Poetry presses thrive as readers turn to verse in straitened economic times

Poetry presses thrive as readers turn to verse in straitened economic times

Rich with history and variety, poetry in the North is one of the shining lights of Northern publishing. With presses including Hull’s Wrecking Ball and Scarborough’s Valley Press, flourishing spoken word events, and festivals such as the Newcastle Poetry Festival, the scene is thriving.

The 1980s was a key time for Northern poetry, with the arrival of Bloodaxe Books in Newcastle, the growth of Carcanet Press in Manchester, and the publication of the Sheffield-based Poetry Business’ first magazine. Peter Sansom, co-director of Poetry Business, says that the “embattled times” of social inequality under Margaret Thatcher, which led to the Miners’ Strike, helped to foster an appetite for poetry at that time. “Poetry book sales, though rarely said to be huge, did increase exponentially, and suddenly poetry readings and writing workshops were everywhere,” he says.

Now, he argues, a similar political climate is seeing a resurgence in the form’s popularity. “It is interesting to reflect that just now, when the world is in a similarly crazy place, people are again turning to poetry in ever larger numbers. There is something about the authenticity of poetry and the way that its music speaks, one person to another. That seems genuinely to be needed at a time of ‘fake news’ and corrupted values,” Sansom says. “From the Lake Poets [of the early Romantic era] to politically minded poetry on the picket lines, there is a long and rich history of poetry articulating and drawing together the vibrant and diverse communities of the North.”

For Sophie O’Neill, managing director at Newcastle-based sales and marketing agency Inpress, the health of the scene is down to the space given to all of the different organisations to thrive individually, combined with the partnerships and collaborations that have been developed to support them through publishing and events. Some of these include the HIVE Young Writers’ Network and Inpress’ The Writing Squad.

Cost of living

Another big reason for the success of a number of these poetry publishers is the affordability of living and running a business in the North. Michael Schmidt, publisher at Carcanet, says: “The cost of living outside London, Oxbridge and environs is still more or less manageable, and poetry, which remains a vocational art and industry, can only thrive where it can afford to live. Carcanet has been able to survive because Manchester has been affordable and hospitable.”

Sansom suggests that there is a freedom to being outside London. “Maybe the projects can be slightly more daring, less answerable to a profit-margin, and more connected to the communities in which they are incubated. It is these communities that make the Northern poetry scene special.” Like O’Neill, he also champions the power of collaboration: “There are different regions in the North, and different publishing houses... We all have our own identity, but that doesn’t stop us working together.”

Brecht Now and Then at the Northern Poetry Festival 2019

As the home to Bloodaxe Books, the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts (NCLA), Inpress and the Poetry Book Society, among others, some figures describe the North-East as a “capital” of poetry in the UK. Bloodaxe editor Neil Astley says: “The North-East was one of the centres of British poetry in the 1960s. It is thriving again, thanks to so many people and organisations coming together to promote and publish poetry here.”

Sinead Morrissey, poet and director of NCLA, agrees. “With the continued growth of the Newcastle Poetry Festival and the relocation of the Poetry Book Society to Newcastle, the North-East poetry scene is flourishing,” she says. “This, combined with the North-East’s rich literary history, puts Newcastle and the North-East firmly on the map as a capital of UK poetry.”

Away from the big cities, there is still a vibrant poetry scene in the North. Tony Ward, managing director of Todmorden-based Arc Publications, says: “In rural areas, such as ours, practically every small pub and café will have a regular poetry evening, which landlords actively encourage. Also, the huge advantage of an open mic is that it enables individuals of every persuasion to express their views to a largely receptive audience.”

Standing out

Poetry sales have soared recently: last year was its best on record in both volume and value terms, with the market through the TCM worth £12.3m. Dedicated poetry publishers say big sales of outliers such as “Instapoet” Rupi Kaur or spoken word artist Kate Tempest can make the figures misleading. But they say there is a solid, dedicated audience. “Average title sales in the poetry market are much lower than most other genres, so it is easy for a small number of high-selling books to push up the value of the whole market to a level which is unrepresentative, giving the impression of a poetry boom,” Astley says. “However, there is clearly a correlation between media reports of new interest in younger women poets—many of these are BAME writers—and Bloodaxe’s own successes in this area: most notably books by Tishani Doshi, Ailbhe Darcy, Amy Key, Abigail Parry and Clare Shaw.”

Schmidt adds: “The solid market for poetry—those who love and follow the art, who are interested in the steak rather than the sizzle—is roughly what it has been for the past 40 or 50 years.”

This was written as part of The Bookseller's focus on publishing in the north of England; for more content from this focus, head here.