that I’m anxious to make a bit more money out of it. People said to me once you’ve got your first book out you’ll make loads of money on your second, but that has not been the case. And that’s not a criticism of CB editions for one minute, but it’s not as simple as that. I’m beginning to think that maybe, given the kind of writer that I seem to be, or seem to be becoming, that I’m not sure I’ll ever be that mainstream, and I’m going to have to accept that. But I also think that small presses are influencing the mainstream presses, so who knows. Eimaer McBride’s book is a classic example of that, but there are plenty of other books and I think people are beginning to realise there’s quite a big desire to read those books. So to be honest I’m not sure.
What would you like to see in the future from the small presses in general, and for your book in particular?
I hope with This is the Place to Be, that it will reach people, that it will reach readers, I’d really love it if it gets reviews by mainstream newspapers in Britain. With my first book it had quite a big readership, especially in Portuguese. What for me is really wonderful is writers getting in touch with you from Mozambique, or someone in Spain or someone in Canada, and they’ve read your book and it’s moved them and affected them and they write to you – you cannot beat that sort of feeling of something you’ve produced touching people.
I feel very nervous about this book, because I feel like I’ve really let it all hang out, I’ve really exposed myself, and in fact after I’d initially written a first draft, I gave it to my next door neighbour who’s a writer, and she really liked This is the Place to Be, and she said to me, ‘You’ve got to read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, your book’s really like that.’ I hadn’t heard of Maggie Nelson until then, so I then read her book and I then felt really nervous because I thought Maggie Nelson’s book was so good. I though oh shit, my book’s not good enough. But I suppose there were overlaps, and felt that if I could reach people with my own writing, I don’t know. In some ways I just feel like I’m so amazed it’s being published. I’m so happy it’s being published with CB editions. I’m so happy with the few people who’ve read it and their response to it, that if it keeps going like that then frankly I’ll be dead chuffed. The writer Joanna Walsh read it and very generously endorsed it, and I was just ecstatic for about 48 hours because she’d read it and liked it.
In terms of what I hope for the small press, I hope that they keep going, I hope they survive. In the climate we’re in right now, not simply that we’re in this weird, ‘Are we going to Brexit or not’ moment but the fact that in the economy we’re looking at even more austerity that presumably is going to be a bit of a threat to people working on small presses. And if we pull out of Europe is that going to affect the funding because a lot of these small presses, I don’t know who funds them, but a lot of CB editions books are written by European writers, translated by people into English. To what extent is this whole Brexit moment going to affect the publishing houses? And Other Stories produce lots of books written by people all around the world. I imagine this [Brexit] is a bit of a threat to [publishers]. On the other hand, I think people quite often rise to the challenge – so it’s a threat and it’s a crisis but it might make us all fight back a bit more. Because when you put up barriers, people create ways through it. I’m amazed by the number of young people who are behind a lot of this stuff, and I think wow, they’re really pushing back and creating a lot of this stuff and it’s happening.
Look out for our forthcoming review of Lara’s new book This is the Place to Be from CB editions.
Last weekend I went to a writers’ conference in Brighton. It was a really great opportunity to meet with like-minded people; the catering and hospitality were excellent; and the programme provided a valuable insight into the publishing world, with ample opportunities to meet and talk to the very-accessible-and-wonderfully-human writers, agents and literary consultants who gave talks throughout the day.
However, what struck me most was the missing narrative of the small presses. The dominant narrative throughout the talks and workshops was that there were two opposing alternatives in contemporary publishing: pigeon-hole yourself into a pre-defined genre category for the chance to get in with one of the mainstream publishers, or take on all the risk, effort and expense yourself through self-publishing. ‘Branding’ was definitely the buzzword of the day – barely a speaker failed to mention the importance of marketing yourself like a packet of cornflakes.
One writer informed us that the largest UK high-street retailer of books is now Tesco – so he gave us plenty of tips on how to turn yourself into a supermarket-shelf best-selling branded writer. While a husband-and-wife writing partnership told us that ‘your novel is a piece of fruit’ and publishers need to know whether to place you with the bananas or the kiwis. And if they put you with the oranges, don’t try giving them kumquats.
It was good advice for writers who want to pursue that particular route into publishing. It was sincere and well-intended: a really honest perspective on the contemporary mainstream publishing industry. Yet what I saw through that shop-window was not bananas or kumquats or cornflakes but something rotten, and potentially toxic.
Never before has the really valuable role of the contemporary small presses and the vital work that they do been made more clear to me.
Small presses occupy the position structurally in between the big mainstream publishers and the alternative of self-publishing. This means that what they can offer writers, from a purely business point of view, is many of the benefits that come from having a publisher whilst shouldering much of the burden and the risk associated with self-publishing. While the smaller presses are unlikely to be able to offer the temptingly high cash advances that the larger presses may bestow, and they might ask for more in return in terms of promotional work and marketing your book, the burden on a writer will be less than in the case of self-publishing, with the added advantages that having a publisher can offer.
These benefits may include editing, promotion, distribution, advice, nurturing, marketing, having contacts in the publishing industry, and access to an informed guide throughout the process of publication. To be fair, many of these benefits were also advocated as reasons to choose a literary agent by the agents who spoke at the conference – I particularly enjoyed the metaphor of ‘spirit guide’ that one agent used to summarise his role and relationship to his writers. However, again, a self-publisher is unlikely to have access to this kind of support either from a publisher or an agent, while a writer published by a mainstream press is likely to find that much of this nurturing and advice is geared towards maintaining your brand identity as a banana. In any case, the benefit of having an editor in particular is one that very few writers should be willing to do without – we all need that extra pair of eyes and the benefit of a different, less entangled, perspective on our writing.
Aside from the structural positioning of the small presses and the benefits they may bring in terms of helping a writer to gain entry into the world of publishing, though, one of the key differences was this: mainstream publishing seems dedicated to maintaining and perpetuating the status quo, whereas small publishers are more likely to be committed to freedom of expression, artistic risk, literary innovation, and championing new and exciting writers that challenge the way things are.
The most prominent messages and headlines to arise from our recent Reading and Being Read event at the British Library demonstrate emphatically that the small presses we spoke to on the day were dedicated to nurturing, developing and championing innovative new writing from a broad spectrum of writers who may otherwise be overlooked by the mainstream presses. And the risks they are taking are essential to the development of new literature in the UK. More and more books from the small presses are being nominated for prestigious literary prizes in recognition of the high quality of writing that’s being produced by the small presses.
In January 2017 the first literary award for small presses will announce its winning novel. It’s been set up by writer Neil Griffiths as The Republic of Consciousness Prize, because he believes ‘small presses don’t ask how many copies will this sell, but how good is this – what is its value as literature? Quality is the only criterion’.
I knew it to be true before today, but last weekend’s insight into the world of mainstream publishing has certainly put the emphasis on the ultimate value of the small presses as champions of innovative new literature into a new and deeper perspective for me. Without these presses taking a risk to nurture, develop, publish and promote exciting and challenging new literature, it just wouldn’t be being published at all*.
*It was great to hear Candida Lacey, editor at Myriad Editions, speaking on the final panel of the day at the conference. The panel discussed alternative routes into print and included several successfully self-published and/or e-published writers as well as Candida as a representative from the small presses. The conference organisers were appreciative of the comments I had made about small presses during the day, and have said that they intend to address this as part of their feedback from the event.
On February 20th, 2016, Contemporary Small Press held the first of its Reading and Being Read events at the British Library, London. The event brought together readers, writers and small press publishers to share a day of talks, networking and workshops designed to stimulate interest in the small press and provide a forum for feedback and communication between publishers, writers and their readers. It was a huge success!
The day was sold out in advance and a full house of around 40 people enjoyed the unique experience of being part of this small press celebration.
Linen Press is now the only indie publisher of new women’s writing in the UK. Virago was founded in 1972 by Carmen Callil to publish mainly women writers – new and neglected – and with a strong feminist focus. It is now owned by Little Brown. The Women’s Press, my own role model, was established in 1978 and was hugely influential in the 80s bringing us Alice Walker, May Sarton, Janet Frame, Stevie Davies as well as minority writers. It is no longer functioning. Persephone reprints books already published.
She shared the highs and lows of being an independent publisher, including editing by the gas fire with 93-year-old Marjorie Wilson, whose memoir Childhood’s Hill was the first book that Lynn ever published. Lynn described the role of Linen Press as a publisher that takes risks to publish challenging, experimental, ‘tender and brutal’ books by women that you won’t find elsewhere.
One of the writers recently published by Linen Press is Susie Nott-Bower, whose book The Making of Her tells the story of Clara, a fifty-year-old female protagonist in contemporary society. Susie read from her novel and spoke about her experience as an older woman writer trying to get published. ‘Ageing is the new taboo,’ she said, describing how ‘older writers are encouraged just to dabble in writing as a hobby, between daytime T.V, gardening and grandchildren’. However, when Lynn read her original manuscript she saw the potential of the book and worked through the editing process with Susie to produce the finished novel, proving that, ‘it’s perfectly possible to reinvent yourself at any age’.
A key message that came out of the day was the dedication of small press publishers to developing and nurturing their writers’ potential: a process which can be challenging, but is ultimately rewarding in creating the best possible book – the best result for everyone. This kind of relationship between writer and publisher is one reason why many writers are choosing to publish their books with small presses these days.
Galley Beggar is one such press that works hard to nurture and develop its writers, and has a reputation for discovering and developing high quality new literary talent. Sam Jordison, editor and co-founder at Galley Beggar, spoke passionately about taking literary risks and publishing the books that matter, regardless of commercial popularity. He said,
As soon as we start asking what’s cool, what’s fashionable, that’s when we’ll stop. Small, independent publishers give writers the opportunity to write the book they want to write, not what the market dictates.
Sam spoke about publishing Eimer McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing in 2013, a novel that initially needed some editorial development but which he could see had potential as writing that would be ‘moving modernism forward’. The novel won theGoldsmiths Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 2013, the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award and the Desmond Elliott Prize (for debut novelists) in 2014, and was also shortlisted for the Folio Prize in 2014. It is now published by international publisher Faber & Faber and is currently being performed as a play at The Young Vic.
Writer Alex Pheby, whose ‘neuro-novel’ Playthings was published by Galley Beggar in November 2015, agreed that the process of publishing with a small press gives a writer the opportunity to ‘write your own story, whether it’s popular or not’. He also outlined various reasons why a writer might choose a small publisher over a mainstream publisher, including the politics of commercial press ownership which may be off-putting to some writers in some cases. He added, ‘processes can’t be turned into money’, and argued that small presses give writers and readers an experience of being in the world.
Five of Frania’s students then demonstrated their hand-made books and magazines in a practical workshop which really got people thinking about different forms of innovative book production that could be used to publish various literary genres. There was such a buzz as people chatted to the students about making their own books and the possibilities for publishing seemed to open that little bit wider.
Christina Reynoso Lopez
When Words Turn Back by Sandhya Kaffo
Sow, Bloom, Wilt
Rounding off the day was Tony White from Piece of Paper Press. Tony read his short story ‘The Holborn Cenotaph’ – a daring, funny, surprising and moving piece that calls on us to question our institutions. He also provided free copies of the story in Piece of Paper Press format and demonstrated how to make your own book from a single piece of paper.
Tony set up Piece of Paper Press in 1994 as a low-cost, lo-tech, sustainable method of book production to occasionally publish new writing or graphic works by writers and artists, and distribute them for free. The press produces work in short runs of 150 copies and distributes them freely at organised gatherings and events. They are ‘the perfect format for festivals’, he quips, recounting a previous experience at Glastonbury where another author’s box of hardback books was left untouched, while every copy of his work was given away. He is committed to this process and has collaborated with numerous writers and artists since the press’s beginnings.
I designed Piece of Paper Press very quickly in 1994 to suit certain conditions and constraints of the time. I needed a format that would create a space for collaboration and commissioning, but that would be cheap, sustainable and infrastructurally light. That wouldn’t need funding of any kind to continue, but also wouldn’t need to rely on sales or to break even. It needed to be deliberately punky, lo-fi, and set against ideas of ‘craft’ value, but also distinctive and catchy, and to address evolving and diverse readerships.
The final activity was a collaborative writing exercise in which the audience’s favourite quotes from the day were gathered, selected and made into mock-headlines in newspaper hoarding style. These were then reproduced onto coloured paper for everyone to take away.
The day was immensely enjoyable, and we’ve had so much positive feedback from the people who came. Below is a selection of feedback and comments on the event, and you can also read novelist/audience-member Avril Joy’s review on her blog and Tony White’s review too. For more comments and reactions on Twitter, search for the #ReadingBeingRead hashtag.
There was a very welcome message that came across loud and clear from the organisers, the audience and the other contributors at the event at the British Library. We heard not often voiced support for and acknowledgement of the fine books made with integrity and passion by small presses on a tiny budget and with minimal resources. For that we thank you! The day was varied, differently paced, always interesting. Watching the audience, they looked absorbed and engrossed. Personally I loved the students’ projects – their enthusiasm, competence and originality, especially the structural poems by Sandhya. Thank you to everyone who contributed. You created a very successful day. Lynn Michell, Linen Press
What an inspiring, stimulating and rewarding experience! What struck me most was the well organised, friendly atmosphere with just the right mix of listening and interaction. As a speaker, I was bowled over by the warmth and receptivity of the audience and it was a delight to mingle afterwards and talk about writing, reading and life. The after-echoes continue – people are reading and commenting on my novel. And on a personal note, I was so inspired by Tony White’s Piece Of Paper Press and the MA students’ presentations that I’m thinking of making a little book of my own! Thank you to all involved. Susie Nott-Bower
I thought that the event was fascinating and invigorating. It’s always great to have the opportunity to talk to people from other small presses and to share stories. It’s even better to be able to do it along with an interested and engaged audience. The event gave us both an opportunity to exchange ideas and some welcome publicity. Sam Jordison, Galley Beggar Press
‘Great introduction the work of the small press – eye opening!’
‘The speakers and writers were very insightful – a very enjoyable event’
‘Fantastic event! A thoroughly enjoyable day…. Great value for money.’
‘This was a good day all round. All the elements complemented each other.’
‘Loved the presentations and the later participative workshop feel of the afternoon sessions. Inspiring day!’
Alice Nutter – I believe of Chumbawamba fame – asserts in the foreword to Paul Hawkins’ Place Waste Dissent that, it ‘is a book that takes the aesthetics of poetry as seriously as the occupation and protests that inspired its writing.’ The collection situates itself amongst the residents, the protesters and the housing occupiers – if these are not the same people – of the M11 link road protests of the early 1990s. In Hawkins’ work, words fight for space – and on occasion lose – against the images of police officers, residents, stilt walkers and emptied streets, which form each page’s backdrop. That is not to say Hawkins’ poetry does not ‘drive’ Place Waste Dissent, but that the poems, like those Hawkins writes of, must contest for their own space.
It is impossible to talk about Place Waste Dissent without reference to its striking aesthetic, and credit must be given to Influx Press’ confidence in publishing a book that marries such a cacophony of images with an experimental poetic form. Hawkin’s words are cut-out and arranged overlaying images, that both reflect and challenge the poems’ text, transforming each page into a collage that requires a reader willing to grapple with it. No space is spared, with a thick black border holding on to the work that each page contains. Unlike fiction, poetry is often said to occupy space, but here the poems ‘contend’ with space. The black border negates the space that usually surrounds a poem, almost as a stand against those outside forces intent on co-opting the space for themselves.
Nothing in this book is standardised. Hawkins’ use of a multitude of voices and fonts through the work means that the reader is often unsure where one voice, and indeed poem, starts and where it, if it did, end. This is not to its detriment. In ‘This Ain’t no Garden Party’, Hawkins’ writes that ‘the houses were emptied / onto the street / private becomes public / sculptures, masks, cartoon, collage:’. Although this poem is about tenants being evicted, it speaks to many of the issues that the book raises: how we view and are viewed; state force; the boundaries between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’; community; what it is that constitutes a poem. Hawkins’ is making his ‘private’, ‘public’, through the publication of this book and the personal images – most of which were taken by other protesters – and the inclusion of letters and utterances of his elderly, ‘morning sherry / and 40 Lambert and Butler a day’, neighbour Dolly Watson.
The centrepiece of the collection is the longer ‘Flea’, a poem that examines Hawkins’ drug and alcohol problems and a chance meeting with a young girl who dies towards the poem’s end. Although over 40 pages long, the poem passes in an instant, and yet has an intensity that through its clipped lines forces the poem forward to its devastatingly anticipated conclusion:
Without the visual of Hawkins’ work, the quotation above does not do the poem justice. ‘Flea’ manages to combine the experimentalism of the rest of the collection with an emotional impact that is occasionally marginalised by the book’s aesthetic which can overwhelm it.
This review has not spoken to a great number of poems in Place Waste Dissent, that is simply because this book, more than any I have read in a long time, is a collection. It truly works as a whole: poems bleed into one another, characters disappear and reappear later in the collection, images reflect and haunt other images. This book recreates and re-presents the culture and time which it is reflecting upon, and it is an ‘archive’ that delightfully overwhelms with sound and image. This book is important.
Review by Mike James.
Mike is a PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London, researching trade union representation in contemporary poetry. He is also a poet, teacher and ex-comedian. He has lived and worked in South Korea, Egypt, Kazakhstan and Germany. None of these things inform his work.