I am fortunate. I have been Staffordshire Poet Laureate, I curate the long running Poetry Alight in Lichfield and my poetry has taken me from Malvern to Stornoway, from Shrewsbury to Leicester. Along the way I have met some fabulous poets, some fabulous people, from manual workers to senior academics, from bedroom scribblers to nationally, and internationally famous, published poets.
I am often asked what you have to do to be published, mainly dewy eyed enthusiasts who believe that a published book is the route to fame and fortune. hand the notebook over and someone else will do the rest. It doesn’t work like that. To demonstrate the hard yards which need to be put in I would like to use a recent news item, on an old school friend.
In those first days of secondary education, when your class has had an influx of new pupils, it takes time to get to know the new kids. One instantly stood out for me, slight in nature and with a shock of tousled, tangled, curly black hair. He was bookish, reserved, and had another worldly quality about him. I resolved to find out more. Over time I discovered that he had read the complete works of Alexander Pope by the age of eleven, his uncle was Robert Bolt who had written “A Man for All Seasons”, his aunt was Sarah Miles, the actress. I subsequently discovered that his father was a Professor at Cambridge University. I guess it is no surprise that he has gone on to be an ward winning playwright, a specialist in French and Classics translations into English for which he was awarded the OBE, and a rather good poet. His name is Ranjit Bolt.
Despite his august literary credentials, he rediscovered the joy of humorous verse- and the limerick. In an interview with the Guardian he revealed what happened next: With a growing body of work, Bolt did what poets have always done: he published himself in handmade editions. Taking photocopies of his latest limericks, he stapled them together and bound them in pink or green cardboard from Ryman. From 2014, armed with a pedlar’s licence and a certain poetic chutzpah, he began to sell his poems in Cambridge market square. On a good day, at £1 a throw, he would trade 10 copies an hour. Selling your own work, he says, “is quite a nice way to spend the time. I became just another Cambridge eccentric.”
Bolt says his handmade books “sold like hot cakes”. New media kicked in. It wasn’t long before a London publisher, Martin Rynja of Gibson Square, found Bolt’s limericks on Facebook. “I fell in love with his limericks,” says Rynja. “They always make me laugh, and I got in touch to see whether he might have more.” He did, and A Lion Was Learning to Ski became the title poem:
A lion was learning to ski
In the Alps just outside Chamonix.
But he ruined his hopes
Of mastering the slopes
When he had his instructor for tea.
Word-of-mouth has sustained the latest edition of Bolt’s work. This “most dexterous of wordsmiths,” says Simon Callow, can “make anapaests do headstands.”
In these dark times, the poet has a message for his readers. “Escape through anarchy into a surreal world. The joy of the verse is the contrast between the discipline of the form and the ludicrous nature of what’s being described. Funny poems can be seriously ludic.”
There are a few morals to this story. Firstly, if your believe in your work, do something about it, no-one will do it for you. Secondly, there is no shame in self-publishing. Thirdly, if it is good enough, it will be discovered anyway.