An Interview with Jane Commane, publisher, editor and poet

Jane in a hat

Hi Jane. Firstly, I’d like to congratulate you on the success of Nine Arches Press. You’ve managed to publish a steady stream of poetry collections as well as Under The Radar magazine, and Nine Arches also contributes to the poetry scene in the midlands and beyond with excellent events such as the regular Shindig! readings.  You’ve also been the first publisher in residence at a poetry festival, and Nine Arches is receiving some well deserved attention, winning a Sabotage award for most innovative publisher last year and recent high profile reviews in the Guardian and elsewhere.

 When did you first have the idea to set up an independent press and did you model Nine Arches on any other publishers? Did you seek advice from established presses when setting out?

I was working for another small publisher at the time. As that post finished, it just seemed like there was a lot of great, unpublished work out there, and a lot of talent that wasn’t really finding a platform. Under the Radar magazine emerged first, as a way of providing an outlet for some of that, and the publishing then grew pretty rapidly from that point in all kinds of directions.

UTR
Under the Radar

In those early days, I think Nine Arches drew lots of inspiration from various publishers, rather than any single one, though I have long admired Bloodaxe’s poetry books (The New Poetry was given to me as a teenager and turned me onto contemporary poetry), and enjoyed a lot of Faber, Carcanet and Arc poets at that time too. In part, it was about setting out to do something a bit different from what was already on offer and make our own place within things. I had this sort of idea that a publisher could be like my favourite independent record labels – a distinctive style and approach but with lots of individual voices on board.

I was incredibly lucky in that I didn’t have to look far for advice and support – in many instances it came to me. A few months after setting up the press in 2008, Nell Nelson at HappenStance sent me a lovely and very supportive note.   Others too were immensely kind and offered encouragement and support;  not least Simon Thirsk at Bloodaxe Books, who over several years has been a very generous source of a lot of sound and sensible advice, for which I am deeply grateful. Being part of Inpress also means that there is a sense of comradeship and friendly support between publishers – Tom Chivers at Penned in the Margins and Clive Burnie at Burning Eye Books also inspire me, and though what we all publish is quite different, we do enjoy catching up and sharing experiences and talking about publishing.

mELANCHRINI
Melanchrini, From Nine Arches 

Seven years in and I’m about to take the plunge this summer and become a full-time self-employed publisher, writer and editor. That’s both very exciting and just a little scary at times – but most of all I can’t wait to have more time to dedicate to Nine Arches, the books and to the poets I work with.

Congratulations on your self employment-  a well deserved reward for all your hard work and dedication!  I’m sure the readers of this piece will join me in wishing you continued success and all the best with this important work.  It’s also great to hear how supportive others in the poetry world have been.

The artwork, design and distinctive house style of Nine Arches books and Under the Radar magazine are impressive and reflect a strong sense of identity and commitment to design. Could you tell me a little about the images you use? Have you any formal training in photography, web design or other aspects of the visual arts?

The images we use mostly come from a brilliant young photographer called Eleanor Bennett – her images really struck me as distinct and eye-catching. We also occasionally use images from elsewhere, like Jo Bell’s cover which is by artist Heather Duncan.

kITH

I have some formal training – I did an Arts course at college, I loved making imaginary record sleeves and little fanzines when I was a teenager, and I’ve done the odd bit of training here and there, but mostly I have picked up these things as I’ve gone along – I taught myself to typeset and bought old software cheaply off eBay when I first set out to get things up and running.

I understand that you have, for the time being, moved away from pamphlet publishing in order to concentrate on full collections. I wondered if there were economic reasons for this shift or if there was another reason for this change in focus?

Mainly economic, partly instinct. I love pamphlets, don’t get me wrong – I am immensely fond of them and I think they are a vital part of the poetry ecosystem.

But it did feel Nine Arches had to make a move away from them if the press was to grow and if we were to ever stand a chance of selling the poetry book collections in larger numbers. Pamphlets are labours of love, and take a lot of time and care, almost as much as a full collection in many ways. Yet in the main they cannot be sold in most bookshops and their pricing isn’t viable for online retailers. I did want to build Nine Arches, and knew as popular as the pamphlets were, their audience would always be a little bit more limited – my hope has been to try and bring poetry to bigger audiences, and to do that I think that the shift to books only was a big but important step.

If you want a publishing house to grow in any way, you do have to be aware of ensuring you keep evolving what you do – having itchy feet is important, it makes you keep pushing on to try new things and improve what you do. Each year I hope the books have evolved a little bit more – I’ve just made a decision to upgrade our covers and production values this year on all future titles, which has been a big step, but also a commitment to readers, to poets and to our own future as a publisher. I want our books to be artefacts that readers treasure and return to.

Tony Williams

With regard to editing collections, I wonder if you could say a little about what you think makes a good editor?

Care, attentiveness; the ability to listen as well as challenge and gently support writers to make their poems the very best they can be.

I tend to edit collections in several stages – there is no point going at poems with the hedge shears and hacking at them – that way you lose the nuances. You want to tread with care and see what’s beneath the wilder fringes of a poem! And often, you are trying not lose too much of that essential wildness in the editing process. I also want to build a good editorial relationship with that poet – to better understand where they are coming from, what’s at the heart of their writing and what we need to fix and what we need to just tweak and refine. Every single poet and collection is different, and will need differing amounts and types of editorial input.

It’s about being respectful, but also being able to challenge and ask questions of poets – ‘what does this mean’, ‘why this word/phrase’ or ‘what are you trying to say here?’. We’ll talk these things through, and if a poet has a good enough reason for something, it’ll stay. There’s this mutual trust too – so I’ll take that leap of faith with them in cases where I can see and understand something matters and is important to leave in, even if that moment I’ve not quite grasped it myself. No editor is infallible or perfect, after all; you have to be willing to go with some things in poems, give them time to settle like sediment, trust the poet in what they’re doing.

Matt's Book

 Matt Merrit’s Elephant Tests
.

 Would it be possible to broadly define a style, a particular type of work that Nine Arches are most likely to be interested in?

I usually do resist trying to be pigeonholed like this, and I don’t like to define what Nine Arches does too much, as I think it’s both limiting to our existing poets and to those who might read, buy or submit to us. I like to surprise and be surprised!

But if we are going to try to talk about what I’m looking for in a poetry collection, I am most interested in original and striking work that speaks with its own, distinct voice. Poets who aren’t trying to be like anyone else. And poets who keep trying to get better, evolve, do their thing differently or simply just grow as a writer and have a unique perspective on things to offer readers and audiences.

In many ways it is so much easier to tell you what I’m not looking for!

I wondered if your role as an editor has had any effect your own writing, and if so how?

Yes – mainly in that I don’t have very much time to write now I’m an editor! But joking aside, actually, most of the impact is far more positive on the whole. You can’t be precious about your own poems when you have to so objective about other peoples’ poems. So you do become a quicker, more decisive editor of your own work. Being an editor does allow you to develop a bit more detachment in the process of redrafting and refining the poems – and makes you less tolerant of darlings and suspected flim-flammery in your own poems. If I can’t convince myself of the need to keep something, or if I can take it away and, like a Jenga tower, the rest of the poem still stands, I know it’s right to edit it out.

With regard to your own poetry, can you sight any influences on your work? Are you working on a collection at the moment?

I have a number of influences; RS Thomas is one of my all-time favourite poets for that subtle precision, the sharpness and doubt. Louis MacNeice too. Allen Ginsberg was a fond teenage favourite, as was Plath, and both remain close to my heart. Alice Oswald’s Dart had quite a big  impact on me early on when I was trying to think about how to write about places and landscapes and structure my work.

Dart

I love the poems of Claire Crowther with their quirky and magpie-eye for a sharp, inventive turns of phrase. I have a great fondness for John Clare; there’s a connection for me with his work in terms of the political nature of English landscape.

I have long been interested in poets of the Second World War too, like Alun Lewis and Keith Douglas, and more recent war poets like Brian Turner.  I like work that is political and outspoken; I am drawn to Peter Reading’s terrifying/electrifying poems, and admire for very different reasons the Midlands elegies of Roy Fisher, and Joel Lane’s quicksilver lines. And a wide range of contemporary poets with exacting, strong and original voices – poets like Liz Berry, Daljit Nagra, Luke Kennard, Kei Miller, Imtiaz Dharker, Helen Mort and many others.  I try to read widely, and do also read a lot of pamphlet and small press collections.  I’m trying also to read more international poetry, and read more poetry in translation at the moment.

There’s quite a few non-poetry influences too – music being a big one, as well as film and art. Anything weird and stirring basically, so from Twin Peaks to Stanley Spencer’s incredible paintings. And place too – I find place, its history, landscapes and stories (particularly places marked by industry or social change) probably the number one influencer of my work. Place is always political and always has something to say for itself. I also love museums and history, and maps are bit of an obsession too, it has to be said. Give me an OS map and I’ll be happy all day.

Maps and Leg.

Maps and Legends available
at Nine Arches.

I’ve not so much been working on a collection but slowly drawing together a body of poems over a number of years which is now starting to resemble a collection of poems in some form I hope. I have regained a better sense of my writing in the last two years too – there was a time when my confidence in my own poetry took a bit of knock, and lost faith in my writing, but I’ve been going through a process of rediscovering my work in a way and that has felt rather exciting and incredibly liberating too.

Thank you so much for your time Jane.

See also interviews with editors Martin Malone, Noel Williams and others.

 

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6 comments

  1. “I’m about to take the plunge this summer and become a full-time self-employed publisher, writer and editor. That’s both very exciting and just a little scary at times” – I’ll echo Roy’s congratulations. But yeah, it’s more than a little scary.

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  2. Having met Jane very briefly at the 2014 Wenlock Poetry Festival and much more properly this year when Jane & Nine Arches were publisher/press in residence at the Festival, it’s very interesting to read here of her “journey” to the much more stable position that Nine Arches enjoys today.
    So many poets must be grateful for the encouragement Jane’s interest in their work has brought about, and I’m delighted to have got to know a little Matt Merritt, Maria Taylor and Mario Petrucci from meeting them at the 2014 Nine Arches session in the Methodist Cahapel, this year’s triumphant Poetry Busk venue.
    The best indicator of who Jane is (apart from her own work) is to invest in Nine Arches publications and the top quality insisted on by Simon Thirsk of Bloodaxe and Nell Nelson at Happenstance receive due credit in the interview.
    Thanks to Jane and to Roy for providing us with these insights, and long may Nine Arches stand firm with so much to delight us.

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