How we brought more readers to poetry - Neil Astley on Bloodaxe’s Staying Alive series, and the new anthology
On National Poetry Day, Bloodaxe editor Neil Astley launched Staying Human, the fourth in his hugely popular series of world poetry anthologies that began in 2002 with Staying Alive (sub-title: ‘real poems for unreal times’). It is a series of anthologies that many people feel great affection for, including those who may not have many other books of poetry on their shelves. It seems hard to believe now, but back in the day some members of the poetry establishment were decidedly sniffy about the initiative, accusing Astley of being populist and “selling poetry out”. In a wide-ranging interview with Write Out Loud to celebrate the publication of Staying Human and the whole Staying Alive series, Neil Astley talks about his working methods, the “wider range of poetry” from around the world that his books have made available to readers, how the poetry climate has changed dramatically over the years since he was initially criticised by some, and the success of the anthologies in bringing more readers to poetry. He also mentions extending the last section of the new Staying Human at a late stage in its preparation, to include poems relating to the pandemic; and new developments in poetry, including the wider availability of poetry from poets from diverse ethnic backgrounds, and the greater prominence of poetry by women.
In your notable lecture at the StAnza poetry festival in Scotland in 2005, you said that “there is a huge gulf between the men who review contemporary poetry in the newspapers and cultural journals in Britain, and the majority of the people who actually read it; between the poetry insiders who do so much damage to poetry and the readers at grassroots level who are passionately interested in many kinds of poetry which too many of the critics aren't capable of appreciating”. Do you think that is still true in 2020?
Not at all. But there is still much room for improvement as the survey Dave Coates carried out for Ledbury Emerging Critics in 2018 clearly shows.
You also said then that “readers don't have access to the diverse range of poetry being written, not just in Britain, but from around in the world, because much of the poetry establishment - including many publishers and reviewers - has become narrowly based, male-dominated, white Anglocentric and skewed by factions and vested interests. Too often, poetry editors think of themselves and their poet friends as the only arbiters of taste, only publishing writers they think people ought to read and depriving readers of other kinds of poetry which many people would find more rewarding.” Do you regard the Staying Alive series – and the publishing output of Bloodaxe generally – as an antidote to such views? Are such views still a problem in the poetry world?
Yes, the many responses we’ve received from readers and reviews of books in the Staying Alive anthology series – and for the Bloodaxe output as a whole – have shown great appreciation and enthusiasm for the wider range of poetry we’ve made available from around the world as well as poetry which some editors weren’t responsive towards 20 years ago. But we’ve not been alone in supplying that antidote: just look at the lists of Carcanet, Chatto, Faber, Penguin and Picador in particular – as well as the editorship of The Poetry Review and the Guardian Review – and you’ll see clear evidence of significant change from the situation in 2005. Many other presses have been pushing at these boundaries right from when they started, most notably Arc, Burning Eye, Nine Arches and Peepal Tree. Readers have also had access to a much wider range of poetry thanks to festivals, live venues and the internet.
Later in the same lecture you mentioned the first anthology in the series, Staying Alive, saying that the idea was to reach out to a new poetry audience, and that “it introduced thousands of new readers to contemporary poetry. It also brought many readers back to poetry, people who hadn't read poetry for years because it hadn't held their interest. But for existing poetry readers, what Staying Alive and its sequel Being Alive also offer is a much wider and more international range of contemporary poems than will be found in most other anthologies, including work by poets even the keenest and most knowledgeable readers will - I hope - be surprised to discover.” Is that still your philosophy?
Very much so: those twin aims have been followed through consistently with the anthologies: they bring more readers to poetry, and they act as a bridge introducing existing poetry readers to poets and kinds of poetry they wouldn’t otherwise find that easily. Other anthologists have also discovered many brilliant poems in the Bloodaxe anthologies and included them in their own compilations, so in a way I’m carrying out a “seeding” role here: I don’t mind doing the work for them because I’m helping many poets – and not just those published by Bloodaxe – reach a wider readership.
What is your method of assembling an anthology in the Staying Alive series? Do you think of a section heading first, and find poems that should go there? Or do you collect the poems first, and then divide them into sections? In what way do you think your section headings have changed over the course of four anthologies?
The poems come first and create the anthology. With Staying Human I read hundreds of individual collections over four years, mostly books published over the past 10 years, putting in book markers and taking photocopies as I went along, ending up with a couple of thousand poems which stood out for me in a particular way. As I read and re-read them, common themes emerged, including those covered in the previous three anthologies, so there are sections in Staying Human which offer continuity there with poems relating to love, relationships, memory, family, generations, death and mortality, as well as poems relating to other areas which became the focus of new sections or parts of sections, such as technology, migration, racism, environment, sexual abuse and child loss. Because the selection was drawn primarily from poems written during the 21st century I think Staying Human addresses the particular concerns of our unreal times even more closely than the previous anthologies while sharing the universal address to the human condition which all four have in common.
One section that is certainly new in Staying Human is ‘After Frank O’Hara’. Would you like to talk some more about that?
Frank O’Hara is the quintessential poet of living life to the full, a recurring theme in all the anthologies. ‘After Frank O’Hara’ includes poems by later writers extending conversations O’Hara started over 50 years ago in his Lunch Poems. Conversations between poets from past and present have continued throughout the literary tradition, most notably in the Renaissance period when English and European poets engaged with Greek and Roman poets through translation, imitation and recapitulation. This is something I have tried to reflect in all the anthologies, pairing poems by different writers which address each other either directly or by picking up a theme or phrase, as composers do in music, and “orchestrating” the selections in such a way as to bring these conversations alive for the reader, so that poems will seem to talk to one another, with themes picked up and developed across a whole series of poems, and not just by writers known to one another. Each poem has its own voice while at the same time speaking from a broad chorus of poems with shared concerns. I also thought that readers might enjoy this “suite” of O’Hara-related poems. All the anthologies include “suites” of poems with a particular focus: this one also weaves in sets of poems relating to the seasons, water and music.
Has the poetry – and the themes - that you have included changed over the course of four anthologies and 18 years? If so, how? I know that you’ve managed to include some Covid poems at the last minute, this time around.
I think I’ve just answered that. I had completed the selection at the start of this year, before Covid-19, but when the pandemic happened I felt I needed to extend the last section of the book (called ‘The future’) which relates to the environmental crisis to include a number of poems written in response to this global crisis. Many more are being written and will be written, but those I chose struck me as especially relevant to the book’s concerns and likely to have continuing resonance in what they record.
The new anthology includes poems that have “gone viral after being shared on social media because they speak to our times with such great immediacy”. I noticed spoken word poet Hollie McNish’s ‘Embarrassment’, about breastfeeding in public. What other examples of this kind of phenomenon are in the anthology?
Poems by writers such as Fatima Asghar, Danusha Laméris, Imtiaz Dharker, Seamus Heaney, Audre Lorde, Dorothea Lasky, Musa Okwonga, Leanne O’Sullivan, Warsan Shire and Evie Shockley, to give just ten examples.
What has been some of the best feedback that you have received?
[In reply to this question Neil sent me a copy of an “unsolicited and genuine” postcard he received in August this year, saying that it was “the latest of many such postcards and letters”. It says:
“Dear Neil, This card is long overdue. I have been meaning to thank you and all at Bloodaxe for the ‘Staying Alive’ poetry books for years now. They are a beautiful collection and I’m delighted to see ‘Staying Human’ will launch in October 2020. Like many others, I turn to these books for comfort in difficult times. (And these have been very difficult times). Thank you for collecting poems and bringing them to me when all I wanted to do was to forget about fiction and being creative myself. These poems help me to remember why I love good writing, and there are so many different voices and styles. I know you hear this all the time but thank you again. I can’t wait to read ‘Staying Human’ and share it with everyone else who needs a spark of poetic light!”
I am in awe at the number of first-class poetry anthologies you have put together over the years, quite apart from the Staying Alive series. I can think of two in particular that have meant a great deal for me - The Hundred Years’ War modern war poems (2014) and Land of Three Rivers, the poetry of the north-east (2017). In both the amount of information included is invaluable, and enhances enjoyment and understanding. Is there something about the work of putting an anthology together that particularly appeals to you?
The reading itself and the discoveries I make in the course of that reading have the most appeal. Writing and collating all that contextualising background material is the hard work and only really appeals once it’s all done. But there’s also an appeal in what you describe: knowing that you’re helping enhance readers’ enjoyment and understanding of the poems.
Can I ask some more personal questions about your early career? In 1974, in Darwin, Australia, while working as a sub-editor on the Northern Territory News, you had a near-death experience, trapped under a collapsed house in the wake of a cyclone. Is it the case, and if so, purely coincidental that you gave up journalism after that?
That experience confirmed me in wanting to go to university to study English literature with a view to working in publishing as an editor, for which I needed a degree. I had earlier got a taste for publishing on the admin side working at Yale University Press’s London office as secretary to a marvellous female boss: my skills in shorthand and typing I’d gained as a journalist got me that job. I had no idea then that I’d end up starting my own press after graduating.
In the 1970s I understand that you helped organise poetry readings at the legendary Morden Tower in Newcastle, scene of readings attended in the 60s by Basil Bunting and some of the Beat poets, including Allen Ginsberg. Those readings were run by the young poet Tom Pickard. Was he still around in the 70s when you became involved?
Tom ran Morden Tower with Connie Pickard. I helped Bob Lawson, one of the later organisers. Connie continued to support Morden Tower and came back later as the Tower’s organiser but Tom was still around as a poet and came along for readings by Bunting and other poets he was close to. But he later moved down to London and then out to the wilds of the Pennines.
One more question … about the reclusive poet Rosemary Tonks. You tracked her down, but agreed to say nothing about her whereabouts, after she refused to answer the door. Was it difficult, as a former journalist, to keep such a literary secret?
I was asked by Rosemary’s family to respect her privacy. Had I revealed her whereabouts I knew I would have had no chance at all of persuading her to allow Bloodaxe to republish her poetry. Keeping that secret was only really difficult when I had to talk about her on a BBC radio programme in 2009 called The Poet Who Vanished hosted by Brian Patten, on which he and other contributors were airing various fanciful stories about what might have happened to her, while I knew all the time that she was living quite comfortably in Bournemouth. I sent her a couple of postcards (not letters, to make sure she read them) alerting her to the programme and to its later repeat, hoping that if she listened, everyone’s enthusiasm for her work might persuade her to relent and allow her poetry to be republished, but I didn’t know then that her religious fundamentalism and mental condition had become so extreme that she regarded any poetry, not just her own, as the work of the Devil. When I was later given access to her surviving papers after her death to write the introduction to the Bloodaxe edition of her poetry, Bedouin of the London Evening, I found this curt note in her diary for the week of the repeat: “second postcard from Satan”.
You have said that at school your interest in poetry was kindled by a 1960s anthology of three Liverpool poets – Adrian Henri, Roger McGough, and Brian Patten. At the time those poets were looked down upon by the ‘poetry establishment’, even though they inspired in so many readers a lasting interest in and enthusiasm for poetry. What kind of reception do you hope for with Staying Human? Do you believe that by now the ‘poetry police’, that you warned against in your 2005 StAnza lecture, have been defeated and banished for good?
None of those critics have the same influence now that they had when Staying Alive came out, using the Guardian, Poetry Review, PN Review and Tower Poetry as platforms for their attacks. Michael Schmidt very kindly offered us a free advert in PN Review to help support the new anthology.
Any plans for a definitive Bloodaxe anthology on the pandemic? And on a positive conclusion, what developments in poetry have interested or excited you most in recent years?
Not yet. There’s already an online pandemic anthology available on Carol Ann Duffy’s Write Where We Are Now website at Manchester Metropolitan University, mostly covering poems from Britain and Ireland. Alice Quinn’s anthology Together in Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic was published by Knopf as a ebook in June with print publication to follow. We may well need to wait for the best work to become available.
The development which has excited me most has been the wider availability of poetry from around the world and from poets from diverse ethnic backgrounds, coupled with the greater prominence of poetry by women. For many years the Bloodaxe list was unusual and widely praised in being 50:50 male: female, not by any process of positive discrimination but just by picking the books which excited me most and which I most wanted to share with readers. That proportion has shifted in recent years to 70:30 female:male. That’s quite a change if you think about how things were when Bloodaxe started over 40 years ago when only a tiny number of women poets were published.
PHOTOGRAPH: PAMELA ROBERTSON-PEARCE