Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Stone Venus: Launch Report

Last Friday, the 24th, Scarborough's 'Arts Workshop' was host to the launch of the fifteenth Valley Press book, Jo Reed's poetry collection Stone Venus.  And readers, good news - I think I've finally cracked the whole 'launch thing'.  Which is not to say the last two launches weren't successful; it's just that this one was really successful.  The secret was almost certainly holding it in the VP heartland, Scarborough's South Cliff area, where I would estimate more than half the residents have both heard of Valley Press and wish us well... how could it fail?

In the end, a record forty people turned up, and seventeen copies of the book were sold (as well as a few other titles) - a gauntlet for future launches has very much been laid down.  Other lessons I will take from this experience (besides the 'hold events in Scarborough' one) are as follows: 1) that it is possible to produce two books in one month... a bit stressful, yes, but doable, and 2) that you shouldn't leave books lying around unsupervised... unbelievably, while the reading was on, some wise guy slipped copies of both Lonely Destiny and Encore into their bag, in what I believe is known as the 'five finger discount'.  I have mixed feelings about this, but on the whole I think I'm pleased to have produced objects that induce such desire for ownership that people will break the law to possess them.  Now I know how Steve Jobs must have felt when the first iPod was shoplifted.

I should probably say a few words on how the book came about.  In fact, Stone Venus pre-dates most of the other recent projects, starting in early September 2010 when the publishing was very much a hobby, and I had no intention of pursuing it seriously... things have moved fast!  I had known Jo for a few years, she is part of what might one day be called the 'Scarborough set', including the likes of Felix Hodcroft and Nigel Gerrans, and a few others who I hope to get under the VP umbrella eventually.  She had just finished a Masters degree in Creative Writing, at Newcastle University, focusing mostly on poetry, and had produced a vast portfolio of poems - which I was only too happy to look through and edit.  After a bit of collaboration (which we managed despite Jo spending the entire winter in Dubai) we had soon trimmed the manuscript down to a manageable thirty-eight poems; Jo was even kind enough to let me order the poems, which is one of my favourite parts of the poetry publishing process.

In fact the whole process went extremely smoothly - even the cover design was worked out in the end, though with Jo being a professional artist by day, that part of the project did provide the most friction.  In fact Venus has set a new record for different versions of the cover, too... there were eight in total, the process finally ending with Jo getting pretty much what she wanted in the first place.  For the record, my favourite was a couple of editions previously - you can see it on the right.  Not bad eh?

Talking of pictorial content, it would be a poor launch post indeed if I didn't at this point produce a series of photographs documenting the launch... and there's another attempt at capturing poetry on video, though this one breaks additional records for poor quality.  I will definitely be investing the profits from July (if indeed there are any) on a mid-range video camera... suggestions for which model to go for should be forwarded in the usual manner.  Enjoy!

I noticed this welcome sight whilst getting a lift to the venue.  Why don't you have VP poetry books in your back seat pockets?

Here we can see a small portion of the massive crowd... I now look at this and try to spot the thief.  I think that might be him at the back, in the black-and-white striped shirt, with the calico sack labelled 'swag'.

Jo shows off the infamous rock, making the audience laugh by listing other things people think it looks like, besides the Venus de Milo.  Guests were invited to write their suggestions in a small book, and the winner won a free copy - this went to Jenny Thomas, who thought it was 'a failed prototype for a polar bear.'

The flowers on the left include a begonia, propagated from a plant previously owned by Jo's mother, a plant which is mentioned in the collection's opening poem.  Guests were invited to take a clipping themselves as a souvenir - this was a really interactive launch!

Rosie Larner reads her favourite poem from the collection, 'Exit Stage Left'.

Felix Hodcroft tackles 'Minotaur', in his usual dark and dramatic style... cracking stuff.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Poetry in Music: A Decline?

We all love music (if you don't, go away). It can cause great surges of emotion, inspire you, distract you and impress (or disgust) you. Often what I look for in music, in order to acquire these things from it, is creative, admirable lyrics or at least creative, admirable instrumentation. Most of my love for poetry stems mainly from great lyricists of the past and present and much that I write finds its origins in a rhythmic, musical womb.

However, is poetry and careful lyricism dying out in music? Modern day 'popstars' such as Rihanna, Chris Brown and Katy Perry seem to think it should be. Lyrics like ' Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?' are hardly the most incisive, heart-rending, spine-tingling lyrics one can ever have heard. Compare the inane lyrics of Rihanna's 'What's My Name' with the masterful, beautiful lines in Leonard Cohen's 'So Long, Marianne' and you'll begin to see what I mean.

Poignant, poetic and even bizarre themes & lyrics seem to have had much more prominence in the past decades of music. In the 90s, Stephen Malkmus and Pavement brought a madcap touch of poetry to their alt-surf rock, whilst Trent Reznor haunted listeners everywhere with chilling, goosebumptastic Nine Inch Nails songs. Going back further and to even more obvious examples, Bob Dylan's constantly brilliant wordplay and imagery make his lyrics just as effective on the page as in the earphones. See the heartbreaking but brilliant 'The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll' for just one example.

Despite the fact that it would be both harsh and naive to state that there is no great poetry remaining in music (bands such as Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens & Frank Turner keep that flame alight), it would perhaps be acceptable to say that the majority of modern music eschews meaningful subject or theme in favour of distressingly uninteresting ideas. Notice how often the words 'dj' and 'floor' are used these days? Jeez. Hardly the pagan imagery and beautiful acoustics of 'Stairway To Heaven' is it?

That being said, it's wonderful that bands with provocative, engaged lyrics such as Arcade Fire are beginning to get the recognition that they thoroughly deserve. What's not so wonderful are the countless number of genuinely poetic, earnest bands and songwriters left in the shadows because of a mass clamour for trash like that already mentioned. If I hear 'Do It Like A Dude' one more time....

I'd love for something of a resurgence of original, thought-provoking lyrics. Until then, though, I'll make do with this:

Keep it surreal.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The Ruby Slippers: Launch Report

On Saturday 11th June, London's 'Poetry Cafe' hosted the official launch event for Helen Burke's poetry collection The Ruby Slippers.  The launch came to be at this prestigious venue entirely thanks to Helen; she had negotiated a gig at the cafe when the book was just a twinkle in my eye. When I heard she'd got it, I immediately suggested it become the launch - and now here I am the week after, reporting on it.

This was the first Valley Press event of any kind to be held outside Yorkshire, and may well be the last - despite the gig being advertised in every conceivable location, and on every poetry listings website Google could trawl up, only one person turned up who none of us already knew (and even he only stayed for ten minutes, eventually excusing himself very politely).  A small rethink will be needed before attempting another launch outside of the VP comfort zone (which is located somewhere in a triangle between Scarborough, Hull and Leeds) but I do not wish to do Saturday's event a disservice - there was a great atmosphere, Helen and our musical guest Julian Willmore were on top form, and I ended up well in profit (sorry to bring money into the equation, but a man's gotta eat!)

Another plus point was the presence of professional musician and photographer Rikki Blue, who set about unobtrusively taking brilliant photographs, some of which I include below (see Facebook to view the full set).  I also include another of my grainy, slightly suspect launch videos, which has become the first content on the brand new Valley Press YouTube channel, open as of today.  Enjoy!

Me introducing the audience to Helen, while she inspects a copy of the book.

Helen pauses for dramatic effect during the first poem.

Reaction to an amusing audience comment during the Q&A.

Helen and Julian Willmore in full flow.

Helen signing a copy of 'The Ruby Slippers'. She has an interesting habit of never signing in the same place twice... no area of the introductory pages is safe.

Helen hands back Sarah's book, freshly signed.

Video of Helen reading the title poem of 'The Ruby Slippers'.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Ruby Slippers: First Look

This Saturday Helen Burke will become the seventh author to be published by Valley Press, when her collection of poetry The Ruby Slippers is launched in London.  As ever, I feel compelled to say a few words on how this book came about... before I do though, if you're in the capital on Saturday, let me take this opportunity to confirm the time and place of the launch:

Time: 7.30pm
Date: Saturday 11th June 2011
Location: The Poetry Cafe, London, WC2H 9BX (see map)

As usual, I'm wildly excited about the prospect of a good launch, perhaps even more so this time due to it being held in (unarguably - sorry Northerners) the centrepoint of British poetry.  I think there's an established understanding that Northern writing and publishing is all very well, charmingly provincial and all that, but you don't really make it till you arrive Down South, in the capital... the big smoke.  Not true, of course, but I'm happy to go along with it on this occasion.

As well as a reading from Helen (a renowned live performer, and the recipient of various awards for it), and the usual launch hob-nobbing, there will be music from Julian Willmore, who I recently learned neither me or Helen have met before.  However, I think I've found him here - I like it!

Helen herself is a true unique, so it's only fitting that her Valley Press book should have come about in a unique way.  In fact, I was a fan of Helen's writing before we'd ever met, or indeed I had any idea who she was; a friend of mine had left a copy of her first pamphlet (published in 1997, and simply titled 'Poetry') lying around when I was visiting.  While the friend made me a cup of tea, I was attracted by the distinctive red-and-black cover, and had a quick read - the fact I still remember this today (it was some years back) shows what a strong impression it left.  I remember distinctly thinking: 'this woman is the real deal.'  So you can imagine, it is something of an honour to be publishing a book that includes some of the very poems that impressed me so much back then.

I next heard of Helen when some of her poems appeared in Patterns of Hope, the now-classic charity anthology which was one of the first books to bear the Valley Press name (I wasn't involved in the editing that time, so they came as a nice surprise when I got my hands on one of the books).  That was 2009, and in March 2010 I finally encountered Helen - and got myself a signed copy of her fourth pamphlet - when she read at the library in Scarborough.  So far, so normal... the classic writer/fan relationship.

Things moved up a gear in January, however, when - days after I had decided to try publishing full-time - I received an email from Helen wondering if I could fix her up with a gig at the Scarborough Literature Festival (she is a great 'asker'; living proof that if you want your CV to say 'performed at many festivals and theatres' all you have to do is send emails... that, and give a decent performance, I suppose.)  My reply was along the lines of 'no, but how are you fixed for a publisher at the moment?'  200 emails later, and here we are, just days away from you ('the great unwashed') being able to get your hands on a copy of the book.  Having seen it myself, I can confirm it is absolutely spellbinding - poetry of the very highest calibre, and does what I most wanted it to do; communicate the refined essence of Helen's writing in a single, indispensable volume.  But then I would say that, wouldn't I.

I'll finish by reposting the leaflet for the launch, which I have been passing around lately.  Send it to your friends, why don't you - I hope to see you, and them, on Saturday!

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Encore: Back Story, Launch Photos & Miscellany

Back in the dark, cold mists of January (which now seems like a lifetime ago), only a week or two after I'd made the decision to run Valley Press full time, I got an email from one James Mcloughlin, expressing an interest in 'me and my publishing company' (which at the time, would have elicited a big grin - now I just nod and think 'so you should').  The rest is history - I read his poems, and loved them enough to commission a slim volume, which is out now and available through all good book vendors.  You've got to know him since then through his regular posts on this blog, more of which will be on the way I'm sure.

James' book was officially launched last Wednesday (25th May) in Leeds, and in my humble opinion the event went very well.  We certainly filled the venue, and James did brilliantly... making himself heard over a reggae festival downstairs (who were kind enough to turn down the speakers, actually; good blokes).  He did an especially good job considering he's a modest young man, and no veteran of the public-speaking circuit - though well on the way after this.  He was introduced by long-time Valley Press friend James Nash, who is a veteran and brought plenty of gravitas to the night (without diluting the sense of youth and vigour).  Appropriately enough, it was Mr. Nash who first gave James my contact details, so he was there for the birth and graduation of this particular child of VP (referring to the book, of course).

We also had help from fellow VP author Felix Hodcroft, who read James' darkly mysterious poem 'Lucidity II' - though when I sent it to him, he quipped 'is that Lucidity 2, or the notorious philosophical football team Lucidity 11?'  Public awareness for 'Encore' was also boosted by Andrew McMillan, who not only provided a great endorsement for the back cover, but also posted some of the poems on respected ezine Cadaverine - click here to read the poems and accompanying article. 

I'll finish this post with some pictures from the launch, and a video (which James has kindly uploaded to his YouTube channel), but before then I'd like to thank everyone who turned up on the night or helped with the book's production, and remind people who haven't read this excellent book that it is still available for a highly reasonable price, both as a paperback and now for the Kindle.  Tell your friends!

The crowd assembles, bracing themselves for some great poetry.

James Nash (left) introduces James Mcloughlin (right).

James reads his poem 'Expanding Borders'.

James Nash tackles 'Euphoric Nausea'.

Felix Hodcroft reads 'Lucidity II', also showing off the book.

And as promised, video evidence from the launch - James reading the title poem from his book.  Sorry about the quality, by the way; if anyone would like to donate a decent camera to the Valley Press effort, you know where to find me.  Also, excuse the carry-over from the reggae night downstairs... though I think it adds a bit of drama.  Think of it as a soundtrack.