'There's no reason why poetry should have such a small readership': Paul McMenemy on his plans for a poetry bookshop
A crowdfunding appeal to raise £5,000 to fund a poetry bookshop in London has ended up just a few hundred pounds short of its target. In an interview with Frances Spurrier, the man behind the idea, Paul McMenemy, founder of Lunar Poetry magazine, explains why he thinks such a bookshop is needed. He also talks about teaching poetry in schools; what kind of bookshop he has in mind; and how poetry could improve the ways it sells itself.
Simon Armitage, in submitting a statement for consideration for the chair of poetry at Oxford, said that if given the post he would use the appointment “to discuss the situation of poetry and poets in the 21st century, to address the obstacles and opportunities brought about changes in education, changes in reading habits, the internet, poetry’s decreasing ‘market share’, poetry’s relationship with the civilian world and the (alleged) long lingering death of the book.” (Guardian, May 27). That’s quite a manifesto but also one which I feel clearly sets out the problems (and opportunities) for contemporary poetry. In proposing this bookshop you are placing yourself firmly on the side of “opportunities” for the printed word. May I ask what gave you the idea for the bookshop?
People generally like poetry, if they are introduced to it in some non-threatening, non-academic setting, where they aren’t immediately asked to say what it means. Most people’s first experience of poetry, though, is in this interrogative context – as a question they can’t answer, but are somehow expected to anyway. This is an extremely unpleasant experience. Perhaps we should look at why English teachers are asking this irrelevant question, “What does it mean?” to their students. It’s because the vast majority of English teachers, like the vast majority of everyone else, don’t really know anything about modern poetry, other than they’re pretty sure they don’t like it.
Well, who becomes an English teacher? Someone intelligent, with an interest in literature and language, who has probably studied at least a little bit of poetry at university. Some will have had the same unpleasant teenage experience with poetry in school that they are now handing on to their own pupils, but others will probably have had at least a bit of an interest in poetry as teenagers.
So say you are one of those lucky teenagers who manage to smuggle an interest in poetry out of high school. What next? I’ll tell you my own experience, in the hope of – at long last! – answering your question. I managed to leave school with an interest in poetry in tact largely thanks to some encouraging teachers and the preponderance of charity shops in the town in which I grew up. At this time these shops held a lot of old poetry collections, particularly the Penguin Modern Poets series.
So when I moved to the big city (Glasgow) to study, I had a pretty good knowledge of British poetry up to around the 1970s, but little idea about modern poetry. I now had access to real bookshops (the nearest one to where I grew up was about 65 miles away) but found that a) I had no idea which of the small amount of new poetry books carried by the Glasgow bookshops were any good, and b) I couldn’t afford them anyway. At that time, some of the larger chain stores still carried a few poetry magazines, but even they were pretty dear – certainly too dear to subscribe to – so I would only occasionally be able to buy one – and whenever I found one I liked, it would almost invariably go out of business soon after. Their reviews were generally uninformative, and of books I had no way of getting in any case (I did not, at the time, have a home computer).
I imagine most people at some point during this process would give up and move to a more accessible art form, like taxidermy. Even now, with internet access, a small disposable income, and the advantage of living somewhere where book and magazine launches, readings and spoken word nights are common occurrences, I am still nowhere near up to speed with modern poetry, because trying to find the stuff is such an unbearable faff.
Anyway, I started a cheap regular magazine to try and solve the problems that Student Me had accessing new poetry. Gradually I realised that even if Lunar Poetry had existed at the same time as Student Me, Student Me would never have found it, even with home internet access. What Student Me, and in fact Grown Up Me, and anyone else who wanted to try and keep up with modern poetry needed was something centralised and helpful, like a bookshop.
Staying on the Armitage quote for a moment, “poetry’s relationship with the civilian world”? To many struggling contemporary poets (and, it has to be said, publishers) it doesn’t seem to have one. How can this be addressed?
I realise Simon Armitage is being ironical here, but this is the crux of the problem. Both “Poetry” – as the monolithic construct, which of course it isn’t – and the mostly non-poetry reading public seem to regard poetry – the stuff itself – as being at a remove from the experiences of that public – ie, that the two have nothing to do with each other. Artists working in other media would not phrase it this way.
So the “opportunities” the bookshop would aim to provide are for both the printed word and the public. I am not setting this up because I think poetry deserves a wider readership, but because I think a wider readership deserves poetry. There is no real reason why poetry should have such a small readership. Sure, some poetry is “difficult”, but so are some films, and no one would ever say that film, as a medium, is difficult, or – which is what the term really means – irrelevant. The difference is in how poetry has been presented. Far too many poets and publishers, critics and teachers have acquiesced to the notion that poetry is some rarefied thing, beyond the grasp of clayey humans.
Now you can say this isn’t poetry’s fault, but we (as in “Poetry”) don’t help ourselves much. For a start, high school poetry lessons wouldn’t be so traumatic if we were exposed to poetry at an earlier age and outside of an educational context. But there isn’t a great deal of new children’s poetry being published. This is weird. Children like poetry – they are generally receptive to its inherent ambivalence in a way which adults (trained to want to be able to answer the question “what does it mean?”) are not. And children’s publishing is the one area of the sector where sales are generally increasing, so it seems to me that every poetry publisher ought to be trying to produce work for kids and get it into bookshops.
At a time when many independent bookshops are closing, opening any shop must seem like a challenge. Why now?
There are a number of good independent bookshops fairly near where I live in south-east London, and it seems that the ones which succeed are the ones which manage to create a feeling of community around them, both through simply being good shops and inviting places to visit, and through their online presence and things like readings, book groups and so on. A bookshop with a special niche interest has an advantage as far as those things are concerned.
Why now? Because I waited long enough to see if anyone else was going bother to do it, and apparently they weren’t.
It’s true that a new and affordable physical space for poetry in London is badly needed. Can you say a little about the space and type of events you propose.
The space is I’klectik Art Lab, which is a gallery/café/performance space owned by Eduard Solaz. There is currently already a monthly free spoken word night, Silence Found a Tongue, held there. In addition, we propose to use the space for readings, performances, launches, workshops, book groups, collaborations, exhibitions … anything we can think of, and that Eduard will let us do, really.
Many independent publishers rely on their website for sales, but a website is not proactive. How will you handle stock and sales in the shop?
The best part about bookshops – any shop, really – is tripping over something you’d never seen or heard of before and thinking, “That looks fantastic!” Many of the novels that mean the most to me have been found that way, but I’ve rarely had that experience with poetry, because there has rarely been the opportunity.
We want to have the most comprehensive range of poetry available. I have already put out an open letter to publishers, a number of whom have since been in touch, and I will be writing to every publisher and distributor I can find, in order to make arrangements to stock as wide a variety of poetry as I can.
There are three main differences between a physical shop and an online one. Browsing is the most important. Most publishers rely not only on website sales, but on sales specifically from their own website. As there are so many small publishers, and their websites tend to be limited in the information they give to prospective customers, the chances are that if you find yourself on the website of a particular publisher, it is because you already know what you want to buy..
Having a space where everything is in one place and where, instead of being limited to the cover image, a bit of blurb, maybe a puff-quote or two, and maybe, just maybe, a sample poem, you can instead open the book up and read any poem you choose from it is incredibly important. There have been plenty of occasions when I’ve gone to a website intending to buy a specific collection, and, once I’ve got there decided, “You know what, I think I’ll leave it,” because there wasn’t really any information there, or the sample poem didn’t catch me.
Having someone to talk to – whether it’s the staff or other customers – is important. First for the obvious reason that they can give advice, recommendations, and all the rest of it, but also because part of poetry’s image problem is that it’s seen as rather anti-social and isolating. Having poetry acting in a social space (not just the “I talk, you listen” social space of a formal reading) is important. I want people to come in, have a chat, have a coffee, feel comfortable. This is what I mean when I talk about poetry being part of the real world – it’s not subject matter or style, or even education that’s the main thing – it’s how poetry interacts with the world, the idea that it can be part, and not necessarily the most important part, of a normal social interaction is incredibly important if we’re going to normalise poetry in British society.
Take away poetry’s scary image?
Yes. As well as this, we will be taking poetry books outside of the shop, to markets, book fairs, spoken word nights, and perhaps hosting a few events in less poetry-centric environments. That said, the fact of the bookshop being a physical space, and a place to go for not just poetry publications, but workshops, gigs and so on, ought to promote the publications as well.
Finally we want to have a sales website. As you say, websites are passive, but they could be an awful lot better. Having a central online portal to look at a range of books and magazines, rather than just those by one publisher, would be hugely helpful (it’s also one of the reasons this project is not just for people in London); and giving people a decent amount of information about the books they are looking at would be helpful too.
There seems to be very little arts funding around these days and such money as there is does not hurtle towards poetry projects. Do you feel this weary antipathy towards contemporary poetry is deserved?
We don’t live in an era notable for government patronage of the arts. There are two obvious things to do in this situation, preferably simultaneously: 1) attempt to do what you can without arts funding – crowdfunding, which we are using to get the shop off the ground, is a good alternative; 2) get involved in politics – if you don’t like the way the country is run, make the case, however you can, for a better way of doing things. Unfortunately, in my admittedly limited experience of people who have/don’t have/used to have arts funding, they mainly seem to choose option 3) have a bit of a moan, and apply again next time.
You can find find the crowdfunding page for the Lunar Poetry bookshop here