Poetry has been and still is a revolution. What else but revolution would cause such a drastic shift in a scene? A scene which is putting big name publishers to one side, more and more often choosing instead to support the small press, the independent, the noble amateur poet. My problem with saying revolution is that this isn’t really anything new, for decades poets have been hand stitching chapbooks, photocopying poetry zines, taking their work into their own hands and putting it into other peoples.
So why are we seeing this resurgence now, and by the same virtue why did I take the jump and start my own small press?
In September 2017 I started working on the manuscript for what would eventually become How To Lose Your Shadow. I spent my evenings searching for publishers in the UK with open submission windows and looking at their work. You see as a trans woman I wanted to find a publisher I could feel comfortable working with and that I would be happy to say I was among their poets. At first I was hopeful as most publishers had a call out for more LGBTQ+ poets in their guidelines or claimed that printing more LGBTQ+ writers was a priority for them. Actually finding evidence of this in their catalogues was the hardest part and slowly my list grew smaller and smaller until I had just half a dozen names that fit what I was looking for.
What I found the most jarring was how different the published world was compared to the Spoken Word scene that I had found my feet in. Where shows in my area focused on giving platforms to as many different voices as they could without any prerequisites, publishing felt like you had to prove yourself first. We all know the drill: go to shows, go to slams, travel anywhere you have to, say yes, go to open mics, fight burnout, become a name, say yes, say yes, say yes! After all of that, you are bound to be published? Right?
It’s a wonderful dream but for the majority of poets I know it is just that, a dream. Travelling requires money, time off from work, from childcare, even submitting a manuscript costs. Often for low income + working class poets these risks and losses just aren’t an option. This pressure to become established keeps the poets we deserve to hear from the most locked in, and one that DIY indie presses can take steps to counteract.
In my case I refused to believe that the problem was that there aren’t enough LGBTQ+ poets and instead decided to put the little money I have where my mouth is. I imagined a small press committed to putting the work of Women and LGBTQ+ poets at the forefront of its operation, devoting what time and resources it can to promote these voices and making sure to take the right steps to represent them as best as it can. Thanks to the support of friends, family, and the York poetry scene Umbrella Poetry was born in January 2018 with the release of How To Lose Your Shadow.
At grassroots level the Spoken Word scene IS changing. Pay as you feel nights are popping up across the UK working to bring poetry to everyone without a price barrier. Live broadcasts on social media platforms have pulled over a thousand views and are breaking down distance barriers as performers work without leaving their homes.
These voices are the poets skipped over by poetries history, the acts who couldn’t get the train to a gig in time because they had to work. The writers who couldn’t afford to submit their manuscripts. The stories pushed aside as inappropriate for print. The artists who couldn’t make it out their house. The still scratching dreamers who didn’t feel comfortable or couldn’t see themselves in their scene. It’s up to publishing to make sure we do them justice.
From 3 of Cups successful Kickstarter to the mental health charity anthology Please Hear What I’m Not Saying. Burning Eye Books continuing to prove that spoken word deserves to live on the page to Valley Press providing an alternative for those that can’t afford submission costs. The Small Press is here to stay and it’s more supported than ever.
It always comes back to visibility. As performers, promoters, and publishers we have a duty of care to raise up those that need it. Increasing diversity of headliners means more people hear their voices, increasing diversity in publishing means more people read their words. If it all works together, someone somewhere will find themselves in a poet and be inspired to pick up a pen. Maybe they’ll even say yes to going to the open mic, maybe they’ll push down nerves and stand on stage. Maybe there’ll be someone in the audience watching, who sees themselves in a performer for the first time and leaves the night feeling inspired.
After all, it’s how I started.