Who Would an Author Be? Tales from the Poetry Trade

Writer and poet Nigel Jarrett writes a fictional satire based on his experiences in the realms of the small poetry presses. Nigel’s first poetry collection, Miners at the Quarry Pool, is available now from Parthian.




JURASSIC Park!!! After being rejected by every poetry publisher from Faber & Faber to Dockyard Poetry Press (the East Newlyn Writers Collective), my sheaf of 62 poems has been accepted by Marzipan Editions, whose growing list includes Norbert Goossens and Amanda G. Fazackerley. (You’ve never heard of them? Surely not!) By dispensing with glossy, illustrated covers and stitching, Marzipan’s editor, the nouveau riche neo-Symbolist Fred Conroy, is able to offer print-runs of 350 and royalties but would appreciate help with sales and marketing. Suits me. In my book (sic!), that ain’t vanity. By the way, that print run is about double the average circulation of magazines like Fred’s. I console myself by recalling that Eliot’s The Criterion, though still cited by academics in obscure pamphlets, was read only by Thomas Stearns, the mad Vivien and a bunch of their friends.

I do have a confession: ten of the 62 poems have already appeared in Fred’s quarterly Aspects, a SLM (small literary magazine) that in his nouveau pauvre days cost £4 a year, each copy typed, Tippex-ed and stapled by Fred himself and his partner/amanuensis, Doris Freedom, sometimes erratically. An eccentric, Fred used to send flyers and slips that would scare many into trying something different from poetry, such as kite design (Let my creation fly!). He would write, ‘I’m happy to accept Blue Sap Rising for publication in Aspects 37, but – lay me out for the angels –  why don’t you subscribe as well as contribute?’, ignoring the fact that I had supported him from the start, when I drunkenly sent off a postal order for 24 months-worth of indigestible verse, mine not included. Replies were always a cyclostyled tear-off with a gap for him to write the name of your opus in lurid green ink. His rejections were brusque: ‘Pas de moi, s’il vous plait.’ Fred hasn’t shaved since 1971, and when wearing sunglasses looks like one of  the ZZ Tops in retirement.

Six months later, Fred sends me fifteen copies of what, at his suggestion, is called Happy Hour and Other Poems, reflecting the poetry’s frequent allusions to my bout of alcoholism in the mid-1990s. He says it will be ‘good bait’, itself a reference to his one-time membership of the jazz-poetry brigade, supporters of the most obviously chalk-and-cheese combination ever. There is an accompanying note: ‘It’s on the website.’ I’ve never been able to find Aspects on the www (‘This page is unavailable’) but Fred phones ethereally – the first time I’ve ever heard him speak – to say, unpoetically, that ‘in the first instance’ he’s sent copies of Happy Hour to ten other magazines for review, including the TLS and Fuseli’s Nightmare, a fantasy mag run by his mate Mario Nova (and Doris’s paramour, so I’ve heard), formerly editor of Gorefest. Fred speaks in a high-pitched, nervous and slightly effeminate voice that belies his gruff exterior. His view is that my booze-fuelled dreamscapes have a ‘castles in Spain’ quality that might be to Mario’s liking. My heart leaps. I entertain the corollaries of published authorship: staring at my profile in the mirror; lengthy abstention from anything to do with writing (including writing itself); afternoons dreaming in Fulgoni’s over super-heated milky coffee; and playing computer chess with my virtual mate Zonga in Swaziland.

I start doing the rounds, first to Books & Things, the ‘read while you sup’ emporium in town run by Norman and Gregor. Bossy Norm’s none to keen to take Happy Hour as B&T’s ‘local’ shelf is ruled by tomes about old buses and grisly local murders (Fares Please! by Charles Sidebotham MBE, and Dumped in the Forest, by former Det Supt Bill Blake). Gregor, the voluble one with the turned-back cuffs, says he’ll buy a copy ‘just for himself’, as Norm looks sulkily on. He insists, too, on retail – £6.99. I pop into The George for a celebratory orange juice and lemonade (pint).

A few days later, my autumn issue of Zorba’s Greek Wheelbarrow flies through the letter-box.  ZGW is one of the 28 SLMs to which I subscribe and represents an heroic stance on my part as it has rejected everything I have submitted, including the 80-stanza Zephyrs of Samothrace, a verse epic of my descent into an alcoholic hell. Moreover, it is run by two people in different parts of the country, always discomfiting for a poet looking to be printed (I mean, do they disagree?). But still I pay up – £16 a year, inc. postage. Imagine my horror when, on page 25, I see a short story titled Faltering Steps, about a Lawrentian gardener who falls in love with a woman at a dance class. Almost word for word, it is nothing less than my Parsley Doblé, sent years ago but never acknowledged by a magazine that has ceased publication. I subsequently regretted the title (it was a humorous piece and at the time I was on half a bottle of Smirnoff a day), having also considered A Prance to The Music of Thyme. I have contacted ZGW‘s editor, a taciturn cove, and he is looking into it. Theft not even dignified by plagiarism – it’s keeping me awake at night.

Six months on, with only a mention in the ‘Also Received’ section of Pindar’s Rapture (All Souls, Oxford, circulation 123) to brag about, ten copies of Happy Hour are asleep in the cupboard, the other four on the bookshelves of ‘friends’, one exactly where I saw it placed eight weeks ago, next to a leaden Sidney Sheldon. Gregor passed me on the opposite pavement the other day. ‘Happiness Hour – marvellous!’ he shrieked.

I feel I have been rejected. This is not a passing sentiment but a description of how I know my poems have come back in those 9 x 6 SAEs. I finger their width. Ah well, back to the keyboard. As I start on a modern version of the Immortality ode, I fancy a jar of Old Peculiar. I wonder if it’ll do me any harm. Oh, and I read in the afterword of Fishcake Foibles (Stories, Poems, Polemic, Reviews) that Doris Freedom has decamped with Mario to start her own mag and imprint, Greased Lightning Press. No-one tells me anything. Fred, I assume, is pining and not in the mood for pro-active sales and promotion. In the immortal words of Verlaine, his decadent inseparable, ‘C’est la vie!’