Opera North

John Lucas on Publishing Poetry and Cricket Rebels

6 June 16 words: Robin Lewis

"I'm interested in political movements, how society shapes itself in various ways, and different voices. I'm not in love with the tradition of lyrical poetry"


Image: Graham Lester George
You’ve been part of Nottingham’s literary scene for a while now…
As an academic and writer I’ve certainly been around since 1964, and as the publisher of Shoestring Press since 1994. A lot of poets and writers are involved in the small press scene. It’s the way you keep writing alive, I think. It’s not strictly necessary to get involved in that side of things as a writer, but it’s desirable and something I love doing. You’re absolutely your own master.

Do you prefer being involved with small presses over large publishing houses?
As the publishing companies have been amalgamated, one of the assets that has been most promptly stripped has been decent editing. You can be commissioned to turn out a big book by a publishing house and it’ll turn out with loads of errors because they don’t have the in-house editing any more. Most of my contributors would tell you I’m an interventionist editor – I go over the manuscripts very closely to make sure it’s as good as we can get it. And I have complete control over who I publish.

Is that why you started Shoestring Press, to be in complete control?
It started when I was in Australia on a three-month writing fellowship in 1993. I was talking with a friend, Michael Wilding, complaining about good poems being lost by big publishing houses. He said, “Well, start your own press, then.” I said, “Alright” and founded it when I came back to England. The first thing we published was a sequence of pamphlets, one of which was a lovely thing by Arnold Rattenbury, the great socialist poet, about frigger makers. Frigger makers are workers who make beautiful objects in their spare time using their commercial skills, like whalers with scrimshaw, or miners who made their own illustrated ‘baccy tins. It was supposed to continue like that, with occasional pamphlets. Twenty years later, we’ve published over 400 books.

So things just snowballed? Did you get a deluge of people wanting you to publish them?
Very rarely, I see something by a writer and I’ll say, “Have you got any more of that?” But, and this is no exaggeration, in one month alone in 2000 I had almost 500 unsolicited manuscripts. You’ve no idea how many would-be writers are out there, all wanting to get published. I’ve put a notice up on our website saying ‘no unsolicited manuscripts’ that stopped most of them, but not all. I can pick and choose, and I do so, ruthlessly.

Shoestring publishes a lot of translated poetry, especially Greek ones. Is that a particular interest of yours?
I spent a very happy year there as what is pretentiously called the Lord Byron Visiting Professor of English Literature at the University of Athens. The glory was all in the title.

It’s unusual to see much translated poetry. Is the world of British poetry too insular in that regard?
Absolutely, and disgracefully so. As a poet, it behooves you to know what’s going on in the world of poetry. I can understand why publishers fight shy of publishing foreign poetry, because it doesn’t get reviewed, but you do it because you want it out there in the world.

Is poetry more on the margins of things these days?
Literary culture itself is more on the margins of things these days. If you’d looked in the pages of the posh weeklies and newspapers when I was starting out, books came at the front of the review section. Very little attention paid to music, some to jazz, none to pop music. Now, in the Observer, for example, it’s at the back and literature has lost its dominance.

Your poems often seem to be about the social history of places. Is that what you find most interesting?
That’s expressive of my political sense of the world. I’m a socialist, I’ve always been a socialist and think I always will be. I’m interested in political movements, and how society shapes itself in various ways. I’m interested in different voices. I’m not in love with the tradition of lyrical poetry. My favourite poets are narrative poets like Chaucer, Dryden, Crabbe, Clare, Browning and Hardy. My kind of poetry tries to be alert to the shaping forces in people’s lives, and pays attention to the way people speak and how the psychology of individuals is shown by it.

You released Waterdrops, your first novel, in 2012, after decades of writing poetry. What made you try your hand at a prose novel?
It wasn’t my first novel. That was written years ago, and was absolutely terrible. Mercifully it came out under a pseudonym. Waterdrops was born out of my obsession with WWII and my sense of untold stories about it, and what drove people apart in that war. I was a child during WWII, and it seemed almost fun at the time, it was only later that I realised how awful it must have been for the adults. Another novel, The Plotting, will be coming out in June, about dodgy dealings in Nottingham and a semi-pro jazz group.

You released The Awkward Squad: Rebels In English Cricket last year. Is cricket another love of yours?
That was going to be published by Random House, but they wanted me to get rid of what they claimed were libellous remarks about Geoffrey Boycott. I said no, and gave it to a lawyer friend of mine who said there’s one passage you should get rid of but the rest is fine. Random House still wouldn’t do it. I said screw it and published it myself. It got shortlisted for last year’s Cricketing Book of the Year award and is now in its third printing. The way the British class system was built into cricket with the line between gentlemen and players really connected with my interest in politics. The rebels in the game are always the players, the professionals who earn a living. Cricket is a great game, but it’s had to struggle with the class system.

You wrote about the fifties in your memoir, Next Year Will Be Better. Is it a much maligned decade?
Yes. It seemed unfair to me. CND was started in the fifties, as was the campaign to legalise homosexuality. Jazz, my great passion, became hugely important in the fifties, as did new expressions in drama – what they called ‘kitchen sink’ dramas. It wasn’t just a grey decade, and I wanted to write the book to correct the misapprehension among young people who hadn’t lived through it.

You edited Candlestick Press’ Ten Poems About Nottingham. What was your aim with that?
I wanted to tell a mini-narrative about Nottingham as a radical city. It starts with a poem remembering something about the Civil War and it runs through to contemporary Nottingham. I wanted to avoid the usual names, so I didn’t have anything by Sillitoe or Byron. I wanted to focus on different Nottingham voices. I’m doing another one with Candlestick Press: Ten Poems About Cricket. It has what I think is the best poem ever written about cricket, The Roller In The Woods, by Kit Wright.

Do you still play the cornet?
David Belbin and I still run jazz and poetry evenings once a month in Nottingham. I practise every day. You have to with brass instruments, or within a week your lip has gone. I love it, but the trouble is we’re all dying off one by one.

You wear a lot of hats: poet, novelist, publisher, jazz cornetist, professor. Is there one you like wearing more than any other?
I’ve thought about that a lot, because people have asked me what I like best, but I like it all. I’m in the very lucky position of being paid for doing all the things I like best.

Shoestring Press website

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