The Arts Council is no longer subsidising poetry publishers but giving direct grants to poets instead. The result: the death of the enriching working relationship between editor and poet
T.S. Eliot: A master editor of poetry
Publishing poetry has never been easy. As with any art whose cultural capital exceeds its financial muscle, hurdling the practicalities associated with bringing it to market requires doggedness and zeal. Increasingly however, these qualities are not enough to sustain even well-respected publishing houses.
In March, Flambard Press closed altogether, while in May one of the most important imprints for new and emerging poets decided to cease publishing single-author collections. Over the past 13 years, Salt Publishing has printed more than 400 volumes of poetry, establishing itself as a press willing to put its name to a large number of collections without compromising its critical rigour or diluting its keenness of eye and ear. Its decision, made with reluctance and regret, is a loss to British poetry and to British poets.
Salt and Flambard are by no means the only casualties. Since the overhaul of Arts Council funding in 2012, almost all subsidised art has faced difficulties. However, while the Arts Council has withdrawn or significantly reduced funding for almost all poetry publishers, it has continued to support projects aiming to encourage emerging poets and engage wider audiences with their work. Without disparaging these ambitions, one has to question an approach that supports the writing of poetry while neglecting the channels that are able to take it to a wider audience.
Jon Stone, an Eric Gregory Award-winning poet whose debut full-length School of Forgery was published by Salt in 2011, agrees that the current struggles of the poetry press represent a threat “to an infrastruc-ture that delivers the poetry to a broader public consciousness”. Stone is pursuing alternative means of dissemination, focusing on collaborative work through his own excellent micro-house, Sidekick Books. It seems likely that a growing number of poets will follow these more idiosyncratic routes, as mainstream publication opportunities become scarcer without a commensurate drop in the quantity or quality of poetry being composed. Such a strategy is not without its advantages, and poets have always worked beyond the borders of the industry. Nevertheless, there remains one feature of the traditional path to publication that a more self-reliant model will find difficult to replicate: the role of the editor.
At its best, the relationship between writer and editor is one of symbiosis: a vital and organic exchange of perspective that is able to benefit both parties. David Womersley wrote persuasively in Standpoint last October about the importance of T.S. Eliot’s editorial career to the evolution of his verse, and it is notable that even today a majority of poetry houses, both large and small, have practising poets at the heads of their editorial teams. This association of the critical and creative faculties, addressed by Eliot himself in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, is able to offer profound assistance to both apprentice and master in the growth of their respective voices. In this light, there is a suspicion that the Arts Council has failed to realise that the struggling publishers whose funding they have reduced perform a crucial role in the development work they seek to support.