Of the British or Irish based poets listed as reading at Assembling Alternatives, at least 15 have been or are active as magazine editors, or in running small presses. I would say this proportion is not untypical. This is such a familiar phenomenon that it is by now unremarkable. But perhaps it ought to be remarked upon. First, because the material conditions in which poetry is produced surely have a bearing upon the literary work itself; and second, because in turn they are an eloquent comment on the social and economic position of this poetry. I want to look at how and why poets in the British Isles since 1960 have seized the means of production. In particular, I want to note a running theme in this phenomenon: the transatlantic connection. My documentation is by no means complete: I've selected a few presses as being significant in or typical of their era.
I'm not going to get imbroiled in the question of "What is a small press?" but let me quote Peter Riley, himself a poet and publisher (Poetical Histories):
When it comes to poetry the category becomes illusory. The so-called big publishers produce poetry books in very small editions, sometimes below 1,000.... The notion that some achievement in terms of public recognition is made when a poet is taken on by one of these bigger presses is sadly mistaken: they are run on personal taste and zone-preference like the rest. For the most part the only really commercial poetry publishing in this country concerns poets laureate, Nobel prize winners, and some popular entertainers.1
Traditionally, some mainstream publishers have maintained a poetry list for reasons of prestige rather than profit: a sort of lit-cred loss leader. However, in the past decade, accountants and sales and marketing people have become more powerful influences on publishers. Some, such as Chatto & Windus and Hutchinson have dropped their poetry lists.2
On the other hand, developments in DTP technology and automated litho printing processes increasingly enable small presses to produce short-run books economically. When I say 'economically', I don't necessarily mean such a book would recover its costs without subsidy. A British small press might run to five or six hundred copies of a book by a better-known poet, but print runs would often be smaller than this, and rarely break into four figures.
While Peter Riley's remarks may contain some truth, then, I suggest there are in fact two differences between small poetry presses and the poetry imprints of mainstream presses such as OUP and Faber. One is content. While many small presses do publish fairly conservative work, the converse is not true: the larger publishers steer clear of anything out of the ordinary, innovative or disturbing. One exception in recent years has been Paladin, an imprint of HarperCollins, which for a brief period in the late 1980s to early 90s, on the back of its anthology The New British Poetry, published books by John Ashbery, Tom Raworth, Lee Harwood, Allen Fisher, Bill Griffiths, Brian Catling and Andrew Crozier. This was an interregnum ushered in by then commissioning editor John Muckle, an enthusiast for this kind of poetry, and briefly presided over by Iain Sinclair, before Rupert Murdoch's accountants moved in sharply and pulled the plug.
The other difference between small and large presses is distribution, and the relationship with the readers. With small presses, this relationship is generally intimate. There is a sense of a community of writers and readers. At Reality Street Editions, the press I co-edit, a significant proportion of sales come via direct mail order, and a smaller number via individual customer orders through bookshops; but getting volume orders from bookshops is very difficult without a team of sales reps. By contrast, I found one of the most frustrating aspects of being involved with the editing of The New British Poetry at Paladin in 1988 was the lack of connection with a readership: the HarperCollins sales force, one felt, had little idea of the specific market the book was addressing, let alone any notion of a community of readers. They had the means to get books into any bookshop in Britain, something most small press operators would envy but they didn't know who any of their readers were.
So why 1960? What is significant about this as a starting date? It is the arbitrary beginning point of what the late Eric Mottram has termed the "British Poetry Revival".3 The mythology has it that Britain in the 1950s was culturally a drab place, a country still recovering from the War, with rationing and national service still in place, the first wave of immigrants from the Commonwealth still to make an impact on the national psyche, and long entrenched social attitudes dying hard. As with many myths, this would seem to have been entirely true.
In poetry, the dominant ethos was that exemplified by The Movement, whose defining anthologies Robert Conquest's New Lines and G S Fraser's Poetry Now were both published in 1956. This was a poetry that foregrounded plain language, irony, self-deprecating pessimism and conservative form; its most celebrated exponent was, of course, Philip Larkin. It's probably difficult for an American readership to appreciate quite how ruthlessly those alternative traditions represented by variants of international modernism were suppressed by that chimerical institution, the English literary establishment. Before 1960, the work of Basil Bunting, an iconic figure for British poetry and a link with the world of Pound, Williams and the rest, had fallen into obscurity. He was to be rediscovered within the next five years by Connie and Tom Pickard in Newcastle upon Tyne. It fell to Fulcrum Press to re-publish his complete works in the following decade. Only ten years after that did Oxford University Press become interested.
Those to whom British, or more particularly, English literary culture seemed stultifying looked elsewhere to France or Germany perhaps, but inevitably also to the USA. Perhaps it was rock'n'roll or jazz or American movies that grabbed the attention first. For Bob Cobbing, whose splendidly named Hendon Experimental Art Group rather spoils my chronology by being formed as long ago as 1951, the initial influence was, in part, American painting:
The aim was in the first place 'to encourage or promote sincere experiment in any kind of painting or sculpture' and, as their work developed, 'to encourage creative painting in which abstract and structural qualities are a primary consideration.' After the Hendon Library Exhibition of 1958, a statement appeared in the second issue of And magazine (1961) which summarised the next changes in the group [by now named Group H]: mainly the influence of abstract expressionism.4
Cobbing subsequently became internationally known in the sound-text and visual poetry field. In order to publish the group's visual texts he and John Rowan founded Writers Forum, which is still active today, four decades later. It boasts perhaps a world record for the number of poetry titles it has published, now well over 600. They range from tiny broadsheets to substantial tomes, generally employing imaginative, low-tech printing methods mimeography in the early years, photocopier technology more recently. Let it not be forgotten, then, that it was the charged energies of other art-forms, as well as poetries from elsewhere, that fired the poets of the Revival. 'American influence' and there can be no more contemptuous put-down than this in some English quarters is sometimes cited as explaining it all away; it was always more complicated than that, as Jeff Nuttall, writing about Tom Raworth, suggests:
Raworth had spent a good deal of energy making sure that important American work was smuggled into the land. He published a good deal of it in his magazine, Outburst, at a time when such writing was unavailable elsewhere, when the academic capsule was almost perfectly sealed. He was in fact first known as an editor and typographer; no one knew he was a poet in 1960. When his poetry did emerge in the late sixties he could be seen to be facing towards Paris rather than New York. Consequently his closest influence is Gertrude Stein.5
The academic capsule being perfectly sealed, in Nuttall's apt phrase, and there being no commercial outlet or establishment approval for new poetry that broke the bounds of taste that leaned heavily on (to use Eric Mottram's words) 'the thoroughly informed intelligence and the risk of imaginative form'6 it comes as no surprise, therefore, that the beginnings of the new poetry were parallelled by the burgeoning of a self-help publishing movement.7 In the late 1950s, Gael Turnbull, a Scottish medical doctor and poet, returned from a sojourn in the US and Canada, and, having made contact with other poets there, founded Migrant, whose first book was The Whip by Robert Creeley (1957). Together with Michael Shayer, he started Migrant magazine, which published work by Creeley, Robert Duncan and Charles Olson, alongside English and Scottish poets such as Roy Fisher, Edwin Morgan, Ian Hamilton Finlay and the expatriate Finn Anselm Hollo. Later books included the seminal City (1962) by Roy Fisher, and The Spoils by Basil Bunting (1965). If Writers Forum and Migrant were pioneers of the small press phenomenon, others were not far behind. Tom Raworth's Outburst began in 1961. With artist Barry Hall Raworth went on to found Goliard Press, which published beautifully designed litho and letterpress editions by Raworth himself and by Turnbull, Hollo, Nathaniel Tarn, Charles Olson (including the British edition of The Maximus Poems, 1969), Jonathan Williams, Robert Kelly, Antonio Cisneros, Octavio Paz and André Breton. Later, Raworth left after Goliard was taken over by Jonathan Cape to become Cape Goliard.
The American connection was even stronger at Trigram Press, founded by a British-based American poet, Asa Benveniste. Trigram published books by Raworth, Brian Marley, Jack Hirschmann, Benveniste himself and others. Andrew Crozier's Ferry Press began in the late 60s, publishing poets associated with the so-called Cambridge scene, the foremost being J H Prynne, alongside some Americans (Fielding Dawson and Tom Clark). With chronological gaps, Ferry has continued publishing until recently. Douglas Oliver's novel The Harmless Building (1973) was co-published with Grosseteste Review, where some of these poets also appeared.
Probably the premier small press of the late 60s to early 70s was Fulcrum Press. Established by Deirdre and Stuart Montgomery, the press made a significant impact with the publication of Basil Bunting's Briggflatts in 1966. His Collected Poems followed in 1968. Other Fulcrum authors were David Jones, Barry MacSweeney, Lee Harwood and Roy Fisher. American poets included Robert Duncan, Larry Eigner, Allen Ginsberg, Lorine Niedecker and Jerome Rothenberg.
The 1970s saw the flowering of the British Poetry Revival. Between 1971 and 1977, Eric Mottram, who founded the chair of American literature at London University, and was an inspiration to many students, as well as a close friend of countless poets and artists on both sides of the Atlantic, was invited to edit the Poetry Review, the organ of the Poetry Society. It was as though a whirlwind had hit that august and staid journal. Edited by Derek Parker, the Winter 1970/71 issue had featured such 'mainstream' poets as William Plomer, Gavin Ewart and Fleur Adcock. By Autumn 1971, there had been a complete revolution, with the pages dominated by those published by the avant-garde small presses of the past decade: Harwood, Nuttall, Val Warner, Turnbull, Roy Fisher, Allen Fisher, Dom Sylvester Houedard alongside Muriel Rukeyser, Duncan, Michael McClure, Bill Butler and Gilbert Sorrentino from across the Atlantic. Mottram writes:
...I could draw on an abundance of excellent poetry journals and small independent press publications, since the changes to be represented had been under way for some time.8
Before long, howls of protest were heard from the shires at this unwanted double influx of domestic experimentalists and Americans. They alerted those who held the Poetry Society's purse strings.9 Mottram's editorship ran for 20 issues between 1971 and 1977, before the Society's funders, the Arts Council of Great Britain (as it then was), directly dissolved the editorial board of the Review.
The story of how poets took over the running of the Poetry Society in the 1970s, and were eventually ousted by the Arts Council, has been related elsewhere. During that period, the National Poetry Centre in London was a hive of activity: readings were frequent, and self-help printing equipment was installed on the premises.10
In 1977 a number of poets and small press editors, led by Barry MacSweeney (who was Chairman), resigned from the Poetry Society's Council in protest against the Arts Council's imposition of control. Subsequently, the Association of Little Presses reported that grant aid requests by presses associated with some of these poets had been turned down, among them Writers Forum, Iain Sinclair's Albion Village Press, Trigram and Poetry Information. Whether this was connected with the events at the Poetry Society or not, the fact is that the funding situation for small, avant-garde presses throughout the 1970s and 80s was dire. Many significant presses in the decade and a half till 1990 operated essentially without subsidy. Allen Fisher's New London Pride and Spanner imprints, the successors to Aloes Books, relied on low-cost, home-based printing and binding. There is some evidence, though, that the funding position has improved in the past five years.
The dramatic events at the Poetry Society in the 1970s highlighted the continuing opposition in British poetry since the late 50s between the so-called mainstream, generally represented in the poetry lists of the commercial publishers, and the so-called avant-garde, generally published by small presses. The two worlds never met. For example, in their introduction to the 1982 Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion assert that they are documenting a new 'shift of sensibility' in British poetry:
It follows a stretch, occupying much of the 1960s and 70s, when very little in England at any rate seemed to be happening....11
What planet were these two editors inhabiting during this period, which in fact was one of ferment in the small press world? In fact, 15 of the 20 poets in their collection are published either by OUP, Faber or Secker & Warburg, while small presses are scarcely represented at all. During the 1980s, the small press scene consolidated. Rising printing costs and lack of public funding meant that fine productions such as those of Trigram and Goliard were no longer the norm, and this was the era of mimeograph and, later, photocopying and DTP/instant-printing.
The enormously useful journal Poetry Information had closed in 1980. But editor Peter Hodgkiss, notable for the rare fact that he was not himself a poet, went on to found Galloping Dog Press, which published, among others, Ric Caddel, Kelvin Corcoran, Peter Finch, Bill Griffiths, Alan Halsey, Ralph Hawkins, Peter Larkin, Tom Leonard, Geraldine Monk, Eric Mottram, Maggie O'Sullivan, Maurice Scully, Colin Simms, Chris Torrance and myself. Another magazine that metamorphosed into a press was Paul Green's Spectacular Diseases, founded in 1976. It has published mainly pamphlets but also an anthology, Ten British Poets (1993), including the work of Peter Larkin, Gavin Selerie, Nigel Wheale, Rod Mengham, Andrew Duncan and other, younger poets.
Peter Larkin's Prest Roots Press concentrates on fine printing, producing beautiful chapbooks by Paul Green, D S Marriott, Drew Milne, Peter Riley, Simon Smith and John Wilkinson. Ric Caddel's Pig Press publishes trade paperbacks, mixing Americans of an older modernist school, such as Creeley and Carl Rakosi, with younger Irish and British writers such as Catherine Walsh, Tony Baker, John Seed, Maurice Scully and myself. Maggie O'Sullivan's Magenta publishes Gilbert Adair, Bob Cobbing and Geraldine Monk. Anthony Barnett's Allardyce Barnett imprint has brought out collected editions of Crozier, Prynne, Oliver, the late Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Barnett himself. Cris Cheek's Sound & Language has branched out into CD production. Rod Mengham's Equipage has produced a veritable avalanche of chapbooks in recent years: Caroline Bergvall, David Chaloner, Ulli Freer, Michael Haslam, Grace Lake, Tony Lopez, Prynne, Raworth and many others.
To sum up: I contend that the most vital British poetry of the past three or four decades owes a debt to the small press movement. An important influence, though not by any means the only one, on this poetry and publishing activity has been modernist American poetry.
I would like to conclude by saying something about the press I have been involved in for the past few years. Reality Street Editions is an amalgamation of my Reality Studios imprint with Wendy Mulford's Street Editions. Our publishing activities have involved us in links with new generations of American and Canadian poets.
In 1975, on my first visit to the US, I chanced to meet James Sherry in New York. He was about to start the magazine Roof. Like many of my colleagues on the British scene, I was well aware of the post-1960 New American Poetry. But the second issue of Roof was intriguing, introducing as it did names, and poetic practices, new to me. Soon I was in touch with Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein and subscribing to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine. Throughout the 80s I went on to publish Andrews, Bernstein, Ray DiPalma, Hannah Weiner, Gil Ott, Steve Benson, Diane Ward, Rosmarie Waldrop, Bob Perelman and Larry Price in the pages of Reality Studios: magazine, alongside the new British poets.
Meanwhile, during the same decade, Wendy Mulford was in touch with the group of women poets and theorists publishing in the West Coast journal How(ever), under the editorship of Kathleen Fraser and Susan Gevirtz. Such links re-establish the transatlantic connections that got Migrant, Trigram, Goliard and the rest going in the early 1960s. To date, Reality Street Editions has published collections by Kelvin Corcoran, Allen Fisher, Maggie O'Sullivan, Denise Riley and Peter Riley; from the US, Fanny Howe and Susan Gevirtz; from Germany, Sarah Kirsch; and the transatlantic anthology Out of Everywhere. We have been fortunate in attracting funding from both the London and Eastern regional arts boards, in whose respective areas the two editors are based, as well as from the Arts Council. We have recently established a web site. The future looks exciting.
Thanks to Geoffrey Soar, formerly curator of the Small Press Collection at University College Library, London, for providing me with invaluable help and documentation. KE
Footnotes1 Peter Riley, Small Press Poetry Catalogue 1, 1996, Peter Riley (Books), 27 Sturton St, Cambridge CB1 2QG.Continue
2 According to recent research, the main poetry publishers in England today are Bloodaxe, Carcanet, Faber & Faber, Reed, Oxford University Press, HarperCollins, Random, Orion and Anvil Press (Arts Council of England, A Consultative Green Paper on Support for Poetry in the EnglishArts Funding System, Feb 1997). However, as noted above, HarperCollins has pulled out of the market. Continue
3 Eric Mottram, 'A Treacherous Assault on British Poetry', introduction to his section of The New British Poetry (Paladin, London 1988). This is in part a condensation and updating of his paper 'The British Poetry Revival 1960-1974' for the 1974 Modern British Poetry Conference at the Polytechnic of Central London. At what date the 'Revival' actually came to an end, if it indeed did so, is a moot point. Continue
4 Eric Mottram, 'A prosthetics of poetry: the art of Bob Cobbing' in Second Aeon 16/17, 1973. Continue
5 Jeff Nuttall, 'The Singing Ted' in Poetry Information 9/10, 1974. Continue
6 Eric Mottram, 'The British Poetry Revival 1960-1974' op cit. Continue
7 And Pierre Joris reminded me at Assembling Alternatives of other sources: Paul Brown's translations of Dutch modernist poets and of French Surrealists, Paul Buck's links with the contemporary French avant-garde, to name but two. Continue
8 Eric Mottram, 'A Treacherous Assault on British Poetry' op cit. Continue
9 Eric Mottram, ibid. Continue
10 Some of this information comes from ALP: the First Twenty-Two and a Half Years (compiled by Bill Griffiths and Bob Cobbing, 1988). Continue
11 Blake Morrison, Andrew Motion, The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (Penguin, Harmondsworth 1982). Continue