Hello, Guillemot Press. Could you say a little about who you are and where you are?
Guillemot Press is a very small new press with a preference for the quiet and beautiful. We want to make books and pamphlets that are attractive objects to handle as well as to read, and we’re interested in playing with materials and formats. We’re based in Cornwall, on the edge of Bodmin Moor, and the editor is me, Luke Thompson.
As well as publishing, I’m a writer of poetry and prose, with my debut pamphlet just out on Atlantic Press, and my biography of the poet Jack Clemo published in May. I’m also a lecturer at Falmouth University and co-editor of the online magazine for new writing about landscape, nature and place, The Clearing.
Your first poetry publication is a sequence by Sister Mary Agnes. What brought you to her?
Yes, she might seem quite an obscure figure at first glance. I discovered her while working in an archival collection of South West writers at the University of Exeter. At first, I found these very kind, measured letters from a Poor Clare nun in a Devon monastery, and they referred to her recent successes as a poet, and the media attention that followed. These were all from the early 1970s, and as well as the poetry, these letters suggested a narrative that also began to intrigue me, so I went off to research her, picking up copies of her three lovely little books, published by Norman Hidden’s Workshop Press, and Thornhill. Daffodils in Ice, her debut, had some stunning moments, I thought, and there was a physicality to Agnes’s faith that was really powerful, as well as an intimacy with the natural world – the birds, the flowers, the seasons, all observed daily out of the window of her cell.
But then I noticed that after these three books in the 1970s, she disappeared. I contacted the monastery in Lynton and wrote an article about what I’d found, focusing on those poems. It turned out that my piece about Agnes was published just a few days before she died, and as a result I was put in touch with her family and was soon on my way up to Hertfordshire to visit them.
This is where the story of Agnes and the book came together. Agnes’s nieces were extraordinarily generous, bringing out piles of manuscripts and typescripts, attempts at biography, heaps of poetry, an introduction by Kathleen Raine to an apparently unfinished work. It was astonishing how much had been collected and kept, and it was from this material that I put together Harvest.
We’re also just about to publish our second and third poetry titles, Karl O’Hanlon’s And Now They Range, with artwork by Kate Walters, and Melanie Challenger’s The Tender Map, which has been illustrated by Rose Ferraby.
You’re going to be hosting events and readings – where?
We’ll be doing our first readings, exhibitions and conversations in Cornwall, at Helston Folklore Museum and at Terre Verte Gallery in Altarnun. Terre Verte will be stocking our books and will be a regular venue for readings, workshops and events. We’re also in talks with a few Scottish venues for a little tour. We have forthcoming titles from Melanie Challenger and Kate Walters, both of which are deeply rooted in Scotland. So we would really like to present these books in place, so to speak, especially at the more rural and remote venues.
What other publishers may have influenced you? Whose work do you admire? Tell me about a recent pamphlet you rate highly.
Ah, where to start. This could turn into a long answer. How about we start with Thomas A. Clark and Moschatel. The space Clark gives to his work is amazing. Two or three lines to a page, or a wall – how many publishers are going to give poetry that much space? But you can see exactly why Clark, as an artist and poet, does it, and I love both the production and the poetry. I think it was of woods & water that turned me on to him. That’s a beautifully balanced book.
Closer to home, in Cornwall, we have Atlantic Press, who produce some lovely innovative pamphlets, using artists from their MA in Authorial Illustration. I went to their end of year show recently, and these are some fantastically diverse and talented artists. Both students and teachers there are excellent, and their books have a special sensitivity to the artwork and the book design, prioritising these in a way that seems unique.
Also, in more traditional publishing, there’s Clutag Press. I was taught by Clutag’s founder Andrew McNeillie, and one week he brought in someone from Senecio printers, a specialist outfit in Oxfordshire. They had such a good working relationship and were enthusiastic for all the details that make a book read and feel great – details many readers might not consciously acknowledge. That was probably my introduction to this sort of book production. Clutag makes very elegant books.
There are so many people making amazing books though. Philip Lancaster’s Fulcrum was a luscious pamphlet with some tremendous details. Holly Corfield Carr’s Mine was a striking little production, too. And I quite like the very limited editions of extraordinary books. John Kilburn’s handmade pop-up book The Golden Plaice is weird and magical, and I was very fortunate to be allowed to flick through a copy (I think there are only 5 or so made). I love all the object books, too. ZimZalla, of course, make some playful stuff, as have Jen Bervin and Nancy Campbell. Nancy’s Disko Bay has done well, of course, but she’s also made these great object books. I think it’s in The Night Hunter, a collaboration between Nancy, Roni Gross and Peter Schell, where they’ve created a wooden box that makes the noise of a guillemot’s wings.
Another really nice little pamphlet I should mention is Rooster, by Robert Lax, published by Stride in the 1990s. I’ve only come across Lax in the past year or two, but I’ve completely fallen for him, and this is a great, clean, simple and fun production.
There’s a lot I like.
And what about the art and craft of making the publications? I can see from the website you have a liking for fine papers, and an interest in design. So are these skills you have, or that you buy in? A bit of background on that perhaps?
Yes, I have become pretty enthusiastic about all that, and happily this is being encouraged by Roy, who owns the family-run printers down the road (Palace Printers), where our books are printed and bound.
In one way, this focus on quality and reading pleasure seems a fairly safe route in light of online publishing, Kindle, etc. There are some things you can’t (yet) replicate digitally – the robust physicality of a book, for instance, the feel of the page, the intimacy of the small good book you carry with you – your book – the manipulability of the object. Intimacy, personalisation, physical presence – these are emotive factors in the special pleasure of reading books, I think.
For me, it’s also important to give the poetry its proper space, and the versatility of the small press is terrific in this respect. If you want five blank pages between each poem, you can do it. If you want three endpapers instead of one, that’s fine. But the more you get into book-making, the more there is to consider. With the Sister Mary Agnes book, one consideration was about the best paper for reading the poetry and the best paper for Garry Fabian Miller’s ‘camera-less photographs’. The photographs come out nicely on an arty glossy paper, but the poetry is horrible to read off that. The poetry reads perfectly off a subtle textured paper, but the images don’t quite shine. So, after playing a while at the printers with various samples one Saturday, we found a paper with a wonderful feel and look for reading, but still smooth and perfect for holding Garry’s images. A heavier paper (we used 160gm) enhanced the feel further, and I’m really pleased with the way it’s come out.
While on the subject of materiality, we will be developing our own collection of print and image-making facilities. We have just got hold of a silkscreen printer, and at some point we’d like to pick up a letterpress. I’m actually curating a series of short letterpress poetry publications right now, which will be launched next year. I found this beautiful 1928 Thompson letterpress printer in the village and have invited some of my favourite poets to contribute. That’s going to be an exciting series.
But going back to the question – yes, I design the books myself, with input from the writers and artists involved. When everyone’s happy, I’ll take the book down to Roy and we start playing with papers and colours, endpapers, covers, testing prints and tweaking.
What about funding? It’s no mean ambition to talk about everything from postcards to plays and full collections. How do you plan to finance it?
Yes, money’s an issue, and at the moment each book is bringing new challenges, possibilities and solutions. But there are lots of things in our favour. One is a sympathetic printer who likes what we’re doing. The other is the simple fact that I just want to make nice books. There’s no ambition for the press to make a fortune or for me to give up writing and lecturing. That takes a lot of the pressure off.
But funding is important, especially at the beginning, if (like us) you don’t have lots of money to put into it. We’ve received generous assistance from a few funding bodies, which has really helped us starting out. The Christian Arts Trust made a contribution to the costs of the Sister Mary Agnes title (Harvest), as did the F.R. Leavis Trust with the Karl O’Hanlon title (And Now They Range). These were not huge amounts, but even small offerings take some of the edge off the risk and expense. We also had considerable support for the Rob Magnuson Smith story pamphlet (Henry and the Moon Baby) from a collaboration between the Eden Project and the University of Exeter.
You mentioned postcards and plays, too. Postcards are a simple pleasure and will be sent out with some of the books. We’ve printed a Christmas poem by Sister Mary Agnes to go with Christmas orders of books. Poem postcards are quite straightforward and they used to be done a lot more than I think they are now. They’re fairly inexpensive to make and they’re really nice to receive, which is a good combination. Plays, on the other hand.... I listed plays because of a large and ambitious project that will almost certainly require significant funding. It’s an exciting proposal, but there’s a little way to go yet. More on that soon.
Submissions – there’s no submissions information on your website. So how will you find the people you want to publish?
(The lack of submissions information hasn’t caused a lack of submissions.)
It helps that I’m an editor of a literary magazine that primarily publishes contemporary poetry, and that I’ve written about poets and poetry myself, in books and articles. I do readings, talks, festivals – that kind of thing – and that’s a great way of starting conversations. I also lecture in poetry. So I guess what I’m saying is I talk about writers and books every day, one way or another, and get fair exposure to what’s going on and who’s doing what.
Thanks, Luke. And the very best of luck with future publications!