Sunday, 7 September 2014

Free Verse 2014 report

This year's Free Verse poetry bookfair was - as always - a success, or so it appeared from the Five Leaves stall, one of 61 groups exhibiting this year. The number of stall holders was up slightly on last year, though I did think the number of attendees was marginally down. There was still a pile of the paperback style free programme left at the end, indicating a smaller take up than expected. On the other hand, the number of readings during the day seems to have doubled and the readings carried on well into the evening in a nearby hostelry. The event was also expertly organised by Chrissy Williams and Joey Connolly with, for example, volunteers to cover stalls to allow publishers to wander a little or to support their authors at readings.
What was also interesting was the new appearance of some of the big boys - Faber and Picador - rubbing shoulders with the groundlings. And rub shoulders they have to do as one of the major features of the bookfair is that everyone gets the same space - one table. If TS Eliot was alive today he'd be sitting behind a Faber stall on a cranky plastic seat next to a metaphorical One Person and a Dog Press with five pamphlets to its name. And every publisher putting on a reading gets the same time. Democracy in action. Thanks to Arts Council funding Free Verse can pay travel expenses from out of London presses too, which means that northern publishers can take part without bankrupting themselves.
The Five Leaves stall did better than ever, after a slow start. We only had one new poetry book - our A Modern Don Juan, which people flocked to buy in their ones, but, thanks to our bookshop, we also took poetry stock from non-exhibiting presses which (sigh) attracted more attention and sales than our own.
We were next to a much busier stall, our chums at Happenstance Press, run by the enterprising Helena Nelson, whose new anthology of choc-lit poems was supplemented by free chocolate. A good stall to be next to. Many other "friends of Five Leaves" were around, including Cathy Galvin launching her first poetry pamphlet with Melos Press and Rosie Miles, whose first pamphlet will come from Happenstance next year. Our shop worker Leah was attending her first Free Verse and was interested in reported research showing that only 1% of published poets are Black. At the time we were discussing it, she was one of only two Black people among hundreds in the Conway Hall. As organisers of poetry readings that gave us some thought, and is a subject we'll be addressing in the New Year.
Leah got to readings, while I stayed behind the stall, greeting a lot of old friends including a delighted Michael Ezra - delighted, that is, because the People's March for the NHS was rallying in Red Lion Square outside the Free Verse venue. One poor bloke was, I heard, giving his biggest ever poetry reading in the Square when joined by hundreds of marchers, a samba band and a PA with speeches and Billy Bragg. Meh, could the two events not have been merged somehow?
I mentioned before that if we were to price our labour properly - travel time, time behind the stall, preparing and unpacking the stalls, giving readings - everyone would be losing money hand over fist, but that is not important. With luck you go back with fewer books than you came with. From a Bookshop point of view it did look like we were going to make a decent profit on the day - until we found the stock of etruscan books (their choice of lower case), a lot of which was taken for the shop. We'll be back next year.

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