Bloodaxe began as a small press set up by me in 1978 in Newcastle to publish new and neglected poets, mostly from northern England. The first poet was Ken Smith. The name came from Viking king Erik Bloodaxe, the last ruler of the independent North, one of the protagonists of Basil Bunting’s northern epic Briggflatts. The early publications included an LP record of Briggflatts and debut collections by David Constantine, Sean O’Brien and Helen Dunmore.
Within a few years Bloodaxe’s range widened to cover other areas, including poetry in translation (especially from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia), American and Irish poets, poetry by women and by black and Asian poets, and contemporary poetry anthologies. As a reader I’ve always loved many different kinds of poetry, believing that there is excellence to be found in every genre, hence Bloodaxe’s range has included poets as radically different as John Agard, Gillian Allnutt, Jane Hirshfield, J.H. Prynne and Benjamin Zephaniah.
Bloodaxe has also benefited from the failings of commercial publishers in gaining poets whose readership we’ve greatly expanded over many years, including Fleur Adcock, Moniza Alvi, Selima Hill, Peter Reading, Ken Smith, Anne Stevenson and George Szirtes.
Bloodaxe anthologies have not just shown British and Irish readers the poets of their time, from The New Poetry in 1993 to Roddy Lumsden’s Identity Parade in 2010, they have introduced tens of thousands of new readers to world poetry, from Staying Alive in 2002 to Staying Human in 2020. An American edition of Staying Alive was launched in New York by Meryl Streep.
Other key titles have included Tony Harrison’s v. (1985), the TV film of which MPs tried to ban; Irina Ratushinskaya’s No, I’m Not Afraid (1986), the focus of the campaign to free her from a Soviet labour camp; and Rosemary Tonks’s Bedouin of the London Evening (2014), whose publication was only possible decades after she “disappeared”.
Being able to publish the first collections by poets such as Maura Dooley, Simon Armitage and Jackie Kay came to feel somehow momentous thirty years later, as did publishing Brendan Kennelly and Tomas Tranströmer from 1987 onwards, C.K. Williams from 1988, and Imtiaz Dharker from 1997. And I’ve taken on Irish women poets who’ve achieved international recognition in almost no time at all, notably Ailbhe Darcy, Jane Clarke, Miriam Gamble, Caitríona O’Reilly and Leanne O’Sullivan.
The debut collections have always been a mixture of unsolicited manuscripts, books I’ve sought out, and poets recommended by other poets. Many of the poets I’ve taken on over the past two decades started out in Roddy Lumsden’s workshops or in the tall-lighthouse pamphlet series he curated. Five years ago he urged me to look at the work of Wayne Holloway-Smith: Wayne’s debut, Alarum, followed in 2017, and this year his even more innovative second collection, Love Minus Love, his second PBS Wild Card Choice, has been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize.
Digital projects have been another key area in recent years, with over 100 poets filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce for videos released on DVD with books or shown on websites and social media. And we’ve been developing important partnerships that have enabled us to reach more readers and do more for writers, most notably with Newcastle University and NCLA (Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts), responsible for our Bloodaxe Poetry App, and much else; and with the Complete Works mentoring programme, showcasing 30 BAME poets in three Ten anthologies. Next year we will launch the James Berry Poetry Prize with NCLA, offering mentoring and first book publication to three BAME poets every two years.