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Sunday, 1 May 2011

Interview: Andy Ching

Andy Ching is the chief of Donut Press, purveyors of pocketbook poetry gold from writers such as Paul Farley, Liane Strauss and John Hegley. We cornered him for a brief picnic...

Is it a busy time for you right now?

Yes, indeed. I'm lashed to the Donut grindstone working on various projects. I spent part of January working on Jude Cowan's first collection, provisionally titled Reuters Tapes, which I'm very excited about. Jude works as a media archivist for ITN Source and spends much of her time cataloguing unpackaged news footage as it comes in from around the world. In early 2008 she began to write poems in response to that material and she continued through the year. The book will bring together the best of the poems. It's a fascinating read. Over the past few weeks we've been working on selection and ordering, her introduction and my editor's note, preparing the book for typesetting.

What are the most and least enjoyable things about running Donut Press?

I love almost every aspect of the editorial process - from chasing down and chatting up the writers I admire, to seeing a final document through the printing process. Marketing and sales are less enjoyable, credit control less still; worst is fundraising, which is guaranteed to put me in a bad mood.

Donut's books are stunning and have a real sense of fun about their design. They're distinct and recognisable without being samey, which is a line publishers have to tread carefully. Did you take inspiration from others, or had you a clear aesthetic in mind from the start?

All Donut design and typesetting is the work of Mr Liam Relph, my partner in crime. Liam was just starting out as a designer when we met and decided to join forces. We talked a lot about what we didn't like in poetry book design. We wanted our books to look fresh and fun and hopefully appeal to any browser who might pick them up. While we're both interested in contemporary and historical book design, I think Liam also brings something in from record design - which he's also been involved in.

In a sense our house style relates only to format - the different sizes of the books we produce. Liam responds creatively to each typescript he receives, and chooses font, sets type and designs a cover accordingly. I like this approach. At the same time he's always conscious of Donut as a brand and works hard to make each book fit in with what's come before, while also trying to move forward. We're fussy about papers and other materials - in this respect we're probably a printer's nightmare. I admit to one blatant theft: we nicked our pocketbook format from the brilliant City Lights Pocket Poets series. Liam's input is crucial to Donut Press, and I love his work and working with him.

What is it about poetry that first attracted you, and that convinced you to put so much devotion and energy into promoting it?

Reading had little impact on me as a kid, but once I reached my late teens it took on huge significance. I had a period of depression and reading helped pull me through it. I read a lot of fiction at that time, but gradually became interested in poetry. For me, poetry can be the ultimate reading hit. If you boil down writing into its most potent crystalline form, you have poetry. I think a lot of people find poetry a little daunting when they first engage with it - I know I did - but once you find a few authors you like and get a foothold, you quickly feel more comfortable. As a publisher, poetry - being the poor relation to fiction and many other genres - is quite easy to get into, because no one with real commerce in mind will go there. So if you do get involved it's relatively easy to get to work with real writing talent. It'll sound corny but I do think poetry can be a noble art.

Tell us about your interest in WS Graham, and how it began.

Roddy Lumsden suggested I check him out. It took me a little while to get round to it, but once I did I was knocked out. I picked up a copy of New Collected Poems and began reading during a night of interrupted sleep. Douglas Dunn describes Graham as a poet of 'the night hours,' and this is spot on - particularly when applied to mid- to late-period Graham. Reading his work you get the sense of a man up at his desk, digging up memories and turning over ideas and phrases while the rest of the world is asleep. The mind seems to work at a different pitch during the dead of night. So this immediately struck a chord during my first reading.

Graham developed a strategy of involving, sometimes almost implicating the reader within his poems, and this draws and hooks you in. While you might say much of his work is an exploration of the difficulties of communication, it's often dramatic and brilliantly comic, never dry. He always stressed the importance of 'disturbing the language', and tried to find an idiom and music, and approach to his material, which was striking and new. He liked to put pressure on the line and warp syntax in weird and wonderful ways. Reading him led me to some deeper thinking about poetics and much else. Re-publishing one of his great sequences - 'Approaches To How They Behave' - was a brilliant opportunity. I spent part of 2009 out on the road, trying to sing his praises, which was great fun. I met some fine people, some of whom had been friends with the man. I'll be down in Devon and Cornwall in a few weeks, taking part in two Graham celebration events.

You've published poets like Tim Wells and Tim Turnbull, who have very distinctive performance styles (the latter even breaking into song sometimes!). Do you feel poetry should work equally well on page and stage?

Ideally, yes, but not all good poets can read aloud or perform for an audience; while some good performers just don't translate to the page. I've been reading Basil Bunting lately and largely agree with his thought that poetry 'is to be heard'. Sound and sense are bound, to a large degree, in language; so if you get the sound of a poem right you're more likely to capture the right sense and achieve the desired effect on the listener/reader. Of course while some poets, like Bunting, sound beautiful to the ear, others aim for a different kind of music. As a publisher I'm looking for material that works on the page - the publisher's medium - because these days many readers don't take the opportunity to hear poetry read aloud.

Does a poet have to be a strong live performer for their material to succeed?

Definitely not, though it helps. They have to be a good writer, which is hard enough.

What would you like to see more of and less of in contemporary poetry?

Perhaps a little less of the lyric 'I' - there are many other poetic modes - and a little more adventure. The publication of the Bloodaxe anthology Identity Parade (in March) should be interesting. There's not been a major generational anthology for a while, and I hope the selection will show off the diversity of the current British and Irish scenes. If I look back a decade, the British poetry world of 2000 seemed a lot more uptight and factional. Over the past few years there seems to have been a loosening up: now poets and readers seem more willing to explore and enjoy work from vastly different poetries. If my observations are at all close to the mark, I hope this broader engagement will continue. Also, in my dreams, I'd like a little more, and better, coverage of poetry in the national press. While I understand the pressure for space I find it hard to excuse the narrow, and often poor, coverage that makes it into that space.

In terms of regular live poetry events, what do you enjoy and recommend?

The recent London live scene has been phenomenal. There's been a huge rise in the number of interesting new writer/performers, and promoters have become much more innovative. On some evenings, frustratingly, there have been close to a handful of cracking events on offer, and some performers have been bouncing around town appearing at two or three. I think Shortfuse (run by Cocker-esque Uri Geller fan and performance poet Nathan Penlington - KI) had a really creative and entertaining approach, and I've a feeling they may have influenced a number of the newer promoters. I have to be careful what I say. If I single out any particular series, I'm bound to piss off organisers of equally good strands. While I'm aware my answers may begin to sound like an advert for the talents of Mr Roddy Lumsden, I do think Broadcast (in its different forms) has been hugely positive - not only bringing in writers from across the country, but its one-off themed events have prompted many poets to produce good material which wouldn't otherwise have appeared. Broadcast events have drawn big crowds and been great fun. As a venue, The Betsey Trotwood pub (on Farringdon Road) has been host to some great events over the past few years. Tom Chivers and the London Word Festival team are also doing great work, as are Salena Godden, Christopher Horton, Richard Tyrone Jones, Paul Lyalls, Niall O'Sullivan, Jody Porter, Kevin Reinhardt, The Shuffle, Tall Lighthouse and Wordplay. Salt have just started their Salt Cellars.

So what next for you personally, and for Donut?

For Donut, five new books in the autumn, fingers crossed. There'll be full collections from Matthew Caley and Jude Cowan, pocketbooks from Wayne Holloway-Smith and Ahren Warner, and a limited edition of a great new sequence by A.B. Jackson. Personally, I'll be walking the dog, followed by the washing up - I'm better trained than the dog!


Check out Donut's treasury of poetic wonderment at www.donutpress.co.uk.

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