When I said, the other day, that I was going to give an imaginary gong to the people who I think are absolutely indispensable in British poetry, who get on with making poetry happen for us all, I had a huge list in my mind of poetry heroes. There were only eight who I really came back to again and again – whose impact has been not only deep but long-standing, and who seem to me to be really shaping the UK poetry scene.
I asked on Facebook – who would YOU nominate? Gratifyingly, all eight of my Chosen Few came up again and again. But so did dozens of others, all of them poetry heroes, all of them working hard to make events, publications and careers happen across the UK. Every one of them, I know, is vital and largely unthanked – so in my last post on this subject I will acknowledge every one of those activists in a huge roll of credits. Perhaps, at the end of this month, we could make a point of thanking our own poetry heroes at poetry events and online in our blogs.
What follows then, in the next few days, is my own personal roll-call of people whose influence has been very deep and lasting. They are listed alphabetically – which by chance, gives us four men first and then four women. The first by accident of the alphabet is also, I think, one that we can all agree on wholeheartedly. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you….
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Neil Astley founded Bloodaxe Books and runs it with Simon Thirsk and a small team. He is very largely responsible for kicking British poetry into a new age of confidence. Whether poets write in aspiration to publish with Bloodaxe, or in reaction against its style and choice, the press has introduced a wide readership to voices who we simply did not know thirty years ago. Their combined eye for great poetry and a good marketing strategy have kept poetry on the shelves of the big bookshops. Neil and Simon are Nice People – never have I seen them shrug off a newbie poet or dismiss a silly question which they must have heard a thousand times.
In common with most other people on this list, Neil has a clear sense of what he likes and in the best sense, he allows that to determine what Bloodaxe does – a sense of mission, an aesthetic and a sense of curiosity but above all, above all, a spirit of generous sharing. The flagship anthologies Staying Alive, Being Alive and Being Human are thus titled because of the urgency, the need for poetry that Bloodaxe identify as a basic human appetite.
I know that a Bloodaxe book will be full of passion, deeply lived experience and something fresh, something unexpected too. Neil has never tired of finding, of editing and putting out those poets. He speaks at festivals, he sits on boards, he mentors, he listens and learns; and he makes great books with great poets. He has transformed our appetite for poetry and our understanding of it: with producers and event managers, he has made sure that it gets out on the road and reaches a wider audience. Like all of my poetry heroes, his work is informed by a passion for poetry but also by a strong conviction that it belongs to everyone and that everyone should have access to it.
Poetry thrives on such energies – and if it is thriving in Britain today, that is very largely because of the efforts of Bloodaxe. There are many other dedicated publishers but I name Neil because of his overall impact. Thank you, kind sir.