The Creative Landscapes of Longbarrow Press. An Interview with Brian Lewis.
I have to thank the poet Mark Goodwin for opening my eyes to the potential of using other media and, as a result of meeting him, introducing me to Brian Lewis of Longbarrow Press.There is no doubt that, like all small publishers, Longbarrow’s output is a labour of love. But the Press is not only represented by its ‘objects’ or physical representations of the poets it works with, but also has a substantial amount of their poets’ work online for people to enjoy. Longbarrow’s Twitter feed (@LongbarrowPress) and website are well worth following to see where they push the creative envelope next.
Longbarrow Press takes a multidisciplinary approach to poetry, in that you’re using all sorts of different media to make the poetry, and the poets you work with easily available. Was this the approach you decided to take right from the start?
That was the originating impulse. The collaboration that really pushed us in that direction dates back to 2003, when I was approached by Andrew Hirst (also known as Karl Hurst), a friend and poet who I’ve known for about eighteen years.
He and I had talked loosely about collaborating for some time. My creative focus was on photography, particularly desaturated prints of landscapes. Andy had just started working on a projected sequence of poems that would have some oblique bearing on landscape, and we talked about doing something with this. Then he formally asked me to collaborate with him, the idea being that we would end up with 26 poems and 26 photographs, with the relationship between them being quite fluid. Andy was particularly aware of the Elmet book (a collaboration between the poet Ted Hughes and the photographer Fay Godwin). We envisaged our work as being based on a similar close collaboration of mutual understanding.
The collaboration proceeded quite organically for about two years as I produced plenty of photographs, but didn’t give Andy any information about the location or the conditions in which the photographs were taken. The idea was to remove the specific context.
We then considered possible outlets for the work. Neither of us was online at that point, so our thoughts were focused on some kind of physical object, like a book. We thought about approaching presses, but few names came to mind. So we decided that, although the process would be more laborious, we would publish the work ourselves.
We looked at producing a boxed edition of four postcards, with four images on one side and four poems on the other. Then we wondered if this would appear under some sort of imprint and whether we needed to create our own press. Once we’d committed to that course of action we realised we couldn’t simply publish ourselves, otherwise it would amount to little more than a vanity press. We then looked at inviting a few poets who might also work with the press. Even when we extended the range of coverage it was always with an eye on how we could work with other media.
For the second publication we collaborated with the poet Matthew Clegg, who we had known for a few years. We took eight of Matt’s sonnets and created a series of new images. Andy learned various new graphic techniques specifically for the purposes of illustrating that work. Again we devised a new format for that, which was a concertinaed sequence of images and poems, all bound up in a Hessian wallet, which I made after investing in a roll of tapestry cloth.
So at each step it was always the idea to challenge ourselves creatively in terms of working with new formats, new modes of collaboration and working with new media that we might not be familiar with, but in which we would immerse ourselves completely, in terms of technique and what was required for that medium (although this was never explicitly stated). So things gradually developed from there. Even when it’s a relatively conventional A5 pamphlet, the question of design has always been paramount.
This ethos is not just about the print is it? It extends to the feel and quality of the paper as well.
The texture of paper and the layout on the page is important. We’ve also been operating within a specific chromatic range. There’s a whole spectrum of greys, for example, that tend to come into play. There are softer tones as well, like eggshell blue and light green. The idea is always to settle on the right mix of materials for a particular work. I’m not averse to producing A5 pamphlets, if the shape of the work suggests or dictates it. It’s always about taking a cue from the format of the poem and designing the object around that.
The production criteria that other presses use are quite understandable. But we will often work differently.
In what way?
One object that attracted a lot of attention was the matchbox edition of Matthew Clegg’s Edgelands, which came out in 2008. In many ways it allowed certain practices that we had devised to come to fruition. The story behind the matchbox was that Matt had written 56 tanka poems.
He sent me the manuscript in September 2007 and I was immediately struck by how each poem achieved a world in itself. Each poem is a discrete miniature, as well as being part of an extended sequence. Although it is possible to lay these out in pamphlet form, which would be the conventional way of doing things, I wanted people to have the experience of encountering each poem as a discrete lyric moment.
It was a couple of months before I decided on a form that was both unique to the poems and user-friendly. I happened to be in a shop when my gaze rested on a matchbox and I thought, ‘That’s it. That’s the form.’ It was something that was both intricate and physically achievable.
The joins in the sequence aren’t apparent until you look for them. It’s actually seven strips of A4 paper glued and concertinaed in 56 folds (measuring six feet when fully extended). The joins only come in seven parts. It’s only when you hold it up to the light you can see the thickness is slightly greater at that part, otherwise you wouldn’t actually see the joins in the work itself. It is a labour of love; each one takes 3 to 4 hours to make.
What is the cost of producing something like this?
The economics of poetry mean that you’re never earning very much. The statistics that have been bandied about say that poets like Seamus Heaney account for about 80% of the market of poetry published by living poets. Back in the 1970s Ted Hughes and fairly esoteric poets like WS Graham would sell through about 2500 copies of a new collection within six months. There are now very few poetry publishers who are prepared to consider a print run of that kind. You’ll be looking at 500 copies or fewer. The poems might then be recollected several years later.
The printing costs for the Edgelands matchbox edition are very low, because the printing itself is done on my own high-end laser printer. I do all my own printing, although that will change with the first of our two full-length collections that are due out in a few months. We’re looking at producing up to 500 hardback books for this. Then the proposition changes completely. But with something like Edgelands or a run of 75 pamphlets, although it’s a lot of physical labour, one of the benefits is that it gives me control over the finished product. Crucially, it also gives me control over the development of that product. It is really important for me to be able to take a work through various stages of production to produce interim physical working drafts that I can then give to the poet. I can say to them, ‘Is this OK? Are you happy with the poem being one and half inches away from the margin?’
Doing everything myself gives me that level of precision. I’m also giving the poet that level of control, rather than saying, ‘Here’s the PDF. The finished object will look something like this.’ When you send something to a printer, whatever you send rarely comes back quite as you would wish it. However, if you are working with a more standard format, maybe it’s not so much of an issue.
This approach has allowed the development of the press to proceed in a measured way. The beauty of that is that you always surprise yourself in the process. For example, just by making a slight adjustment in one place or another, you can see immediately the outcome in print, rather than just moving things around on the screen; that’s such an important part of the process. Being able to go through any number of specimen drafts rather than having to negotiate with a printer several hundred miles away, means you don’t have to focus on getting it right the first time. Obviously printers can supply proof copies, but I just think there is something about being able to work relatively quickly and fine-tune your product.
Do you use a typesetting program?
No, all the document origination was in Word. Obviously this is something that will change with the book production. In terms of technical resources, Word is pretty limited, but for all its shortcomings and idiosyncrasies it seemed to me as good a program as any to work with. I’m currently working through Adobe InDesign, which is another world of pain.
You’ve had to learn a great deal on the practical side. What is your background in publishing?
I don’t have any formal background in publishing or design. My academic background was in literature. It’s how I came to meet most of the poets I’m currently working with. I was in Sheffield in the late 1990s doing an MA at the University of Sheffield. This is where I met poets like Chris Jones, and through Chris I met Mark Goodwin several years later.
The interesting activity in Sheffield was the extracurricular conversations about poetry, away from the seminar room. The poetry community in Sheffield at that time was, as it is now, a thriving extended network. Everybody seems to have a connection to everybody else.
I spent a couple of years in Sheffield and then returned to Swindon in 2000 (which is where I’m originally from), to work in financial services; there was no shortage of work in that area. But from 2003 to last year, when I moved back to Sheffield, I kept close links with poets. So the work that became Longbarrow was conducted at a considerable distance and I think that created some very interesting outcomes. Based in Swindon and only being out to get to Sheffield every three weeks, Andy and I really had to focus on the understanding and trust to ensure that every meeting counted. Much of the initial work was really done through the Royal Mail. For example, I would send Andy some photographs I’ve been working on and he would send poems back through the post. Neither of us was using email before 2006, when that phase of the collaboration had reached its natural end.
Neither of us was online, so there was an intensive period of trial and error. Although the design was pretty much there, the printing was disastrous. I was using paper that wasn’t suitable for printing. We had to learn slowly and painfully and keep refining the object until it was a sound practical object that could stand up to external scrutiny. We were also aware that we didn’t have the resources or the budget of a large publishing house. So we had to achieve those ends with very modest means.
We didn’t initially have ISBN numbers; you rarely do for projects of this kind. It’s very difficult to attach an ISBN number to a matchbox; how do you deal with the pagination? If you think about the matchbox, do you class it as a single continuous page? Also, an art object might only run to 50 copies. We do have them for each of the formal pamphlets, though.
What did Matthew Clegg think of the way you had presented his poems?
He was very pleased with it. It was really important to me that he should be as happy with the object as I was, because we’ve always aimed for memorable object value. The matchbox was an exception to the pamphlet-oriented objects that comprise most of the output. The beauty of having this level of control over the process was that I had the idea on Wednesday and was able to produce the finished object by Thursday. I was then able to send this to Matt on Friday. I wish I could’ve been there at the moment when he opened the package. The matchbox itself was bespoke, as a conventional matchbox wouldn’t have worked properly. The matchbox actually took longer to make than the concertina because of the challenge of getting the internal dimensions to fit with the way I’d produced the poem.
As well as being a striking object, it also had to be a practical one. What we found was that if you’ve got a fleecy top with a zip pocket you can actually walk around with the matchbox in your pocket. It becomes more portable and practical than the pamphlet. Matt would do readings from it. Obviously, it becomes a talking point and a performance in itself. But Matt uses it simply because it’s easier to find his place and actually work through the poems that way.
How many did you produce of those?
We’ve sold about 20 so far. I’ve produced about 50 altogether. With each of them taking about four hours to make, the only way you can really work is to sit down and produce five at a stretch. Then you have to take a few weeks away from it before you can create another batch. I also decided (partly to recoup costs and partly to ensure that people would value the object) that we had to set the price of this somewhere between £20 and £25. For the time each one has taken to make, it still only amounts to the minimum wage.
We recognised that the size of the matchbox edition (as well as the price) would limit the audience. I then decided that it would be sensible (although we weren’t planning to do a pamphlet edition) to have a pamphlet priced at about £4, so that more people could access the poems. The pamphlet is also a thing of beauty in itself. The pamphlet edition is half the width of A5, with five tanka to a page. The pamphlet edition takes it down to 50 poems from the 56 that you find in the matchbox and we sequenced it differently. For example, there are five poems in the sequence focused on various rivers in Sheffield, so we grouped those together to form a mini-sequence.
So changing the presentation of the poems allows the poetry to be enjoyed in a subtly different way?
What we’ve found is that every time we change the publication format, it offers a different way of sequencing the work; in the same way that we created a performance of the work for the radio show ‘Antics’ run by Robin Vaughan Williams. At the time, this was the only broadcast outlet for poetry in Sheffield. The show ran for five years and there was a monthly event associated with it as well.
We previewed Edgelands at one of Robin’s monthly readings at the Red Deer in Sheffield. Half the evening would be ‘open mike’ where you turn up and put your name down and perform for a few minutes. The other half would be structured performances, where the quality of the work would be of a consistently high standard.
We were invited to perform, so we produced a 15 minute version of Edgelands which used about 30 of the poems. I had gone into the streets of North Sheffield with Matt to record the noises of traffic, playgrounds, industry; that kind of thing. Then we sequenced it together as a soundscape and used it to punctuate Matt’s readings. So we began the performance with about 30 seconds of ambient noise; quite hard and industrial in places and haunting in others. Then Matt read the first five poems and then we cut to another 30 seconds of noise. This not only created a natural rhythm but also gave time for the audience to reflect on the five poems. Poetry is a very dense medium, so creating a temporal space to reflect meant that people could settle on certain images and rhythms. It worked out really well. We did a version of that again on Robin’s radio show, when we did the whole thing live.
So then I thought: ‘Why stop there?’ I picked up 200 specimen pouches for £2, because I thought it would be interesting to isolate individual tanka as individual items. We began to distribute these at Edgelands performances as Matt was reading. Everyone would take one and it became a memento of the event, because everyone got a unique item. I think it’s just a lovely way of giving something to the audience that’s a lasting feature of the performance and it also extends the performance in another direction. The specimen pouches also reminded me of the kind of material you’d find by the roadside.
How did Edgelands come about?
Edgelands began as a series of walks through North Sheffield taken by Matt over summer 2007. He would go out every day with his notebook and record various images and impressions. He set himself some limits on the territory. Gradually he began to work up a sequence of poems, where he concentrated on those landscapes where people tend to pass at speed and are generally seen as very indeterminate and at times inhospitable. They tend to fill up with debris, and the type of material that builds up over a period of time usually goes unnoticed. I think one of the primary objectives of poetry is to notice things that otherwise go unnoticed. You can really feel it in the series of poems in Edgelands. So I had the idea that the matchbox itself should be suggestive of something that might appear on the roadside and becomes part of the debris collecting in the margins.
Longbarrow seems to be largely involved with publishing work about landscapes, and about being out in the wild. Is that the main focus of the press?
Landscape, at least in the early stages of the press, was the thematic denominator. Yet the third pamphlet we produced, Minatures by Chris Jones, was a sequence of poems about fatherhood. The settings are more domestic than landscape-based. Although landscape features in much of what we produce, the press is really about sensitivity to environment or place. Chris’s domestic poems are as focused on place as any landscape poem. What helped me to bring all this into focus is when we started recording the poets and their sequences and selecting poems to record in particular landscapes or settings.
Why start recording these performances?
One of the things I was initially keen to capture was the sheer quality of the readings that people like Matt and Andy were giving at that time. I’ve been to many events where the poets just couldn’t read their poems. The reputation of the poet doesn’t seem to be a guarantee of the quality of the reading. Often it’s a matter of rhythm and pace, intonation and projection, but also a sense of presence, a sense of occasion, and taking an inventive, crafted approach towards structuring an event.
After several events I thought, ‘That was absolutely fantastic and I wish we had a recording of that we could use.’ Otherwise, I tend to feel that the poet has put so much work into preparing an event and that the moment is lost if we don’t capture it somehow. Photographs are fine, but don’t give much indication of the quality of the work.
What about the recordings you do on location?
I became interested in sound recording in the summer of 2008. The first recordings we made were on waste ground and in woods in Sheffield. We were actually recording the poems that were inspired by and were part of the response to the landscape, so going back into that landscape to record it fed back into the work.
A similar process was at work when Rob Hindle took an audience on his Blitz walk along the imagined bombing route of the Luftwaffe in December 2010. Rob had walked that route in order to research a poem and then, over several months, composed the poem itself. Then he went back out into the landscape with an audience and read the poem to them en route, so the process went full circle.
Some of the recordings then go up on the Longbarrow Press website. Among the most valuable resources on the website are the audio recordings, and to some extent the film recordings as well. The audio recordings do more than anything else to connect the audience with the world that poet has constructed within the space of the poem and the space of that recording. This is where the recording, like publication, is a collaborative process. The poets approve any recordings that go on onto the site. We make sure that they’re comfortable with the editing that’s gone into the piece. The editing is absolutely critical. One of the great things about digital recording software is that you can splice two recordings together seamlessly and inaudibly. Although, if at all possible, we will aim for a straight take, any unintended fluffs or interventions can be taken out. I’m always aware that it’s a constructed work, even if the recordings have been achieved with minimal editing. But then the poems are a constructed space. So it’s a question of finding the process that best serves the object.
Are you finding the site is getting a lot of traffic?
It’s interesting how the global audience has built up over the last couple of years. We’ve got people in America, in Hong Kong, Australia and Africa listening to poems that Matt Clegg and I have recorded in some woods in Hillsborough. And the listeners are getting, as far as possible, an undiluted version of that. It’s an extraordinary thing.
The Longbarrow website didn’t go live until March 2011 and we’d actually been operating for five years before we had any dedicated web presence. It was much longer than I would have preferred, but I had to find a website that allowed me full control, which came through WordPress. It’s the quiet breakthrough in many ways, but it’s been one of the most important breakthroughs for many people in the last few years. Suddenly we’ve gone from a rather impenetrable, forbidding process to something that is now very accessible to everyone. It was one of the things that delayed my move into web-based activity because I thought I would have to rely on somebody else to administer it. It all comes back to the matter of control of your creative process.
Presumably you’ve paid more to have all this audio and visual content on your website?
We would if audio and video content had been directly uploaded to the site, because there would be a limit. I do upload photographs directly onto WordPress from desktop files. The video and audio content is embedded from other sites such as Vimeo and Soundcloud. It works in exactly the same way as if I’d put it directly onto the site. I only have a problem if the Soundcloud or Vimeo site is down, but they are usually pretty reliable.
I set up a Soundcloud account when I set up the Longbarrow WordPress site. Soundcloud made changes to various design layouts recently that have made it much less user-friendly than it was before and they’re more focused on commercial content. It’s become a case of ‘If you enjoyed this track by Matt Clegg, you’ll also enjoy Lady Gaga.’ I don’t really want people to have to wade through that and it looks terrible. So I had to spend about half a day embedding every recording that was on the Soundcloud site onto the ‘Recordings’ pages of the Longbarrow site. It was laborious, but it now gives listeners more control and the navigation is a lot better, because you don’t have to leave the Longbarrow site for the Soundcloud site. That way we are able to keep traffic on the site.
We use the same principle on Twitter. If people want to stay on Twitter then they can watch the Vimeo film on the small screen. It’s a good solution to the issues of storage and uploading massive files. You just upload them to the one site and if people are browsing those sites they can find them that way and embed them themselves onto Twitter or one of their own websites.
This must take up a great deal of your time. Why do you do it?
The technical side of things can start to take over and it’s a question of finding a balance with the important stuff – the publications and the events. The reason for doing it is the connection that you make with people through various events. Every time we do a poetry walk, a reading or an event that encompasses other media, there’s an enormous challenge from the demands of the occasion, but also an extraordinary connection with the people who might be making contact with the work for the first time. That is one of the most important areas for all of us. Every time we do an event and put something new out into the world, the focus for us is the connection that the work might be making with someone who’s encountering it for the first time.
I was reminded of this at the end of January, when we did a reading at the Fat Cat in Sheffield. We are at the point where we’re regularly getting about 50 people in a room. Soon we’ll need to think about how to actually limit audience numbers. The thing we’ve always focused on, in terms of the audience, is the person who is coming one of our events for the first time. They might not know anybody in the room and their expectations are very difficult to gauge.
The important thing for me is creating an environment where people can feel at ease, where they can make contact if they want to. I’ve always sought to avoid any sense of a clique. It’s horrible and I can’t help but feel that it affects your engagement with the work, particularly the kind of chumminess that you get during intros and performances as well. You have to extend familiarity to the whole audience or to nobody at all. That’s largely my job, because I don’t want the poets to be worrying about that when they’re preparing to read. I want to be approachable. I want to put people in a situation where they feel comfortable, without being overbearingly friendly. The most important thing, whether at a book fair or on a poetry walk, is to look at things from the audience’s perspective. With a poetry walk, for example, will people be able to hear? Is everybody with us? Is everybody ready to move on? It’s not about pandering to an idea of the audience. It’s about being able to read the audience and being out to accommodate its breadth and its variety and differences. So yes, it does take up an awful lot of time.
What’s your priority with the new books that are shortly coming out?
With the books that are coming out in the next few months, one aim is to try to break even, but I’m under no illusions about how challenging that is these days. Whether it’s a pamphlet, a book or anything else, it’s important to keep going steadily to promote and support the life of that book. Beyond questions of promotion, can you create opportunities for the poets through readings and other events in order to give their work the best possible chance in the culture?
Increasingly with production and delivery, whether it’s poetry, music, film or anything else, the platforms become more and more accessible. Any of us can set up a website, make a film and disseminate this stuff. So there are more and more people vying for what becomes a more and more beleaguered audience. Anyone who’s spent more than 10 minutes on Twitter will know there’s torrents of stuff that’s rushing past. You’re trying to pluck something out the stream, and quite often it’s the object that glitters brightest. The internet is enabling, but at the same time the volumes of output and activity present a real challenge for us all.
You have a very limited print output each year.
I’ve been very selective about the people that we’ve been working with. I’ve moved into new collaborations with only one or two poets each year. This is because the Longbarrow model is so focused on close collaboration. We have collaborated with poets at greater distances, though. Alistair Noon, who is based in Berlin, approached me in 2009. Alistair is a translator who often works with UK-based publishers and so has developed a very transparent and nuanced mode of communication via email, which not everyone is able to do. With email and other forms of electronic media the scope for misreading text and other features is huge. But Alistair’s communications have always been very clear. You need to feel that the understanding and trust is there when collaborating. At the moment I’m only working with about 12 poets and the balance will change from week to week.
This close collaboration produces some very interesting results, particularly the recordings.
The exciting stuff is the live events and recording with poets. You’re never guaranteed entirely perfect conditions. One of the recent events that really stands out was a journey that Matt Clegg and I made to Flamborough to record a sequence of poems set on the Flamborough Coast. We’d made some initial recordings in a sea cave a couple of years before. Matt spent his childhood holidays in and around Flamborough. The family holidays stopped when he was about 12, so he hadn’t been back there for nearly 30 years. We happened to be walking around the coast of Flamborough and we wandered into the cave. He hadn’t been in the cave for about 30 years. He got an enormous Proustian rush of sensory information, of memory and the immediate presence of the place.
We had gone in there with the recording equipment after deciding to record some of his earlier poems. We recorded a few poems in the sea cave itself and were immediately struck by the acoustics, which were extraordinary. It’s about the size of a parish church and has a church-like vaulted atmosphere. But in the middle distance is the sound of the sea washing back and forth. Because the tide was returning, the noise was swelling and thickening while we were there, which gave the recording an edge. We reached the point where we were getting seriously concerned about being cut off. We managed about 20 minutes before we had to get out.
Matt used that experience as a kind of sketchbook for further work. It not only gave us a couple of stunning recordings of poems connected with that area, but it also provided him with the genesis of a new sequence of poems about the area and the sea cave.
A couple of years later we found ourselves back in the sea cave recording the whole sequence. It was an extraordinary experience. We recorded the 12 poems straight through without interruption, with very strong performances. We’d also discussed assimilating the poems into a podcast, with a sound-based introduction based on the noises of the cave and the sea, followed by Matt describing the setting (the physical features, the fact that he was standing in the cave, the time of day, etc).
After recording the poems, I then recorded Matt talking about his childhood holidays, his experiences of the cave, some literary precedents and touchstones for the work (e.g. Homer’s Odyssey) and edited this down to 15 minutes, and then spent two days weaving the poems and the commentary into a 30-minute podcast. We created a structure that allowed Matt to move between commentary on the poems to more spontaneous responses as he looked at the ochre light on the wall of the cave, then out towards the sea, then at the way that the cave mouth was framing the sea. This resulted in Cave Time and Sea Changes, one of the most immersive audio works that we’ve created to date.
Describe Longbarrow’s involvement in the forthcoming Sheffield Poetry Festival.
The 2013 Sheffield Poetry Festival takes place over 10 days in early June. One priority for us, as a contributing stakeholder, is to use this opportunity to showcase what we do in various media. One of our events for the 2011 festival was a collaboration between Chris Jones and the artist Paul Evans. Paul had produced 10 paintings in response to Chris’s sequence Death and the Gallant. The work was then exhibited at Bank Street Arts and coincided with a reading by Chris and discussion with Paul. Another of our events was a collaboration between the poet Kelvin Corcoran and musicians Maria Pavlidou and Howard Wright.
This year, we’ll be contributing three events: The Flight, a programme of short films curated by me; a city walk led by Rob Hindle that intersects with Sheffield’s histories (ranging from the 1864 flood to the 1940 Blitz); and Alistair Noon’s Sonnets and Statues, a reading and discussion focused around his translation of Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman and his own sonnet-sequence Earth Records. Several Longbarrow poets – Angelina Ayers, James Caruth, Matthew Clegg, Chris Jones and Fay Musselwhite – will also be appearing at other events throughout the festival. As well as showcasing the work produced by poets associated with Longbarrow, it’s also a great opportunity to encounter the many different poetries produced in and around Sheffield, and further afield.