Bloodaxe Celebrates 30 Years With a Groundbreaking New Collection

In Person 30 Poets
, edited by Bloodaxe founder, Neil Astley and filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce takes the written word one step further by giving readers the opportunity to not only experience words that inspire, but also to see the people behind the ideas.

Bloodaxe celebrated their 30th anniversary in 2008. In a market that is often saturated, sometimes under funded and at times regarded as elitist, Bloodaxe has triumphed against the odds by bringing uplifting, controversial, on-the-edge poetry to the masses. Neil Astley founded Bloodaxe in 1978, when he published his first pamphlet, Tristan Crazy, by the late Ken Smith.

In Person presents contemporary poetry to readers in a striking new format, with short films of 30 poets reading their work on two DVDs, which accompany the collection. In Person was filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce and edited by Neil Astley. In Person celebrates poetry as an oral art form. Astley comments: “In Person was inspired by being in New York and attending the Louise Bourgeois salon where poems are read and filmed forming part of her archives. The next day we visited Stanley Kunitz, who had just turned 100 and he gave us a private reading in his apartment. When I left, I realised that it was such a special thing, that it would be wonderful if we could record our own poets while we still can. From this, the idea of an archive developed, as we were approaching our 30th birthday we thought we should put together a whole project.”

Over the past 30 years, Bloodaxe has published over 1000 books by 300 writers, some of the most prominent poets from Britain and around the world, including Benjamin Zephaniah, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Tony Harrison, Imtiaz Dharker and Jack Mapanje. In Person celebrates Bloodaxe’s legacy by propelling it into the multimedia age and bringing their diverse array of poets to a wider audience, which is one of Bloodaxe’s fundamental aims. “The first priority was to include the older poets in the collection, one-third of them are over 70. Secondly, over the course of the 18 months we filmed poets that were visiting Britain to give readings, this gives readers an opportunity to see poets that they might miss otherwise. The idea was to put together a body of work that would reflect the poets on our list, as a mixture of British poets and poets from around the world, including those that have been with us from the beginning.” Four poets present their work bilingually, such as Taha Muhammad Ali, a distinguished Palestinian poet. He reads in Arabic and then Peter Cole translates his poems into English. The poems are in parallel text format, allowing the audience to follow the poems in either language, while watching the reading.

In Person is far more than an archive, it provides a window into the featured poet’s worlds and is an excellent educational and cultural resource. Thirty-three extracts from the In Person collection are available on YouTube and on the Bloodaxe website. All readings, apart from one recording, which was filmed at a live public performance, are informal one to one readings. “We did not want to invade the writers with a film crew, but instead set up an intimate reading where the writer felt comfortable. You hear how the poems sound; you see how the poets read and present their work. T.S. Eliot once described poetry as ‘one person talking to another’, while W.H. Auden believed it was essential to hear poetry read aloud, for ‘no poem, which when mastered is not better heard than read, is good poetry.’”

Bloodaxe is renowned for revolutionising poetry publishing in Britain and in some cases notorious for sparking cultural debate. In 1985, Tony Harrison’s collection, V. caused uproar in the media over supposed ‘bad language’. Following front-page headlines there were even questions in Parliament after Channel Four’s showing of Richard Eyre’s film of the poem. More recently Brian Turner, an American soldier/poet offered a harrowing first hand account of the Iraq War in his 2007 collection, Here, Bullet. During Bloodaxe’s thirty-year history there have been many exceptional occurrences. “The most outstanding moment was when we published the Russian poet, Irina Ratushinskaya’s 1986 collection, No, I’m Not Afraid, when she was imprisoned in a Soviet labour camp for writing poems considered ‘a danger to the state’. We became involved in the campaign for her release and within six months of publishing the collection she was freed, as a result of the international campaign. That was an amazing thing to happen and what freed her in a sense was her own poetry. As people read No, I’m Not Afraid they began to question, why is this person in prison? They then joined the campaign for her release. The first reading she gave after being released and receiving a lot of medical treatment was in Newcastle at a reading we organised in 1987.”

With films already being made for a second collection, Bloodaxe is certainly following an innovative strategy, which inspires a wider audience to get to grips with poetry. “We want to continue publishing a wide range of poetry from Britain and around the world. Every year we do something innovative to try and build a new readership of the wide range of contemporary poetry. Next year we are doing a selection of John Agard’s best poems with a full DVD edited from some readings by him reading all types of different poems.” Bloodaxe is also publishing the great modernist poet, Basil Bunting’s long poem, Briggflatts with a CD included, which features him reading the whole work. This will be of great interest to both poetry readers and academics. “We constantly look at different things we can do with poets on our list and think of presenting poetry in diverse ways all the time.” Bloodaxe’s consistency in championing poetry attracts audiences from around the world, and by continuing to question what poetry is and how it should be presented, Bloodaxe emerge as a leader in literature and the spoken word.

In Person 30 Poets is available now. Neil Astley and Pamela Robertson-Pearce were touring festivals and other venues in the UK and Ireland in 2008 with a 45-minute version of the In Person films.

Shona Fairweather