Michael Marks Award & its Discontent
March 27, 2012
Role: Senior Editor
Area: Fiction & Poetry
Original Career: Scientist
Editor of the main poetry imprints until 2007, now focussing on fiction. Editor since 2001 » »
When I first started the poetry list at flipped eye publishing, as sole employee, editor, sales rep and marketing executive, I used to put on launch readings in bookstores and sit in the back while my authors read. At the end of the readings, I would go to the front of the room, introduce myself and thank the guests – some invited, some just drawn to the readings. Very often jaws would drop. Apparently, there was an unspoken rule in publishing that if you were a ‘black’ editor, you didn’t publish white authors. I sat in the back precisely so that this non-issue that some people carried as an issue wouldn’t overshadow my authors’ work. This is how I see my role as editor – as a custodian of my authors’ careers.
This is why I am ‘the’ discontent. I have been so frustrated to find that the Michael Marks Award for poetry pamphlets has marked as ‘ineligible’ two fantastic pamphlets by Warsan Shire (teaching my mother how to give birth) and Max Wallis (Modern Love) for, effectively, two blank pages. My disappointment with the administration of the award stems from the fact that it is an existing award, initially run by the Poetry Book Society, which – in its definition of a pamphlet – had as its page limit thirty-six (36) pages excluding blank pages. Now, there are several definitions of pamphlet length: according to UNESCO, it’s anything from five (5) to forty-eight (48) pages. But that’s not the point here; The Michael Marks Award is an existing prize, already awarded three times, with blank pages excluded from its page count. As publishers, we consider all these limits (and juxtapose them against what our printers advise us will give us the best binding) in deciding how to produce a publication so if the rules are to change for an existing prize, we should be notified – especially for an existing prize. As I understand from the new administrators, The Wordsworth Trust, these two pamphlets (you can see excerpts showing first few pages and last page of poetry for both teaching my mother how to give birth and Modern Love), are ‘ineligible’ because they come up to thirty-eight (38) pages including blanks. I find that outrageous. As is obvious from the excerpts, Warsan Shire’s wonderful teaching my mother how to give birth has its last poem on page 34 and Max Wallis’ web-influenced experiment Modern Love ends on page 37. In both cases, it appears very good young poets are being excluded from consideration for the award on the slightest technicality.
On the 36-page limit, the Administrators tell us:
when we were asked to take over the administration of the Michael Marks Awards we tightened the rules to correct what appeared to us to be ambiguities, and a set number of pages, whatever the content, seemed to be the fairest way of approaching this.
Our response has been:
your rules need to be explicit i.e. rather than – b) Publications must have no more than 36 pages, excluding covers. There is no lower page limit., it should read Publications must have no more than 36 pages including any blanks and notes, but excluding covers. There is no lower page limit. That way there is clarity.
Surely, even if The Wordsworth Trust failed to notify publishers of changes, the continuing partner in the management of the award, The British Library, could have flagged the changes to publishers. If the changes had been communicated and made clearer we (and I’m sure a few other disappointed publishers) could easily have produced to meet guidelines. I mean, I know some publishers use a smaller font size than we do; is that going to be legislated for or will the Michael Marks Award soon be considering epics laid out in 5pt simply because they fit on 36 pages. I’m all for rules, but common sense must never be made redundant because of rules. We should not be robbed of the information needed to give our authors the best chance possible in a tough career.
As I write this, I wonder if the problem with the award is but a small manifestation of the wider problem for poetry in this country. An inflexibility that slowly sucks the vitality out of a living, breathing art form. Ultimately, it is our young poets I feel for the most. It is a pity for them; they will not be considered for an award they stood a decent chance of being shortlisted for. But, perhaps, it is a greater pity for readers for little exclusions such as this mean that the reader never experiences the full breadth of work being produced by small presses around the country. I am not for a moment suggesting that we have published the best pamphlets of 2011, but the opportunity for two of our exciting new talents to stand with the rest of the pamphlets produced in 2011 and be judged has been lost. In the end, the Michael Marks Award should be for the best poetry pamphlet, and I firmly believe the limits should be defined by number of pages of poetry, not limited by blanks at the cost of aesthetics.
- We still have two very good pamphlets by Martin De Mello (if our love stays above the waist) and Nina Bahadur (Every Single One) in for the award.
- Inua Ellams’ Candy-Coated Unicorns and Converse All Stars was also deemed ineligible, but I haven’t mentioned it because he’s already doing well for himself (he’s at the National Theatre in April – just don’t go on the 12th as we have our Venture Award readings). He really doesn’t need the Michael Marks.
- We recently helped set up an award – The Venture Award – ourselves, so we are aware of the challenges, but it’s no excuse for lax communication.