We speak to Katharine about writing and publishing poetry and her favourite 2020 reads.
Hello! I’m Katharine Towers and I’m assistant editor at Candlestick Press – the Nottingham-based ‘instead of a card’ poetry pamphlet publisher. I’ve been with Candlestick for nearly four years, working half-time from home in the Peak District but in pretty much daily contact with Di Slaney who’s the director and publisher. Because we’re such a very tiny team, I get involved in most aspects of the business other than the financial stuff. So, if we’re editing a title in-house I help to make the poem selections. I also write the copy for the back covers and some of the intros, put together the publicity plans, write press releases, even get involved in choosing illustrators for the covers. It’s a cliché but there really isn’t a dull moment.
You are an award-winning and successful poet as well as the assistant editor for Candlestick Press. How do you balance your writing with your publishing role?
Oh, thank you! It was the writing of poems that came first and, you’re right, I was wary of working in poetry and spending too much time looking under the bonnet, as it were. What if my own poems ran away because I was too often with other people’s? Worst of all, what if I fell victim to poem fatigue?
One of the key steps I’ve taken is to make sure I have separate desks. I do my own poetry work in a tiny stone outhouse in our garden (the former outside loo, i.e. just enough room to sit down!) and I never think about Candlestick when I’m in there. Candlestick work is in our books room where I have all the pamphlets in a row beside my desk and things like clipboards with notes and my laptop.
It’s so far, so good. The poems haven’t run away and the Candlestick work continues to prove invigorating and instructive. I feel lucky to have something close to the best of both worlds.
In 2020 Candlestick planned to publish 15 new titles – how has lockdown changed the way you have been approaching these publications?
This year has been extraordinary. I think we’ve spent much of it reeling from the double whammy of the Bertrams debacle and Covid. And these blows felt all the more dismaying because 2019 had been our best ever year with sales of over 101,000 pamphlets – up by 34% on 2018.
We’ve had to cut our cloth accordingly. This meant scaling back on publications and focusing all our attention on a small number of titles and making them as beautiful and desirable as we possibly could. So since March we’ve published only our new seasonal quartet (Ten Poems for Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter) and our two Christmas titles (By Bus to Christmas and Christmas Presents: Ten Poems to Give and Receive). We’ve not had any physical events as yet but we’ll be launching our Christmas titles online in December.
We’ve been busier than ever on Twitter and Instagram, making sure people get to see the titles and their covers – the latter always so crucial in our marketing.
Is there a collection that you have worked on that you are particularly proud of? Why is that?
Ten Poems about Clouds was one of the first Candlestick titles I got my teeth into and it really was a labour of love. The title was my idea as I had recently been Poet in Residence at the Cloud Appreciation Society. I got to read countless gorgeous poems about clouds, including the hundreds of entries in our cloud poem competition. And I found a wonderful illustrator in Bill Sanderson whose airy summery landscape is just perfect. Ten Poems about Trees and Ten Poems about Birds are two other titles for which I selected the poems and that I’m therefore particularly proud of.
What books have you been reading in lockdown? Do they typify your usual reading taste, or have you found yourself reading other genres and authors?
At the beginning I felt very disconsolate and couldn’t even pick up a book. That wasn’t like me! Then (mainly because I had to for my book group) I read some fiction – The Mirror and The Light (didn’t everyone?) and Jenny Offill’s Weather. Those two novels pulled my brain in two completely different directions but they woke me up again. And so I’ve found myself back reading poetry, poetry, more poetry: Rachel Long’s My Darling from the Lions, Sean O’Brien’s It Says Here, Robin Robertson, Sean Hewitt, Martha Sprackland, Jay Bernard.
What’s the best book you’ve received as a gift?
Oh dear. There have been so many. I think I’ll plump for one from ages ago – a ‘well done in your O Levels’ gift from my parents. Poems and Prose of John Clare with wood engravings by David Gentleman sits on my shelf, somewhat tatty, and I still refer to it frequently and find new wonders.
What is your most beautiful book?
I’d probably have to say my coffee table edition of Les Fleurs du Mal (Hazan, 1999) which is a facsimile reproduction of the original 1947 edition. Line drawings by Matisse and the most beautiful font, all printed on luscious matt GardaPat paper. It’s so gorgeous I hardly dare open it!
What is the oldest book on your shelf?
One of my treasures is my dad’s 1949 edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse which he was given as a school prize in 1950. Slightly older is a 1938 Penguin first edition of The Story of my Heart by Richard Jefferies – one of the strangest books I’ve come across.
Poetry: Sasha Dugdale’s remarkable Deformations.
Prose: Jenny Offill’s funny/tragic Weather.
What are your most anticipated reads for the rest of the year?
Sitting on my bedside table is Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal which looks thrilling. I can’t wait to get hold of Sumita Chakraborty’s collection Arrow and I’m also excited to read my boss Di Slaney’s new collection Herd Queen.
What books would you recommend and why?
I think Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1995 novel The Blue Flower is as close to perfection as a novel can get. I defy anyone not to be enticed by the opening sentence with its beguiling double negative. I also loved Will Eaves’ Murmur which is an irresistible cocktail of ideas and imagination.
Poetry is trickier! I have favourite poets who will always be with me on my desert island. In terms of recent reads it’s almost embarrassing to pick out particular titles because there are so many that have delighted and astounded me. My eyes were recently opened very wide by Inger Christensen’s alphabet. Likewise American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes. Likewise Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic. What they have in common is that each does something I didn’t know poetry could do.
Where can readers find you online?