Publisher Profile February 2011: Bloodaxe Books

Article Image 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 appreciated by audiences at readings and by the readers of the poetry magazines, but was not 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 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 contemporary 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'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 the list which has evolved over 30 years is roughly 50:50 male: female. This is unusual but it shouldn't be.

Bloodaxe publishes a range of books which will appeal not just 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 400 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 just over 30. 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 three volumes in what has become the Staying Alive trilogy: the sequel, Being Alive, came out in 2004, and a companion anthology, Being Human, followed in March 2011.

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 West Midlands, producing poetry cassettes with the British Council, and helping to organise and publish the continuing series of Newcastle/Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures at Newcastle University.

Jonathan Davidson's team at Book Communications in Birmingham have produced three touring theatre shows which have taken live poetry performances to venues across Britain: the first drew on Staying Alive, the second on Being Alive, and the most recent, Changing Lives, was a theatre piece using poems from books published by Bloodaxe over the past 30 years. Bloodaxe's chairman Simon Thirsk has played a key role in initiating or developing many of these projects.

We've also been recording and filming our poets, and making poetry readings available on DVDs and CDs with books and on the internet, a new way of getting poetry out there to wider audiences using digital technology. Another landmark anthology was In Person (filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce, 2008), which was a revolutionary concept in poetry publishing, giving the reader videos of thirty 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.

We've now filmed over 100 poets; there will be a further international DVD anthology to follow shortly covering more of Bloodaxe's writers, and we also have DVD-books with individuals poets either already out or on the way - by John Agard, Jean ‘Binta' Breeze, Samuel Menashe and Benjamin Zephaniah - as well as the new edition of Basil Bunting's Briggflatts which includes an audio CD of Bunting reading the whole work (in 1967) and a DVD of a wonderful film made about him (in 1982).

I think the PBS made an excellent decision to have In Person as their free book for new members because it doesn't just bring contemporary poetry alive on the page, it enables readers to see and hear the poets reading their work.

I see Bloodaxe as not only a publisher of poetry books but a publisher of poetry via all kinds of media, including live performance, audio, video, internet, radio and television - and now e-books too. 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.

Neil Astley founded Bloodaxe Books in 1978. As well as Staying Alive, Being Alive and Being Human, he has published two poetry collections and several other anthologies, including Earth Shattering and two collaborations with Pamela Robertson-Pearce, Soul Food and the DVD-book In Person, along with two novels, The End of My Tether (shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award), and The Sheep Who Changed the World.

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