Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

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Mike Barlow set up Wayleave Press for poetry pamphlets in 2014. Here he answers some searching questions:

Mike, as a poet-publisher you’re a poacher turned game-keeper! ‘Wayleave’: permission granted to cross or enter territory from which one has been previously excluded (explained on your website). Is publishing the territory you’ve given yourself permission to enter? Or does Wayleave let in poets who might otherwise be shut out?

A bit of both, really. It all started with self-publishing. I had a collection of poems of a particular nature, cryptic and slightly elusive, which I thought went well together. I doubted, however, that many editors would be interested and anyway didn’t want to have to submit and wait endlessly for rejections. I believed in the poems and decided to use our local printer to produce a pamphlet with an illustration of mine on the cover. It was well-received by those I sent it out to, and the whole process felt relatively straightforward and satisfying.

The next step was to try and do the same for others. I had in mind one or two fellow poets with a good body of work who hadn’t had any success in the major pamphlet competitions but whose work I admired. The title ‘Wayleave’ seemed apt for them. I liked the idea of giving permission for work to be out there despite competitive arbitrariness.

Your website is lovely. Simple, elegant, easy to use. Did you do it all yourself or did you have to get help? What skills did you need, or who did you need to know?

Though I had an idea of what I wanted, something clean and simple, I’m hopeless at that sort of thing and asked someone living nearby who sets up websites for local organisations. He used a Wordpress template that fitted my needs as near as possible. He’s shown me how to add and edit and so far all seems well. He remains on hand for technical support and any difficult tasks.


You say you aim to cover costs, not make money. But didn’t you have to invest some actual cash up front – to do the website, to pay for the printing, buy a set of ISB numbers and so on? Did it cost much? (I ask this question because other people think about setting up similar imprints and often they say they can’t afford it.)

Yes, obviously it has to start with cash up front. ISBNs and printing costs came first. I’m fortunate in having the cash to do this. Also I conceived the press as operating in a such a way that the poet covered the cost of the pamphlets they required while I used the balance of the print run for statutory Deposit Library submissions, publicity, review copies, awards submissions etc and, of course, websales which I hoped would cover the balance of the overall costs to Wayleave. I don’t work on royalties or free copies, but the poet re-sells at the set retail price for their own benefit. So far it seems to have worked well. I’m about to do some sums to see how it all balances out. I suspect it’ll be about even. I’m still very much at the early stages of finding out true costs, and fixing appropriate margins to cover it all.


At the moment, your plan is to approach poets whose work you like, rather than the other way around. So do you intend to have an editorial role too – that is to say, will you suggest alterations, changes etc? Or will you just agree a finished set from a poet whose own editing skills are fully ‘honed’?

I do see myself as having an editorial role where appropriate. However I’m not the sort of editor who wants to get stuck in with suggestions at any cost. If a collection of work is finished my role is as consultant to check with the poet I’ve got it right.

On other occasions my job is to sort out a coherent order or select from a bigger bunch of poems. But I’m compelled to question/suggest where I feel strongly something could be improved on or needs clarity, or where there’s a definite error in syntax or punctuation.

If poems seem to require a great deal of work and the sheet is full of my questions/suggestions and comments, it’s likely the poems are not ready or not appropriate for Wayleave – the level of editorial input would suggest there’s too much of ‘me’ in there, and that makes me uncomfortable – they’re not my poems.


 

You say on your website that your ‘original intention was to publish either small collections by poets who hadn’t previously had such an opportunity and/or small thematically coherent collections that suited the pamphlet format’. At the moment it looks like your first publications fit the second category, not the first. Do you think you will do some debut pamphlets?

Yes, I’m definitely open to debut pamphlets and in fact the first one I did, Ron Scowcroft’s’ ‘Moon Garden’, was one. Because of the way the range of pamphlets has developed, I favour there being an overall theme or at least the cohesion of a unifying order. This is partly because I think the pamphlet form is an excellent vessel for a small focussed gathering of work. So the idea of a focus would still be operating in my head even while helping put together an otherwise mixed collection of work.


I wonder how you feel about pamphlet competitions. Winning some of them (and one in particular) is a great coup, but often new poets are in competition with those who have been in the business a long time, or even people winning second time around. Does an operation like Wayleave sidestep the competition game altogether, or is it a secret competition? And anyway how do non-competitive poets survive the white-hot competition culture that surrounds us?

Pamphlet competitions. Yes. They can be both a distraction and an incentive. Lovely if you’re successful, but a bit of a wind-up if you’re not. Not to mention the cost of entry. I definitely don’t see Wayleave as a secret competition, but as a means of getting good work out there, regardless of the sometimes random-seeming workings of the competitive scene.

You say on your website: “The poetry market being what it is, I knew I’d have to rely on poets themselves to sell the majority of copies through readings or their own networks’. Does that mean you can only publish poets who have networks and do readings? (I don’t mean to sound difficult. I’m regularly contacted by poets who don’t know how to get a foot in the readings door without the pamphlet, and can’t get the pamphlet without the readings.)

No. The most important thing for me is the work itself. If a get a selection that holds together well and makes me feel very excited, I’m happy to publish. The poet can determine how many copies they want and can distribute. If it’s only a few, I adjust the print run accordingly. I will give them as much promotion/publicity as the others. I arrange occasional Wayleave readings to give the latest batch of poets a chance to read. These, inevitably, are local affairs in my home area of Lancaster at the moment. I can also recommend readers to other organisations in the region and farther afield but that’s a more uncertain business.


On the solicited and unsolicited issue, you say on your home page: “I don’t want to risk getting carried away and becoming so busy and pressured that fun is replaced by stress, so I won’t, I’m afraid, be able to respond to unsolicited submissions. I’ll confine myself to approaching poets as and when I am ready. (I am nonetheless open to third party suggestions and recommendations and will, of course, be keeping my ears to the ground.) This seems jolly sensible to me (I speak as someone who is almost permanently overwhelmed). But although publishers do find good poets, or someone else will recommend them, it worries me a little that for someone with no track record of friends in poetry world it looks like a closed ‘club’. I don’t expect you to solve this problem personally, but I do wonder how you feel about it.

But isn’t the ‘clubby’ aspect the same in any field of interest? I can imagine how excluding things can appear to someone outside, but my feeling is that if someone is serious about their art form they will inevitably make contacts and/or be familiar with the world of that art. Poets will probably read widely, attend readings and workshops, make contacts and get a feel for how things operate in the poetry world. They won’t be complete outsiders just appearing fully formed (whatever certain blurbs might want us to believe). And for those people who say they don’t read others’ work because they don’t want to be influenced (yes I’ve heard that a few times) I say, that’s fine but do you realise how much you’re limiting yourself?


You say you came to publishing pamphlets through self-publishing. Did self-publication teach you anything you would now avoid at all costs? Learning through mistakes? Do tell.

I’ve always been wary of self-publishing, but having a reasonable track record of publications and competition successes, I felt long enough in the tooth to go for it this time. I don’t regret it and certainly enjoyed being able to make my own design choices, not to mention relief at the lack of external editorial input and interference (although going solo sharpens your own internal editor’s wits). The downside is that promoting oneself is often not something that comes easily. By comparison it’s great to be able to promote others whose work you believe in.

Often small publishers aren’t able to offer much in the way of reading opportunities themselves and indeed some of us have to rely on the poets for the majority of sales, so there is an argument in favour of self-publishing if you’ve got a reasonable network of fellow poets and prospects of some readings. Without this it’s pointless, of course.

With my first pamphlet I sent out about 70 copies free. The response was very positive but I was distrustful of friends responding to a gift, so with my second pamphlet I decided to only sell. I underestimated and sold out. Something that I hadn’t accounted for, and this applies to all the pamphlets, is the number of copies I would need to cover the obligation to Legal Deposit Libraries (for using an ISBN), submissions to awards, submissions to the Poetry Book Society, review copies etc. The result has been the need to reprint some pamphlets sooner than I’d anticipated.


You’re an artist as well as a poet. Is the cover design of the publications something that also drew you in? I haven’t got one to hold in my hand yet, but on the web they look most attractive, and The Folded Moment, Crazy Days, By the Light of Day and Moon Garden give the impression of a style, a bright and immediate mini gallery.

Doing my own pamphlet it was natural to think of one of my own images for the cover. When it came to others, there seemed a preference for my images as well, even though I’ve always made it clear I’m open to other suggestions. When they’re all displayed together, they look good, very much a ‘house style’, so I think a precedent is being set.

The exception was Elizabeth Burns’ ‘A Scarlet Thread’ which is a short sequence about the Scottish colourist Anne Redpath. There was no way one of my images was suitable here and there weren’t the funds or the enthusiasm for negotiating permission to reproduce, so I ended up using the computer to generate a minimalist motif. I think it’s the nicest cover I’ve done. Jane Routh’s new pamphlet ‘The White Silence’ is, like Elizabeth’s, slightly shorter than the others and also sells for slightly less, and her cover is plain white with a simple embellishment in the title font. So I seem to have two styles developing, one for the smaller pamphlets and one for the longer ones.


You’re using a local printer I believe. Are you printing on demand in small runs, or going for a lithographic set?

One of the considerations when setting this all up in the first place was having a good and obliging local printer. I give him the disc, the end papers and the number and leave it to him. Should I sell out, it’s a simple job to reprint. The only problem is that he’s often in demand for marriages and funerals. The latter can’t be predicted and when they happen are relatively urgent. Undertaker’s business takes priority. It’s been a bad month so far and he’s currently rushed off his feet. Fortunately I have no urgent business right now.


The website has what you describe as ‘an occasional blog’. Lots of publishers start blogs and quickly give them up because they (like the rest of the operation) can quickly start to be demanding and time-consuming and get in the way of the simple pleasure of producing the goods. On the other hand, they certainly increase traffic to the site. So where do you sit on this one?

I’m new to blogging, but intend to make regular, possibly monthly entries about things I’m thinking or learning about. I find the change of role from poet to editor/publisher fascinating and will use the blog to give some of my thoughts shape. I’d be interested in feedback and comments.

The idea of a blog was suggested to me by another poet (who cited HappenStance, as it happens) and I thought what a good idea to try and hold the attention and interest of the world out there. I’m sure I’ll run dry of things to say at some stage, but I hope to encourage guest slots. And there’s plenty of scope to broaden the range of topics.


I notice biographical paragraphs about the poets on your website are restrained and un-blurby. No critically acclaimed, eagerly awaited, uniquely compelling, engagingly adroit, technically accomplished, heart-stoppingly emotive, astonishingly luminous writers so far – though they sound interesting and you have allowed a couple of review quotes to creep in. Is the restrained tone deliberate policy?

I could go on about blurb or what Dennis O’Driscoll called ‘blurbonic plague’. I won’t. Suffice it to say, I get really turned off by much of the back cover hype you see around. It’s my policy to do justice to the work and the poet without straying into the realm of the meaningless. I want people to believe what’s written on the cover.

What about a sample poem or two? Might be nice . . .

It seems invidious to pick out one or two poems from the list. There are samples of everyone’s poems on the website. I will, however, take this opportunity to be shameless and use one of my own pieces from the first pamphlet. I choose this because it refers to an aspect of the practical business of production – proof-reading. It seems, no matter how hard I use all the available hi-tech facilities like spellcheck etc, there’s always a glitch I miss and only finally notice when the whole print run is back from the printer. I have to regard it as being like the deliberate aberration in an oriental rug which gives it specific authenticity, proof it’s the real thing (and hope the poets are forgiving).

Proof Reading

I can’t see the page for the lines,
the words for the spaces between;
stops and colons like spider droppings;
commas and parentheses just husks
scattered here and there; meaning
hyphenated several pages back.

Marks with a red pen orchestrate
a sort of counterpoint. No – more like
an off-key melody an interloper in the choir
insists on singing. I can hear breathing
but no rhythm, a voice but no language,
inflexions without sense.

When you look through the text’s mirror
what indeed you find is the red queen.
She’s shouting at the top of her voice of course
but it comes out as a drone like a million bees
descending on the garden of possibilities.
The white rabbit pops up like an apostrophe.

I can’t see the wood for the water,
the trees for the signs, the road for the river
he shouts. And you can hear that.

And you think of a blank sheet, crisp-edged,
spectrum white. Poised for a red tick,
your nerve goes. You turn the page.