For the first of our spotlight features on small presses in the UK we are focussing on Live Canon, an independent poetry press based in London. We will be publishing interviews, poems and top tips as to how writers can get involved with small presses, who are now starting to be recognised as publishing some of the most diverse and interesting contemporary writing.
First up, our Poetry Editor Lawrence Illsley interviews Dr Helen Eastman, Director of Live Canon.
Hi Helen, how are things with you in lockdown?
Well, like many families, we are juggling home-school and work, but everyone’s muddling through. I feel very privileged to still have plenty of creative work, that I can do from home. Oh, and we had COVID, but no long-term symptoms, so, feeling very lucky.
Just quickly, what is Live Canon?
A poetry organisation. We are a not-for-profit supporting and encouraging poetry in lots of ways. We have a publishing company, an outreach arm, we collaborate with other artforms, produce events… and we have the Live Canon ensemble, a group of actors who specialise in performing poetry on stage and for radio and digital projects.
And how did you end up becoming a publisher of poetry books?
Excellent question. A convoluted route. I trained, after University, as a theatre director, and spent 10 years mainly directing physical theatre, opera, circus. I missed text, so I founded the Live Canon ensemble. A few years into that journey, Glyn Maxwell suggested, over a pint, that I started a publishing company. And so I did. I found I needed poetry in my life, not at its fringes, but right at its centre. Now I edit, publish, direct, teach poetry. Alongside that there’s also been my own writing journey, as a poet. My freelance work now is mostly writing lyrics and opera librettos, but there are still poems bubbling through. I’m currently doing a residency as a poet, and reconnecting with my craft.
You run a lot of live events – even continuing on the web during lockdown – is performing poetry important to you?
Essential. On a personal level I can imagine nothing better than listening to a good poem well performed. It goes beyond an intellectual experience to an aural and sensory one – voice, sound, metre, cadence. So, selfishly, I’ve created a way of spending as much time as possible listening to poetry (!) More seriously, my doctorate is in Classics, and the oldest forms of poetry from the ancient world, were aural (and oral). I’m interested in how we share text, and the ritual of gathering to listen. It strikes me that more now than ever, we need to remember to gather and to listen. In many cultures that is part of the community’s religious practice, but as someone who isn’t religious, a poetry reading fulfils a similar function; a time for people to come together and commit time to stopping, listening, thinking.
Co-winning the Live Canon Collection Competition has given me such a great opportunity. How important do you think competitions are for helping a new writer to get noticed?
For a small publishing company it is a really useful way for us to discover new poets, in a way that is more structured and manageable than just having a rolling submission window. It helps us to consider a wide spread of work anonymously, and then to draw attention to what we are publishing. Being brutally honest, the entry fees for many competitions are also what’s allowing small presses to keep functioning and publishing (there’s not much money in publishing poetry!)
And finally, what would you say to any Creative Writing students thinking about submitting their work to a small press?
Please do! Do your research, and find a press whose work you like and admire. Would you be proud to be alongside the other poets? Do you like the feel and design of the books? What sort of work do they publish? And then go for it!
Lawrence, alongside Alice Willitts and Samuel Prince, was one of the joint winners of the Live Canon Collection Competition 2020 judged by Glyn Maxwell. Live Canon published his collection A Brief History of Trees, which was first workshopped during his MA at Birkbeck.
Read on for three heart-stopping poems from the Live Canon Collection Competition winners.
LOVE / SAME OLD SEX MY PRETTY ELBOW by Alice Willitts
taken from her collection With Love
my bones press too hard at joints and wear through fibres
till even my pretty elbow peeps out where it rubs at threads
snuggled like capillaries, snapping and fraying — a pretty elbow pokes
out of the muscle of our entangled lives the evening you stand behind me
close enough to breathe on my neck and see the pale, exposed bone
send a shiver down my arm — you tuck your finger into the hole
and stroke my pretty elbow to let it know you know — in the morning
I choose a patch — I’ve kept our old shirts and jeans, scraps
I cut a circle of shell brown and with pricks of pink, stitch down a pattern
like cats tongues, overlapping the loving that mends us
Alice Willitts is a writer and plantswoman from the Fens. Dear, was published by Magma Poetry in 2019 having won their inaugural pamphlet competition. She co-edited Magma 78: Collaborations and is working on a longform collaborative poem. She runs the #57 Poetry Collective, is a founding member of the biodiversity project On The Verge Cambridge and is collecting rebel stories on the climate emergency for Channel Mag. Her debut collection, With Love, is published by Live Canon.
DESOLATION MEDICINE by Samuel Prince
taken from his collection Ulterior Atmospheres
Cinco de Mayo and tickets going fast
for the fiesta, the parade on Main,
block parties in the bungalow district.
Everywhere pales where you aren’t
and the remedy, the desolation medicine,
eludes me. Hit the barstools, skulk
the smokers’ patio, whacked and wracked
in the waffle house where the till clerk
has his patter down to a tee,
pealing out names to collect
juices-to-go, so, hey Ellie, hey Ryan,
hey MacKenzie and hey, you can’t throw
your arms around a reverberation,
Meredith, this rule you should know,
if you care to tear yourself from
the throes of that flash fiction quarterly
and behold me, quaff a Gatorade,
nosh a strip-steak and slaw sub
then sanitise my hands to lay the medals
of my defeats on the counter top.
There’s so much to disclose: the skunkworks
of our hearts, the passenger manifests
of our hearts, the audition tapes you’d make
for that hardboiled forget-me-not
masque of American woman.
Samuel Prince’s poems have been published in many print and online journals, including Atticus Review, Cordite Poetry Review, Magma and Poetry Salzburg Review, as well as various anthologies including Birdbook 2, Coin Opera 2 and Lives Beyond Us (all Sidekick Books), and The Emma Press Anthology of Love (Emma Press). He won first prize in the 2018 Café Writers Poetry Competition. His debut collection, ‘Ulterior Atmospheres’ is published by Live Canon.
A MOTHER BEECH, TREWELLARD (extract) by Lawrence Illsley
taken from his collection A Brief History of Trees
That August we sat in chairs, not moving.
Both of us absorbed. Reading old fiction
or watching television. The hovel
you called it. But it was home. More than room
enough. Sometimes I wrote and foliage
would appear in my mind. Every scene
seemed to require a green backdrop of trees.
Although the wildwood of another age
has long been stripped – for ships’ masts, or lathes
for plaster; for Bronze Age fires to cast swords;
fences to restrain pigs and sheep; wide boards
and planks for walls and drawers; swathe
after swathe cut, planed and sawed – lone trees still
survive, gracing the landscape. To describe
our windswept world requires knowledge. How I’d
not got sufficient vocabulary
at past thirty-five to identify
more than a handful of trees, a small copse,
bothered me. Whilst waiting in hospital
for the nurse to do your endoscopy,
I didn’t idly skim magazines from
last year, or leaflets on Stannah stairlifts.
I read books on trees – mapping out visits
to local woodlands, clifftops and valleys.
I had a hunch that something serious was happening