Pamphlet Power, Poet Power

I consider the making of poems to be comparable with any other art form: it requires skill and practice; it involves a combination of yourself and your material. When we practise the making of poetry we are rewarded by own degree of satisfaction with what we have achieved: never perfect, always leading us on to further challenge and experiment, looking, if possible, for some response from others.

A work of art is not designed to be a commercial product for immediate consumption by as many people as possible. Poems require a readership rather than a market. A readership grows all the time and across space. We hope it will continue to grow forever. The readership for one poet’s work may overlap with or may be quite distinct from the readership for another’s. Also a readership changes as the poet grows and changes, developing an authentic voice.

When a poet has been making poems for a few years, perhaps having some published in magazines, the time grows ripe for a book collection to appear. But book publishing is an expensive business. Production, editing, printing, binding, packaging, storage and advertising all cost money. Booksellers take typically 50 per cent of the cover price. Clearly, the more copies published the cheaper the unit cost of a book but with poetry small editions are the norm. Commercial publishing for poetry has always been a myth. Even prestigious publications have public subsidy and often end up remaindered.

This is where independent publishing comes into its own. Particularly in pamphlet publishing, economies of cost do not necessarily translate into economies of style or content. Independent publishing is an alternative choice, not second best. Pamphlets, limited and subscribers’ editions of poetry have an illustrious history in Scotland that stretches back hundreds of years.

Pamphlets have always played a key role in poetry publishing, something that was seen as a central issue when the concept of the Scottish Poetry Library was originally formulated. Its specialist focus and recognition of the significance of poetry in pamphlet form is reflected in the fact that there are now over 600 pamphlets in its catalogue. Taken together they provide a holistic sense of the evolution of the poetry-writing community, particularly within Scotland but also further afield. Computer technology has made the production of pamphlets cheaper and easier than ever. It offers a new creative democracy. Poets in Scotland – individually, in groups and through publishers, such as Duncan Glen (Akros) and James Robertson (Kettilonia) – have started to explore the power of the pamphlet.

In the current context, the advantages of pamphlets are that they are financially viable and sustainable, convenient to carry around and to sell at readings and capable of being printed to order, saving on storage costs. The disadvantages are that they are not stocked by bookshops and pamphlet publications, whether prose or poetry, tend not to get reviews or major literary prizes.

However, with the inauguration of the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award, Scottish poetry pamphlets are getting a higher profile. The award was launched earlier this year with the backing of the National Library of Scotland, an institution that understands the historical significance of pamphlets and sees the contemporary output as part of an important continuum.

All human energies describe a figure of eight – we give forth and receive back. The figure of eight for poetry, that has for too long been truncated due to lack of publishing possibilities, is now being restores as Scottish poets begin to assert our own criteria as to what is ‘suitable’ for publication. It is even possible that a more open-minded breed of reviewers and critics will emerge who respect the value of independent pamphlet publishing.

The Callum Macdonald Memorial Award has a website for poetry pamphlet publishers engaged with Scottish culture:

Copyright Tessa Ransford 2005.


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