'Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people'As he started out in the poetry publishing world he found most poets being published were the same group of mostly male, mostly Oxbridge educated poetry. After the explosion of European and American creativity in the 1960's, the 1970's had closed down into a very small, insular world. In 1978, Neil founded Bloodaxe Books. The company has gone on to publish more female and ethnically diverse poets than any other imprint: and more than 1000 poetry books in total. The 2002 anthology Staying Alive has sold a staggering 200,000 copies to date. Being Alive, the sequel, was published in 2004 and the last in the trilogy, Being Human is published in March 2011.
Bloodaxe publishes 30-35 new titles a year and receives 100 poetry book submissions a week. They have to balance supporting their existing authors with developing new talent, a tough job. Astley still reads at least a sample of every submission, and the best ones he reads a number of times. Many published books start as unsolicited manuscripts arriving in the post.
He approaches a new submission as a reader first, looking at:
- Subject matter - he suggests that life, death, earth, love and humanity are good starting points.
- Breadth of vision
- Creative use of language
- An original, consistent and authentic voice
- A lively communication between intellect and emotions.
He suggested that sending in a complete book was the last thing you should do. Instead, consult with the Poetry Library and read online samples of magazines. Start sending batches of poems off. He suggested you can't send a poem off to more than one magazine at a time BUT if you have a large collection, you can make multiple submissions of 'samples' to different publishers for them to follow up if they like you.
He suggested four main reasons for poets not getting published:
- They are not widely read. Poets need to learn by immersing themselves in a variety of poetry. Many submissions are rhymed, for example, with little attention to whether they scan. Or they sound like they were written 100 years ago. He suggests reading widely in contemporary poetry.
- The submission is premature. the poems are still raw, and untested in the world of magazines and chapbooks. Poems need time for you to see all the areas for improvement. Get people to read and critique your poems before sending them out. Don't send brand new stuff out.
- The poet didn't research the publisher. Read magazines, read books. Approach the publishers of poets you admire and perhaps have informed your own work.
- The poet didn't learn the craft of poetry, however inspired he/she is. Many poets need to learn their craft and test it against feedback. He recommended courses, groups, the Arvon courses, Ty Newydd, university study. Many poets have been helped by being mentored by poets who also teach.
I found the whole talk inspiring because he was so pragmatic about the process, emphasising that he wants to hear that new voice, those new poems, and encouraging the poets in the room to progress with their writing. More than anything, I was left with the impression that he's still, after more than 30 years, passionate about poetry.