Esteemed poet, writer, and broadcaster, Mab Jones, takes us on a journey through the inspirations, and difficulties, behind her latest pamphlet project; Black Rabbit Press – a publication that focuses on poetry and flash fiction by writers new and known.
I’ve been thinking about running a press for a couple of years. Let’s not even say ‘small press’, let’s say ‘micro press’, because as a full time literary entrepreneur (a phrase borrowed from the ever-brilliant Peter Finch), the need to make a living and the fact that I am sometimes doing five or more jobs means that my time and energy are often limited, or curtailed, or I just collapse from all the spinning in a creased, crumpled heap…
However, I’m someone who feels that half their work as a literary person is ‘in the world’ – I need to interact with people; I like organising things and putting stuff ‘out there’, whether it’s an event, a project, an idea, a workshop, a review, a radio programme, or something far more tangible, such as (now) books.
Black Rabbit Press isn’t my first foray into publishing, mind. A few years ago I founded and co-edited Black Sheep Journal with ace writer Bethany W. Pope. This ran for about a year. Before that, I published a couple of very small runs of pamphlets for specific events, by writers Karen Little and Jack Pasoce. I ran a literary listings guide, again for about a year, too. And, even further back, at the age of 16, I ran a couple of small press literary magazines from my bedroom. One, called Axiom, was a mix of political / satirical / dark poetry and short fiction, along with images sourced from magazines (this was a little bit pre-internet), quotes, and the odd photo of the Manic Street Preachers (yes, I was a teenage MSP fan!). The other was called Ecto-1 and was a collection of surrealist poetry and pictures.
It was super lo-fi, and a guerrilla kind of operation – all cut out, stick, photocopy, and staple, and packaged up, then, in the bedroom I shared with my sisters. My brother, the writer Mao Oliver-Semenov, got the first couple of issues of Axiom printed up at his school, striking a deal with the guy in charge of the photocopier and smuggling the pages out and back home. He was just 12 years old! But, this became difficult, and so I used the money from sales to get future copies done at a proper printing place, just on the bridge coming over from Cowbridge Road into central Cardiff.
I advertised the mags in Peter Finch’s shop, Oriel, which is how I found out about the world of the small press in the first place. And, I sold them there, too – in fact, I believe the shop still owes me £6, but Peter has been so supportive since then that I have forgone this! No-one knew, at the time, that I was a teenager, as it was all done by mail order, but I had the great pleasure of publishing a poem by the powerhouse that is Patrick Jones, and another by a writer who was later published by Salt.
This tiny, teenage, terraced house operation was fun, but I gave it up after a while because of my A-Levels. Recently, though, a longing to do something similarly lo-fi came upon me. I was living in a caravan last year, out in West Wales, watching butterflies and bunny rabbits from my window, when I noticed a solitary black rabbit hopping amongst all the others. I already knew, from the year spent running Black Sheep Journal, that I wanted to give a platform to voices that were more marginalised than the ones that I’d published there, as wonderful as they were. And so, Black Rabbit Press was born.
The idea and impetus behind Black Rabbit Press is to provide a platform to writers who may not find an easy route into traditional publishing – writers who identify as LGBTQ+, disabled, with a mental health challenge, BAME, with a low income or from a low income background, etc. I’m still working out how to define low income, however, and I’m also thinking about how I can open to submissions without being overwhelmed with extra work. Past experience has taught me that there are lots of people out there very keen to get their work into print, but not so keen to read submission guidelines, and I don’t have time to deal with hundreds of these.
At the moment, Black Rabbit Press is working simply by following links and coincidence! I read widely and think I might just approach people that I ‘hop upon’, a bit like a rabbit myself. I heard Olivia Tuck, who is Black Rabbit Press’ first author, read at the Swindon Poetry Festival, for example, and I was just bowled over by her. Olivia’s pamphlet, Things Only Borderlines Know, is both stark and lyrical, powerful and profound… There’s a lot in it about the writer’s own mental health experiences, and this makes it very visceral and compelling. It was launched the week before last at regular Cardiff literary night Company Of Words, organised and hosted by Alix Edwards.
I don’t want to publish people who necessarily write about their experiences coming from a marginalised group, of course, but it is important to me to use my own privilege to do a little in this way to support writers from those groups. I’ve always been interested in personal narrative, and particularly in diverse voices, the ones you might not normally get to read or hear. The last poetry programme I made for Radio 4, Welsh Ladies, was all about forgotten female voices, for instance. Perhaps this comes from the fact that I had some issues myself with speaking up and out when I was younger… In any case, I think it’s important to support others in this little literary world of ours, more importantly to support those who really need the support and are overlooked or even invisible, and that’s what Black Rabbit Press is aiming to do.
Again, as a cis white woman without disability (let’s not talk about income!), I need to give some thought as to how I can source writers for the press. Once I’ve decided on this, I’ll let the world know. But, in the meantime, there is much to do. The logo I made for Black Rabbit Press looks like runes, and a pagan pal told me that these runes, together, mean ‘Beginning a Journey of Bliss’. Part of the bliss, for me, is the distinctive look I decided on for the pamphlets – paper cut icons cut out from black card with a coloured inner paper showing beneath. In the case of Things Only Borderlines Know the image, chosen by the poet, and re-designed and cut by Laser Llama Designs, is of a smashed heart, and the inner paper is blood red. This suits the deep richness of the poems themselves, the pain that they convey, and the sensitive heart of writer Olivia Tuck. But, it also means I have more of a job to make the pamphlets, as the covers require a longer, more thought-out process, and folding and stapling, as with my first mags, is done by hand.
In any case, it’s my aim, next up, to publish a writer based in or from Wales who also fits one or more of the other criteria. At the moment, Black Rabbit Press is closed to submissions, but there’ll be more news on this soon, and I’m excited to think of someone I may not even know yet, out there, with words waiting to explode or seep or rage or dance onto the page. I won’t be skimping on quality in order to publish people, by the way, as this isn’t an exercise in right on-ness, it’s an initiative to find the best and most interesting voices out there, but ones that are maybe more on the outside, at the edge of the field. The skinny, solitary, underfed ones. I think there is room for a little black rabbit in this world of plump, well-fed white ones, really. And I will do my best to find them, and make them known.
Black Rabbit Press is a new pamphlet press for diverse voices. It aims to publish poetry and flash fiction, and is run by writer Mab Jones. For more information, please see https://blackrabbitpress.weebly.com or find Black Rabbit Press on Facebook and Twitter.