33 Years and More: Poetry Publishing and Writer Development in the North of England

In Spring 2019 The Poetry Business sent out an appeal to the poetry community. Our annual Arts Council bid had failed, and we needed to raise urgent funds when not only our publishing programme, but the whole future of the business was in jeopardy. There was an astonishing response, and within 48 hours our crowd-funding campaign had received over £14,000 in pledges, wonderfully bringing us back into daylight. Ultimately 380 supporters came to our aid, and by 22nd April we had successfully raised enough to regroup and move forward with our work for the rest of the year.

We were overwhelmed by the generosity of our readers, writers, and supporters, not just financially but by what they had to say about why we were important to them. Such a fantastically heartening response brought home again that there is a thriving poetry community in the North – and that without doubt poetry is seen as essential to literature in the UK. There is more demand than ever from readers and writers in the North and indeed across the country for independent publishing.

…There is more demand than ever from readers and writers in the North and indeed across the country for independent publishing…

Our fundraising campaign, 33 years and more, strove to highlight the crucial work that has always relied on the energy and enthusiasm of so many under- (and often non-) funded independent magazines and publishers (the so-called ‘small presses’).

The Poetry Business began in the 1980s with The North magazine, named in contrast to what was then a prevailing ‘southerly wind’. The first issue included early work by Northern writers who have since become nationally known, including Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, Ian McMillan and Michael Schmidt. Based at Huddersfield Polytechnic, Peter Sansom ran evening workshops for local writers and, with access to the print room, produced a handful of pamphlets, the first of which was Human Geography by a probation officer and workshop member, who would go on to become Professor of Poetry at Oxford and the Poet Laureate. The mid-eighties was an exciting time for poetry, with so much getting underway, notably the arrival of Bloodaxe Books in Newcastle and the growth of Carcanet Press in Manchester. Those embattled times of social inequality, of Margaret Thatcher and the Miners Strike, seemed oddly to foster poetry reading and writing. Poetry book sales, though rarely it has to be said huge, did increase exponentially, and suddenly poetry readings and writing workshops were everywhere. It is interesting to reflect that just now, when the world is in a similarly crazy place, people are again turning to poetry in ever larger numbers. There is something about the authenticity of poetry and the way that its music speaks one person to another, that seems genuinely to be needed at a time of fake news and corrupted values.

…There is something about the authenticity of poetry and the way that its music speaks one person to another, that seems genuinely to be needed at a time of fake news and corrupted values….

Between the eighties and now, the Poetry Business has kept faith with readers and writers, and it is clear from the response to our appeal that the poetry community has kept faith with us. What began as a sole-trader company on a £40 a week Enterprise Allowance, has grown to employ nine people (though all but one of us part-time) and has become a key part of the poetry infrastructure, very much Northern in identity but with a national and increasingly international remit.

Ironically, our funding crisis came at a time when The Poetry Business has never felt more successful. The failure was largely due to the Arts Council bidding process and how much money there is available in the increasingly straitened ACE budget. (We have always felt very supported by the Arts Council and not just financially.) And it was at a time when we have never reached as many poets and readers through book and magazine sales, and through our teaching. The 2019 International Book & Pamphlet Competition attracted higher numbers then ever and the Writer Development strand of The Poetry Business enjoyed a record number of applications for its ninth Writing School, alongside a flourishing programme of Writing Days (now in Sheffield and Manchester) and our ever popular residential courses, often in collaboration with the Arvon Foundation.

We have a varied and dynamic back catalogue of publications by some of the UK’s best-known poets, including Simon Armitage, Sophie Hannah, Mimi Khalvati, Michael Laskey, Ian McMillan, Alison McVety, Blake Morrison, Daljit Nagra and Catherine Smith. We also publish a number of outstanding illustrated poetry books for children. We have been fortunate in working with the best new writers – Mary Jean Chan, Kayo Chingonyi, Andrew McMillan and Helen Mort — to find the best younger writers for our New Poets List, while at the same time collaborating with Carol Ann Duffy on our Laureate’s Choice pamphlet series and its splendid just-published Anthology.

Other collaborations include the Irish issue of The North, brilliantly guest-edited by Jane Clarke and Nessa O’Mahoney. and such anthologies as ‘One for the Road’ – poems about pubs — edited by Stuart Maconie and Helen Mort, and a forthcoming anthology about running, edited by Paul Deaton, Kim Moore and Ben Wilkinson – and endorsed by three times Olympian Jo Pavey. It seems fitting to end this article by mentioning our collaborations with two outstanding Northern-based initiatives, HIVE Young Writers Network and the Writing Squad, and the book Introduction X of which we are extremely proud — an important anthology that showcases the sophisticated, technically-assured and brilliant poetry being produced by young writers still in their teens and twenties – the future of contemporary poetry.