You know there's an ulterior motive, don't you?
Yes, of course there is. Two, actually.
- HappenStance specialises in debut collections, first pamphlets. So I want brilliant ones. That means I am looking, actively, for the best.
- I want to build the readership for the poets I publish. There are many ways of doing that, but one is to read and give careful feedback on people's poems twice a year. I don't charge for this (no reading fees here) but I hope in return most of those people will either subscribe (and learn more about the press) or buy books.
There are reading 'windows' twice a year. One is July and the other is December (i.e. now).
To tell the truth, a bit of me dreads these months. The envelopes flop through the door and look at me reproachfully. I hate disappointing expectations (and some people's expectations are high). The relationship between a poet and the person they hope might publish their poems is a delicate one. If I make them an offer, I know they will really really like me (and I rarely use the word 'really'). If I criticise their darlings, they will probably experience the opposite emotion. It is so much nicer to make people happy!
The dread goes away when I start reading the poems. I love reading people's poems. It's fascinating. I'm not making this up! These aren't just any old bits of paper. Poems are bits of text that matter to the person who made them, matter a lot. How can that not be interesting?
I think reading and responding to poems is a creative act. I believe it uses the same bit of my brain that makes poems. So it's an art I practise, and I do it as well as I can.
For first collections, I like to work with the poet over a period of time (up to three years in some cases, less in others) to arrive at the best possible set. That means batting poems back and forth. The thing I can do (I think), and care about most, is help people make poems, or sets of poems, stronger. At least some people.
If you're not sure whether my feedback would be useful to you, there's one way to find out. Read the guidelines. Send up to twelve poems. Some people only send six, which is nice (for me) because I can spend longer on them.
Chances of publication? Oh hell. Truth is I can't make most people happy by publishing their work. I plan to publish eight pamphlets in 2014 and their slots are all spoken for. Again 6-8 in 2015. There are still two tiny possibilities there. I start drawing up the schedule for 2016 in January.
I do spend ages. I am mad. Yesterday morning, while the men were finishing harling our gable end, hurling wee stones at the walls and pinging them off the conservatory roof, I was reading a set of poems. It took me three hours. You see? Crazy? Did I offer to publish them? No.
I sent back a couple of ticks and two smileys.
What does that mean?
If I like a poem, whether or not I think it's flawed, I put a little pencil tick (or check) among my pencilled comments. I wouldn't want to publish all the poems I like because it has to be more than just 'like'.
So the other option is the smiley. If I like it and think, in the right circumstances, I would publish that poem, I put a smiley face.
I confuse things somewhat, by throwing in smileys against marvellous bits of poems, but you don't need to know that.
The poet gets the poems back with my pencilled remarks, suggestions, thoughts. They take a look at the feedback. They decide whether it is, or isn't, useful. Maybe they send me more poems next July. If they do, I hope they'll include the smileys again but without the smiles. I like to come across poems I've met before with a sense of surprised familiarity. If they strongly work for me twice, they must be good.
Meanwhile, I hope, if they haven't already done so, that the poets whose work I'm reading will take out a subscription or buy a pamphlet or two. It throws a couple of quid into the kitty (not more because I price low) and this kitty needs all it can get.
If you've already got books or pamphlets in print, the chances that I would publish another are remote. However, it has happened several times. With the right set of poems in the right circumstance, there's a maybe. And of course, the offer is still open. Happy to read up to twelve poems and send feedback.
I don't know of anybody else who does this. I may not be able to keep it up much longer, because when I'm reading poems, I'm certainly not making publications, or writing Christmas cards. But at least the harling is finished. :-)
ps Yes, I publish book length collections but no need to ask me about them. There won't be many, and I'll ask you.