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Thursday, 28 May 2009

Saving Salt

Many of my best friends - and some of the best poets - are published by Salt, in the UK. Its highly innovative marketing and production design has meant a state of the art online presence, superb distribution in shops, and beautifully-made books. Over the last few years, its publisher and main editor, poet Chris Hamilton-Emery, has written enthusiastically about the new wave of publishing strategies Salt ushered in to the UK, in books, and online posts. At times, there was a Salt swagger, and a suggestion that some poetry editors used amateur techniques. Now, Salt is in financial trouble (aren't we all?) and has thrown itself on the mercy of the poetry-reading world, with an email message asking that everyone buy a Salt book, since sales are down 80% (!) - and keep its liquidity above the red line.

I think that everyone should buy a Salt book. I also wish everyone would buy a Salmon book - my Irish press is also facing a toughmoment, if only because poetry sales are down everywhere. I personally buy several poetry collections each month, and perhaps as many as 30 or 40 a year. I tend to buy across the presses - Carcanet, Faber, Bloodaxe, Seren, and so on - and of course, Salt, too. Eyewear reviews Salt books, and I have some more to review later in 2009. If I don't conk out first. So, yes - buy Salt books, and keep a worthy press going.

But, what does it say about British poetry, and poetry publishing, that such a great and innovative press needs to basically beg to stay alive? Staying Alive, indeed. Poetry in the UK, it seems to me, subsists based on two general claims, which cannot both be true: a) poetry is flourishing and popular and if intelligently and commercially handled it will sell as well as many literary novels; and b) poetry is culturally important, even if it does not sell well, and deserves to be supported by the government via arts grants.

Wallace Stevens, for one, didn't agree with b. He thought poetry and poets should be self-sustaining, and, in fact, the equation, in Britain and beyond, between poetry publishing, and poetry writing and reading, is often equivocal. Places like Nthposition - often espousing copyleft ideals - prove poems can be offered freely - poetry needn't be sold to be art, and to make a mark. Can there be poetry outside of a capitalist system?

But, let's get back to a and b, above. I happen to think that both are partially true. The government should support poetry publishing, but across a broad spectrum, making sure old boy biases are broken down, and new aesthetic options are supported; and also, some poetry, sometimes, can sell well. However, it is surely a hard sell to say that poetry is truly commercial and also truly needy. Which is it?

Needy, more than commercial, seems closer to the truth. If we expect parliament and the banks to reconsider their models, then publishers who ask for tax payer money should also consider how they will move forward in future. Do they represent good value for our investment? How many poets can any press afford to publish in a year?
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