by Damian O’Vitch
Burning Eye is a small, independent press based in Bristol. It started in 2012 and is run by Clive Birnie (a poet, novellist and artist) and Bridget Hart (a poet and musician). It has been shortlisted several times for The Saboteur Awards and adopts a collaborative approach with it’s authors while producing the end product, whether print or digital.
Burning Eye publishes about 20 books a year through it’s core publishing process which has a lead time of about 18 months to final print. With this in mind, Burning Eye also runs a faster hybrid self-publishing service, BX3, where artists can buy a larger print run which they can then sell at their events or shows. These books are not supported by the full marketing/promotion mechanisms as the core published books.
Burning Eye was set up to promote artists within an expanding Spoken Word scene where a diversity of ideas and forms of expression were emerging. Editor Bridget Hart explains “About six years ago there weren’t any publishing houses picking up performance poets or spoken word artists. We really wanted to provide touring artists with something to sell at their gigs and to give legitimacy to spoken word”. Clive Birnie adds,“The poetry publishing world seemed to have missed a commercial opportunity to tap into the growing live poetry scene. I was inspired by publisher, poet and philanthropist Felix Dennis saying that he sold more copies of one of his books at one theatre gig than has been reported in total for a recent prize-winning collection.”(1,3)
What set Burning Eye apart from other presses was that it began to work with artists at an earlier stage in their careers than was typical of of poetry presses at the time. For example, an earlier success was “Cherry Pie” by Hollie McNish who has more than 3.5 million views on her YouTube channel. Another artist is Jess Green whose poem “Dear Mr Gove” went viral online when it was posted on YouTube in March 2014 (2,3).
Currently, although perfomance poetry continues to grow, the numbers of BAME poets being published is still proportionately less. As Bridget explains “Burning Eye has a long standing policy of gender equality and currently publishes 55% poetry by women, but 13% of people of colour which we feel is too low. Of our open submissions calls we mostly attract ‘white’ poets”.
So in 2018 Burning Eye put out a call for BAME poets aged 25 and over who have not previously published a collection, to submit their work. “We want to offer a poetry list that is representative of British voices – including those who might be excluded from other opportunities because of age or location or ethnic background – and that cannot be done without BAME contributions”.
So, what does BE look for when publishing aspiring spoken word perfomers? Bridget explains “We don’t have specific genres or themes we like to follow really. If we like it, then we like it. A lot of performance poetry is based on real experience, so we like to have a broad range to represent the society that poetry mirrors. We publish performance poets, spoken word artists, slam, stand up and comedy poets from the UK. Over 50% of our list is made up of female poets and we have a large variety of work by BAME and LGBTQ+ writers. We are always looking to increase our platforms and provide service for unrepresented groups”.
There is an ongoing relationship between a press and the genre of artists it wants to attract. “Not only do we look for the best of UK spoken word and performance poetry, we are also looking for those who line up with our own ethos. We publish a lot of political works, and we ourselves are political people so our box room press reflects this. We want equality for everyone and diversity in our literature. We want to publish the brave, the bold, the untouched elsewhere. Burning Eye stands for being never knowingly mainstream and in that we have found the freedom to be a poetry press that the spoken word scene relies on and respects and we only want to give back!”
For poets interested in submitting their work to Burning Eye she advises “Please don’t Facebook message us your manuscripts! No, seriously; always be yourself. Make sure your work is ready, and you are confident in what you are submitting. We love first-time collections, and young poets coming through, but remember to edit, to read and to get feedback”.
Burning Eye aims to reflect the diversity of performance literature by also publishing a range of different genres such as novels, non-fiction work, children’s poems and other experimental forms. For example, it has published the observational project An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in London by Nathan Penlington and Sarah Lester which recorded all the events occurring at a single location as “part documentary, part poetry, part catalogue” (2). Burning Eye has also published a collection of A.F Harrold’s surreal tales and poems Things you find in a Poet’s Beard illustrated by the Children’s Laureate Chris Ridell (3). Hydra’s Head by Annie Rutherford is a translation of the work of German performance poet Norma Gomringer.
How people access literature is also constantly evolving. While there are new forms of media to view live literature, paper books have also recently shown an increase in sales. In this fluid cultural and technological context “Burning Eye engages with poetry whilst taking on the tradition of commentating our uncertain political times. It is an expression of self and ideas that are richer than some people give it credit for. Burning Eye Books is somewhere in the middle of all of this” (2) As Clive Birnie points out, “We aim for a mix of the outspoken and the comic, the serious and the surreal but always accessible and entertaining. Poetry for the people, not just professors.” (3)
Burning Eye is currently working on a new publication list for 2019 including new works by Lucy English, Melanie Branton and Penny Pepper. Burning Eye will also be at LitCrawl in Cheltenham on 6 October and at the SO: To Speak Festival on 2-4 November. If you want to find out more about Burning Eye Books you can visit their website or contact them via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
- E-mail interview with Bridget Hart: 22.09.18