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Staple 74: On Translation (Forthcoming, Date TBC)

Staple 74: On Translation will look at material drawn from other languages, cross-cultural transmissions and even the sense of writing itself as a way of ‘translating’ experience and feeling into text. Leading Slovak poet Mila Haugova is interviewed, Maria Jastrzebska and Ana Jelnikar translate poems by Iztok Osojnik, Ruth O’Callaghan reports back on the women poets of present-day Mongolia and Thomas Orszag-Land translates a selection of Miklos Radnoti’s Holocaust poems from the Hungarian. Elsewhere, Gregory Woods considers Flaubert and Rimbaud, Martin Stannard tackles the classical Chinese lyrics of Li Bai, John Lucas brings the 1950s Greek political Surrealism of M. Sachtouris into English and there are selections from Baudelaire translated by Jan Owen, Liliana Ursu by Mihaela Moscaliuc and Michael Waters, WD Jackson’s new version of Heine’s Almansor and lyrics from twentieth century Austrian poet Paula Ludwig by Martina Thomas. Alongside the translations there are also portraits of noted translators by Martin Parker, short stories by Jude Cook, Derrick Buttress and Ashley Stokes, and all the usual poems, reviews and features. It’s been a long time coming, but will be worth the wait!

Miklos Radnoti (from Staple 74: On Translation)

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Staple Film-Poems Night at Phoenix Square

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Along with Word! – the East Midlands’ longest-running spoken word night – last Tuesday evening saw four poets from Staple’s film themed issue performing their work with visuals by Word! resident film-maker Keith Allott in the cinema surroundings of Phoenix Square in Leicester. Lydia Towsey performed ‘Lovers at a Station’ to an animated ’score’ of coloured bars echoing the sound of Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’, and ‘The Other Women’ to a mini-drama of Sainsbury’s assistants watched over by a suspicious partner, Jayne Stanton presented ‘The Cab Door Closes’ to scenes of a woman leaving a mysterious scene, and Maria Taylor read ‘The Carnival of Souls’ as a figure borrowed from Hideo Nakata’s ‘The Ring’ crept along a spookily-lit Leicester alleyway. Pam Thompson’s ‘Backstory’ saw the author turning the pages of a book in a luminous cloud-scape, while some of those who had participated in a workshop with Pam and Keith Allott  earlier that afternoon read from their own responses to the night’s cinematic theme. All these poems can be found in the latest issue of Staple, along with a bonus poem on film-noir by Pam Thompson and excerpts from Mark Stevenson (The Ghost Poet’s)  eerie tale about a narrator and a spectral boy, a zebra and some sinister birds…

If all that wasn’t enough, the night also saw a wonderful collection of open mic contributions, including some inspired use of film by Steven Silverman, Clive Ward, Bobba Bennett, Oscar Frank and others, while those reading unaccompanied included Kathy Bell on stage illusionists, Robin Vaughan Williams on the middle managers behind a myriad of workplace surveillance cameras and Mark Goodwin on a hypothetical fight between James Bond and Lord Byron that doesn’t turn out quite as expected. The printed issues are due to be delivered any moment (literally!) so while you’re waiting, here are some pictures from the Phoenix Square session to keep you going until the mailout is done, hopefully at some point during this week!

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For more on Word! (next event is Tuesday 5 October at The Y Theatre, with Jean Binta Breeze) go to the Word! website.

Forward Prize Shortlisting for Best Single Poem

One of the highlights of Staple 72: The Music Issue has now been judged by Ruth Padel, Hugo Williams, Alex Clark, Dreadlockalien and Fiona Shaw – the panel behind the shortlists for the Forward Poetry Prizes 2011 - to be among the highlights of the year. Chris Jones’s ‘Sentences’ is a powerful short sequence drawing on his work in prisons, combining clear-eyed perspectives on the problems that bring men to the landings, and make it hard for them to completely escape, with an extraordinary formal elegance and control. If you’d like to read ’Sentences’ before the Forward anthology appears on National Poetry Day (October 6th) – then you can order a copy of issue 72 direct from the Staple online shop.

The full shortlist for the Forward Prize Best Single Poem award is as follows:

Julia Copus: An Easy Passage

Chris Jones: Sentences

Lydia Fulleylove: Night Drive

Ian Pindar: Mrs Beltinska in the Bath

Lee Sands: The Reach.

Kate Bingham: On Highgate Hill

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About Chris Jones 

Chris Jones has lived in Sheffield since 1990. He was awarded an Eric Gregory Award for his poetry in 1996. From 1997 to 1999 he worked as a writer-in-residence at Nottingham Prison. He was the Literature Officer for Leicestershire for five years and then spent some time as a freelance writer and poetry festival organiser. He currently teaches creative writing at Sheffield Hallam University. In 2007 he published his first full-length collection, The Safe House, with Shoestring Press.

The Word!/Staple Film-Poems

On September 7th, Staple and Leicester’s leading spoken word night will collaborate in presenting the work of four poets (five, if we include one of the night’s regular comperes, Lydia Towsey, which we certainly should) devised to be performed alongside films created by Word’s resident film-maker, Keith Allott, the man behind the varied backdrops that colour and add texture to much of the work performed on the open mic and main slots at the Y Theatre

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Taking submissions, often in the forms of poetry screenplays (Pam Thompson’s ‘Backstory’) or treatments (like Ghost Poet’s description of a dream-like imaginary film, relating an encounter between a man and a boy’s ghost in a confined room), it will be fascinating to see where the process of these poets working with Keith Allott to build an expanded version, incorporating film, will lead.

Just as Thompson and Ghost Poet take divergent routes into the idea of a poem that might become a film, so the other two writers involved (Maria Taylor and Jayne Stanton) do likewise, Taylor offering ’The Carnival of Souls’, a poem steeped in the history and some hazily recollected memories of 1950s and 60s American horror films and b-movies, where our unnamed but undoubtedly glamorous heroine is chased, escapes, finds herself  in a room with curtains that “swirl, like/unworn bridal veils” as “the water calls” and (by the by) finds herself a cult concern among her fans.  

Taylor’s spooked atmosphere operates through details and textures, while Jayne Stanton’s ‘The Cab Door Closes’ takes an opposite path, sketching in a single fleeting moment that might imply a larger story – a woman, actress or model, perhaps, who “takes her seat/in time to watch a private showing/in the rear view mirror” where a small ‘cameo’ is noted, as a man stands (whether he is threatening or desirable is not clear) and the woman removes her gaze, parting company with the scene she has observed, going on ”for her next casting”. Perhaps Stanton’s film will explain, or simply deepen the mystery.

Each piece of writing will be extended and filled out by the addition of images and sound, and the finished pieces will be performed at Leicester’s Phoenix Square on September 7th, at a special one-off event, from around 8pm (though arrive earlier if you’d like to perform on the open mic – slots book up quickly here!). We hope to add footage to the website in due course: since the technology now exists to look at fresh ways of approaching publication, in time we hope to add more work designed for audio-visual as well as plain print presentation.

In the meantime, the extracts in Staple 73: The Film Issue might offer a small taste of what is to come, and we hope some of our readers will come along to Phoenix on the 7th September to share in the unveiling of these unclassifiable works by five poets, all regulars at the Word! nights, and all likely to surprise and entertain, just like cinema itself.

Prior to the evening performances, Pam Thompson will also be leading a film-themed workshop in one of the Phoenix resource rooms: contact Word! for further details and bookings.

Five Reasons Why A Writer’s Work Might Be Returned By An Editor…*

(*…that have nothing to do with whether it’s actually good enough for publication)

I’ve been doing a few talks and workshops recently on ways into publication for writers, and one of the Frequently Asked Questions is why work is turned down.

Obviously, there are the usual reasons to do with quality of submissions, suitability for a particular magazine (the eternal mistake of not reading a magazine even once before submitting work to it shows few signs of taking early retirement), the vexing business of work that is wonderful until the last line fails to clinch the deal (or that stumbles its opening, before lifting off part-way in) and so on. There are the standard ‘include an SAE large enough to fit your work into’ (a surprising number of people forward their six poems or two short stories in envelopes that would struggle to house a postcard, making replying to certain submissions an exercise in advanced origami as much as editorial choice) and ‘do not send handwritten pages elaborately decorated with Celtic knot-work and pictures of dragons’. Then there are those who forward 75 pages of text, accompanied by a six-page CV and covering note typed and signed on the author’s behalf by a secretary (there’s a certain type of American ploughing alphabetically through the Poets’ Market directory who seems especially guilty of this). And of course, there are those who feel that real poetry means material that Robert Southey would have considered a bit outmoded back in the 1820s…all this we know.

But what about the perfectly good, professionally presented and perfectly publishable work that we, nonetheless, have to keep on returning? That’s where the following points come into play.

1: Whether it’s due to the increased availability of mentoring, writers’ workshops and courses, or the growth of MAs and undergraduate creative writing options, or the availability of more poetry and feedback online, or the activities of Book Doctors, library services and festivals in bringing good work to aspiring authors’ attention, it has to be noted that the average standard of submissions to publishers at all levels has been gradually creeping up. On the one hand, this is excellent news: the vast majority of the submissions to Staple are – as a minimum – competent, well-crafted, and often well on the way to being very fine writing. This also means, however, that we have to return far more perfectly good poems than might have been the case in the past, simply because we can only include so much in any given issue. Editing was no doubt easier when the general standard was lower, and a smaller number of good poems chose themselves: these days, more editorial choices are made between different kinds of good poem than between good and bad poems.

2: Certain subjects are eternally attractive to writers, and we receive many examples of these in any typical influx of submissions. This means that we are choosing among many versions of what are often essentially quite similar types of poem and short story when putting together any particular issue of Staple. For authors of short fiction, relationship break-up stories, stories where former friends meet and find they no longer have much in common, stories that centre on secrets coming to light, stories involving car accidents, stories about estranged children returning home after parents’ deaths, or to visit dying parents, stories about writers, and stories about people in their twenties just out of university, finding their ways in the world, have to be especially good to make it into our pages. For poets, observations on nature, reflections on children leaving home, feelings of spirituality triggered by views of the sea, recollections of childhood events, anecdotal poems about events witnessed in ordinary streets, poems that use standard workshop forms like the sonnet and villanelle, or take their cues from postcards and paintings, or poems about travel and foreign landscapes and cities; these too need to be especially powerful examples of their kind to rise above the general glut of material pursuing similar subjects and approaches. We have published examples of most of these types of story and poem since late 2007, when I first took over reading the submissions from my predecessor Ann Atkinson, but once we have even a small number of these in an issue, even the best examples will need to be returned.

3: Generally speaking, we try to maintain an overall balance between poetry and prose in our issues. Some lean a little more one way or another, but we hope to give roughly equal space to both. This can mean, for example, that certain issues may be more open to prose or poetry, depending on the balance of suitable submissions we’ve received. In the case of our forthcoming winter issue, on translation, for example, we have so far received more excellent and suitable poetry than prose: this means that anyone sending in good versions of short fiction cast into English from other languages currently has a higher than usual chance of winning a place in that issue’s contents. There is still room for more poems, too, and for essays and stories on themes more loosely related to the main thread of the issue’s theme, but there’s a bit more room for prose at this point in the evolution of that particular issue.

4: The themes we work to at Staple are not intended to exclude work that doesn’t deal with them directly, but as the idea is for each issue to have its own identity and some of the underlying coherence of a good anthology, the editor’s eye is always reading with a view to the connections and contrasts between the various things already due to be featured in a given issue. This can often mean a poem or story is accepted because it offers a link to another piece in the folder, or brings a distinct fresh angle to the subject we’re trying to build an issue around. Obviously, this is not something writers sending in work can really know ahead of making their submissions, and to a large extent editing each issue is akin to holding a jigsaw in the head, and trying to match the distinct shapes of the pieces as they arrive in the post to the gaps in the picture. Where poems or stories are returned simply because they won’t fit this picture, we do try to give that reason and invite future submissions, though pressures of time might mean we’re not as consistent in doing this as we’d like to be. It is, however, another reason why some perfectly good pieces, that might otherwise have been included, might be returned.

5: The final point turns the tables slightly, and notes that some of the work I’ve been most pleased to include in Staple  has come from meeting people at events – not all of them our own events. Any halfway decent editor will be out attending readings, events, exhibitions and other places where writers and artists gather to support their colleagues, as well as giving talks, getting involved in those events, and generally on the lookout for two things: opportunities to dish out heaps of subscription flyers and promote the magazine to potential readers, and writers who might not be submitting their work to us who we may want to publish in future.  When we put on Staple events, we also talk about our upcoming themes, and many a good piece has emerged from someone coming up after such an event with an idea, or from someone performing in an open mic spot at a reading being asked to send the poem they’d read in for consideration. It follows that being out at events, attending readings, festivals and workshops, is one of the ways by which editors find new work. Consider regular attendance at these things to be as much part of the submission process as putting A4 sheets into stamped envelopes with SAEs enclosed, and the chances are you’ll be remembered when your submissions arrive in the editor’s post later.

So there we are. Four reasons why perfectly good writing might not always make it into a magazine, and one suggestion as to how those scales might be tilted, just a little, in your favour despite them.

Distribution & Its Discontents

Like many of those involved in the Save Our Presses campaign, Staple Magazine relies on ad hoc and opportunistic strategies for getting itself onto the radar of potential readers and subscribers: events, as discussed in a post earlier this month, act as one such catalyst. Then there’s word of mouth, supportive efforts from existing readers and subscribers, flyer swaps with other organisations’ mailing lists, leaflet drops at venues, online activity and all the other methods, usual and unusual, of trying to maximise the numbers of people whose consciousness the magazine’s existence might cross at some point, while directing any interest roused towards our online shop or mailing address.

The two things we don’t seem able to break through to as ways of selling the magazine are conventional media coverage and getting copies into shops,  the former because there are so few outlets for reviews and notices of poetry generally, let alone journals, beyond the pages of magazines (perhaps ironically) like our own, and the latter because retailers seem broadly united in feeling that these things just don’t sell. There’s obviously something of a Catch 22 here, since the unappetisingly limited range available in most bookshops means that there’s rarely anything of interest to even a poetry and short fiction obsessive like myself, and the lack of books and magazines to browse pushes ever more readers’ purchases online, thus closing the circle of assumption that ‘these things won’t sell’ within physical shops.

In many ways, it’s a classic self-fulfilling prophecy, though there are signs that retailers may be finally coming to realise this, as their range narrows to bestsellers and proven formulas, sales continue to fall, and the few success stories are outlets like Donlon Books in London, or The Bookcase in Lowdham, whose stocking policies aim to take their readers by surprise, with a range of books that their customers might not have thought to search for on Amazon: whether Mark Pilkington’s wonderfully eclectic Strange Attractor, the beautifully designed pages of poetry and illustration in Popshot or  a whole range of one-off chapbooks, hand-made books and newsheets, these are the things that the browsing experience is tailor-made to fit.

Yet few industries can be built on as many sick notes as mainstream marketing, a profession whose only purpose is to sell things, but which habitually insists that only things that suit its methods will sell.  It’s akin to a doctor who knows nothing about human anatomy or symptoms, but does have a bottle of aspirin, so considers only conditions that can be treated with a dose of aspirin curable. Yet rather than being struck off, these quack doctors have been given ever greater influence in mainstream publishing and retail, simply to ensure that only the relatively few types of book marketeers feel comfortable about selling are presented to readers.

It’s an unduly harsh observation, to be sure, and there are some wonderfully dedicated and inventive marketing people out there: but the grain of truth is there, too, and I suspect that until we return to a more diverse ecosystem of retail, coverage and distribution, the breadth and depth of the market will continue to shrink. Perhaps the current development of electronic systems of distribution will help, in presenting readers with a far broader spectrum of published material than the present restricted range available to all but the most dedicated, just as Spotify and other services have opened up vast regions of musical activity to many previously resigned to choosing among the contents of their local HMV and mainstream radio playlists.

The emergence of the downloadable book or magazine brings its own problems, of course, not least the difficulty of payment and resources in a context where refreshed enthusiasm for new discoveries and growth of readerships comes at the expense of any certain way of bringing in enough to cover authors’, editors’ and other costs. It will be ironic if the biggest potential growth in readerships since the introduction of mass literacy also results in a situation where the ability of anyone to actually produce anything without patronage ends up returning us to a kind of pre-Modern age where only the wealthy, institutions and the odd sensational, random bestseller are able to make ends meet.

But that’s a negative view: beneath the radar of the least imaginitive mainstream marketing are a host of options, from the previously mentioned likes of Hatch, to the way that small, highly nimble outfits like Annexinema and 7 Inch Cinema have built devoted non-mainstream audiences for events that showcase quirky, surreal and challenging short films even as the multiplexes grow ever more dominant on out-of-town sites, or, in music, labels like Trunk Records, Finders Keepers and Ghost Box create limited issue releases that sell out almost instantaneously to enthusiasts for the sounds they create.

Perhaps publishers – especially those of us whose print runs are already small enough to count as limited editions without being labelled as such – can learn from efforts like these, and while we might not be making fortunes, we might eventually manage a living while keeping the range of available work a good deal wider and more appealing than that amenable to the marketing teams’ off the shelf bottles of aspirin.

What The Water Gave Me

I found myself in London again on the 17 June, visiting the Barbican‘s major new exhibition on the theme of Surrealism and architecture, The Surreal House, in which domestic and public spaces, ordinary interiors and furnishings are variously unsettled. Once again, looking at the products of this singularly lyrical movement, I was struck by how closely the best visual art so often adopts its strategies from poetry, myth and storytelling – whether Louise Bourgeois’ slyly phallic staircase No Exit, Edward Hopper’s 1923 House By The Railroad, a model for the modern Gothic home, used endlessly since as a cypher for an unsettling domestic space by everyone from Alfred Hitchcock and Steven King to The Addams Family, or the films of Jan Svankmajer, Andrei Tarkovsky and Buster Keaton. An exhibition like this feels more like an immersion in a library than a purely optical kind of viewing, full of ideas, suggestions and strangely shaped stories.

That the same day also happened to be the launch date for Pascale Petit’s latest Seren Books collection, What The Water Gave Me, was probably fortuitous, then, since the book expands Petit’s 2005 Smith/Doorstop pamphlet of poems in the voice of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo to a full collection, and reinforces that same feeling that Surrealism’s lyric strain is entirely at one with the practice of poetry – hardly surprising, given the primacy of poetry within the movement, and the extraordinary – though often little-known to poetry readers – body of poems created by writers affiliated with it: even today, the movement remains active, with magazines like Phosphor in Leeds and the Chicago Surrealist group’s Franklin and Penelope Rosemont editing anthologies like Surrealist Women and Black, Brown & Beige that continue to extend the movement’s history and influence beyond the limits often placed on both by art-historical and academic orthodoxies that would pretend it ended with World War Two or Andre Breton’s death in 1966.

In fact, not only are active poets like Jayne Cortez operating as self-declared Surrealists, many others are drawing on Surrealist influences without formally declaring themselves as such, and while Petit’s book is not itself grounded in the politics or theories of the movement, beyond sharing a certain sensibility, in giving voice to another figure whose affiliations were independent, but whose practice was very much in sympathy with the temperament and aims of the wider movement, her imagery of hearts dangling from meathooks in the chest, or lovemaking as an explosive, emotional and literal car-crash, inevitably has its own connections to the original ideas underlying Andre Breton‘s guiding concepts of ‘convulsive beauty’ and ‘mad love’ as the basis for a ‘revolution of the mind’.

Perhaps it’s a long way from the Paris of that first manifesto in 1924 to a packed room in the Horse Hospital behind the Russell Square tube, on June 17 2010, where Petit gave a short reading of poems from the book accompanied by slides of the Kahlo works that inspired the poems. But it’s no distance at all from lines like “I am down under the stems/my face on fire” (from Sun and Life), “Every love-cry//is a silk tendril/quivering in my silent house” (from Diego On My Mind) or “The moon watches…hungry as an ulcer” (from Without Hope) and the kind of material produced by Benjamin Peret, Paul Eluard and Breton himself during the 1920s and 30s. That this Surrealist influence continues wherever poetry is found making its subversive impact – yesterday, at both the Barbican and at Petit’s wonderful (and hearteningly packed-out) Seren reading – becomes ever clearer as the years go on.

Workbooks & Textual Pleasures

An enigmatic header tonight, with a somewhat retro nod to Barthes, for a post prompted by a recent request from the excellent Brittle Star magazine to keep a ‘reader’s diary’ during the month of May 2010, for publication in a forthcoming issue. It’s been fascinating to read previous diaries in the series by Anna Robinson and Fawzia Muradali Kane, and my own log of a selection of books read during those 30 days – some rather less notable in literary terms than others – will appear in issue 26 later this summer.

Writing it, after having at least half-scrupulously kept track on my own reading for a month, was an interesting process, and revealed certain truths about my approach to books in general that may or may not be typical. The first observation was that the full list I consulted on May 31 needed drastic editing, simply to create a manageable sample that could be discussed in around 1500 words. This was done by cutting books bought but only skimmed, odd chapters, single stories and poems…then trimmed again by excluding everything read for work purposes.

I won’t go into the detail of the diary (you’ll have to buy a copy of Brittle Star for that, and buying a copy or subscribing is highly recommended regardless) but something struck me quite forcefully about that vast chunk of reading defined as being for work rather than personal pleasure: I realised that since my work involves a constant stream of reading – submissions, review copies, or new books – it’s simply impossible to separate my personal reading of new writing from the context of editing Staple.

With every new voice a potential future contributor, feature or review (or at the very least a benchmark of where we might fit into the current literary landscape: does this spate of books by new authors suggest we’re converging with or diverging from the key currents of poetry in our time, or just bobbing along as we’ve always done, only occasionally troubling the mainstream with awareness of our existence?) even those books I’ve gone out and paid my own money for precisely because I wanted to read them (and there are many of those) seem to be drawn into the gravitational field of editing the magazine.

So it’s not to say that new writing isn’t still read with great personal pleasure, only that it’s now rarely the ‘pure’ pleasure of reading for its own sake, a pleasure that now seems restricted to the old books I find secondhand. Perhaps the fact that three volumes on The Meat Trade, published by The Gresham Publishing Company in 1935, picked up for a pound at last Saturday’s local market, might have been purchased with an eye to using the descriptions of cattle breeds, abattoir technology and 1930s butchers’ shops for some as yet unknown literary purpose is less significant than the fact that they are of no use whatsoever to the magazine.

Likewise, there’s no doubt that a handful of elegant late sixties volumes by DM Thomas, Edward Kissam and Robert Kelly are all a pleasure to read for their own sakes, with no significance for the future direction or content of the magazine. Except, I realise, I’m already examining the bindings and admiring the typography, paper and design of these old Cape Goliard titles, and wondering how we might learn from it. And these largely forgotten poets, perhaps we might look at them one of these days? A short feature on neglected and little-known figures, that could work quite well…

So there goes the purity of the pleasure, again. But my Grandma always said ‘be careful what you wish for in case it comes true’, and having made a living from the thing I love, the price must be that - for the moment, at least - doing the thing I love sometimes feels like being at work.

Events, Dear Boy, Events…

It’s Harold MacMillan who is credited (possibly apocryphally) with the above formula as an explanation to a journalist about why governments get blown off course, but it could just as well be taken as a description of a small publisher’s main preoccupation – after publishing itself. Going through all the editing, proofreading and design, and receiving the finished magazines from the printer, is only the first small fraction of it: the real business gets properly underway after that - trying to remove as many of the copies from your own premises in as short a time as possible. And that means organising events.

Having rolled back into Nottingham on the late train from St Pancras at around 1.40am this morning after our latest session, at the Lumen United Reform Church in Camden, I did a few calculations on the walk home from the station: we sold a reasonable quantity of magazines, at a special offer price, netting enough to cover the train tickets down and a bit more besides,  but in order to achieve this I’d taken a day out of work and our three readers had each given up a good chunk of their own time. Economically, if we’d paid even a token sum (instead of relied on goodwill) there would have been no financial sense in doing the event.

But as I’m sure most of those involved in putting on similar things knows all too well, that’s the wrong way of looking at it. The real benefit to Staple lies not in the amount of cash in the tin at the night’s end, but in the opportunity to present work by our contributors to an audience that might not have heard it, to meet potential subscribers, spread the word about what we do, and hear poets from the venue’s regular audience on the open mic – these, after all, are people whose work we might one day want to publish.

Last night, it was especially nice to meet at least one poet we had already published, Barbara Cumbers, whose contribution to Staple 71: The Art Issue was a wonderful sestina based on Richard Dadd’s The Fairy-Feller’s Master Stroke taken from a batch received in the post. So the important thing about these events, it seems to me, is not any short term profit they might earn (though in the rare cases when there is some, it’s a definite bonus) but instead the part they play in building a relationship between our magazine, and its existing and potential readers and contributors.

Many who didn’t buy a copy last night may, in the weeks and months that follow, decide to give us a try, while those who did take home a copy or a fond memory of hearing, say, Sophie Mayer‘s performance of her poem in tribute to the late Louise Bourgeois, Fawzia Kane‘s reading of an atmospheric piece about Istanbul courtesans, or Jacqueline Gabbitas‘s poem in the voice of quirkily personified grass cursing the crows that peck at lawns, might be expected to bring friends next time, or lend their copy out, or simply tell others how much they enjoyed the evening…

It’s the kind of unquantifiable word of mouth that most small publishers rely on, lacking as we do the budgets for advertising, bookshop promotions and proper distribution, so even factoring in the occasional short term losses, it’s hoped that in the longer term these events will play a critical part in keeping magazines like Staple visible and viable. But besides such practical reasons as these, the live reading as a medium in its own right has its own rewards as a way of experiencing the good writing we publish in a new way.

Last night, finding ourselves facing a stained glass window, with a large wooden crucifix high on one white wall, we listened to Sophie Mayer intoning a very vivid invocation of Robert Mapplethorpe’s (in)famous photograph of an impish Louise Bourgeois toting her phallic sculpture Filette like a handbag. That’s certainly something you wouldn’t get anywhere else, the kind of moment that might make even Ken Russell do a double-take, and it will now swim into my mind every time I read that particular page in Mayer’s excellent Shearsman collection, Her Various Scalpels.

In other words, the business of events can be hard going at times, but it’s well worth the effort: long may our contributors continue to read and audiences turn out to hear them. We’d be nothing more than a large pile of blank notebooks without either, so it makes sense we should want to get out and meet them, one at a time if necessary.

Nottingham Writers’ Studio

Nottingham Writers’ Studio

I was over at Nottingham Writers’ Studio on Thursday evening to listen to Susi O’Neill deliver the latest in a series of talks on subjects related to writing and publishing: as both the director of Digital Consultant and practising musician under the name Miss Hypnotique, O’Neill charted a wonderfully brisk and clear-eyed run through the various ways in which writers, publishers and performers can use social media to reach new audiences and develop new work, many familiar, but many more introducing a whole range of newfangled sites and tools I’d never heard of.

I came away from the session convinced that the digital revolution is certainly more exciting and full of possibilities than I’d given it credit for, but also just a little bit inclined to think I’d like at least a temporary return to manual typewriters, tipp-ex and three week deadlines, because all these exciting opportunities turning up at once looks pretty exhausting, and there just aren’t enough hours in the day to capitalise on them all effectively. There are so many tricks these days that  it seems like we’ll always be missing one.

That small caveat aside, the real point of mentioning this latest session was to draw attention to Nottingham Writers’ Studio itself, which I suppose we might define as a defiantly old-media entity that uses a lot of new-media tools to achieve its aims. It’s basically about real people meeting in a real room overlooking St Mary’s Church in Nottingham’s Lace Market, with a part time administrator (currently the performance poet Alyson Stoneman) and a nine-strong board responsible for running a programme of events for the organisation’s 80 or so (at the last count) members.

It’s an organisation founded and run entirely by writers, initially the brainchild of novelist Jon McGregor. Since he first gathered a few associates together and got things moving in 2006, the membership has rapidly expanded. It’s not all about traditional literature and creative writing, either: any given session at the studio will bring together poets and novelists with storytellers, copywriters, journalists, screenwriters and academic historians, with all genres covered, from children’s, crime and comics to teenage, romance and fantasy. It’s a fair bet that if your professional life involves putting pen to paper with any degree of seriousness, and you live in or near Nottingham, you’ll feel at home, be entitled to join, and want to have a say in the future direction of the organisation.

Having been involved with the studio myself since around 2007, it’s been wonderful to see it evolve: from a few conversations among a small group of Nottingham writers (key figures then included Michael Eaton, Nicola Monaghan and David Belbin) to a floor of offices and meeting space above a Balti House; and from there to the current wide-ranging membership, much smarter location on Stoney Street, and dedicated series of events each month.

It’s had a huge impact on the city’s writing culture, offering opportunities to meet others working in the same or completely different fields, and begun to generate a critical mass of activity.

At least one new publisher has emerged from the mix in Ian Collinson’s Weathervane Press, while the numbers of formal and informal collaborations, brokered opportunities and new friendships are now beyond counting: the studio offers a point of contact for organisations looking for writers to work on particular projects, and is in many ways something of a unusual presence in the UK, similar to other spaces and networks in many respects, but is distinctive in being entirely led, managed and populated by working writers.

It’s a co-operative model that has proved its worth in Nottingham, and if anyone knows of similar groups elsewhere it would be good to find out about them, in order to ensure appropriate links can be forged.

It also shows that the real world of random meetings in pubs, cinemas and cafes can still be at least as good a place to create links and get new networks running as the virtual sphere: the latter oils the wheels and makes it all much easier than it might once have been, but the Nottingham Writers’ Studio proves there’s no online substitute for a proper session involving 25 people with shared interests in a welcoming room that contains large quantities of wine, beer, biscuits and crisps.

For information on membership and upcoming events, check the NWS website or contact Aly at the 49 Stoney Street address.