Interview

Neil Astley

Neil Astley

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.

JAMES BYRNE: 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?

NEIL ASTLEY: 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 same way.

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 factors involved?

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 problem.

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 contemporary poets.

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 shelves.

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 narrative.

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 advisable?

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

 

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