Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency