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A cultural revolution

Poet and writer Andy Croft talks to Neil Astley, the founder and editor of Britain's most important poetry publisher, Bloodaxe Books, about putting the politics into poetry

November 14, 2008
8 min read

Thirty years ago, Bloodaxe Books was a one-man operation in a back bedroom in Newcastle. Today it is the most important publisher of poetry in the UK. Since publishing Ken Smith’s 65p pamphlet Tristan Crazy in 1978, Bloodaxe Books has published nearly 1,000 books by 300 different poets, including three Nobel Prize winners. The bestselling anthology Staying Alive has sold more than 100,000 copies in Britain alone. Every week a new Bloodaxe title hits the bookshelves.

But the Bloodaxe phenomenon is not just a publishing success story. Founder and editor Neil Astley has spent much of the past 30 years kicking open the dusty doors of privilege behind which poetry used to be written. Bloodaxe publishes more women poets than any other British publisher (including Jackie Kay, Maura Dooley and Selima Hill) and the most substantial list of Caribbean and black British poets (including John Agard, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Martin Carter and Benjamin Zephaniah). And Astley’s list includes many internationally-famous radical writers – such as Miroslav Holub, Paul Éluard, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Miguel Hernández and Mahmoud Darwish.

If Astley has helped to put politics in poetry, he has also taken poetry into politics with a number of high-profile interventions, notably Tom Paulin’s Ireland and the English Crisis, Tony Harrison’s V and Irina Ratushinskaya’s No, I’m Not Afraid, the publication of which helped secure the writer’s release from a Soviet labour camp on the eve of the 1986 Reykjavik summit between US president Ronald Reagan and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

To celebrate 30 years of the Bloodaxe cultural revolution, Astley and film-maker Pamela Robertson-Pearce have recently produced In Person: 30 Poets (Bloodaxe, £12), the world’s first poetry DVD-anthology containing six hours of reading by 30 poets from England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the USA, China, India, Spain, the Caribbean and Palestine.

Why did you start Bloodaxe? What was wrong with British poetry 30 years ago?

Adrian Mitchell once wrote: ‘Most people ignore most poetry / because / most poetry ignores most people.’ When I set up Bloodaxe in 1978, this was what I wanted to change. So much of the liveliest poetry was unknown outside a tiny, dedicated readership, while the main publication opportunities were being given to writers whose work was, by comparison, unimaginative and narrow-minded. Poetry publishing was controlled by a small group of men in London, who were mostly publishing a small group of poets, mostly men, mostly living in London, many of them friends or Oxbridge contemporaries. There were many kinds of poets whose startling work I felt deserved a wider readership. I saw myself as a representative reader, hungry for a much broader range of poetry.

To what extent has Bloodaxe followed the changes in British social and cultural life over the past 30 years, and to what extent do you think you have helped shape some of those changes?

I wanted to publish poets who had a strong following at grassroots level, appreciated by audiences at readings. Very few women were published in those days, which meant that new women writers had few role models. For me, one of Bloodaxe’s most important achievements has been to transform the publishing opportunities for women poets. The poetry agenda set in London seemed uninterested in what was being written elsewhere.

My perspective was inspired by living in the north-east. Bloodaxe’s eclectic, democratic style of publishing was inspired by Newcastle’s energetic, internationally-minded poetry culture. During the early years, Bloodaxe helped redress the balance in favour of northern, regional, working-class poets and women poets. As Bloodaxe grew and expanded its publishing, it was able to be more responsive to the changing literatures of Britain and of other countries. As Britain has become more culturally and ethnically various, so writers have been emerging from all kinds of different backgrounds. Their poetry has evolved in ways which appeal to more diverse audiences, but too many poetry publishers and magazines have failed to respond to these changes in our literature and readership.

But the key change was set in motion much earlier: the Butler Education Act of 1944. The first beneficiaries of this included many people from working-class backgrounds who went on to become writers: the generation of Douglas Dunn, Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill, Ted Hughes, Derek Mahon and Ken Smith, outsiders from Scotland, Belfast, the midlands and the north, whose first collections appeared in the 1960s. Their work influenced the next generation of poets, the so-called ‘New Generation’ represented by Michael Hulse, David Kennedy and David Morley in their anthology The New Poetry, published by Bloodaxe in 1993.

Poetry may have been opening its doors during these years, but at the same time British political life was closing down.

Bloodaxe has always provided a platform for alternative, dissenting voices. I see numerous connections between what the British and Irish poets were writing and the zeitgeist of those times: Tony Harrison, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Sean O’Brien, Peter Reading and Ken Smith, powerful dissenting voices in Thatcherite Britain; Ken Smith roaming eastern Europe after the break-up of the Soviet Union, writing from Berlin when the Wall came down; Benjamin Zephaniah, tireless fighter for racial tolerance, working with Michael Mansfield QC on the Stephen Lawrence case; Moniza Alvi, Imtiaz Dharker and Jackie Kay exploring urgent questions of cultural identity, race, gender and exile.

Many of the books are marked by particular conflicts: Tony Harrison’s The Gaze of the Gorgon, an arc of poems connecting the cataclysmic end of the second world war in 1945 with the first Gulf war in 1991; Choman Hardi’s Life for Us, charting lives marked by displacement, terror and flight from Kurdistan; Adrian Mitchell’s The Shadow Knows and Tell Me Lies, giving voice to the groundswell of anti-war, anti-New Labour feeling in Britain.

Do you think it is still true that ‘most poetry ignores

most people’?

No. Poets are now much more tuned in to how people think about the world and feel about themselves. Poets are no longer a separate species. Poets come from all kinds of backgrounds, women and men. What poets write is relevant to people’s lives and to their experience of the world, on an everyday as well as on a more spiritual level.

By relevance I don’t mean addressing the familiar or connecting with popular culture: I mean that poetry can speak to the whole human condition. On the other hand, while poets and poetry publishers have been reaching out to new audiences, people’s access to poetry has been made more difficult because of the dumbing-down of bookselling in Britain that followed the demise of the net book agreement [fixing the retail price of books] in 1995.

The flowering of bookselling in Britain led by Tim Waterstone and others in the 1980s was a great cultural event, which helped poetry publishers reach a much wider readership, along with the publishers serving other areas of culture – politics, theatre, women’s literature and women’s issues, gay and lesbian writing, black and Asian writing, and so on.

Bookshops were a key part of the counterculture that grew up in opposition to Thatcherism, but the supermarkets smashed that, so her market economy has won in the end.

Now we have bookshops that have little space for so-called ‘minority’ interests. As a result, many people who know little about contemporary poetry think it’s obscure, difficult, dull, boring or pretentious. It has a negative image with the general public, even among readers of literary fiction and people interested in theatre and film.

The Staying Alive anthology was my attempt to show all those people who love literature and language and traditional poetry that contemporary poetry is relevant, that much of it is lively, imaginative, versatile and accessible to intelligent readers who never gave it much of a chance before. And it succeeded. Staying Alive introduced thousands of new readers to contemporary poetry, and it won back thousands of readers who’d lost interest in poetry.

So why has the Bloodaxe project encountered so much

critical hostility?

The publication, dissemination and reception of poetry in Britain is still controlled by a tiny group of people engaged in protecting and promoting just one small part of contemporary poetry.

Yet the whole of modern English-language poetry is a set of multiple interconnected traditions, including the more culturally diverse oral-based and literary traditions of African-American, black British, Caribbean and south Asian poetry, with poetry in translation a parallel source of nourishment for poets and readers alike. Some of the poetry editors may be more interested in the work they’ve grown up with, but we live in a changing world with evolving literatures, and readers are much more interested in poetry by writers from all kinds of different backgrounds.

I believe that publishers have to be responsive to the readership. You have to lead the way in introducing and publishing writers you believe in, but you also have to serve the readership as well as the poets, which means you don’t ignore or exclude work by women and non-white writers, or poetry from other countries. I’ve said this on several other occasions, including the StAnza lecture I gave at St Andrews in 2005, which prompted discomfort in some quarters and even threats of legal action.

What is the next stage of the Bloodaxe revolution?

Not more of the same. More of the different.

Try Staying Alive, a collection of poems edited by Neil Astley.

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