6 minutes reading time (1100 words)

What makes a good poetry pamphlet publisher?

The embargo was finally lifted so that means I'm allowed to mention being shortlisted again for the Michael Marks Pamphlet Publishers' Award. This award business can get a bit stressful. Having been shortlisted last year, and filled out all the worthy statements about activities again on the entry form this year, I wasn't worried about winning the money (though the money would come in very handy) so much as about being NOT shortlisted. What would that have meant? It might have signified slipping smartly downhill in terms of whatever is deemed good practice.

 

But what makes a good pamphlet publisher? Who sets the standard? And can you separate pamphlet publishing from any other kind? The process of publishing a pamphlet of poetry is just the same as doing a book, isn't it? And lots of pamphlet publishers, HappenStance included, have tiptoed into book form too.

The current MM shortlist of publishers is an interesting one. It is identical to last year's, save Veer Books takes the place of tall-lighthouse, not because tall-l has shrunk in stature but because (I believe) they didn't enter this year. One of the tall-lighthouse publications is listed on the poets' list, which comes as no surprise: this is an imprint doing excellent work.

The shortlisted poets include, I am glad to say, The Terrors (Tom Chivers) which was reviewed warmly on the Sphinx website and a seven striper. The other five haven't come in to me for review (I thought David Hart's had, but I can't find it). Hugh McMillan's poem (and I recommend Roncadora for stunning individuality) wouldn't have fitted the Sphinx requirements -- it's a pull-out publication (perhaps I should change the rules?) The others just didn't come in for review, which suggests either people are unaware, still, of the Sphinx review facility, or they just forget about it.

Accolades are nice. Encouragement is lovely. Even publicity helps a bit in terms of spreading the word and getting readers for the publications (which is what it's all about). I should add we were only allowed to list three publications in the publicity and for sale by PBS, although all the publications for 2009 were taken into consideration.

But I would like to see more transparency about the reasoning, especially for the publishers' award. What sort of things should be rewarded? The different organisations are doing very different things, working on different funding systems. Really hard to compare qualitatively.

Which brings me to Sphinx International Po-rating Exercise. I am trying to make it sound grand because it has taken a grand amount of time and money to organise.

Sphinx reviews include a rating of poetry pamphlets which results in a 'stripe' recommendation. That recommendation is stated in a subtle way at the top of the review with a stripey graphic. Count the stripes and you get it. The idea is you read the reviews first: you don't just goggle at the number. The stripes proceed from 1 through to 10, with halves along the way.

That rating is based on four criteria, some of which are more subjective than others. I'd like to think none of them were wholly subjective, since all Sphinx reviewers are good and thoughtful readers. However, over the period of using this system and commissioning three reviews for every publication, it has seemed to me that some reviewers were using the numbers slightly differently from others. That is to say, a 5 from one person meant pretty good, while another used a 5 to signify pretty bad. Equally, the production value -- which you would think could be judged objectively -- sometimes produced surprisingly wide variation.

So I carried out an exercise (sometimes I feel like one of those countries in Gulliver's Travels, somewhere up in the clouds, maybe, doing weird things that no normal person could possibly countenance. But never mind). I posted copies of the same pamphlet to 36 reviewers and asked all of them to rate using the system above. I got back 33 ratings, which I collated and from which I drew some conclusions. It allowed me to set a suggested standard for at least production quality. From now on, we know what a 7.5 looks like.

On other criteria, individual judgement is crucial. However, I have done two things. One is to interpret the numbers with a verbal statement (see below for an example on 'Quality of Poetry')

10 =        Shakespeare

9  =          excellent

8  =          unquestionably good work

7  =          the best poems are good; there may be some weaker or flawed poems

6  =          has noteworthy strengths, though may be inconsistent, even inside individual poems

5  =          on the fence, doubtful about quality

4  =          poor writing with occasional flashes of not bad

3  =          weak

2  =          dreadful

1  =          beyond the pale

The second thing is to send a detailed report to reviewers so they can see where their ratings sit in relation to all the others. Some people do tend to rate higher, others lower -- this is normal. I believe in some national examination systems, markers are sampled and high markers are adjusted down a little and low ones adjusted up. I'm not making any adjustments. Just showing the raters where they sit in the table.

A summary version of this report (without names or attributions) may appear on the Sphinx site in due course. The detailed version goes to reviewers this week, together with more pamphlets to review, some of which will be in the running for the Michael Marks Award next year.

Now I'm starting to feel really peculiar. I am either developing a monumental obsession, or there is something in the theory that judgement in this very wayward area of the arts, needs prodding and more self-awareness.

At the end of the year, I intend to publish the Sphinx high-raters of the year. Those pamphlets which come out as 7 or above are good. If it is a 9, it is outstanding in the view of at least three people. There is no five thousand quid to accompany this accolade: instead there will be three reviews -- interesting, accessible and informative. I hope good publishers will enter their pamphlets: Sphinx reviews, 21 Hatton Green, Glenrothes, Fife KY7 4SD.

If the system takes off as it should, I will need more reviewers, especially women. So if interested, contact me with an example of your writing.

You have probably had enough of my ramblings now. However, Tim Love has published an interview with me on his blog. Sorry!

Dark Wood goes out
Po-rating processing
 

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Saturday, 11 July 2020

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