Neil Astley is editor of Bloodaxe Books which he founded in 1978. He received an Eric Gregory Award for his poetry and has had two collections, Darwin Survivor (Peterloo Poets 1988) and Biting My Tongue (Bloodaxe 1995). A novel The End of My Tether was published by Flambard in 2002. His editorial work with Bloodaxe spans several anthologies including Poetry With An Edge (1988) and more recently Staying Alive (2002). Neil Astley lives in Northumberland.
Congratulations on the 25th birthday. Back in 1978 with 750 copies of Ken Smith's collection on your wardrobe and a seemingly impossible printers bill of £230, did you think that somewhere down the line you could be revolutionizing poetry publishing in Britain?
I saw myself as a representative reader. I wasn't engaged by
much of the poetry which was being published in the late 70s, but I
was coming across work which did excite me - by poets who either
couldn't get published or whose books had been allowed to go
out of print. My gut instinct told me that if I felt like that,
then other readers who were passionate about poetry must feel the
In Poems of the Year you take another sideswipe at those
who see poetry as intellectual snobbery. Is this is the main reason
the British public neglect poetry, or could there be more prominent
The sideswipe wasn't directed as those who see poetry as
intellectual snobbery, but at the poetry snobs themselves - they
don't really care about who reads poetry as long as it's
the kind of poetry they admire, but much of what they like is
incomprehensible anyone outside academic or poetry circles.
People who don't know much about modern poetry think it's
obscure, difficult, dull, boring or pretentious.That's what a
recent survey said about attitudes to poetry in Britain - this was
an Arts Council report called Rhyme & Reason
which examined the ways in which modern poetry has an image
Modern poetry has a negative image with the general public. People
think it's irrelevant and incomprehensible - they joke about
daffodils - so they don't bother with it, not even readers of
literary fiction and people interested in other arts which use
language, such as theatre and film. Not even people who read
Shakespeare and the classics: one of the most surprising findings
of that Arts Council report was that only 5% of the poetry books
sold in British bookshops over a two-year period were by living
Staying Alive, the anthology you edited last year came
under criticism despite being a huge seller. Why do you think it
came under fire whist becoming so popular?
Staying Alive was my attempt to show all those
people who love literature and language and traditional poetry that
contemporary poetry is relevant, that much of it is lively,
imaginative, versatile and accessible to intelligent readers
who've never gave it much of a chance before. This is contested
by our poetry police of course. As far as they're concerned,
people are now reading the "wrong" kind of poetry,
whether that's Staying Alive or books by Billy
Collins or Sharon Olds.
What I think is happening is that readers are trusting their own
judgement. The Poetry Book Society recently commissioned another
report on contemporary poetry, which concluded: 'The
"value" of much poetry published is measured against
critical response and approbation by a peer group rather than on
sales or the response of the general reader.
The role of poets in creating "taste" and apportioning
"value" creates a distorted picture of the importance of
poetry and of the importance of particular poets, particularly for
an uninformed general readership or the retail sector.'
In crude terms what this means is: we, the boys in the club, decide
which poets and what kind of poetry you lot should read, and since
we do most of the reviewing and the publishing, we'll make sure
that those poets and those books are the ones that get into the
bookshops, and we'll ignore or castigate the rest. Hence over
three-quarters of the poetry collections published are by men,
despite the fact that the readership of contemporary poetry is over
two-thirds female, and numerous women poets are either unpublished
or their small press titles are unavailable in most bookshops.
But because of this mismatch between publication and readership,
very few people want to read many of the few poetry collections
which do get into the shops, so the booksellers think no one's
interested in contemporary poetry, and they make further cutbacks
in the already diminishing range of contemporary poetry on their
Another comment from that Poetry Book Society report: 'Despite
an increasing number of one-off poetry books that achieve
popularity (particularly anthologies), most poetry publishing fails
to take any account of the motivation of the general reader, fails
to accommodate the demands of booksellers, and fails to communicate
the pleasure of the experience of reading good poetry, relying
instead on notions of "value" and "importance"
generated by a small group of poets, editors and critics.'
In these terms, Staying Alive is a genuinely
revolutionary book. It takes the poetry away from the control of
those laying down spurious and narrow critical judgements, and it
gives poetry back to the readers. It is a book of poems selected
for their own sake, poems which I felt would convince the general
reader that contemporary poetry is relevant, pleasurable and worth
reading. Its selections are not representative of the work of the
poets included. It's a book of poems, not of poets. And it
became Britain's top selling poetry book last year largely
because of word of mouth. Reader power. People bought - and are
still buying - not just one copy but two or three copies, or more
even, and they give these to friends and family, and the recipients
in turn go out and buy more to give as presents to their friends.
The poetry snobs thought Staying Alive was a
dumbing down of poetry and claimed that it was patronising to
readers. The readers themselves disagreed - and we have a massive
postbag of letters, postcards and e-mails to prove how
revolutionary this book has been in breaking down the intellectual
barricades. It's a book which has introduced thousands of new
readers to contemporary poetry and brought many other readers back
to poetry. And they've gone on to read books by many of the
poets featured in the book.
This anthology names itself a sampler and publishes poets who had
books out with you this year. Was it difficult to leave out so many
of the poets who have helped to confirm the reputation of Bloodaxe
over the last twenty-five years?
Bloodaxe has published over 700 books by more than 300 poets, and
you can't represent that number or range in one anthology.
There are over 80 Bloodaxe poets in the 1993 second edition of
Poetry with an Edge and nearly 40 of the younger
poets in New Blood (1999). Those two anthologies
include most of the poets who've been most closely identified
with Bloodaxe over the years.
Who are some of your favourite poets?
Auden, Bishop, Browning, Anne Carson, Donne, Hardy, Jarrell, Keats,
Longley, MacNeice, Mahon, Milosz, Muldoon, Sharon Olds, Mary
Oliver, Shakespeare, Szymborska, Edward Thomas, plus a great many
of the poets published by Bloodaxe ...
Although you recently published your first novel, you
haven't had a collection of poetry published since Biting My
Tongue in 1995. Has your involvement with Bloodaxe hampered your
progress as a poet, or has editing poetry just taken on a greater
significance to you?
After Biting My Tongue was published in 1995 I
spent three years writing The End of My Tether and
I've just finished a second novel, The Sheep Who
Changed the World.
What you call my 'progress as a poet' was towards
narrative, myth and mischief, but I then developed those into
different forms of writing. I wouldn't have written The
End of My Tether had I not written and read poetry for as
many years as I'd been reading (but not writing) novels. As a
writer whose imagination has always been fed as much by poetry as
by film and fiction, I wanted the language and structure of
The End of My Tether to draw on poetic elements,
but avoiding like the plague any whiff of infection from the
unreadable Poetic Novel.
Having just seen Krzysztof Kieslowki's Three
Colours trilogy, I was struck by the way he uses linked
visual imagery as a plotting thread, rather as in Bergman's
early films (an influence on Biting My Tongue but
with repeated colours as well as echoed shapes, objects and
camera-angles (and birds); and how the narrative of Three
Colours Blue, White and Red grows out of
their pre-written score of symphony, tango and bolero. Instead of
Kieslowki's three-part musical template, I took the natural
mythic cycle of the four seasons - reprising the first two to end
with spring - then divided them into chapters, each of which would
have its own presiding animal or myth to imprint itself on the
story, infusing the stylised language and imagery as well as
strengthening the texture and movement of the animal-woven
All of which shows, I hope, that I'm still writing as a poet,
but just not writing poems.
Do you have many poets as friends? Is this
Yes. Yes, as long as they're good poets!
One of the high points of this anthology is its stirring
sequence from Mandelstam. You once remarked that poetry in
translation achieves an eloquence and purity of utterance that is
not often experienced in contemporary English poetry. Is this a
failing on the part of English poets or just a reflection of
different styles of writing?
The styles and language are different, which accounts for part of
that, but there have been English poets - like Ken Smith - whose
poetry has benefited from their reading not just of European poets
but Americans too.
One thing which has most delighted me as an editor has been
witnessing that kind of creative interaction between poets -
especially the way which the work of the major European and
American poets published by Bloodaxe has been important for many of
the younger British and Irish poets.
In this country young poets are usually forty-plus, but the
actual writing and vocalisation of poetry seems as popular as ever.
Do you think that publishers are still failing to take the
necessary risks to uncover poetries real young voices?
Bloodaxe has published 25 first collections since the New
Generation promotion of 1994 which brought the work of the
Armitage/Duffy generation to the attention of a wider readership.
Carcanet (and Oxford/Carcanet) have published 21. The rest of main
poetry imprints can barely rustle up that number of first
collections between them. And when the independents have taken all
the risks in publishing new poets, several have then been poached
by the likes of Picador, OUP (a bad move!) and Faber.
But it's been good to see that Cape, Faber and Picador are now
taking risks of their own on first collections. At the same time,
it's very hard for any publisher to take many risks in the
current book-trade climate: the bookshops have cut back so much on
the range and size of their poetry stocks that it's difficult
getting orders for any new poetry titles.
The way to reverse that process is to get more people interested in
poetry, so that bookshops respond to demand from readers.
Questions: James Byrne