Helena Nelson is one of the hardest workers in poetry: head honcho of pamphlet publishers Happenstance Press, editor of pamphlet review Sphinx, a published poet in her own right and a general poetry gladiator, promoting, realising, supporting and producing work all over the place. We snagged her sleeve for a few questions.
Irregular Features: How did HappenStance begin and did you have a mission statement in mind when you began?
Helena Nelson: That's two questions. I can't reply briefly enough to the first for you to include on a website, but it was a dream, literally. As for the second, I loathe mission statements. I don't even have one now. At least, I don't think I do. I haven't got a vision statement either.
IF: What really excites you in a piece and what makes you sigh and reach for a comforting biscuit?
HN: What really excites me is something I'm not expecting but immediately recognise. And talent. And intelligence. I don't find biscuits comforting ...
IF: Are there any underrated or little-known poets whose work you champion or simply recommend taking a look at?
HN: I think that applies to everyone I publish. If they were appropriately rated, I doubt I would be publishing their pamphlets at all (Alison Brackenbury is the most popular poet for whom I've done a publication, and that was a rare opportunity). I'd like to think I was doing my best to champion them all, though my own ability as a Wonderhorse is open to question.
IF: What is good poetry able to achieve that other media can't? Is there any area in which poetry has yet to be surpassed as a method of communication?
HN: Poetry has yet to be surpassed as a method of communication. When it works, it works like nothing else. As a method of communication.
IF: Tell us about the style of reviewing that you use, and what does and doesn't work.
HN: I like accessible reviewing -- someone who has read the text closely and carefully, has a lively style and takes responsibility for a personal opinion, rather than someone who asserts an absolute 'truth' e.g. "this poem is crap."
IF: Obviously a beautiful cover can't save a terrible collection, but how important do you personally find the aesthetics of poetry books/pamphlets in complementing the contents?
HN: Hugely important. I don't think the message IS the medium, but I do think the medium can and should be part of the message. I am constantly dissatisfied with what I do, but then that's good because it means I keep trying.
IF: How do you find the live poetry scene where you are and what is your favourite type of live poetry event?
HN: It's wonderful. I live 22 miles south of St Andrews, which hosts StAnza, Scotland's international poetry festival. I'm within travelling distance of Glasgow, which also does all sorts of interesting things, the Aye Write among them. I jump on a train or drive into Edinburgh to go to Shore Poets, events at the Scottish Poetry Library, the Poetry Association of Scotland, the Edinburgh Book Festival and the Callum Macdonald award presentations, as well as the excellent readings organised by Rob A Mackenzie. Among others. Having said this, I am often too exhausted or busy to get to the things I really want to go to.
Oh - my favourite type of live poetry event? Hells bells, I don't know. I like all sorts of things. I like old-and-formal-but-means-business, hit and miss, young and brash, flip and flop, cuts-a-dash. Anything that's well-prepared and a bit different. I don't like stodgy, up its own arse or didn't-really-have-time-to-prepare-this-but-how-lucky-you-are-to-have-the-privilege-of-hearing-me.
IF: What was the initial idea behind your 'Unsuitable Poems'?
HN: Fun. Timid attempt at rebellion. Also I don't have a plan, as such. My own poems either arrive or don't. They have a mind of their own.
IF: What's going to be happening in the foreseeable future with your own work, Happenstance and Sphinx?
HN: That's three questions.
--Own work - just did another Unsuitables which may or may not be inferior to the first. Should have a Suitable collection within next 18 months, not published by me. And about time!
--Sphinx - issue 12 is the final paper issue, due early 2010. New review facility on the web will continue and hopefully go from strength to strength. I plan to post features and interviews there too, in due course.
--HappenStance - at present will continue with poetry pamphlets, especially first collections. I will continue to work with poets - lots of interaction. Probably about 10 to 12 each year: already full for 2010 and probably also 2011. Increasingly working with people over the long-term, rather than publishing instantly 'finished' collections. I've started two new series - one will be poetry sequences - for poems that formally fit together as a set or only make sense as a group. Another will be PoLites - light verse. (It is hard to get good light verse and also surprisingly hard to shift it so there won't be a lot of them.) I'm also doing PoemCards - I like those and plan to continue them.
IF: Finally, what one element, given absolute power, would you remove from poetry altogether?
HN: Money ...