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
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
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.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill