The Contemporary Small Press’s latest event, Reading & Being Read Manchester, was held at Manchester Central Library on Saturday 12 November 2016. Organised by Dr. Leigh Wilson and Dr. Georgina Colby, Institute of Modern and Contemporary Culture, University of Westminster, and supported using public funding from Arts Council England, the event welcomed writers, readers, publishers, students, academics and interested members of the public to a full day programme of talks, readings and workshops on aspects of small press publishing.
Leigh Wilson introduced the event, contextualising the themes of the day and saying that ‘small presses are producing some of the most exciting work in contemporary literary publishing’.
Short fiction is a genre still largely overlooked by mainstream commercial publishing, yet Manchester-based small publisher Comma Press is passionate about the development and publication of the short story form. ‘Something happens in good short stories that’s quite unique to them as a form; the imaginary worlds they create are coloured slightly differently to those of the novel. Their protagonists are more independent and intriguing. The realities they depict [are] more arbitrary, accidental and amoral. Comma believes British publishing is missing out on something in its neglect of the short story, and to make up for it we are currently the most prolific hard copy publisher of short stories in the country.’
Ra Page, founding editor of Comma Press, spoke about the vitality and anarchic potential inherent to literary short fiction: ‘Literature is about providing alternative narratives to what we’ve been told. The purpose of literature is to increase sales resistance.’ As a less-commercially-profitable product than the long-form novel, the short story has the potential to both provide an alternative narrative and to offer resistance to the commercial sales imperative of the bestseller. In this way, and in the sense that the short story is ‘a very smuggle-able form’ in its ability to cross national borders undetected, Page suggests that ‘publishing short fiction can be an act of resistance.’ In recognition that the ‘history of the short story is not confined to one place or country’, Comma Press publishes a wide range of international short fiction in translation – crossing international borders and suggesting alternatives to dominant national narratives.
Writer Michelle Green, whose short story collection Jebel Marra focusing on the ongoing conflict in Darfur was published by Comma Press in 2015, agreed that ‘the space of the short story to do things that are not in service of commercialism feels really urgent right now.’ She also makes the case for short fiction providing alternative narratives, structures, perspectives – a form that resonates with the fractured lives of war and conflict, and with the daily struggle of life with a disability: ‘short fiction as a form is a great place for experiment and shift, and it does not assume resolution. It does not tend towards the triumph over struggle, the big budget achievements. It takes life in pieces, and in the world of the story, that one piece is all. This, to me, feels familiar. I recognise it.’ She summarises the difference between long-form and short-form fiction by saying, ‘short stories are not tiny novels that are waiting for water.’ Michelle read her tender and beautiful story Winter Song from Jebel Marra – the first live reading of this story that she has given.
Perhaps even less commercially profitable than the short story, contemporary poetry is also being passionately published by the small presses rather than the big publishing houses. Manchester-based poetry press If P Then Q publishes contemporary experimental poetry that’s designed to be friendly, welcoming, and encourage people to read. James Davies, founding editor of If P Then Q, showed a collection of early matchbox poems he had made with the intention of being affordable, accessible and experimental. Davies acknowledges that small poetry presses like If P Then Q publish books that wouldn’t otherwise have been published, bringing the work of new and experimental writers to a wider reading public through their reading networks and live-performance events.
The relationship between live performance and the written word on the page is a productive one for If P Then Q. Poet Holly Pester was initially spotted by James at a performance and he subsequently published her first book, Hoofs, with the press. For Pester, this relationship ‘opened up new opportunities for publishing poetry as live performance scores, which maintained the trace of the live utterance. Maintaining the playfulness of live performance was an important part of publishing my first book with If P Then Q.’ Holly says, ‘the shape of the poem on the page and aural shape of the poem in my voice relate to each other in a not necessarily harmonious or analogous way, but they have to set each other off, nervously.’ James notes that ‘editing is an important part of the collaborative process between writers and publishers,’ recalling how Hoofs was shaped collaboratively to include elements of the live performance that they both wanted to ensure were included in the book, even though they weren’t part of the original manuscript.
Holly read extracts from Hoofs, a work she completed six years ago, remarking on its ‘uncannily resonant, playful approach to apocalyptic thinking.’
zimZalla’s Tom Jenks broadened the discussion after lunch to introduce ‘avant-objects’ which move poetry ‘beyond the book’. zimZalla publishes a range of poetry objects that deviate in a variety of ways from the standard book form – from Sue Birchenough’s Takeaway Britain in a burger box to Stephen Emmerson’s aleatory text board game, A never ending poem read with dice that goes on to explore the possibilities of human intervention within the context & illusion of chance. Jenks says he is interested in ‘reclaiming the physical: the handmade, tactile, imperfect objects; limited in number, locally produced.’ He says, ‘there is a sensuous quality to physical objects that you don’t get digitally, just the pleasure of picking something up and handling it. zimZalla publications are designed to surprise and delight.’
Tom led an afternoon workshop in collaborative experimental poetry creation. Working in groups, with improvised phrases and cut-up paper, an experiment in Mobius strip poetry was conducted – the results placed into test-tubes to become unique avant-poetry-objects for everyone to take away. All leftover phrases were collected into a glass jar and labelled with the zimZalla seal of approval as a collective poetry object. The experience of live-poetry-object-making was a lively and enjoyable part of the day, getting everyone involved with this tactile and collaborative process of writing poetry.
After the workshop, Sally-Shakti Willow read from The Unfinished Dream published by Sad Press. The Unfinished Dream experiments with a creative writing style drawn from Ernst Bloch’s utopian function of art and literature, predicated on an experience of non-alienation between writer and reader/artist and audience – an experimental form with cross over points between text and image, book and performance. Publishing with a small poetry press enabled the book to be created to specific dimensions as an A4 chapbook, allowing space for the text and images to be re-presented in their original size – all parts of the book are recombined from a series of handmade originals in A4 exercise books, the aesthetic deliberately evoking the scribbled and doodled pages of a school exercise book to reflect the unfinished nature of the utopian project.
The next Reading & Being Read event will be held at Newcastle Library on 18 February 2017. Details and full line-up will be announced soon!
Reading and Being Read events are supported using public funding by the Arts Council England.