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Interview: Jenny Swann

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Jenny Swann is the founder of Candlestick Press and the editor of Ten Poems About Bicycles. Having recently reviewed that, we thought it would be good to get Swann into the Café to talk poetry.

Ten-poems-about-bicycles-300x456_mediumPodium Café: Candlestick Press specialises in producing small, beautifully crafted poetry pamphlets that serve both as books and greeting cards. It seems quite an unusual - and fresh - way of promoting poetry. How did the idea for forming the company come about?

Jenny Swann: Candlestick Press was set up in 2008. I was working as a poetry editor for another publisher, and had seen a couple of poetry pamphlets through the presses in that job - and fallen in love with poetry pamphlets, which I saw as the perfect introduction to poetry for many people. My mother had recently died and as she was a very bookish, intelligent woman, I thought I would use the little legacy she left me to set up my own poetry press, rather than contributing the money to bankers' bonuses!

The idea of publishing poetry pamphlets that are packaged up with an envelope and bookmark and sent to friends and family ‘Instead of a Card' came about because I thought it would be so great if people sent each other poetry pamphlets, instead of tasteful greetings cards, which, moreover, could be kept forever and enjoyed repeatedly.

PdC: It is said of poetry that more people write poems than read them. Looking at just poems about bicycles, it is somewhat surprising the number and variety that exist, from canonical poets all the way down ordinary Joe and Joan Punters who simply like stringing words together. How did you go about choosing just ten poems for this collection?

JS: I very much wanted to show bicycles in their historical context as well as our own reactions to the pleasure and excitement of riding them. To research Ten Poems About Bicycles, I went to a lecture about the history of the bicycle (it seemed to dwell at great length on the ball-bearing and I was the only member of the audience not wearing Lycra). I hadn't previously really taken in the importance socially and historically of the bike. Researching the poems and choosing them was a huge pleasure.

As you have said, some of the poems are ones that nobody will have come across before, and I wanted to present something other than ‘the usual suspects'. One poem in particular everyone said "Oh, you just must put that in" but I didn't, because it was so well-known already, and it would have squeezed out others that would be new to people.

So I used various criteria - I wanted a mixture of old and new, familiar and unknown and, above all, they all had to have ‘essence of bike' about them somehow; I suppose that was the subjective part of it. For instance, the poem by Connie Bensley [Wheel Fever] I had never read before and I just loved it, and since I was the editor...well, it was my call and that poem was instantly and emphatically in the short-list.

So a mixture of personal taste and wanting to cover certain other criteria, including historical perspective, defined my decisions. But it was so hard leaving some other fantastic poems out. It very nearly turned into Twenty Poems but I recognised that the role of this pamphlet was not to offer people every poem about bicycles on the face of the earth, but just a sweet little taster.

PdC: Tim Krabbé's The Rider is the cycling novel most every cyclist knows, and I guess on the poetry side the equivalent is Banjo Patterson's Mulga Bill's Bicycle. That poem dates back to 1896, about the same time as HG Wells' Wheels Of Chance. I have to confess that Patterson's ta-dum ta-dum ta-dum ta-dum ta-dum ta-dum ta-dum beat doesn't do much for me (I think that may have something to do with having the Christian Brothers emphasise such a beat with a ruler on the head) but it seems to be a widely popular poem among cyclists. The Victorian era seems to have produced a wealth of cycling poetry, more than enough to fill just a single volume of cycling poems.

JS: Well, it wouldn't do to have a whole anthology of Banjo Paterson-type poems with their relentless beat, I agree (even allowing for the absence of Christian Brothers - sorry to hear about your head) but I just found it such a hilarious poem, a bit like a Charlie Chaplin movie, and also I wanted people coming fresh to the pamphlet not to be frightened off, so I thought good old Mulga Bill was a pretty safe bet for reassuring readers that they weren't just about to be plunged into The Great Incomprehensibility of Poetry. Also, I liked the idea of opening the pamphlet with a bike that accelerated downhill at such speed, totally out of control.

PdC: I'm conscious of the fact that books have to pay for themselves, they have to be economically viable. Poetry anthologies are not cheap to produce, given the royalty requirements of the individual poets, their relatively small print runs and the difficulty of promoting them. Were there any poems that you wish you could have included, but couldn't because of financial constraints?

JS: You are absolutely right about the economic realities of poetry publishing. Basically, you don't go into poetry publishing with the aim of making a fortune. But the way I look at it is that poems were written to be read, so unless a publisher is getting those poems out there, ie to people who are going to enjoy reading them, then that publisher is not doing their job properly. Poets work hard, sometimes for years, producing poems, and if publishers aren't reaching readers, then those poems, and the hard work of their authors, are going to waste.

Which is a very long-winded way of saying that we make a huge effort to get our titles into lots of good bookshops, museum and gallery shops, specialist shops etc and hence we are able to have quite large print-runs compared with some poetry publishers.

Regarding royalties, you are right again - sometimes my eyes water when I hear from a literary agent what they want to charge us for using a poem. In Ten Poems about Bicycles luckily the copyright holders were really nice - they entered into the spirit of the enterprise (this was the first ever anthology of bicycles poems in the UK, though I think there were already some published in the USA).

So all of the poems in it were meant to be there, nothing was left out that I wanted to use but couldn't afford. Sadly, that is not true of all the other titles. We have had to leave out some truly brilliant poems because we couldn't afford them. Another publisher recently told me that they have as good as stopped publishing anthologies because the fees are so high. Which seems to me a real shame, and a loss all round.

PdC: For a lot of poets, the bicycle symbolises freedom and innocence. This is often contrasted with their opposites, with a sense of loss. James Burns' Boy On A Bicycle in particular stands out here, Burns contrasting an image of a boy riding a bicycle with the future that awaits him in the trenches of the Great War.

JS: Yes, I am glad you pick out that particular poem. It is an outstanding poem. I took a deep breath before including it because I could hear the "That isn't a poem, it's prose!" brigade in the back of my head all ready to pounce. But I ignored them and am glad I did.

As you say, the bicycle is often all about freedom, getting away into a world of one's own but in the poem by Burns that innocent act of riding his bike, the sensuousness of being young and alive and full of hope and expectation in the world and its natural order, is brutally besmirched by what follows.

PdC: The other poem that really stood out for me was Helena Nelson's Bike With No Hands, which is a beautiful little love song (I should be able to find a better phrase but will stick with love song) from a poet I haven't come across before.

JS: Yes, I was very taken with this poem too and I think that you are right to call it a love song.

I have often wondered why it is that girls don't feel the same need or wish as boys to learn to ride a bike with no hands. It's a boy-biker's rite of passage. It makes him one of the lads. Maybe that's what most girls recognise and explains why they don't follow suit. I honestly don't know. The poem leaves the reader wondering how any self-respecting woman could ever, possibly, fall in love with someone who couldn't ride hands-free.

PdC: In the review I mentioned the lack of poems about the sporting side of cycling, and the fact that such poems seem to be in short supply. Are there any that you've come across in the years since first producing Ten Poems About Bicycles?

JS: Yes, I am conscious - and was when I was selecting the poems - that they are for the most part not about the sporting side of cycling. I did come across some poems - though not that many in truth - that talked about the experience of cycling as a sport but they didn't end up in the collection because I didn't find them exciting or interesting as poems.

They didn't strike any kind of chord, they left the reader cold. Paradoxically, the energy and excitement and satisfaction of the sporting side of bicycles was completely absent in the poems about them.

So it seemed as if the excitement of the sport was lost in the poetry, and the peacefulness of the non-sporting cycle ride turned into some exciting poems. Unaccountable and I hope that in times to come, I find some brilliant poems about the sporting side of cycling.

PdC: Cycling in the UK is on an upswing, from gold medals and yellow jerseys all the way down to things like Boris Bikes and a greater awareness of cyclists as legitimate road users. Are there any plans to tap into this rising popularity and produce Another Ten Poems About Bicycles?

JS: Yes, I am so delighted at the way that cycling in the UK is on the up, both as one of life's great simple pleasures and, as you say, for whizzing around Olympic velodromes. I always cheer when Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, gives interviews wearing his bike helmet, as if it is welded to his head.

One unexpected aspect of being a publisher is that, as soon as a new title comes out, lots of people get in touch and tell you about other poems that you have missed on the subject first time round. I keep a file of possibles for a sequel and am always interested to hear about poems we missed (though this can, I confess, be painful when we have missed a real beauty).

So although there are other titles patiently awaiting their turn in the list, I certainly wouldn't rule out another ten poems about bicycles. As the saying goes, never say never.

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Ten Poems About Bicycles is published by Candlestick Press.

You'll find Candlestick on Twitter @PoetryCandle

Our tjansk to Jenny Swann for taking part in this interview.