Tuesday, 15 April 2014

HappenStance Press

Helena Nelson and I have been e-mailing each other since at least 1999, having noticed each other's contributions in magazines. I recall her telling me about an idea she had to start a press. She'd carefully thought it out of course, but I wasn't at all convinced. She launched HappenStance in May 2005. Now, 9 years later it's time to eat my words and review some matters arising. More details can be found in the various chapters of The HappenStance Story, available free to subscribers.


What distinguishes it from most other presses is that nearly all the output is debut poetry pamphlets. Pamphlets are useful for showcasing a poet, and they're back in fashion. It's a flexible format - some are twice the length of others, longer indeed than some books.

There are few other constraints -

  • Though the press is Scotland-based, a minority of the poets are. Not all of the poets are even UK-based or alive.
  • Age isn't an issue (which can't be said for some other pamphlet presses).
  • Though the poems tend towards the mainstream there are exceptions.
  • Pamphlets can be single-themed or a miscellany.

The Editor

Helena had a book published before starting the press (and in 2002 she won £1000 for being one of five 'new poets' in the BBC Radio 4 competition, along with Jacob Polley). No doubt there were tensions involved with the change of status, both internally (writing vs publishing) and regarding others (poacher turning gamekeeper). In some locked bank vault there's probably a folder entitled "HappenStance: Do not open until May, 2105" where letters, etc are stashed for posterity.

She's open about the gloomy finances, the time required to sift submissions, and the piles of books in her loft. As early as July 2005 she wrote "I have now planned next four pamphlets, which means I could reach financial ruin by January". Readers following the Happenstance blog get glimpses of the juggling involved re family, work, and the press. Her work status has changed during the lifetime of the press (it might well have changed anyway), and she's become a grandmother. She still has essay-articles in "The Dark Horse" and poems in "The Rialto", but I suspect her output has lessened (or at least, she sends to fewer magazines).

The Poets

HappenStance has published over 70 poets - far more than Faber in the corresponding period, I suspect. Some are young and "promising", others are in their 90s having slowly accumulated poems. They're not all debutants: Alison Brackenbury is perhaps the most famous poet, though Peter Daniels amongst others already had a few pamphlets published. Here's a list of people who've continued publishing elsewhere (apologies for any omissions).

AuthorHappenStance publicationSubsequent books (poetry unless otherwise stated)
Patricia Ace"First Blood", 2006"Fabulous Beast" (Freight books, 2013)
Clare Best"Treasure Ground", 2010"Excisions" (Waterloo Press, 2011)
"Breastless" (Pighog, 2011) (pamphlet)
Anne Caldwell"Slug Language", 2008"Talking with the Dead" (Cinnamon Press, 2011)
Niall Campbell"After the Creel Fleet", 2012"Moontide" (Bloodaxe, 2014)
Rose Cook"Everyday Festival", 2009"Taking Flight" (Oversteps, 2009)
"Notes from a Bright Field" (Cultured Llama, 2013)
Peter Daniels"Mr Luczinski makes a move", 2011"Counting Eggs" (Mulfran Press, 2012)
"Vladislav Khodasevich:Selected Poems" (Angel Classics, 2013) translations
Kirsten Irving"What to do", 2011"Never Never Never Come Back" (Salt, 2012)
Gregory Leadbetter"The Body in the Well", 2007"Coleridge and the Daemonic Imagination" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) theory
Eleanor Livingstone"The Last King of Fife", 2005"Even the Sea" (Red Squirrel Press, 2012)
Tim Love"Moving Parts", 2010"By all means" (Nine Arches Press, 2012) stories
Rob Mackenzie"The Clown of Natural Sorrow", 2003"The Opposite of Cabbage" (Salt, 2009)
"Fleck and the Bank" (Salt, 2012) (pamphlet)
"The Good News" (Salt, 2013)
Richie McCaffery"Spinning Plates", 2012 "Ballast Flint", (Cromarty Arts Trust, 2013)
"Cairn" (Nine Arches Press, 2014)
Gill McEvoy"Uncertain Days", 2006"The Plucking Shed" (Cinnamon Press, 2010)
"Rise" (Cinnamon Press, 2013)
Matt Merritt"Making the Most of the Light", 2005"Troy Town" (Arrowhead Press, 2008)
"Hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica" (Nine Arches Press, 2010)
"The Elephant Tests" (Nine Arches Press, 2013)
Andrew Philip"Tonguefire", 2005 "The Ambulance Box" (Salt, 2009)
"The North End of the Possible" (Salt, 2013)
Jon Stone"Scarecrows", 2010"School of Forgery" (Salt, 2012)
Marion Tracy"Giant in the Doorway", 2012"???" (Pighog) (pamphlet)

Some are involved with literary development or creative writing - for example, Gregory Leadbetter is now Director of BCU's Institute of Creative and Critical Writing.

A community spirit is emerging. As the poets become less sparsely distributed geographically, the poets sometimes assemble to do readings - one of the benefits of belonging to a stable of poets.


HappenStance is more than just a poetry-pamphlet publisher. Various ideas have been tried to publicise the press, improve the quality of submissions, and attract extra income.

  • Subscribers - By subscribing, people can save 25% on purchases, learn more about the press, and help support HappenStance. It's become a significant, mutually beneficial activity.
  • Sphinx - Sphinx contains interviews and pamphlet reviews. It lasted for 12 issues on paper, the last appearing in 2010. Now it's online only, and there'll be no new pamphlet reviews. Each pamphlet was assessed by 3 people. The procedures described online to evaluate works merit attention.
  • Stories - I think there were 3 story competitions with associated anthologies. There were just over 400 entries for the 2007/08 competition, but it was a lot of work.
  • Writers Forum mentoring scheme - To widen participation, Helena became involved with the Writers Forum mentoring scheme
  • Outreach - Matthew Stewart's second pamphlet was tied in with wine. Clare Best's pamphlet tied in with veg.
  • PoemCards and Samplers - Spin-off merchandizing. The samplers are useful when pamphlets run out.

The Torriano Gathering

In London on 13th April 2014 over 20 Happenstance poets read in order of publication. Helena interpolated the history of the press. Poet after poet (some from North Norfolk or Scotland, one from Spain) took the stage, (Peter Daniels is in the photograph, with Helena). Many poets when they introduced their work mentioned the quality of Nell's editing (even if there were some "comma-wars") and how skillfully she'd managed to foster camaraderie. Several poets said how much publication had transformed their outlook.


No Poetry Book Society selections, but in 2010 HappenStance won a £5,000 Michael Marks award. Chair of the judges Ali Smith admired HappenStance for "the elegance, thoughtfulness and clarity of their design, and the infectious interaction, open-mindedness and energy of their publishing ethos."

It seems to me that the publications are frequently and favourably reviewed in magazines. One poet was featured on Radio 4's Women's Hour. A 2013 pamphlet was praised in The Guardian. Of late some titles have quickly sold out.

The Future

HappenStance's essential aims and objectives seem not to have changed much, though the implementation details have - in a 2006 article it says that "One of Nelson's aims is to be internationalist – a new chapbook series, North & South, will feature one Scot and one poet from another UK country. A further cross-continental series is planned for later".

By avoiding too-rapid expansion, the press has survived while many others have disappeared. In no small measure due to HappenStance, poetry pamphlets are increasingly popular. The digital revolution beckons, though poetry pamphlets are one of the formats least affected by e-readers. Maybe a few more HappenStance books will appear, maybe Helena will finish her Ph.D, but if the future is a smooth continuation of the past, I think HappenStance will still have done itself proud.

See also

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