Michael Laskey’s name may be familiar to you for all sorts of reasons. He’s a poet, of course, with several collections to his name, the most recent of which was Weighing the Present, Smith/Doorstop 2015. He founded the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, directed it for its first decade, then chaired its board for several years, and was a key member of the festival team thereafter. With Roy Blackman, he edited many issues of the magazine Smiths Knoll, continuing it after Roy’s demise, until its final issue, with Joanna Cutts. Michael Laskey is an Arvon tutor, mentor to many, friend to poetry and poets. But he’s also a pamphleteer.
Laskey and pamphlets go back quite a way. In fact, his first ever publication – as a poet in his own right – was Cloves of Garlic (1988) – a pamphlet he shared with Steven Waling. They were joint prize-winners of the Poetry Business competition in its third year. Perhaps those cloves stayed in the mind when, 15 years later, Garlic Press sprang into existence, its first publication being Dean Parkin’s Irresistible to Women (2003).
But let me look back before I skip forward. What did that first pamphlet publication mean to Michael Laskey? In fact, what did pamphlets in general mean to him back in 1988?
‘As a reader, I’ve grown into pamphlets really,’ says Laskey. ‘At first I thought they were just something you did on the way to a book, if you were lucky. I didn’t care for them until I started to make them.’
All the same, winning that 1988 Poetry Business competition was quite something. ‘It was very exciting for me – fantastic to have a little collection of poems accepted, not just odd ones and twos in magazines.’ But around the same time, Laskey had been submitting to Harry Chambers of Peterloo Press, who had already registered a formal interest, so things were starting to come together. In 1990, Laskey’s poems were featured as one of six poets in Peterloo Preview 2, and in 1991 there was his debut full collection from Peterloo Press, Thinking of Happiness, which won a PBS recommendation.
For Michael Laskey, then, a pamphlet was something he did on the way to a book. But since then, he has twice done that same thing between full-length collections. His four books from Smith/Doorstop have been punctuated by two pamphlets: The Fruit Cage in 1997 and, ten years later Living By the Sea.
So in his own writing he’s demonstrated how pamphlets can act as a bridge towards a bigger collection, and also as a ‘between-book’ publication. But how did he move into editing and publishing under his own imprint, Garlic Press?
Editing poetry pamphlets, says Michael, was ‘a natural transition from editing Smiths Knoll’. He had already co-edited, with Roy Blackman, The Difference by Anthony Wilson for the Poetry Trust – a publication to support Wilson’s festival residency. Laskey takes pleasure in talking to poets about their poems, he likes seeing how texts mature over time. He’s a person who likes workshops, as a participant himself, not just as a leader. ‘What could be better,’ he says, ‘than talking about poems?’
So he created Garlic Press because he could, mainly for Suffolk poets, and because of the opportunity it gave him to work more closely with writers he liked and whose work he liked. A number of pamphlets co-edited by Michael Laskey and Joanna Cutts were also produced as part of the Smiths Knoll mentorship scheme. That was something different – very much a co-editorship, something Laskey also relishes.
But Garlic Press is just Michael Laskey, and latterly – since resigning from the Chair of the Poetry Trust, and stopping Smiths Knoll – he has more time for it. He misses the co-editing he did with Joanna and Roy. But when he works on a Garlic Press pamphlet, he likes the meeting of minds between himself and the author.
Garlic Press doesn’t invite open submission. Laskey offers to do a pamphlet for poets he knows whose work he finds interesting. It’s an occasional event, not in any way a business. ‘One of the pleasures,’ he says, ‘is that you can make this suggestion, to a friend, or someone you’ve work-shopped with for years. And then they let you have some poems – twenty or thirty, say, some of which you’ve seen before – and that’s where it starts. Some of them have been writing poems for decades, for the pleasure and interest of it, but this invitation can come as a sort of validation, permission to take their writing more seriously.’
The process is enjoyable, and a matter of quality not quantity. In 2015, there were two Garlic Press publications: Jenifer Smith’s Reading Through The Night and Marjorie Carter’s You Might Have Said. In 2016, there will be another two or three. And so on.
I asked how the editing process works. ‘I fix a meeting with the poet. We get together for an afternoon and work our way through the poems. The poet revises, we meet again and so on, probably two or three times more. And finally we work out an order.’
And what about choice of contents? ‘We agree it – obviously what they want to put in is important, but it’s also the ones I like. Funny this process of liking things – why one likes what one likes. I do want to like the poems in the pamphlet I’m publishing. I’m quite interventionist in that way.’
After that Michael emails the pamphlet to his friend Dean Parkin, the first ever Garlic Press poet and designer, who typesets it in Quark ready for the printer, a local firm, and provides proofs which Michael and the poet both check.
When it comes to marketing and promotion, these much-used terms, it will depend largely on the poet. The Garlic Press authors are mainly near at hand so there will be a local launch, to which the publisher comes and contributes some wine. And after that, the poet, if he or she does more readings, can get copies at cut price and sell them on to readers. There’s no pressure to be a best-seller. The primary aim is to share these poems with receptive readers.
Garlic Press pamphlets are not sold on Amazon, or a Garlic Press website, though they have ISB numbers and are properly registered and deposited in the copyright libraries. This is a labour of love, not a commercial enterprise. But you can have a copy of any of them (a list will follow and each one costs £5.00 including postage) by writing to:
Suffolk IP16 4EB
More poets could do this kind of thing: set up small enterprises editing and publishing and sharing poems they believe in. It’s the grass roots of reading and sharing. It is, as Michael Laskey says, such a pleasure talking and working on poems.
Garlic Press Pamphlets (price includes p&p)
Irresistible to Women by Dean Parkin (2003) £3.50
Hooks Working Loose by Margaret Easton (2007) £5
Just Our Luck by Dean Parkin (2008) £5
Meeting the Pilgrimage Halfway by Martin Hayden (2010) £5
Slowing the Afternoon Down by David Healey (2010) £5
Catching My Own Drift by Philip Rush (2012) £4
The Self-Forgetting Place by Rob Lock (2013) £5
You Might Have Said by Marjorie Carter (2015) £5
Reading Through the Night by Jenifer Smith (2015) £5