Never mind the Forward: Smokestack publisher's breath of fresh air
Smokestack Books is celebrating its 10th birthday this year. In that time it has published 90 titles, “and not one of them has been reviewed by Poetry Review”, said publisher Andy Croft, introducing a reading at the Poetry Library at London's Southbank on Wednesday night.
If one was briefly in any doubt about whether this remark about the Poetry Society’s quarterly, influential organ was a complaint, a proud boast, or merely an observation, other remarks helped to clarify Croft’s position. Middlesbrough-based Smokestack, he said, had been set up 10 years ago as “a small antidote to the brain-freezing dullness” of much of contemporary British poetry.
To that extent he backed the argument of Jeremy Paxman, chair of the Forward Prize judges – “we can all agree that poetry is not as exciting as it could be” – but deplored the publicity surrounding the Forward and other similar awards: “Why do we tolerate the disfigurement of our British poetry scene by these stupid prizes?”
Croft’s apparent impatience with such local baubles can be explained by the fact that Smokestack’s interests and concerns extend far beyond these shores. As it says on its website, “Smokestack is interested in the World as well as the Word”, and its list includes books by Gustavo Pereira (Venezuela), Heinrich Heine (Germany), Rocco Scotellaro (Italy), Nicola Vaptsarov (Bulgaria), Francis Combes (France), Andras Mezei (Hungary) and Victor Jara (Chile), with other titles coming soon by writers from Guyana, Bosnia, USA, Italy, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
On Wednesday night Croft read poems set in Gaza by Judith Kazantzis; a deeply moving poem from Survivors, an anthology of Hungarian Jewish poetry from the 1940s; another, bilingual anthology, Crisis, from 34 “contemporary, crazy Greek poets”; and poetry from Gustavo Pereira, who, Croft said, had helped to write part of Venezuela’s constitution insisting on “the legal right to culture”.
However, those pesky prizes kept cropping up. Last year two Smokestack titles featured in the Forward shortlists. On Wednesday night cartoonist Martin Rowson told the audience that the appearance of his poem about Andrew Marvell in the Forward Book of Poetry coincided with his sacking – “that is the power of poetry” - from the books pages of the Independent on Sunday, where on a regular weekly basis for several years he had been retelling the history of literature in limerick form, “as a way of lowering the tone”.
Poems he entertained the audience with on Wednesday included ‘John Donne’ – “The poetic oeuvre of John Donne / Can be summed up as ‘Get one in, son!” – as well as the one about Marvell: “Metaphysicist Andrew Marvell / Put down his quill sighing, ‘Oh swell! / Where’s my one chance of joy / When my mistress is coy / What are we to do? Oh, ‘ ’Kin ’ell!” You get the picture. There are trademark Rowson illustrations in the books, as well. He intends to produce more rollicking volumes of The Limerickiad, to complete the history, and paid tribute to Croft’s esoteric taste as his publisher: “Andy’s always been a great supporter of this slightly deranged endeavour.”
The evening was completed by Richard Skinner reading from his collection, the light user scheme. He also mentioned prizes, revealing that that he had received an email notifying him that his poem had made the longlist of the National Poetry Competition. The organisers hoped he wasn’t too disappointed to have only made the longlist. Skinner made it clear that he had been delighted. His collection was introduced by Andy Croft as “not obviously a Smokestack title … but I have always been fascinated, addicted to poets who use form”. Skinner read a number of his brief, intriguing and evocative poems, with subjects including Ingmar Bergman, jaundice and Judas.
And then Croft had to leave, to catch his train, the 10pm from King’s Cross home to Middlesbrough. The principled, uncompromising, fiercely independent publisher could linger no longer at the Southbank; he had to head back to the north. His audience departed as well, invigorated by his breath of fresh air.