Readers of formal and constrained poetry will, like me, have been saddened by Penteract Press’s recent announcement that it will cease publishing new titles after 2024. As part of my on-going series of interviews with editors of small independent presses, I spoke to Penteract’s editor Anthony Etherin about the press, its ethos, and the reasons behind the decision to close. Anthony also shares two poems from his new collection The Robots of Babylon, which will be published on the 21st of October and is now available for pre-order.
– Anthony, you founded Penteract Press in 2016, initially publishing leaflets and then, from 2018, books. The press publishes formal poetry – to quote from the website:
‘Our focus is on exploring the structural properties of poetry — in particular, the relationship between content and form. To this end, we aim to promote innovative constrained and visual poetry, as well as works that explore new uses of traditional verse forms.’
What do you look for as an editor, and what makes a Penteract Press publication distinctive?
Anthony: I think we’ve stayed true to the above statement! Innovation has always been a priority. But technical skill is extremely important to us as well. With constraint, for example, there can be a tendency for poets to think that ‘solving the problem’ is enough; we’re more interested in constrained poetry that doesn’t abandon all other poetic devices.
We’re particularly interested in poetry that is musical or bold in its imagery — ‘meaning’ isn’t a requirement. One of the most fascinating things about constraint is the way that it leads the poet away from the semantic, into an arena where the poet is forced to explore other properties of language.
Visual poetry, of course, does something similar — we’ve always seen visual and constrained poetry as complementary in this way.
That said, we are not into the ‘weird for the sake of weird’ attitude that has, for some, come to define avant-garde poetry…. Semantic poetry is welcome here too! What excites us most is the dialogue between meaning and non-meaning, and that which occurs in the space between the two. Perhaps this is what makes Penteract’s publications distinctive.
– In your interview with me last year you summed up the Penteract Press ethos in two sentences: ‘Everyone is invited’ and ‘Do what you want’. I love how inclusive these statements are, and how unconstrained! Please tell us more about the space that Penteract inhabits.
Anthony: We’re very liberal in our outlooks. Despite our love of constraint, we recognise that the most important tool poets possess is creative freedom.
Nonetheless, old discussions around what is or isn’t poetry persist — alongside equally silly pontificating over what poets should and shouldn’t be allowed to write about. If I could wipe any poetic style, or subject, from the face of the earth, I wouldn’t. After all, the poetry I don’t like is easily ignored; raging against styles that conflict with one’s own tastes is arrogant and pointless.
We’ve met plenty of poets who fear being scolded for writing the ‘wrong thing’, or who fear belittlement from literary snobs for disregarding convention. It feels important to remind people that the best art has always come from individuals who follow their own path, irrespective of the prejudices of their time. Do what you want!
– Your recent Penteract Podcast with Richard Capener of Hem Press provided many fascinating and frank insights into the challenges that small independent poetry presses are facing – not only financially, but also the personal cost to yourselves, the editors, in terms of your own time and energy – and how demoralising this can be. Talk us briefly through the process of bringing a book to publication; the fun and not-so-fun aspects! What steps have you started taking during this process to ease the pressure on yourself and mitigate the risk of burnout?
Anthony: We haven’t been open to submissions for a while, but that process in itself is rife with fun and not-so-fun aspects…. Of course, it’s fun to read such diverse and interesting poetry, and it’s flattering that so many people have shown interest in working with us — however, I’ve always felt very guilty when sending out rejections, and some editorial decisions we’ve had to make have been agonising. This isn’t helped by the fact that a small, but not insignificant, portion of poets will lash out when their work is rejected.
Naturally, how much fun the design and editing processes are will depend on the poet with whom we are working. We’ve been fortunate to have generally worked with very helpful, enthusiastic poets. Editing can be a lot of work, and sometimes frustrating, but I enjoy putting designs together — it’s great to see a manuscript become a book! I design my own books, which is fun, but a very different pleasure comes from performing the task for someone else.
We’ve mostly had good experiences with printing companies, although we do have one or two horror stories. We’ve come to realise that printers should be judged less by how many errors they make than by how they go about rectifying those errors…. The printing process can feel needlessly stressful at times.
Registering titles, interacting with bookstores, distributors and libraries, and all the other bits that have to be done around a book’s publication, can be tiresome. The same goes for handling pre-orders and — eventually — orders. We mostly self-distribute, so a lot of time is spent packaging!
We recently made the decision to put off all work for the press until a daily one-hour window, each evening. This was an experiment, but it has worked surprisingly well; it’s amazing how much work can be done in a single hour, if the tasks at hand are clear.
– Richard remarked on how ‘stuffy’ the poetry world can be. Over the years, Penteract Press has published many exceptional works, including The Book of Penteract anthology, Christian Bök’s The Kazimir Effect, your own collections Stray Arts (and Other Inventions) and Slate Petals (and Other Wordscapes), and Pedro Poitevin’s Nowhere at Home. It never ceases to astonish me that these publications – and indeed experimental poetry generally – appear to receive little or no attention from what one might call the ‘literary establishment’. What are your thoughts on this?
Anthony: The poetry world is run by a small number of cliques. But this shouldn’t be surprising: it’s true of literally every industry. It’s unfortunate that the styles favoured by these cliques are at odds with the poetry we wish to promote — but it is what it is.
We can remind ourselves that innovation and technical skill ultimately win out. The art that gets remembered tends to be outside the mainstream of its day, and mainstream artists rarely have any longevity.
That said, fame isn’t much use when you’re dead….
It’s also worth considering that even ‘popular’ poetic styles aren’t particularly popular. This lack of popularity makes it easier for non-mainstream poets to do their own thing — after all, we can see what we’re missing out on by remaining on the fringes, and the answer is: not a lot.
More coverage for Penteract, constraint, and visual poetry would be nice. However, from an aesthetic perspective, I’m quite happy to be outside mainstream circles. There’s little in the mainstream that inspires me, these days.
– Turning to your own poetry, you have a new book that is now available for pre-order! Tell us about The Robots of Babylon.
Anthony: The Robots of Babylon is a collection of poems inspired by pulp fiction and genre tropes. It’s my third full-length book, after Stray Arts (and Other Inventions) and Slate Petals (and Other Wordscapes). In my previous books, I hoped to show that ‘playful’ constraints could be used to write ‘serious’ poetry. In the new one, by contrast, I’m happy to embrace the sillier side of constraint.
The book features several narrative poems. As such, meaning plays a bigger role here than it does in my previous books.
On the other hand, I have invented a few new alphabetical constraints for this collection, and a couple of these are very complex! So, there are also some less-semantic, avant-garde experimental pieces in there too.
As I said earlier, I’m interested in the conversation between semantic and nonsemantic poetry; I believe the range of constraints employed in The Robots of Babylon provides a significant contribution to this conversation.
Music is, as always, very important to the book’s poems. It has been wonderful to play around with the trisyllabic metrical feet characteristic of light verse — something absent from my previous books — and to explore combining alliterative verse with qualitative metre.
It’s a fun book!
– I would love you to share one or two of your poems/pieces from the new book and give us some insights into their structure and the process of writing/creating them.
Anthony: I can give you both a narrative poem and an alphabetically constrained piece.
This sonnet opens the collection. It combines alliterative verse with qualitative metre: The sonnet is composed in amphibrachic tetrameter (four amphibrachic feet — an amphibrach being a three-syllable foot consisting of a stressed syllable with unstressed syllables either side of it). Moreover, the ‘beats’ of each amphibrach (the second of the foot’s three syllables) alliterate across the first three feet of each line, with the fourth foot freed from this alliteration (e.g., in line 1, ‘phan-’ alliterates with ‘fab-’ and ‘fell’):
MARIONETTE A phantom in fabric, she fell from the attic and slumped on the stairs. In my sudden dismay, I dove like a devil — a desperate fanatic — and picked up the puppet. I put it away. A shiver then shook me — a shudder of doom. By dusk I was drinking. The darkness grew fast and with it I waited, till warmth left the room. The corridors creaked, and the coldness amassed a whistle of wind. Soon, a whispering came: the vaguest of voices — evasive, a blur, it levelled and lay, then at last gave its name.... I fell to the floor. It was fear. It was her. “You left me alone — for too long.” Still, she clings. I hold out my hands, but they’re held back by strings.
This next poem presents a variation on the ‘redivider’ constraint. This is a form invented by Japanese palindromist Akira Lino. The below poem represents the first time the constraint has been performed in English.
In a redivider, two texts use the same letters, in the same order, while varying letter spacing (e.g. “to get her” = “together”). This new constraint employs a similar spacing principle; however, in this case, each set of two letters reverses, ‘flipping’ the letters’ positions in the complementary text: For example, the word ‘time’ becomes ‘item’, since t and i switch places and m and e switch places.
A RECIPE FOR LIFE Time is a nova we betray. Life rents dead atoms. Nets renew. Art’s loyal: A gene adapts. Items in a vow abet early fire: Nested data. Monsters new. Eras to lay a legend — a past.
There’s a constraint in The Robots of Babylon that develops the above restriction further, but if people want to see that, they’ll have to buy the book!
– As a Penteract author, I appreciate the fact that you have always been honest and transparent about the difficulties the press faces. In our interview a year ago you told me that the future of Penteract Press was very unclear. Since then, you have confirmed that the press will indeed be closing – a sad but understandable decision. What is the timeframe for this, and how are you planning to manage the process?
Anthony: We decided to close a few years ago, with the aim of ending in mid-2022. Then, after announcing our closure, we allowed ourselves to get talked out of it… Most of the people who convinced us to continue were well-meaning, of course, but persisting was a poor decision and has been to our detriment.
Sales were always difficult; most of the poets we know (including some we’ve published) have never bought books from us, and it is unusual for a title to find an audience outside the poetry community. The current cost of living crisis has exacerbated this problem, and sales are down a third on where they were two years ago (which was already too low).
We have a full lineup for 2024 — seven more original publications, plus two new editions of existing titles. In order to give these new books a good run, we’ll be continuing the press, albeit without publishing new titles, until July 2026. July 2026 will mark ten years since we started. That feels like a good time to call it a day.
So, it will be business as usual until around September 2024, and then business as usual, without new titles, until July 2026. I’m not sure how we will wind down to that point, but there’s plenty of time to find out!
– Final question – tell us about Wry Leopard!
Anthony: We don’t yet know what Wry Leopard will be! For now, it’s a placeholder — a name and a logo, there to remind us that we are free to begin another adventure, once Penteract is done and dusted. All we know is that Wry Leopard will be some means of continuing to celebrate the work that we believe in.
– Many thanks, Anthony, for taking the time to answer my questions.
Anthony: Thank you!
Penteract Press: https://penteractpress.com
Penteract Podcast: https://penteractpress.com/penteract-podcast
Anthony Etherin’s website: https://www.anthonyetherin.com