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Primers: an Interview with Jane Commane of Nine Arches Press

The Poetry School and Nine Arches Press joined forces recently to launch Primers, a new joint mentoring and publication scheme for emerging poets. Submissions have been whizzing through the systems these last few weeks and making us very excited, so we went to have a chat with Nine Arches’ Editor Jane Commane about what she’s most looking forward to seeing in the first ever crop of Primers poets …

Hi Jane! Tell us a bit about the history of Nine Arches Press – how did it begin, and what’s the development been like?

Jane: Nine Arches was set up in 2008. We began by starting with the magazine, Under the Radar, which we intended very much as an outlet for talented new writers who were sometimes finding it difficult to get that vital first step into publication. Out of the magazine, all sorts of other things started to grow – we moved into publishing pamphlets, then into poetry books. To date we’ve published almost fifty books, which seems quite dizzying – it all feels like it has happened so quickly! But in reality, I think the development has been quite steady and organic; it’s been a really enjoyable process, and this year I finally gave up my part-time job to take the plunge and run the press full-time.

Could you describe the type of poetry you publish?

Jane: In the main, what I’m looking for is distinct and original poetry. I find trying to define a type of poetry to be a bit of a tricky question in some ways, because though I have an instinct for exactly what I’m looking for, it often crosses the sort of delineations and boundaries we might make in poetry. I publish poetry that ranges from fairly experimental to what might be considered more conventional in terms of style, and combinations of all sorts of poetry in between. What I’m really looking for is work that stands out and has a powerful, convincing voice of its own, first and foremost. And also, I want Nine Arches to always be open to new work and new possibilities. Therefore, I ‘m keen not to define in terms of type too exactly, just in case it puts someone with interesting work off from submitting because they think it might not fit with what I tend to publish. I like to be surprised by the submissions I receive! It’s often so refreshing to read the unexpected, to read something so striking it makes you sit up and pay attention, by either subtle or direct means.

Why did you feel that Primers was an important project? How did the project come about, and what made you want to do it?

Jane: Primers came along at exactly the right moment for us and for the Poetry School. I was approached by Ollie Dawson, who had admired the pamphlets we had previously published and wondered if we had plans for any more of these, potentially as part of a something similar to the Poetry School’s previous pamphlet competition. We had a really interesting, lively conversation, and though I explained we had no plans to return to pamphlets, it was clear we were both really interested in the possibility of working on something jointly. And at this point I should credit Maria Taylor – a Nine Arches poet, as she is at least partly responsible for suggesting the idea that later became Primers! I’d been talking to Maria at the end of 2014 about how much good writing is out there, and the limitations of time and funds that mean many poetry presses such as ourselves can only select to publish a limited amount each year. Maria suggested something along the lines of three small books in one, a sampler which would give some of those new and emerging writers a start – much like those lovely old Penguin Modern Poets books. I liked the idea, and was mulling it over, so when Ollie and I got talking about possible projects, this idea was discussed, and started to emerge as a front-runner, with lots of potential. I was really pleased that The Poetry School loved the idea, and the more we talked about Primers, the more it became clear it was something different, exciting, which could offer some really vital opportunities to poets.

If there was one thing that you would like Primers to contribute to emerging UK poetry, what would it be?

Jane: I hope that it will provide not just publication, but the support and mentoring that will help these poets to shape the direction and success of their poetry for years to come. Publishing a book in so many ways is the easy part – it’s supporting and developing poets, and building audiences for poetry that is often the bigger challenge that I think both poets and publishers share in, but that we can also be active in making a difference in here.

What have been some of your biggest successes with Nine Arches Press so far? Do you have any personal highlights?

Jane: Winning our Sabotage Award in 2014 for Most Innovative Publisher was a huge moment – it meant an awful lot as the awards had been voted for by our readers and those who buy our books – it felt good, after so many years of quietly working away on books in my little office, to know it was all worthwhile, and that people are enjoying and supporting what we do. It was great too to get a shortlisting for the Michael Marks pamphlet awards in 2010, and things like being Publisher in Residence at Wenlock Poetry Festival this year felt like a really important milestone for us.

As an editor, publisher and poet, you’ll also be mentoring the poets involved in Primers alongside Kathryn Maris in the development process before the publication of the Primers collection. How do you see this aspect of the project developing? Have you been involved in similar mentoring schemes in the past?

I am really excited about this. Mentoring poets is very much an integral part of what I do as an editor at Nine Arches press, so it means a lot that this element is central to Primers too. I also regularly run workshops, offer one-to-ones and mentor individual poets too, so it is something I enjoy and get a lot of satisfaction from. There’s nothing quite like seeing a way to fixing and polishing a poem, and being able to give new perspectives on someone’s writing which helps them to build their confidence as writers and take the next steps. And I am especially looking forward to working with Kathryn, and joining her for editorial and selection discussions, which will hopefully be over coffee and cake! It will be really interesting to talk about the submissions together, and consider what advice and suggestions we have to make to each of the three selected poets. I write poetry myself, but I’m aware too that much of my advice comes from an editorial perspective, so it will be really illuminating and useful to have Kathryn’s input and ideas from a poet’s own point of view too.

The final work of the three selected poets will be produced side by side in the Primers collection – is this sort of ‘group’ publishing quite a usual feature of poetry publishing? What do you think are the advantages of being published side by side with other poets?

Jane: It isn’t all that common perhaps now, but it does have a tradition stretching back to those Penguin Modern Poets mentioned already, and probably before that too. I think the advantage is that we broaden the audience in an instant for all three poets by combining them rather than splitting them up. If they were pamphlets, you could sell them as bundle but I suspect people may just buy one or two and not all of them – we all have limited ‘poetry pounds’ after all, and will tend to shop cautiously and sometimes buy the things we know we’ll like rather than take a risk on something new. By combining three poets, I hope that readers will discover work they might not have otherwise found or which will surprise them, and that all three poets benefit from this cross-exposure.

Nine Arches uses very striking artwork for its poetry publications – do you envisage the Primers collection looking similar?

Jane: Thank you – much of our cover art comes from the talented photographer, Eleanor Bennett. I find her images really striking and different, so perfect for book covers. And we will definitely be using the Primers logo design on the books; I love the logo for Primers, so no doubt the colours and the style will be reflected in the design and style of Primers Vol 1 – and the series to follow.

Finally, do you have any hope or expectations of the poets involved in the project? Is there a personal ‘criteria’ you’re looking for?

Jane: Not so much a personal criteria, again I really like to keep an open mind here; I am just looking forward to seeing what comes to the fore during the selection process, and sharing these deliberations with Kathryn. But I hope that the scheme will be a real boost to both those shortlisted, and the final three who are selected. I hope it gives them plenty of opportunity to develop their poetry further, and plenty of good advice and new ideas too. I hope and expect it to be just the start of bigger things for those shortlisted and selected for Primers.

Thinking of submitting to Primers? If you want your poetry published in the first volume of our exciting new venture with Nine Arches Press (and mentoring and editorial support along the way), here are all the details. 

Jane Commane is a Coventry-born poet, editor, writer, tutor and a general maker and doer of various things word and writing related.  She has been published in magazines such as Tears in the Fence, Litter, Anon, Horizon Review and Gists & Piths and in several anthologies including Sherb: New Urban Writing from Coventry (Heaventree Press 2006), Best British Poetry 2011 (Salt Publishing, 2011) and Lung Jazz: Young British Poets for Oxfam (Cinnamon Press 2012).  Jane is the Editor of Nine Arches Press.

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