The Ambulance Box – getting your poetry in print

Andrew PhilipAll writers struggle to ‘make it’ in the commercial world of publishing, but none more than poets. So it is always heartening to hear of publishers investing in emerging writers and new collections.  Scotland’s Andrew Philip has published two poetry pamphlets with HappenStance PressTonguefire (2005) and Andrew Philip: A Sampler (2008) – and was chosen as a Scottish Poetry Library “New Voice” in 2006. The Ambulance Box (2009) by Salt Publishing is his first book of poems. In this interview he discusses writing as therapy, writing in Scots, the effect of the credit crunch on new poets and the business of getting your poetry into print and trying to earn money from it.

Lullaby

this is the arm that held you
this is the hand that cradled your cold feet

these are the ears that heard you
whimper and cough throughout your brush with light

this is the chest that warmed you
these are the eyes that caught your glimpse of life

this is the man you fathered —
his voided love, his writhen pride and grief

(By Andrew Philip, reproduced with permission.)

TCW: The Ambulance Box is a very personal collection of poetry, largely in response to the death of your first child. Many people write poetry to help them psychologically ‘process’ their lives. What is it that separates a poem that is purely personal to one that is fit (dare I use the word) to enter the public domain?

AP: Craft. And the indefinable something that brings the language alive. The quality of the poem as a poem – however you measure that – must be paramount. Even if that isn’t the case at the outset, it must become the case at some point in the drafting process. In fact, if there is a drafting process, it probably means you’re thinking more poetically than therapeutically as it is.

That’s not to decry the value of writing as therapy. The poems about Aidan were certainly part of my grief work, and I was always conscious that they might not make the grade for publication. I assumed nothing in that respect, but it was probably impossible for me not to work on them as I would any other poems. I was relieved and delighted when it transpired that other people found them worth hearing and reading.

andrew-philip-the-ambulance-boxTCW: But The Ambulance Box is not just about grief. What criteria did you use to select poetry for this collection?

AP: First and foremost, I wanted to include my best work, but that’s not necessarily easy to define. I took account of what was best in the opinion of people I respect, but it had to come down to my instinct in the end. Thematic considerations came after that and influenced the order rather than the content.

TCW: Did your editor at Salt Publishing influence the final ‘cut’?

AP: No. I’d spent a considerable amount of time polishing up the manuscript before I submitted it. My friend Rob A Mackenzie was putting together a collection at around the same time. We swapped manuscripts, as readers of my blog will know well. That was extremely helpful. Chris Hamilton-Emery, my editor at Salt, made no changes. In fact, when he accepted the book he said, “There are no duds.” Chris tends to be a pretty hands-off editor anyway, but his comment was very gratifying, as you can imagine!

TCW: Are there any poems you regret didn’t go in?

AP: Not really. Some good poems from Tonguefire, my first pamphlet, didn’t go in because they didn’t seem to be quite good enough or to fit with the rest of the work in the book. If any of those had been top-drawer pieces, I would have found space for them. I also like the fact that people who own the pamphlet – which is sold out – still have something more worth reading in its own right.

TCW: About a third of the collection is written in Scots. [a tip to Crafty readers: if you read it out loud, you can just about understand it in English with a Scots accent! - Ed]. What marketing challenges does this raise when targeting an international readership.

AP: This is a funny one, because non-Scots speakers sometimes like the Scots poems best. It could actually be a marketing advantage because it helps to distinguish the work from other poetry coming out of Britain, even out of Scotland. The Scots diaspora is considerable, after all. The overseas market for things Scottish is generally interested in writing in Scots.

Writing in Scots is quite widely accepted in the UK poetry scene now. Some of the best-known Scottish names in the generation above mine – WN Herbert, Robert Crawford and Kathleen Jamie, for instance – have written work in Scots. Even John Burnside has turned his hand to it for a recent anthology, New Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect.

TCW: Would you ever bring out an entirely Scots / Gaelic collection?

AP: It’s unlikely I’d ever publish an entirely Gaelic collection, simply because I doubt whether I’ll ever reach the fluency necessary to write a book entirely in Gaelic. I’m more interested in bringing the three languages – Gaelic, Scots and English – together in different ways within poems. It seems to me that the aesthetic possibilities of that approach haven’t been fully explored.

That said, I could envisage myself bringing out an entirely Scots book. It just depends on having enough material. That’s something that feels like it’s beyond my control to an extent because it’s a matter of which language the poem wants to be in. For instance, “Berlin/Berlin/Berlin” started out in English but I soon felt that it would work better in Scots. It quickly became clear that that was the case. “Waukrife” and “Coronach”, on the other hand, were in Scots from the earliest drafts.

TCW: In terms of sales, what would constitute a commercial success for your publisher?

AP: It takes 400 sales in the UK over three years for Salt to break even on a book, so I suppose anything above that would be a success. The Ambulance Box is already into its first reprint. The initial run was, I think, 250 hardback copies and the reprint 100, so here’s hoping we hit the magic number!

TCW: Salt Publishing has recently gone public to announce that it is in financial difficulty. It has launched the Just One Book campaign to try and kick-start sales. What impact does this have on you and other new writers?

AP: It’s obviously very worrying. Chris and Jen [the owners - Ed] assured everyone that the backlist was safe, but it looked very much at one point like the frontlist – the books planned for publication for the rest of this year and beyond – would have to be to abandoned. I’m glad to say that they found a way round that.

I’m even more glad to say that they have started commissioning again. However, things are still pretty precarious and the Just One Book campaign continues. Griff Rhys Jones has thrown his weight behind it and my cover, as well as a few others, appeared on screen in Newsnight Review!

TCW: The schools market is obviously the biggest money spinner for poets. How does a poet go about getting into school anthologies?

AP: Good question. How does one get into any anthologies? My only appearance in a school anthology was the Scots-language book The Smoky Smirr O Rain, which came about because I was working with one of its editors – Matthew Fitt – on something else and showed him some of my Rilke translations. He also suggested me for 5PX2: Five Italian Poets and Five Scottish Poets. So I suppose the answer is that you have to be known to whoever is editing an anthology. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to know them, but it obviously helps if you know lots of poets and they know your work.

Probably a bigger source of income than anthologies is doing workshops and writing projects in schools. That, too, is about visibility and building relationships with teachers. Word of mouth is a powerful tool. If you do good work, people will recommend you.

TCW: You published two pamphlets before The Ambulance Box collection. What is the difference between a ‘pamphlet’ and a ‘collection’?

AP: Size, price, binding and visibility. That’s all, really. Full collections get noticed more, but pamphlets have become much more visible in the past six or seven years.

TCW: Would you advise new poets to try their hand at self-publishing?

AP: Self-publishing isn’t something I’ve any experience of, although I considered it at one point. ‘Tonguefire’ and ‘Andrew Philip: A Sampler’ were published by Helena Nelson’s HappenStance Press. Publishing with a small press means you have the validation of someone else sinking their time and money into your work, as well as the benefit of an editor’s input and another person working to sell the publication. Self-published pamphlets don’t have that.

I can see that self-publishing is particularly useful if you’re doing non-mainstream work that more commercial small presses won’t touch. For instance, Stephen Nelson self-published a pamphlet of visual poems, The Faithful City, which uses colour, layout and fonts in ways that would put off most small presses.

Helena’s pamphlet guide How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published includes a good discussion of this topic. There’s a lot of good advice in there.

TCW: What other advice would you give to new poets trying to get their work noticed?

AP: Read, read, read poetry and write, write, write it because that’s how you’ll get as good as you can. Read as broad a range as you can, historically and stylistically, but you must read contemporary poetry. Seek out informed criticism, take it on board and learn to sift out what elements of it are right for your writing.

Once you’re into the swing of all that, send out your work to good print and online magazines. If any editors take the trouble to give you notes of advice – or any notes at all – pay attention to what they say and keep sending to them. Magazine publication is still crucial to building a reputation in print. Look at the acknowledgements in your favourite contemporary poetry. Where do these poets publish? Aim for those magazines. In addition:

  • Go to poetry readings. Become involved in running them. Read and comment on blogs.
  • Maybe even write a blog, but don’t put all your poems on it. (Why would an editor take them if they’re all online?) [For advice on how to start your own blog see the Crafty Writer's Beginner Blogging for Writers series - Ed]
  • Read at open mike sessions.
  • Write reviews. In other words, become a player.
  • In addition to Helena Nelson’s pamphlet guide mentioned above, there is excellent advice in Chris Hamilton-Emery’s book 101 Ways to Make Poems Sell.
  • Claire Askew’s blog One Night Stanzas , which is where this tour stops next (on 23 June), is a good source of advice too. It’s aimed at new and, particularly, young poets.

TCW: Thanks Andy, and good luck with the tour (follow the rest of The Ambulance Box Tour here).

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6 comments on “The Ambulance Box – getting your poetry in print

  1. Pingback: Cyclone » The Ambulance Box Tour

  2. Robert on said:

    Solid advice. Thanks!

  3. Andrew Philip on said:

    A pleasure, Robert.

  4. Good questions, good succinct answers.

  5. Andrew Philip on said:

    Check out Chris Hamilton-Emery’s “100 Words of Advice” posts on the Salt website: http://saltpublishing.com/blogs/index.php?catid=13

  6. Pingback: Just Write Blog Carnival June 19, 2009 Edition | Incurable Disease of Writing

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