Wednesday, 12 May 2010

An Interview with Helena Nelson

Helena Nelson is the founder of HappenStance Press, (shortlisted for the Michael Marks pamphlet publisher award in 2009 and 2010). In August 2005 she launched a chapbook review (Sphinx) whose last paper issue appeared earlier this year. The magazine contained features about poetry publishing and interviews with small-press editors. It's time to turn the tables

You teach, write poetry, prose and reviews as well as run a press. Which of these activities most interfere with others? Do any have beneficial side-effects?
I teach in a further education college. It isn’t very academic, though it does involve teaching some literature. Most of the students I work with dislike poetry. That’s beneficial to me because it keeps the ‘arty’ stuff in perspective. Working in college also pays the bills which is more than just beneficial – it’s essential. I love writing, but I can’t write poems all the time (or even very often). In my case, poems won’t arrive to order (or commission). But at least I can choose to do prose and reviews, both of which give me aesthetic pleasure. I like syntax. I like sentences. I like manipulating words. And the reviews keep my critical faculties sharp – or at least I hope they do – and keep me in tune with what’s going on in contemporary poetry. I’ve spent most of my life wondering what on earth this poetry stuff is really about – why I write it and what it is that I myself and other poets are doing. Critical writing is another way of pursuing that investigation.

Do you still write fiction? Do you feel you've sacrificed your writing to run HappenStance?
I used to write romantic stories for women’s magazines a long time ago. It was a fun and taught me a lot but even back then it used up all my creative juice. Later I did some literary short stories but they weren’t good enough. These days my brain doesn’t work in a short-story way, though I do like non-fiction, reflective writing. I haven’t sacrificed my writing to run HappenStance, although I have given it (I don’t think of it as a ‘sacrifice’) a great deal of time. Often I think it’s good for poets not to have much opportunity to write. It prevents much self-indulgent twaddle. If a poem is a strong one, it will make time for itself.

Is your family involved with HappenStance too?
My daughter Gillian does most of the images for the chapbook covers and she also helps at launches. She’s making the cake for the HappenStance fifth birthday party in June. My son used to review for Sphinx but he’s working in Geneva which is not exactly handy.

You've met or communicated with many small-press publishers. Which do you most envy, and why?
I don’t envy any of them but I admire nearly all of them to varying degrees.

You re-discover neglected poets as well as launch new ones. Which excites you the most?
It’s hard to say. I get excited about each publication I’m working on. However, there’s something magical about working on a dead poet. I don’t mean anything necrophiliac – more a sense of being connected with literary history and seeing connections and patterns. Perhaps even influencing the immortal memory a little bit.

Do you wait for new poets to contact you or do you search for them? If so, where?
No time to search for them. They arrive, either through submissions or recommendations or I meet them or hear them somewhere. Or a name I’ve been seeing in magazines for ages suddenly turns into a person.

What have you been most proud of in your publishing work so far?

  • I’m very proud of the Sphinx tripartite review scheme, as I call it. It is fascinating getting pamphlet publications reviewed (and also rated) by three different people. I’ve never seen anything like this anywhere else and I’d like to think that eventually people would sit up and take notice if a publication (not necessarily one of mine) got a high rating there.
  • After the first year or so, I started the HappenStance subscriber scheme. This was initially because I didn’t want to mailshot people who would put the paperwork straight in the bin. I hate the way flyers fall endlessly out of poetry magazines. For a small payment, my subscribers get a ‘free’ pamphlet, publicity material and merchandise, as well as an annual chapter of the ‘HappenStance Story’. It’s not just a way of pulling in money. It builds an informed readership. I ask people to send back comments on what they’ve read. Most do. Without readers, poets are redundant. Lots of my subscribers are poets of course. Many of them are people whose work I’ve turned down, but I hope they still feel like they belong to something that matters and to which they matter in return.

What role do the small-press poetry magazines perform nowadays? Are they becoming less important? Have you ever been tempted to edit one?
I think they reflect what’s going on at the grass roots of contemporary poetry reading and writing. The grass is teeming with interesting life. It’s full of enthusiasms and obsessions and imitations and cliques and jobbing manoevres and occasional inspirations. You see trends and patterns and sometimes attention-catching writers popping up. Magazines are art forms in themselves too - they say a lot about their editors or editorial boards. I’ve learned a lot from reading the small magazines, and that continues to be true. And yes, I have been tempted to edit one but it would take over my life.

What developments in the literary world do you consider most significant this decade. Are any beneficial?
The World Wide Web. It puts people in touch who would never normally make connections. It brings all the dynamic, changing versions of the English language together. It changes everything. It’s a grand equalizer. I love paper, but I love these connections too. I can’t see where it will go or how much difference it will make to what we call ‘literature’ but I can’t help but be excited by it.

How should public money be channeled into literature? How does Scotland differ from England?
Hell, Tim, I don’t know. I’ve never been a beneficiary of public money, except as a poet doing readings subsidised by the Scottish Book Trust. Sometimes I think all public money spent on the arts is endlessly recycled: I get paid for a poetry reading. I spend the money on either buying poetry or going to someone else’s reading or publishing the next pamphlet. And so on.

If HappenStance were given 50,000 pounds, how would you spend it - more books? more staff so you could do more writing? more publicity? e-books?
I can’t imagine being given that much money. I like the difficulties of managing within a small budget, doing the best I can with what I have available and cherishing modest aspirations. I’m not comfortable about the responsibility of huge sums unless you can first prove the business works, which in my case means covering its costs. I still haven’t got that right. But I think art thrives within constraints: in my own writing, I’m a bit of a formalist. If you happen to have that much money and half an idea to give it to me, however, ask me again. The most precious thing I have is time. £50,000 buys a lot of that.

Why do you do it?
Dedicated to the one I love. Poetry, its evasive, ornery self. And you meet some marvellous people.

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