Neil Astley writes…
When I set up Bloodaxe Books in Newcastle in 1978, I wanted to publish poets who had a strong following at grassroots level, whose work was appreciated by audiences at readings and by the readers of the poetry magazines, but wasn’t recognised by the main publishers of poetry in the 70s, many of whom seemed to think for some reason that only poetry by middle-class Oxbridge-educated white men from the Home Counties was worth printing. I had been part of that grassroots poetry culture for some time, working for Jon Silkin’s Stand magazine as well as producing small press pamphlets and organising readings at Morden Tower and Newcastle University. Bloodaxe’s eclectic, democratic style of publishing was inspired by Newcastle’s energetic, internationally-minded poetry culture.
My aim has always been to publish as wide a range as possible of contemporary poetry by all kinds of writers, in so doing bringing more readers to modern poetry. After starting off by publishing mainly new or neglected poets from northern England, I broadened the programme to include leading poets from America, the Caribbean and Europe, alongside new and established poets from all parts of Britain and Ireland, ranging from modernists like Basil Bunting, J.H. Prynne and Roy Fisher to performance poets John Agard and Benjamin Zephaniah, plus virtually every style of modern poetry in between. I’m very much against narrowness in poetry publishing: I believe that there’s good work across the board, from the traditional to the avant-garde, and so I am to publish the best work from all the different areas of contemporary poetry.
I’ve taken a pro-active stance in publishing the work of women poets and writers from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds not out of political correctness but because I’ve always had two primary concerns as a poetry editor: literary quality and broadening the readership of contemporary poetry, and that involves being responsive to the changing literatures of Britain and other countries. And so the list which evolved over four decades became roughly 50:50 male: female (although latterly it has shifted to 70:30 female:male) and 14% BAME in response to the quality of work taken on.
Bloodaxe publishes a range of books appealing not only to the core poetry readership but to all kinds of readers from all kinds of backgrounds: over 1000 books by over 300 writers, of which around 500 remain in print but with many past collections absorbed into later editions of selected or collected poems. The average number of new titles per year is 25. These will always include translations and American poetry, two strands to Bloodaxe’s publishing which I’ve always felt are essential for writers as well as readers. It’s been enormously encouraging to have been able to witness the vitalising effect of this. Books by many of the poets I’ve published over the years from America and Eastern Europe in particular have had an invigorating influence on poets in Britain and Ireland, contributing to the vitality and pluralism of 21st century poetry, and that in turn brings more readers to poetry.
Anthologies have played a key role here. When I first had the idea for Staying Alive, it was for a diverse and lively book to introduce new readers to contemporary poetry as well as to show existing poetry readers a wider range of poetry from around the world than is generally available from British poetry publishers. Staying Alive was published in 2002, and there are now four volumes in what has become the Staying Alive series: the sequel, Being Alive, came out in 2004; a companion anthology, Being Human, followed in 2011; and most recently, a fourth anthology, Staying Human, in 2020. In 2012 I produced Essential Poems from the Staying Alive Trilogy, a selection of 100 poems from the 1500 in the first three volumes; in April 2015 this became the first poetry anthology to be selected for World Book Night, when 12,500 copies were given away free, part of a promotion organised by the Reading Agency aimed at reaching the 35% of the adult population that doesn’t read for pleasure.
Staying Alive became Britain’s biggest selling poetry book of the decade, but it wasn’t a one-off phenomenon for Bloodaxe. In any year I will be working with our poets on their latest collections, or on selecteds and collecteds, as well as with the new poets on their debut volumes, but at the same time we will be researching and trying out new ways to take contemporary poetry to a broader audience.
Such initiatives have included things like working with reading groups and libraries in Nottingham and the Midlands as well as with poetry and literature festivals around the world ; helping to organise and publish the continuing series of Newcastle/Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures at Newcastle University; and working with Jonathan Davidson’s team at Book Communications in Birmingham who have now produced five touring theatre shows based on Bloodaxe anthologies. All these projects are examples of the work we do at grassroots level to stimulate more interest in contemporary poetry. The books we publish are the visible part our work, but we do a lot more than just publish poetry books.
For many years we’ve been recording and latterly filming our poets, then making poetry readings available on DVDs and CDs with books and via the internet, a new way of getting poetry out there to wider audiences around the world. Another landmark Bloodaxe anthology was In Person (filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce, 2008): a revolutionary concept in poetry publishing, giving the reader videos of 30 poets from around the world on two DVDs which come with a book including all the poems read on the films. There are six hours of readings altogether, and you can select which poets you want to see, in effect giving readers anywhere in the world a portable poetry festival. This was followed by In Person: World Poets in 2017 featuring 59 poets with 4 DVDs with 14 hours of readings and film features.
Bloodaxe is a publisher of poetry via all kinds of media, including live performance, audio, video, internet, app, radio and television. Most of our new titles are published in both print and ebook formats. In 2018 we launched the Bloodaxe Poetry App developed in partnership with Newcastle University enabling readers to read, watch, listen to, and share poetry on their mobile devices. This currently covers 70 poets. We’ve also introduced a new kind of digital edition: enhanced e-books with audio. Releases in this area have included titles by Simon Armitage, Ana Blandiana, Basil Bunting and Tomas Tranströmer. These enable you to listen to the poet reading his or her work with the text in front of you. With poetry in translation you can listen to the poet reading in the original language while following that language or the English translation on your Kindle or iPad as well as when flipping between the two.
Editing, designing, printing and marketing the books is the central strand in our activity, but we then work with many people and organisations – especially radio producers, literary editors on newspapers, festivals and events organisers – to get the poetry out there, to get the poets heard as much as possible as well as read on the page. We reach tens of thousands of readers every year through sales of our individual poetry books, but the number of people reached through the use of our poems in a wide variety of media, including radio, TV, newspapers, websites, drama and film, is much much higher. In 2019-20 we reached 913 million people with poems via other media. So that’s something worth mentioning when anyone talks about poetry having a tiny audience and questions the value of public funding for poetry publishers.