In October 2018, the Lives of Letters network announced that a one-day workshop, ‘Carcanet at 50: Poetry Publishers, Archives and the Digital Revolution’, would be taking place at the John Rylands Library, Manchester, on January 17. What follows below, for the record, is the text of the contribution made there by Richie McCaffery and myself, Alistair Peebles, co-editors and publisher of The Tiny Talent. The workshop was organised by Lise Jaillant, of Loughborough University, with Victoria Stobo, of Liverpool University Centre for Archive Studies. It was a pleasure to be there and take part.
Mousseline, 2018 by Amy Todman (inside cover image of The Tiny Talent)
“Speak up!” they say, over / the traffic noise. Publishing the poems of Joan Ure.
The title of our talk is taken from Joan Ure’s poem ‘HEADLINE!’. Like most of her oeuvre this had remained in typescript form and unpublished since Ure’s early death in 1978. It was brought into print by ourselves only last year, the poet’s centenary year, via Alistair’s Orkney-based small press Brae Editions, funded in part by Creative Scotland. Somewhere between octavo and quarto in size, The Tiny Talent: Selected Poems by Joan Ure is a pamphlet selection of 22 of her poems.
Our ‘headline’ poem concerns a struggling woman poet / dramatist who in her desperation to be heard has resorted to standing in a busy city street, outside the theatre, wearing a large sandwich board:
In the beginning
of this hopeful day
a woman is building
for herself a cage
set on the through
road of the city that
fronts the theatre.
She wears for warmth a
sedate sandwich board
that soberly states –
ALL I ASK IS FREEDOM
TO BE HEARD.
Ure’s archive of short plays, letters, poems and other written remains was preserved as part of the University of Glasgow’s ‘Scottish Theatre Archive’ in the 1980s / 1990s under the auspices of Alasdair Gray, Christopher Small (her literary executor) and Frances Wren (her daughter). Although the poems in Ure’s archive demonstrate a large range, many of her more polemical poems, like ‘HEADLINE!’ are allegorical tragi-comic treatments of the sort of neglect she really suffered on a daily basis, living (in her own words) in a ‘blasting philistine land’ in post-War Glasgow. She was active as a writer during the three waves of the famously male-dominated Scottish Renaissance and died just as younger women poets such as Liz Lochhead were beginning to be taken seriously as artists.
My personal reasons for wanting to research and publish Ure’s poems came out of a sense of anger and injustice at her neglect, and a sense of guilt which I’ll explain later.
Joan Ure, real name Elizabeth Carswell, was a Glaswegian poet and playwright. She died in 1978 of an asthma attack, but her lungs had already been damaged by tuberculosis suffered when she was a teenager, nursing her sick mother, and her health had been eroded by years of anorexia nervosa. She wrote a great deal but published very little during her lifetime. However, this wasn’t for lack of trying. Despite this overwhelming sense of rejection or historical ignorance of her work, she was willing to become a ‘beggar’ for the freedom to write. Freedom to write for Ure meant confronting financial hardship, sexism, discrimination, misunderstanding, ill health, and significant domestic and family problems.
It was while researching Scottish women poets of the 20th century that I first encountered a poem by Ure – the title poem ‘The Tiny Talent’ – in an all women special issue of Chapman magazine from the early 1980s. I was struck instantly by the poem’s unique blend of biting irony and defiance. Here was a woman who had repeatedly been told her talent was ‘tiny’, at best, but in the poem she deployed the word in the same incredulous way Hugh MacDiarmid did when he wrote of Scotland being accused of being ‘small?’ in Direadh I. Here is the opening of ‘The Tiny Talent’:
There was this woman and she had this tiny talent.
I call it talent for things must have a name.
She had this talent that it happened to be death
to hide. She knew this empirically because, having
the first time, tried to hide it, she
broke out in a rash.
I’ve always been interested in critical peripheries and blind-spots – so I was interested in finding the minor or even forgotten Scottish poets. Dorothy Porter has written specifically about the ‘secret narratives’ of Scottish women’s writing and experiences, and there is still much work to be done in exploring this subterranean stream of writing which was suppressed in favour of male literary priorities at the time. Additionally, the editor of Chapman, Joy Hendry has written about Scottish women writers of the early and mid-20th century as suffering an additional set-back (a ‘double knot in the pinny’) – being Scottish. In the way that Chapman was a champion of the overlooked, and something of a literary moral compass, I was interested in redressing history by taking Ure’s poems and getting them into print and critical circulation.
Of course, I couldn’t do this alone and my impact and influence as a poet and scholar was tiny. It wasn’t until I did a PhD at Glasgow on the Scottish poets of World War Two that I was reminded strongly of Ure. Day after day I was dealing with an overwhelmingly and oppressively male scene, and I felt that giving all my time to these men who had already been praised in their times was tendentious at best. While I was waiting for my thesis to progress to its viva, I went into Ure’s archives and began to assess the amount of work it contained – a lot. There was much work to do in deciphering and transcribing and at first I did this as a labour of love – I just wanted to have digital copies of these poems myself. I realised I was in the presence of a major voice – and a fresh, vital and relevant one that time had not dated in any way. Ure is a glowing example of the cultural riches that lie in abeyance in archives if we ourselves as readers, researchers and publishers, allow ourselves to be curious and question the canonical narratives (typically competitively male) we are given so often at university.
Archives can also be a place for important chance encounters as I discovered with my co-presenter Alistair Peebles. We met in the NLS when I was researching Sydney Goodsir Smith and he was looking into Ian Hamilton Finlay. The right people had met each other at the right time and had mentioned the right things – the stars aligned and the result is Ure’s pamphlet The Tiny Talent.
With my angle on the work summed-up, I’ll hand over to my collaborator and the publisher of this beautiful pamphlet, Alistair Peebles.
Thank you, Richie. Like you, I hope readers will agree that Joan Ure’s far-from-tiny talent is well illustrated by what between us we’ve managed to publish here. Yet if her work has remained for too long, in the words of the late Tom Leonard, ‘outside the narrative’, there’s consolation in the fact that it has been preserved in the archive, awaiting its moment. Of the topics highlighted in the title of today’s workshop, those of archives and publishing have certainly been central in our recent collaboration. As regards ‘the digital revolution’, while technology of that kind has been crucial in facilitating the project, it has really only been in the background. What we’ve heard during today’s workshop has been instructive as regards future possibilities, but my main task is to outline our progress so far, from a publishing point of view.
Richie’s closing remarks bring us neatly to the occasion when he and I met for the first time, quite by chance, at the NLS, in late October 2017. It was only while we were speaking then that the idea entered my head that my somewhat dormant publishing imprint might be a suitable vehicle to bring Ure’s work back out into the world. For reasons I won’t go into here, it really was an extraordinarily unlikely moment of meeting, though in fact only the first of many coincidences, or at any rate lucky breaks, that helped guide this project forward. As though it were meant to be.
We certainly encountered a lot of good will, and doors kept opening with the least persuasion, or, so to speak, our ‘vehicle’ kept hitting green lights. And the character of Ure’s work aside, a lot of this is down to the generosity of the people we were having to seek out and ask for assistance, for advice, permission, pictures, and so on. Richie has already mentioned Scottish Theatre Archive, and the willing participation of the writer and artist Alasdair Gray, a friend of Joan Ure’s, deserves to be acknowledged. But there were many others, including a number who had known Ure well during her life, who had never properly encountered her poetry before. In each case, they were pleased that something was happening in her memory, and really very impressed with this ‘new’ work. And as Richie has indicated, a final, very bright green light came from Creative Scotland, in the form of financial support.
As I mention in my biographical statement, my own awareness of Joan Ure came about belatedly through my research on the Scottish poet, artist and gardener, Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006) – in particular, at least as regards my PhD (at Northumbria University), on his ‘pre-concrete’ career, up till around 1962. A good deal of Finlay’s early biography is rather obscure, and I’ve spent a lot of time in archives and in locating and interviewing many of those who knew him, trying to establish as clear a picture of events, and their significance, as possible. (It’s mainly why I’m here this week, in fact, to examine the Finlay-related holdings in the Carcanet Press Archive.) At that earlier stage, from the mid-1950s to the early 60s, Finlay’s main output, like Ure’s, was as a playwright. By learning about Ure, I hoped to catch some useful glimpses, if not of Finlay himself, then of the world around him at that time.
Then there’s my background in small publishing, which derives from a long-standing interest, as a writer and photographer, in making artists books. Here again a Finlay connection may be found, and the influence of his work has undoubtedly informed my approach to publishing in general. In the context of a consideration of publishing in the present day, I think that’s an important point about my background, and the way in which this selection has been presented. It would never have occurred to me to have tried to achieve our objectives digitally, although the value of such resources in publicity is a different matter, and I have also begun blogging about the project. But I wonder whether a physical publication makes Ure’s ‘presence’ as a writer, or her re-presencing, more palpable, not to say that this might not be supplemented digitally. I hope it will.
The publication format had several attractions. (I pinched the final size from th’ fleety wud, a pamphlet brought out by my friend Alec Finlay, something that arrived at just the right time in the process). Being relatively over-sized, it presents itself in a mildly challenging dialogue with the literal meaning of the title, but primarily it allowed me to give due space on the page for the poems. I’m sure many here will be familiar with the process of juggling numbers of texts, point size and white space, at least where there’s flexibility over page size. And indeed I worked with the same designer as Alec at Studio LR in Edinburgh to finalise layout, and also with the printers they recommended, a crucial consideration when you’re 300 miles distant. The format, as well as the materiality, is arguably also generous to the reader. Aside from the typography, and the paper stock, the booklet opens flat, and it handles agreeably. And with the subvention we’ve been able to make the price attractive too. The cover is uncoated as appropriate to the image it carries, a watercolour by Ure’s near contemporary, and fellow Glaswegian, the painter Bet Low. The inside cover presents a work by a collaborator of mine with Brae Editions, the writer and artist Amy Todman. The image works well in juxtaposition with Low’s – as recent work, it speaks to the undiminished vitality of Ure’s poetry today. Physically, the image also supports the page-gathering in a rather satisfying way.
Moving on, I’ll briefly make two points about the gallery I ran for a few summers ten years ago or so in an empty shop on the main street in Stromness, in Orkney, which I called Porteous Brae Gallery. First thing to note is that I ran it as a kind of an experiment, to see where it went, to learn whether something like that could survive in Stromness, and what effect it might have. And my second point is that it quickly developed a publishing arm, Brae Editions. None of this was ever primarily a money-making exercise, though it had at least to pay for itself. Similar considerations may be seen to apply in the present project, where in part I was actually simply very curious to see what the effect might be of putting this book out. And so the ‘project’ is not only the book itself, but a consideration of its impact, although broadly speaking, this is surely not an unusual concern for a publisher to have.
As regards some possible effects, Richie and I discussed at the outset the hope that if this pamphlet proved popular, then a larger publisher might think about bringing out a more substantial selection of Ure’s work. Or perhaps PhD students might be drawn into examining it, for, as Richie knows better than I, it’s a large (and growing) archive and, locally at least, a fascinating and important story. And it clearly wants to be told.
Another part of the original strategy was to make sure the publication fitted the requirements for entry to the prestigious Callum Macdonald Award for Poetry Pamphlet Publishing in Scotland, including as regards the acceptability of entering work by someone other than a living poet. Brae Editions won the Award in 2012 for our publication of poems by Lesley Harrison and drawings by Laura Drever, Ecstatics: a language of birds. And as you know, Richie’s own collaborative pamphlet, Ballast Flint, published by Cromarty Arts Trust, was the runner-up in 2014. News that the Award had been withdrawn following the 2018 round came as something of a disappointment therefore. Nevertheless the impetus that the idea of the competition provided, in our case at least, surely testifies to the far-sightedness of the Award’s originator, Macdonald’s widow, the poet and key instigator of the Scottish Poetry Library, the late Tessa Ransford, and those who have maintained and supported it.
To date, we’ve held four successful launches, in Orkney, London, Edinburgh and Glasgow. We’ve shifted a fair proportion of the edition, so that getting on for half the number printed is already out in the world. We’re anticipating that reviews will start to appear before too much longer, and just last week we had a few paragraphs about the pamphlet on the back page of the TLS, accompanied by a photo of the poet herself, perhaps the first time her work has been mentioned there. And we’ve begun to look for opportunities to read at festivals later this year.
To return briefly to the early days of the imprint, I’ll add that Brae Editions became not so much side-lined by, as in some respects absorbed into my PhD, beginning in 2011. This applies especially in respect of the practice-led elements of my thesis, several of which are waiting to be brought into print (or indeed, published digitally). In fact, to speak from my own perspective in relation to Finlay, this pamphlet might itself be understood as form of practice-led research.
In conclusion, and while I have to emphasise, if it’s not obvious, that Brae Editions is only a very tiny publisher, I’ll quickly, and very tentatively, refer to two of the four broad questions that Lise originally set us. Specifically in response to these, I think that our experience shows the potential benefit for archives of encouraging small-scale but ambitious and big-hearted publishing initiatives, and I’d suggest that within the academy this might usefully take the form, or perhaps continue to take the form, of practice-led research. Further, with reference to the topic of new knowledge, one of the ways in which that can be generated is by sharing the work with a wide audience, and by being on hand to interact with its members. Many ways exist of achieving this, but I’ll conclude with reference to the quite enjoyable, perhaps even somewhat daring, method of creating a pop-up shop. Leaving Porteous Brae aside for the moment, a recent Scottish example comes to mind, concerning an archive of material drawn from the field of public art.
‘Watch Where You Are’ – The Enduring Town Art of Glenrothes, October 2018
The location in this case is the shopping centre of the Fife ‘new town’ of Glenrothes, in which for a week or so in October last year, Andrew Demetrius, Visual Resources Curator at St Andrews University, and his colleagues, opened just such a shop, with an exhibition entitled ‘Watch Where You Are’ The Enduring Town Art of Glenrothes. The research focuses on archives of the town’s public art programme, in particular on the work done there in the late 1960s and 70s by an artist named David Harding. Indeed, Demetrius is working on a PhD thesis concerning these topics. Simply expressed, the idea was that passers-by could come and discover something about architectural features in the town landscape with which they might be long familiar, and could also share their own stories about their engagement with these markers, and makers of identity. Some of you may know of Harding as the founder of the highly influential Environmental Arts Department at Glasgow School of Art, celebrated not least as a source of several candidates for and winners of the Turner Prize. (He also worked with Finlay, which is what prompted me to go and see the exhibition.) There’s no space here to speak further about the project as a whole but as a method of ‘producing new knowledge’ from the archive, accompanied and ‘activated’ to some extent by newly-commissioned photography, the intervention struck me as exemplary.
 How do small poetry publishers survive in a global marketplace dominated by large, multinational publishing firms? What can be done to actively preserve their archives and make them available? And how can scholars produce new knowledge, using these paper and born-digital archives? What does it mean to publish poetry at the time when “users” read poems on their tablets or phones, listen to podcasts and watch videos of poetry performances?