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BRITISH-IRISH-POETS  1998

BRITISH-IRISH-POETS 1998

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Subject:

Re:Book Trade

From:

[log in to unmask] (Peter Riley)

Reply-To:

[log in to unmask] (Peter Riley)

Date:

Wed, 15 Apr 1998 14:33:27 +0000

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I couldn't argue with anything Rupert Loydell says about Password
(Signature) and the book trade, except that what he outlines is largely a
self-perpetuating structure of exclusion, not entirely without flexibility
but for the most part divisive and partisan.

Though I do think books are expensive in this country compared with America
and I surmised the multiple trading process might be a reason why. Or why
public funding doesn't produce cheapness. Same as with with concert
tickets: things like the Aldburgh Festival with lists of public funding and
sponsorship and you can hardly get into a concert for much under 20. I
think the reason is that funding in this country (centralized funding
anyway) is not (in spite of the publicity) done to promote accessibility,
it's done to boost trade.

There are of course people who produce and publish quantities of completely
impenetrable and unassimilable language and then are amazed and resentful
that professional book-trade machinery does not take it up and distribute
it all over the world. Of course there are no readers for most ("postmodern
+ linguistically innovative" two terms I heartily detest) poetry which
despises the very concept of readership, and no trade business is going to
devote itself to pushing it into bookshops. There's nothing necessarily
wrong with writing like that and it may have some kind of future (though
it's been going on for about 80 years now without getting anywhere much)
but if that's what you opt for I think you have to accept the position
you've put yourself in: a very small and highly specialised market
completely remote from the real book trade.

On the other hand the demands Password made of its presses before it would
agree to rep and distribute them meant that they had to have already
achieved a considerable degree of commercial success by small-press
standards before they were qualified for further promotion. Password were
not going to take big risks, and the demand of professional standards
(including quantity of production) meant inevitably that certain kinds of
writing were prioritized: and the whole exercise amounted to little more
than reiteration of the Great Success of Poetry of which organs like The
Poetry Society are constantly boasting. What this amounts to is constantly
feeding a bookshop poetry market with poetry of very low intellectual
substance and indeed, professional standards. Looking at the list of what
Signature now reps, it seems to me that quantity is the primary objective.
There are certainly very good, important, challenging, vital books,
especially from Carcanet and Stride, but the good stuff is carried on a
huge tide of acceptable mediocrity.

Not that that matters very much either. What I'm getting at is that the
structure constantly re-confirms this situation and makes it impossibly
difficult to re-vision it. The bookshop poetry trade is fine really, but
there is no real alternative to it--- if you don't go into that you don't
get help or substantial funding, there are no structures to facilitate
marketing and for most small presses it's an endless and discouraging
struggle.

I also don't know why businesses taking minimal commercial risk have to
receive massive public funding for it. or why the distribution of ongoing
funding from organisations like ACE is so inequitable among publishers and
others, some getting vast amounts for a comparatively small production.

So in fact the only publicly funded organisation acting as intermediary
between poetry publishers and consumers in this country is one which
devotes itself exclusively to bookshop poetry. I don't think it's what we
really need, or it's not the only thing we need. We also need something
like Small Press Distribution of Berkeley, which will take on a very large
range of presses, including some so small they've only produced one
pamphlet, and with necessary public support and sponsorship, publicise and
list world-wide and distribute to individuals and trade. We've never had
this. It can't be easy and it can't be without some kinds of exclusiveness,
but I think the production and ranges of poetry in this country justify it.
For many British presses rejected by Password/Signature (or who would be if
they were daft enough to apply) this American business is the only
exterior disseminating body they have had access to. This includes Reality
Street, Ferry Press, Allardyce Barnett, Etruscan Books, and Poetical
Histories.

I myself tried a couple of years ago to set up a listing and distributing
organ for poetry presses direct to the reader. I was able to get it started
with the help of public funding but couldn't continue it because ongoing
funding was rejected ("just about all the funds available for that kind of
thing," I was told, "go to Password.") So again the priority goes to the
business-oriented producers. I expect this is a solid British tradition
going back centuries. Yet there is such a need for something else --
hundreds of small poetry presses of all kinds are constantly producing
material and no one knows where it all is or how to get to it, not helped
by many of the presses themselves, who maintain a snobbish anti-market view
and won't put any effort into promotion or distribution.


But for instance, I've never looked upon most of the poetry I've been
associated with personally, like most of the poets in A Various Art or
Denise Riley or Lee Harwood or whoever, and many younger ones too, as
particularly difficult or specialized in Appeal (with exceptions). I don't
think Difficulty or Obscurity or Linguistic Deconstruction have been
primary aims. Most of the poetry doesn't seem to me to depart radically
from the kinds of reader-expectation and demand you get in poets like
W.S.Graham or Dylan Thomas or much of Auden or McDiarmid or Wallace Stevens
and a lot of European poetry... Yet in some way in connection with
Britishness we have been largely excluded from bookshops (except by
appearances in anthologies) and our books have had no access to
professional international listing and distributing processes or to
translation or official promotion of any kind. The rest of the world is
totally unaware of it, and thinks that British poetry since about 1965 has
been dominated by an easy chatty anecdotal and fundamentally unserious kind
of writing like Wendy Cope or C-A Duffy, or various soulful nostalgias.
Virtually the whole world believes this, often with puzzlement, I've
noticed, but it's all they ever see. This is because bookshop-poetry is the
only kind to receive promotion: official, educational or trade. If you can
break into book-shop poetry and adjust the balance that would be a fine
thing, but I can't see it happening except marginally.

There's also the Academic market but that's a different business, which of
course prioritizes Difficulty and reader-unfriendliness, so most British
poets miss out in that too. But Polygon's rejection of the collected Prynne
was obviously a commercial misjudgement whatever else.

God This is so boring and I've spent half a day doing it. Rupert's right:
most poets don't read poetry. Most poets are exclusively interested in
their own poetry because they have no sense of poetry as a public event
whatsoever (recent BP correspondence has confirmed this) but think it's
some kind of therapy: you get doses of Greatness or Goodness or pure Poetry
(whatever it is) and it makes you feel better. I wish it did.



Peter riley




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