Al Que Quiere!
The influence of the Mexican banking system on contemporary Anglophone and Hispanic poetry is an as yet under-researched topic, but not the less real for that. The birth of Shearsman Books in its present, brilliantly exfoliated flourishing is one result of a major international bank sending a senior advisor to evaluate the viability of their expansion interests into that financial marketplace. The fortuitous eventual result was this representative replacing a banking career with one devoted to a passion for poetry. His subsequent resettlement in the West of England was among the set of circumstances that prompted me to take a train to Exeter for the first time in my life, sometime in the spring of 2006. I was met at the station, conducted to a reading event, and hosted for the night by the subject of this tribute.
The editor being celebrated here had found himself ideally placed to perceive the profit margin that would make the issuing of good-looking little books of niche poetry a viable proposition. Thanks to the technological developments enabling what was called desktop publishing to take shape some twenty years previously, and those that facilitated the innovation of print-on-demand at about the moment of the planned bank expansion into Mexico and its fortuitous outcome, Tony Frazer was able to set up his publishing venture.
The circle that needed squaring as regards the issuing of such books was that only roughly the same number of copies needed to be produced as were desired in such passionately involved but minimal kinds of market as William Carlos Williams imagined when entitling his 1917 collection Al Que Quiere! – a phrase that might be rendered as ‘To Those Who Want It!’ On the jacket of the first edition, those Spanish words are preceded by: ‘A Book of Poems’. But the title itself might also suggest ‘To Those Who Love!’ – there being a good deal of poetry about this subject in the collection.
That an Adobe page-maker on an Apple computer and a set-up, print, and distribution deal with Lightning Source would square this circle has formally sharpened a division in the world of poetry publishing between trade or arts-council-funded firms and the new independents with their online-only marketing, web sales and low break-even points. The former tend to rely on the shifting of a print-run via bookshops, representation, distribution, warehousing, and staff, all of which involve overheads. Payments of various percentages can reduce their profit margin to a near-zero sum.
Although the so-called poetry wars of the last century have become the stuff of nostalgia among thinning ranks of aging veterans, while these technological and marketplace developments have helped to keep their outputs in print, trade presses with high initial capital outlay have found themselves condemned to publish mostly what they can second-guess will appeal to the Poetry Book Society, or will have traction with the judges of the annual round of prizes, and similar institutional markers of prestige. At the same time, these cartel-managing institutions themselves operate by second-guessing what that chimera, the general reader of poetry, might take a punt on.
The new independent editors simultaneously found themselves much freer to make decisions in publishing only on the strength of their own passions, desires and needs – or the surviving reputations of loved poets still working with little or no support from those institutions without whose backing the costs of initial trade print runs can rarely be recouped, so that many of the celebrated-for-a-season may soon enough find themselves sadly ‘let go’.
A little while back I was in Sheffield for a reading attended by Peter Riley, a poet who down the years has published with a number of the same firms I have. In the course of our conversation I suddenly found myself exclaiming: ‘Thank goodness for Tony Frazer!’
Three things Tony has told me at different times have shaped my idea of an ideal editor. First, he thinks that by its nature experimental poetry need not ‘come off’ completely, so he’s willing to take a chance on work that has interest to him as well as possibilities for development, even when these are not yet fully realized. Secondly, he has his own taste, but it’s a catholic one – so his press is not, as anybody who scans his list will see, the would-be Trojan horse for a clique. And, thirdly, he has a business model that involves low production costs and an identifiable margin on his publications, which means he can take risks on young, mid-vocation, or old authors without bankrupting himself. He has thus been able to contribute decisively to supporting the writing lives of a great many poets whose work he respects.
What the story of Shearsman Books shows is that if you can get the love and the money to come into alignment, then happiness will follow al que quiere, which adds up now to a worldwide community of poets and readers. Thank goodness for Tony Frazer and the state of those Mexican banks!