After growing up near Portsmouth, I went to Oxford University to read for a BA and a Masters degree in Music, and then, after trying a few different jobs, found myself working in publishing at Oxford University Press. In 2005 I changed career again, and headed out to Cologne and then Berlin to teach English to businesspeople. When I came home to Portsmouth, I continued teaching for another year, and in 2010 moved back into publishing, at Summersdale Publishers in Chichester, where I work as Managing Editor.
At Summersdale we publish all sorts of non-fiction, with an acclaimed list of travel writing and memoirs. We also produce books in the genres of self-help, true crime, gift and humour – our motto is ‘something for everyone’, and I believe it’s true.
I came up with the idea for the Poetry First Aid Kit in the middle of 2012. I’d read articles on the healing power of poetry, and it struck me how satisfying it would be to compile a collection of poems that would help people out with specific problems, form heart-ache to Monday blues.
I pitched the idea to my colleagues and they all thought it could be a winner. The next stage was to draw up a plan for the book and to start looking for somebody to write it. I was so passionate about the project that our Editorial Director, Claire Plimmer, suggested that I should do it. So I did.
I grew up in a family where poetry was something fun, something pleasurable. Phrases such as ‘O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ and ‘Cats no less liquid than their shadows’ accompanied my childhood, and when I became a dark-souled adolescent, I found solace in the works of Wilfred Owen and Emily Dickinson – I admit right now that I was a very typical bookish teenager. I think poetry is so effective because it provides a sudden plunge into a new emotional world. Each poem is a universe where anything could happen, and yet the fact that most poems fit onto a single page provides an element of control, an element of safety. No matter how turbulent the emotions within, we know before we even begin to read that the space for their expression is bounded – we’re not plunging into unknown depths. For me, this combination of risk and safety is very powerful.
As I had a very clear conception of what I wanted to achieve with this book, I didn’t find it as difficult to write as I would a novel or a non-fiction narrative. I already had some poems in mind that I wanted to include, such as ‘Pied Beauty’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins (which celebrates ‘All things counter, original, spare, strange’ – and to be honest, I often feel that I’m one of those things myself) and ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ by W. B. Yeats (in which we read of love unaccompanied by riches – but who would wish for the stars if they were offered such beautiful dreams instead?), so my challenge was to search through lots of poetry sources to find enough poems to make a complete book.
My approach to the project was to start by assembling all the poems that I felt would either provide an answer to a particular problem or allow a person in a difficult situation to feel less alone in their suffering – because when something’s wrong, I think it’s often as important to realise that somebody else knows what you’re going through as it is to have somebody make the problem go away. I deliberately chose poems ranging from the very serious, such as ‘Happy the Man’, a translation by John Dryden form Horace’s Odes, to the utterly ridiculous, such as the poem ‘The Bath’ by Harry Graham, which provides important advice on whether one should bathe with the bathroom door locked or unlocked. (Graham’s poem leaves us in no doubt that locked is the way to go here.)
It was fascinating for me to find myself on the other side of the publisher–author relationship after so many years of working with books. It was so useful to receive editing feedback from Claire, as she helped me to see opportunities I’d missed and assumptions I’d made – I can’t emphasise enough how valuable the editing process can be. The other big discovery was just how exciting it is to open a box and find it full of books with one’s own name on the cover. As a publisher, it’s always a treat when new books arrive each month, but when I saw my own name in cheerful green capitals on the cover, the feeling was quite different: this is mine; I made it; I wonder if anybody will like it?
Putting a book out there in the world is a little bit like baring your soul: it’s putting a little piece of yourself on a shelf and hoping against hope that somebody will find it worthy enough to spend some of their hard-earned money on it. It really is a case of whether somebody wants to invest in you, whether somebody thinks that what you have made is good enough – and by extension, whether you are good enough.
I think I will stop writing now before I make myself any more nervous than I already am!
You can read more about my book at http://www.summersdale.com/book/1/777/poetry-first-aid-kit/ and you can find me on Twitter (far too often, and most especially when I should be doing something more creative) at https://twitter.com/AbbieHeadon.