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.

Thursday 20 August 2020

Mercator projected

Better git it in your soul: Mercator Projected, by East of Eden

In 1971 Peel played sessions by East of Eden. I bought Mercator Projected in the marché aux puces in Paris in 1973, and Snafu, in 1974, from a shop called Soul Hole just round the corner from the factory where I was working at the time in Loughborough, making cell doors for a prison. Late arriving information has allowed us to confirm that one of their numbers actually adapts Stéphane Mallarmé's "Tombeau de Baudelaire" -Slobbering in mud and rubies, the idol Anubis-as its lyric. (from 'Gum Arabic/ Confucius', on their first album ‘Snafu') They recorded a number called ‘Beast of Sweden’. No wonder they never got anywhere. East of Eden, formed in Bristol in 1967 and so technically part of the "psychedelic" thing, recorded a tentative single for Atlantic in 1968 before signing to Deram and making two albums. The cover of Mercator shows them dressed up as Chinese mandarins, perhaps freaky clobber of the time but also a reference to the photo of the band on the cover of Mingus Dynasty (some editions of it), which is perhaps where the east part comes from. The moon shone on the yum-yum trees, antelopes sang their song. Lacking a front man or a confident singer, obsessed by Mingus and Bartòk, they were never going to mint it in the pop shopping mall. Ah-Leu-cha, petite Afrique/ Ice-cream cones and Hide and Seek, says where they were coming from. They produced my favourite rock lyric of all time:

Flickering in slow light movements
Of her musicians, Eve pivots with the sun:
Bruised pink peel through sapphire dust.
Strike up! for the thin trapeze girl.

By reconstruction, Dave Arbus translated Stephane’s sonnet but became frustrated, partway through, by its potential as a song lyric, and adapted it in a direction of his own. He uses the Anubis/ rubis rhyme but strays thereafter into a wordscape for ‘A Night in Tunisia’. Too languid to engage in the burlesque sexual heel-drumming of rock, they strolled through a series of exotic pastiches with dreamlike delicacy. In 1969, it was perfectly unfashionable to play ska cover versions, then associated with skinheads; to discard the insistent rhythmic figures from Don Drummond instrumentals and tease out the pure lines of a lost bebop number-this was a salto mortale, an act of masking whose logic is unanswerable. Who knew in 1970 that the phrase "the palace at 4 am" referred to a painting from Giacometti's surrealist phase? The sax players wandered through their shared fantasy of being Booker Ervin and John Handy of the band that made Mingus-ah-um with catlike sure-footedness; the tune, ‘Better git it in your soul’, was Mingus' attempt to re-create the rowdiness of Black religious music from without, a literate mimicry which sums up the band; when they play like Bill Haley (for about 32 bars), it sounds like Illinois Jacquet playing Bill Haley, the brawling of a 1952 jump band snap-shot, a haleyness which the true Bill was imagining while he stumbled through dated routines. The Dionysiac surrender to drift and improvisation saw too many people revert to the sheet music they'd first learnt to play from, which is why progressive music is so forgotten today, but some bands of the late sixties recontextualised fragments from disparate musical languages, being possessed by them without being repossessed by them: along with Led Zeppelin, Kaleidoscope, and The Band, East of Eden have their place. As we relive the late sixties in the current passion for sampling and looping, I would like to think that poetry too will explore a psychedelic academicism, dissolving the edges of identity in a recombinatory drift.

East of Eden recorded a single called ‘Jigajig’ in 1971. Since the record company hadn't let them in the studio for two years, and then only offered them a single session, it would have been foolish to do anything but go for the hit: a jig, with rockist rhythm section, in the fashion of the time, which they could probably justify to their basic aesthetic by referring to Bartòk and his compulsion for the sound of Hungarian village bands. Made catchy and irritating by mesmerising and academic fast tempi and shifts of tempo which don't really penetrate the ancient rustic circularities of the material, it became a big hit and sealed their fate; it annoyed all the bien-pensants (Peelie certainly never played them again). The band split (the alto sax player isn't audible on ‘Jig-a-Jig’, although he gets the session credit), and the stand-in combo appeared before vast Top 20 audiences who discovered that they couldn't even play ‘Jig-a-jig’. The second East of Eden played some of the least memorable music I've ever heard, prematurely attacking the progressive rock aesthetic in favour of two minute songs and instant communication; one can't imagine the EE led by Arbus and Caines as singing about put on your dancing shoes. So everyone remembered them for this: a true damnatio memoriae. No re-releases on 10th Smile or Bam!Caruso for them. But in 1969 Richard Williams said "I believe what they are playing is both the truth and the future. (...) it seems to me that this is the music of the Seventies."
(written circa 1998 for an issue of Angel Exhaust that never came out)
Ron Caines' website says the lyric is: Flickering in slow light movements of her musicians
Eve pivots in the sun
blues and pink peal through saffire dust
strike up for the thin trapeze girl
(so 'peal' is like a peal of bells?)