I recently bought a set of three poetry Anthologies, called Staying Alive, Being Alive and Being Human, or to be more accurate I purchased “Staying Alive” was so impressed that I bought the next and then the next (and even gave one as a prize in a Literary Giveaway), and they did that impossible thing – each was as good / if not better than the previous, in fact individually they easily stacked up against my benchmark poetry anthology “The Rattle Bag – edited by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney”, combined they are unbeatable. These books contain a selection of poetry from most nations, poets such as - Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Simon Armitage, Anna T. Azabo, Imtiaz Dharker, Wislawa Szymborska, Naomi Shihab Nye, Anna Swir, Rumi, Benjamin Zephaniah, Langston Hughes, Agha Shahid Ali, Phillip Larkin, Billy Collins, Moniza Ali, Elizabeth Bishop etc. In fact between the three anthologies there is approximately 1200 poems, and all three were edited Neil Astley and published by Bloodaxe Books, now anyone with an interest in poetry will have heard of Bloodaxe books, but I wanted to find out more, about the history behind such a force in contemporary poetry.
Bloodaxe books was set up Neil Astley in 1978, with the idea of publishing poets who had a strong grassroots following, who had appreciative audiences at reading and by the readers of poetry magazines. Poets who were not necessarily being recognised and picked up by the mainstream publishers of the 1970s .
The ethos behind Bloodaxe books was that poetry was not just for middle-class Oxbridge-educated white men from the Home Counties. Having been part of the grassroots culture that he would go on to promote, working for Stand Magazine and producing small press pamphlets, he would also organise readings at places such as Newcastle university, with it’s energetic, internationally-minded poetry culture. This in turn inspired Bloodaxe’s democratic style of publishing and it’s eclectic rota poets. Neil Astley and Bloodaxe books started this fantastic journey by publishing poetry by new or previously neglected writers from the North of England, gradually broadening the range to encompass the leading poets from as far away as the Caribbean and America, as well as poets from around Europe, and by combining these with new or established poets from the UK. Bloodaxe easily achieved the aim of bringing contemporary poetry to a wider audience, whilst being there and publishing virtually every style that modern poetry has taken, in the process working with writers that garnered praise and prizes from all quarters, including four Nobel prizes, yet sticking with the original policy have also published works by a great many signiﬁcant but little-known European poets.
Over the last 30 odd years Bloodaxe has become a pioneering publisher of Poetry, wherever it may be from, knowing no borders in it’s aim to be at the forefront of contemporary verse. They’ve achieved this by taking a pro-active stance in publishing the work of women poets, as well as writers from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, Neil Astley has said that this was done not out of any ideas of political correctness, but….
“because I've always had two primary concerns as a poetry editor: literary quality and broadening the readership of contemporary poetry, and that involves being responsive to the changing literatures of Britain and other countries. And the list which has evolved over 30 years is roughly 50:50 male: female. This is unusual but it shouldn't be.”
This stance has led to the support of poets, such as Irina Ratushinskaya's whose book “No, I’m Not Afraid “ was published by Bloodaxe in May 1986, at a time when the young poet was imprisoned in a Soviet prison camp for the ‘crime’ of writing and distributing poems a judge had called ‘a danger to the state’ and at 28, she found herself faced with a sentence of seven years hard labour. An international campaign was mounted on her behalf, spearheaded by her own poetry, which led to her release in October 1986 on the eve of the Reykjavik summit after Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan had been given copies of her Bloodaxe collection by David Owen. “No, I’m Not Afraid “ went on to sell over 20,000 copies.
Bloodaxe were joined in 1982 by Simon Thirsk as a director and chairman, after twenty years as a journalist, also lecturing in journalism and marketing, he has an honours degree in philosophy and is fluent in Welsh. He has also written a play for TV “Small Zones”, about Irina Ratushinskaya, which was shown on BBC2 and a novel “Not Quite White” which was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award in 2010. In 1995 Neil Astley was awarded an honorary D. Litt for his work with Bloodaxe Books, he has also received an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors for a short collection of his own poems, “The Speechless Act” (1984), his first book length collection “Darwin Survivor”(1988) was given a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, this was followed by a second book titled “Biting My Tongue” (1995). He has also written two novels “The End of My Tether”(2002) which was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award, and “The Sheep Who Changed the World”(2005)
The growth of Bloodaxe runs parallel with the rise of a generation of poets born in the 50s and early 60s, many seeing their first work under the Bloodaxe banner, as the title grew and expanded its publishing, it has come to mirror the changing face of literature, not only in the UK, but worldwide, taking in talented writers from whatever background, allowing the poetry to evolve and in the process has widened the appeal of poetry to a larger audience expanding interest well beyond the traditional poetry readership, taking in readers from an increasingly diverse series of backgrounds. By following this ethos, they’ve become an integral part of the world of poetry and yet they have still managed to keep that original outsider cred, by maintaining their original idea of poetry, not just for a select few, those middle-class Oxbridge-educated white men from the Home Counties, that poetry is for all regardless of status, regardless of a persons ethnic or cultural background, and for those that think this is nothing more than a mission statement, or something for a letterhead, these are some of the poets, Bloodaxe has worked with;
Sappho, Catullus, Osip Mandelstam, Federico García Lorca, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva. Edith Södergran Miroslav Holub Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Piotr Sommer, Marin Sorescu, Tomas Tranströmer, Miguel Hernández,Attila József, Jaan Kaplinski, Tua Forsström, Pia Tafdrup Tomas Venclova, Maram al-Massri Salah Stétié Mahmoud Darwish Taha Muhammad Ali Jack Mapanje Li-Young Lee Aimé Césaire Evgeny Rein, Tatiana Shcherbina, Elena Shvarts Tatiana Voltskaia Yang Lian Yi Sha Kenji Miyazawa Robert Adamson Kevin Hart Alden Nowlan Priscila Uppal , Deborah Garrison, Jack Gilbert, Ellen Hinsey, Tony Hoagland, Jane Hirshfield,Jane Kenyon, Galway Kinnell, Denise Levertov, Philip Levine, Samuel Menashe, W.S. Merwin, Naomi Shihab Nye, Mary Oliver, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Ruth Stone, Brian Turner (American poet),Chase Twichell, Fred Voss, C.K. Williams, C.D. Wright James Wright,Julie O'Callaghan, Anne Rouse, Eva Salzman Anne Stevenson.Yves Bonnefoy, René Char, Jacques Dupin, Paul Éluard, André Frénaud, Guillevic, Philippe Jaccottet, Gérard Macé, Henri Michaux, Pierre Reverdy Paul Valéry.
Simon Armitage, David Constantine, Peter Didsbury, Katie Donovan, Maura Dooley, Ian Duhig, Helen Dunmore, Frieda Hughes, Elizabeth Garrett, W.N. Herbert, Jackie Kay, Stephen Knight, Gwyneth Lewis, Glyn Maxwell, Sean O'Brien, David Scott, Jo Shapcott Pauline Stainer, Paul Batchelor, Zoë Brigley, Polly Clark, Julia Copus, Nick Drake, Jen Hadfield, Choman Hardi Tracey Herd, Matthew Hollis, Joanne Limburg, Roddy Lumsden, Esther Morgan, Helen Ivory, Stephanie Norgate, Caitríona O'Reilly, Leanne O'Sullivan Clare Pollard Sally Read Sarah Wardle.Jeni Couzyn Carol Rumens Linda France Maura Dooley Robyn Bolam Deryn Rees-Jones’
Gillian Allnutt, Connie Bensley,Stewart Conn, Freda Downie, Ruth Fainlight, Andrew Greig, Philip Gross, Tony Harrison, Selima Hill, Frances Horovitz, Kathleen Jamie, Jenny Joseph, Barry MacSweeney, Adrian Mitchell, Grace Nichols, J.H. Prynne, Peter Reading, Lawrence Sail, Ken Smith, R.S. Thomas Susan Wicks Oxford University Press : Fleur Adcock, Moniza Alvi, Basil Bunting, Roy Fisher, Carole Satyamurti, Penelope Shuttle, Anne Stevenson George Szirtes. Rita Ann Higgins, Brendan Kennelly Micheal O'Siadhail. John Oldham Rabindranath Tagore Ketaki Kushari Dyson Kenji Miyazawa Roger Pulvers Edward Thomas Edna Longley, Bernard Spencer Peter Robinson
New Generation Poets Jackie Kay, Ian McMillan, Sean O'Brien, Jo Shapcott Matthew Sweeney. Michael Hulse, David Kennedy David Morley, Sean O'Brien Philip Larkin Ted Hughes John Agard, James Berry Kamau Brathwaite, Jean "Binta" Breeze, Martin Carter, Fred D'Aguiar, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Grace Nichols Benjamin Zephaniah E.A. Markham Moniza Alvi, Imtiaz Dharker, Arun Kolatkar Arundhathi Subramaniam, Jeet Thayil (courtesy of Wiki)
For more information