I have just finished looking at the page proofs for my forthcoming collection, Arc, with Nine Arches Press. The cover image by Eleanor Bennett is a corker, I think. Of the several hundred lovely pictures by Eleanor which I looked through, this one was the one which immediately caught my eye. I can't quite say why I think it works for the book, but maybe because I immediately thought: I've never seen a poetry book with a cover like that!
Jane Commane, the tireless editor and publisher of Nine Arches, has guided me through the process of putting the book together with great skill, and has made suggestions which have challenged me to look at a number of the poems with new eyes. I'm sure the collection will be better for it, and also for her having weeded out a few poems that, because they had been published or mentioned in poetry prize long-lists, I thought absolutely had to go in. There is a big difference, I have learned, between a poem which can stand alone and one which can carry its weight in a full-length collection.
In some ways, revisiting the book before publication has been like looking at old photographs -- some of the poems were written a number of years ago, in fact one or two were among the first things I ever wrote and thought might be worth keeping, whereas some were written specifically with the collection in mind to expand an existing theme or sequence. There are also poems which didn't make the final cut, but which I can still see in the collection, like ghostly palimpsests. None of this has to matter to the reader, I hope. While I may remember where it was that I wrote a particular piece, or why, or where it was published or won a prize, the poems will now have to fend for themselves without me.
As I know from the experience of publishing my pamphlet, Gaud, it will be up to readers now to decide what these poems are all about and what they are worth. That's scary, exciting and oddly liberating. I'm curious to see what becomes of them, but at the same time I feel ready to start writing in earnest again. I'm delighted to have a book coming out with such a wonderful publisher as Nine Arches, and I look forward to selling as many copies as possible and meeting lots of the book's readers, but the most important thing about writing poetry (at least for me) remains the process of making the poems themselves. The experience of sending Gaud out into the world has also taught me that you can't predict how other people will respond. My pamphlet had reactions that ranged from hostility to indifference to genuine enthusiasm, and of course it went on to win a prestigious prize; all of which is a reminder that, while always listening to views of people you respect, it isn't healthy to write with the critics sitting on your shoulder or to care whether everyone is going to like what you do. One of my favourite quotations about art remains an exchange from Daniel Kehlmann's novel Kaminksy and Me, where the narrator asks the eponymous artist why he no longer shows his pictures when he is so important. Kaminsky replies: 'Being important isn't important. Painting is important.' That's a motto any creative person can live by.
Apart from looking after me so well and producing such a handsome-looking book, Jane Commane has also been busy organising readings for me and for other Nine Arches Poets in the coming months. The first and most important event will be the launch of the collection, along with books by Sarah James, David Hart and Myra Connell, on 18 September at Midlands Arts Centre. Tickets are free, but can be booked here. After that, I'll be taking part in an 'Ode Trip' on a vintage bus as part of Birmingham Literature Festival on 11 October. I'll also be reading at Swindon Poetry Festival on 2 October, and more events will follow. I hope to see some of you there!