Penned in the Margins – Small Press Overview by Jo Fisher

Penned in the Margins is not your usual publisher. In fact, it originally began as a poetry night. Born in a converted railway arch in South London in 2004, it has since evolved into a successful independent, artist-led publisher which has published 80 books and produced a large number of live projects, staying true to its on-stage roots.

Tom Chivers, Artistic Director of Penned in the Margins, set up his organisation soon after graduating, and took on his role full time two years later. He currently employs one other permanent member of staff, Sales and Marketing Coordinator Bex Shorunke, as well as two associates; Nick Murray, Associate Producer, and theatre director Russell Bender, Creative Associate, and an advisory board.

Together, they are on a mirror to create publications and performances for people who are ‘not afraid to take risks’.

“When I think of our values, words like ‘curiosity’, ‘integrity’ and ‘risk-taking’ spring to mind,” says Tom. “I hope other people recognise these in our work. As far as I’m aware, we are the only publisher in the country which also makes fully realised live productions. From certain angles, we look like a theatre company.”

Indeed, it is this unique style and approach which sets Penned in the Margins apart from the rest. Experimenting with performance, sound, and language, this organisation takes spoken and written word to its limits, pushing boundaries and asking us as the audience to see things a little differently. Playing with language is at the heart of a lot of the work produced by the team and its artists; in performance and in written word, Penned in the Margins encourages us to question language used and view it from a new perspective. Tom himself believes that that word-play is vital.

“To ignore the play in language is to neglect the very materials of speaking, the thing it is made out of. But those materials are fundamentally untrustworthy; and therein lies the magic of poetry; the surprise, the slippage between intention and effect, between confession and distraction.”

This wordplay means that much of the poetry Penned in the Margins works with is truly experimental. While many of us may be used to the more linear, structured and traditional poetry taught in schools and universities, Tom and his team want to share work that is unusual, non-linear, unpredictable and abstract, often using music, props, and multimedia.

He explains: “For me, poetry is at its most interesting at its edges, where it crosses over with other art forms or ways of thinking. It’s a kind of semi-permeable membrane between other disciplines. It is also a broad church, though, and there is still a lot of great traditional poetry being written. That’s okay too.”

Performance of Will’s Dream as part of Fair Field at Ledbury Poetry Festival

Penned in the Margins is all about collaboration, working with a number of artists on a variety of projects and making up for their small size with constant productions with partners and fellow creatives. The team are joined by three associate artists, Ross Sutherland, Siddhartha Bose and Hannah Silva, with whom they have worked for a long period of time, producing work and publishing their poetry. Indeed, Penned in the Margins is currently touring a live version of Ross’s poetry podcast, Imaginary Advice, which was named as the Best Fiction Podcast in the 2018 British Podcast Awards. All three associate artists have dabbled in various realms of the media; in print, audio and on stage, in true Penned-in-the-Margins style.

Other partners in the past have also included, impressively,  The Guardian, Arts Council England, King’s College London, National Poetry Library at Southbank centre, and The Poetry School to name but a few, with the above all involved in the organisation’s 2017 project titled Fair Field – a revival of William Langland’s medieval piece, Piers Plowman.

Performance for Penned in the Margins can range from a straightforward stage adaptation of a poetry book – Simon Barraclough’s Sunspots is one example – to completely independent pieces which stand separately from print. Tom is keen to emphasise that the performances hosted and produced by the organisation are not there to ‘introduce’ the audience to printed poetry, but to present something completely new and unexpected.

Antosh Wojcik

“Most recently, I’ve just finished producing an Edinburgh Fringe run of How to Keep Time: A Drum Solo for Dementia by poet Antosh Wojcik. Antosh has a background in performance poetry, but this is very much a piece of theatre (although it also involves live drumming!),” says Tom.

“Many of the artists we collaborate with are theatre-makers or musicians or actors or something-else-entirely. So I really don’t see our live work as some kind of ‘back door’ to poetry. I’m in the privileged position of being able to choose what we make, and I’m just not interested in limiting our vision to one artform or another.”

So what do the live performances with Penned in the Margins involve?

“It’s difficult to describe our live events as they’re so varied!” Tom explains. “Our shows take place in theatres and arts centres throughout the UK, but also outdoors and in historic or unusual sites. You could spend an hour listening to one person in a studio theatre, or follow a guided walk at night through a cemetery; experience a spectacular hillside performance or an intimate poetry reading in a lovely independent bookshop.”

Raymond Antrobus

What’s next for this exciting and innovative organisation? Penned in the Margins will be announcing their 2019 publishing list in November this year, and Tom himself is doing some early research for a piece of theatre he is developing which will be set around the British Civil Wars. They have just released The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus, which was selected as the Poetry Book Society’s Choice for Winter 2018. Tom is excited about this one: “It’s a striking, beautiful collection that takes a long, hard look at race, disability and identity, without ever falling into cliché or providing obvious answers.”

And finally, with such an emphasis on events, we had to ask: why should people go to live poetry readings and performances? According to Tom: “It’s (usually) cheaper than a Netflix subscription.”

You can find out more about Penned in the Margins on their website, or follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Their books can be bought in all good bookshops, as well as online.

As part of So: To Speak 2018, you can see the aforementioned How To Keep Time: A Drum Solo for Dementia at Nuffield Southampton Theatres on Saturday 3 November.

Get your tickets for the Penned in the Margins Small Press Showcase.