Saturday, 29 August 2020

Their trajectory was just large

Their trajectory was just large : Salt and the release of new poetry If you search on the Web, you can still find stories about Salt giving up publishing new poetry (except an anthologies series) in May 2013. The coverage does not also cover their deletion of their back catalogue – technically, Print on Demand books need never go out of print, but Salt rationalised big-time. I don't have a date for the big deletion, but it was some time after the withdrawal from new work. (maybe 2016?) Chris Emery told the media:
“For many years the market was static, and then it went into quite sharp decline, particularly through the traditional market of bricks and mortar booksellers. There has also been a massive increase in the number of poetry publications coming out. We think that’s a good thing, but we can’t commercially be part of it … As a very small, niche commercial publisher, we can’t possibly sustain what we have done in the past.”
I am quite surprised to hear that the volume of publication had gone up from (say) 2001 to 2013. The Word Wide Financial Crash had intervened, and people were talking about recession and a zombie economy.
Salt had about 400 poetry titles in 2013 (according to rumour) and deleted most of them. But it is unfair to record that moment without paying much more attention to the process by which Salt came to find and release so many books. Clare Pollard posted at the time “I mean, their list is bursting with talent: a whole, brilliant generation.” While I am aware that I haven’t read most of those poets, i.e. the ones who debuted with Salt, I am quite open to the idea that this was a generation and that Salt was an open door for the best young poets in a time frame of, say, 2001 to 2013. I think they did roughly 200 British poetry titles in that time. This is surely a Blair-era Grand Project. “Their trajectory was just large”, as a showbiz journalist would put it.

“The news that their poetry publishing will now be slashed to a single annual anthology is terrible for British poets.” Pollard said in detail: “I mean, their list is bursting with talent: a whole, brilliant generation. People like Luke Kennard, Antony Joseph, Mark Waldron, Chris McCabe, Katy Evans-Bush, Julia Bird, Siân Hughes, Melanie Challenger, Simon Barraclough, Jon Stone, Kirsty Irving, Amy Key, David Briggs, John McCullough, Tom Chivers, Antony Rowland, Liane Strauss, Amy De’Ath, Sophie Mayer, Tamar Yoseloff, Tony Williams, Anna Woodford, Abi Curtis, Rob A Mackenzie, Andrew Phillips and Tim Dooley (to mention just a fraction).”
I have never heard of most of these people but it is perfectly possible that I was just moving in the wrong circles. I think it’s regrettable that Salt didn’t do an anthology to showcase this group of young poets (and I am guessing that they did as many as 90 debut books or pamphlets). So this blog is about a wish to know what that generation was all about (and an inadequate hand waving toward where the answer might be). So, the blog activity has started with me trawling the British Library catalogue to get a list of the books which Salt published, and sending off more or less at random for second-hand copies of five of them. If we look at Roddie Lumsden’s 2010 anthology of new poets, Identity Parade, for Bloodaxe, we find that out of 84 names 16 had published with Salt. So we may suspect that the concept of “a generation” is simply much larger than the story of Salt poets. However, 16 is a pretty massive score. One fifth of a generation.

Para 2. Salt spun out of the Australian magazine Salt and was set up by John Kinsella, who (along with Tracy Ryan) edited Salt. (They still do edit it, see the Salt Publishing website.) I do recall a meeting with John in about 1995 (Simon Smith will also remember this) and I think there was some publishing activity around then, although the moment I recall is, predictably, Salt putting out my Selected Poems in 2001. In fact, I have a Rod Mengham book from Folio /Salt (address given as Applecross, Western Australia) dated 1996 – it was re-issued in 2001. The early Salt list included many Australian poets but also many American poets, because John was a frequent visitor to the USA and in touch with many poets there. If you have that depth of involvement to find terrific books that don't have a publisher, you are in a prime position. The pressure to exploit what you know is strong. So Salt ramped up very quickly, due to these contacts. John was living in Cambridge and it's obvious that many of the British poets of early Salt had that C*mbr*ge connection. At some point Chris Hamilton-Emery took over, or was in charge of the UK operation, but I don't know the details of this (and I think Kinsella was still involved). That pattern of featuring numerous poets from Australia, the USA, and Britain, evidently came from Kinsella's connectivity, his personal geography you could say. I think Chris did all the technical work, so bypassing a typesetter to prepare a digital file which went directly to the printer's output system. At some point the idea of using Print on Demand came in. Traditionally, small poetry publishers have limited capital and it is tied up in their stock. If they have one, maybe two, books which don’t sell, they no longer have any capital to pay for printing the next one. And the melody comes to an end. With POD, you can have a very small initial print run. You can survive titles that don’t sell. And in this way you can climb, up and up, to 400 titles in the end. This was revolutionary. Salt did publish something like 50 titles a year at one stage, and you have to have taken part in this kind of hands-on publishing to know just how tiring and (over-)exciting this is. A book deadline every week? That is like being dangled out of an aeroplane once a week. Personal opinion.

Para 3a. The first phase of Salt involved, beside the high-end US and Australian poets, collections of high-grade British poets of the alternative scene who had debuted in the 1960s. This matched initial collections of people who had debuted in the Seventies- Rod Mengham and Tony Lopez in fact. Salt were out-pointing everyone else in this phase. They published two of three volumes of Allen Fisher’s Gravity poem – a monumental poem which required equally large-scale publishing to exhibit it adequately. This and the Collected John James, back in 2002, were probably the high points of Salt’s achievement.
3b The element by which Salt will be judged is the quality of the poets whose first books they published, not their series of Collecteds. The Collecteds certainly draw a lot of attention, but getting in amongst poets in their twenties and divining which ones have real talent is the difficult part and so, logically, the part people admire most and remember most.
Roddie Lumsden was announced as taking over the role of poetry editor at Salt at one point. To my great regret I found his obituary in the on-line Edinburgh News when I was researching this blog. It records “In 2010 he became Commissioning Editor (Poetry) at Salt Publishing, with a remit to introduce new first-book authors to the list.“ He co-edited a Salt Book of Younger Poets (2011) with 50 names included, and Salt continued a series with Best British Poetry 2013 and so on.
Salt may have been concerned about the lack of reviews for their poets who as yet had no reputation. Reviews generally did not catch up with the huge amount of books coming out, this wasn't a problem native to Salt. I heard that Salt wanted their poets to be taught, and teachers needed handbooks. Because of this, it may be, they launched a series of Salt Companions and also an in-house magazine for reviews, published on their website. This has been described as the online arts magazine Horizon Review (Salt Publishing), and ran from 2008 to 2010. I did read it once but I was disappointed by the low intellectual standards. You can’t promote ambitious poetry via dumbitious reviews. I attended a Salt event for Salt writers, in London, I can't remember just when, around 2010. Some poets read, they weren't very good, and several people, poets published by Salt, expressed to me a belief that this announced the firm going down-market in a big way. They quite simply felt that Salt was no longer a home for their work. My impression is that the alternative poetry scene didn’t read the young poets discovered by Salt. Since I think Salt offered debut events (let’s skip the word “coming out”) to about 90 people, they evidently covered a broad spectrum and it is not possible that they were simply trying to be a variant on Bloodaxe.
There was clearly a shift after about 2005. It would seem as if there was a whole swathe of possible follow ups to the quite vital career collections of David Chaloner and Randolph Healy. The focus shifted to debuts by younger poets. People close to the situation evaluated this as bypassing young poets for the alternative scene in favour of another sector altogether. Salt had a new view of the landscape. But in a sector which had such a folklore about exclusion and marginalisation, this change of direction was bound to cause disquiet. Maybe disquiet was their natural state. Maybe the separatism was a weakness that held people back. Publishers like Veer and Equipage outflanked Salt.
There was certainly a poetry boom in the Nineties which continued, breaking historical precedents, into the Noughties. First volumes are risky, you are abidingly likely to lose money on them. So in that window starting in, say, 2001, you have an awful lot of young people producing terrific first volumes and looking for a sluice to release them into the high seas. (?) If you have a firm which has realised that you can use POD to minimise losses, and that you can achieve economies of scale by releasing hundreds of titles, or one a week, you have the opportunity for a wonderful synergy. It’s a historical Goldilocks Spot. This is where Salt seems to have found itself.

Para 4. this is where we talk about some of the poets who made debuts with Salt. This is being held for a future post. I have ordered the books but they haven’t arrived yet.

para 5. I have been looking recently at the Carcanet series of ‘New Poetries’ (1994 on), which certainly captured a number of terrific young poets. I mean, maybe they weren't all terrific. But if you look at those books it surely emerges that not everybody was going with Salt. The idea of defining a generation takes more home-work than just delving into the archives of Salt.
If you search the BL catalogue using the strings “2008” and “[contains] Salt”, you ought to get up all the titles published by Salt (as well as many fascinating titles published in Salt Lake City). But in actual fact this search doesn’t work very well, and looking at that list of Clare's reveals that many of the names didn’t show up in the catalogue search. I think they had about 200 titles of British poetry in-catalogue in 2013.
I should make clear that Salt continued publishing single-author titles after 2013, and that they have kept many of their classic titles in print. It is possible that talking about entities like publishers and ‘Cambridge schools’ (etc.) just slows us down. This also applies to entities like “a generation”. The productive bit is where we get into individual poets. After all, they present complete artistic worlds. Should I have just reprinted Clare Pollard’s list of 27 names? And actually, none of those is in the list of 50 people in Lumsden and Stonborough’s Salt Book of Younger Poets, two years earlier. But poetry is not an irresistible force. The process by which a book comes into being is intricate, and publishers are autonomous and intelligent agents. Their story should be told.

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