In our poetry treasure-hunting this month, we’ve spent quite a lot of time with the books published by The Emma Press, an independent poetry publisher based in Birmingham, UK. It’s a small, young and very vibrant publisher of poetry, dedicated to producing beautiful, thought-provoking books. Founded in 2012 by Emma Wright, working closely with Rachel Piercey as a regular co-editor, The Emma Press was announced this week as the winner of the publishers’ prize at the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets 2016. (You can read Emma’s acceptance speech about the need for diversity in publishing here.)
Hot off the heels of this great news, I’m delighted to bring you an interview with Emma Wright. Unbelievably, she’s already published 33 poetry books, with 17 more due out next year, and so she’s very well placed to answers my questions about publishing poetry. Here’s how our conversation went:
Playing by the book: Why are you such a passionate supporter of poetry you’ve become a publisher of it?
Emma Wright: I’ve got born-again fervour! I never had any strong feelings about poetry while studying it at school or even university, but then I read a poem by my friend (and excellent poet) Rachel Piercey and I suddenly understood something about what poems can be and do. I wanted to share this feeling with other people, so they wouldn’t miss out too.
I used to associate poetry with exams and analysing the lines in the ‘right’ way to get the most marks. Now I see it as a way to connect with other human beings and their amazing minds – it’s thrilling to read a poem and discover an alternate way of looking at the world, or to find a perspective on life that chimes on some level with my own. I like seeing what people can do with language, and the different ways poets express their thoughts.
Playing by the book: When you are compiling anthologies, how do you go about choosing the poems and then the order in which they appear?
Emma Wright: The Emma Press anthologies all start with a question or a theory. Often this emerges from a conversation between me and Rachel Piercey, or from a long-standing curiosity about a subject. When planning our series of poetry anthologies for older children, Rachel and I discussed what kind of books we’d loved reading when we were younger. Myths and legends were our favourite, which led to “Falling Out of the Sky: Poems about Myths and Monsters” in 2015, and astronomy was next, which led to “Watcher of the Skies” this year.
Once we have the idea, we try to explain it in a brief and then run a call for submissions. Rachel and I – or the guest editors – read all the poems and decide which ones best fit the brief and will help us create the book we’ve imagined. Of course, this can change a bit along the way, once we’ve seen all the poems, but we try to hang on to the original theory or question and explore it from a range of perspectives. When we have the final selection of poems, we try to put them in a sensitive order, starting with a few poems which introduce the reader to the breadth of subject matter and writing styles in the book, and then making sure each poem leads nicely into the next.
Playing by the book: What advice do you have to kids and the various grown-ups in the their lives about how to find the joy in poetry?
Emma Wright: Don’t be afraid of it. There is no right way to read a poem – you can read it straight through as a short piece of prose and not think too much about how it is a poem. Equally, you can read it through and think about the ways it is different to prose, or why it’s been labelled as a poem. Ask why the writer has put rhymes in, or not put rhymes in, or broken the lines there, or not broken any lines at all, or put those spaces in, or why have they chosen that word. You can do the same for all writing really, but I think the fundamental thing about poems is that they do really reward this approach.
Playing by the book: Did you have any favourite poems or poets as a child?
Emma Wright: I loved silly poems with lots of satisfying sounds, like The King’s Breakfast by A. A. Milne – ‘I do like a little bit of butter to my bread!’ – and Allan Ahlberg’s collection “Please Mrs Butler”. I also loved the bits of poems that popped up in Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase series, and I was obsessed with John Donne’s Song, which plays an important part in “Howls’ Moving Castle” by Diana Wynne Jones.
Playing by the book: What interesting uses of poetry have you come across that could inspire people to get creative with poetry? For example, I’m thinking of the poetry you publish by Kate Wakeling which has been set to music – but maybe you know of other interesting, exciting things done with poetry – from tattoos to art installations using poems or clothing or…. I guess I’m after examples of the way poetry can be more than words on a page in a book…
Emma Wright: I’m a big fan of pulling out quotes from poems and plastering them everywhere. Often I’ll love a poem just because of one small phrase that leaps out and sings, and I think the lasting legacy of most poems are the lines that stick in your head, as well as the general feeling they gave you while reading them. One way to feel more comfortable reading poetry is to ask yourself at the end ‘Which was my favourite bit?’ and then copy it out into a notebook. You don’t have to love every single line in a poem that you enjoyed, and you don’t have to like every single poem that you read.
I think learning poems by heart is an exciting way to interact with poetry. I’m very bad at learning lines, but I’m envious of people who can memorise poems and then have them in their heads as ammunition against boredom or as comfort in trying times.
Poetry is a thing to spend time with, as it rewards that extra attention. Writing out something you like by hand, or stitching it, or illustrating it, is another way to engage with a poem and break away from the idea that poetry is an exhibit to be tip-toed around. Once the words are out of the writer’s head and on the page, they belong to the reader.
My thanks go to Emma for answering all my questions, for providing me with the best slice of millionaire’s shortbread I have ever eaten, and for publishing poetry which my children and I have got so much enjoyment from.
The Emma Press have all sorts of events coming up in the first few months of next year, including in London, Lifchield, Bristol and Birmingham. You can find out more here. I’m particularly excited about the Verve Poetry Festival in Birmingham Waterstones, which has lots of events for children and young people. We’ve already booked our tickets and hope to see some of you there!