Getting Wrecked On Words: The Publishers Taking Poetry Beyond Academia

Like your books with a bit more weight? Wrecking Ball Press are smashing down the walls of academia and putting the word from the street back on the shelf …
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Like your books with a bit more weight? Wrecking Ball Press are smashing down the walls of academia and putting the word from the street back on the shelf …

Wrecking Ball Press was founded in 1997 by Shane Rhodes at The Green Room, a vegetarian café situated in the heart of Hull’s bohemian bedsit land. Fuelled by a love of music and poetry, Shane set up a series of jazz nights and spoken word evenings where budding writers could air their work in public. News soon spread among both the locals and the visiting student population and a mountain of manuscripts quickly built up in the back room.

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Inspired by the small American independent publishing houses such as Black Sparrow and City Lights, Shane set about collecting the best of this work. The result was The Reater – the first in a series of collections showcasing poetry and prose from the width and breadth of Britain, along with a few rare and previously unpublished poems by Charles Bukowski, procured from sources still undisclosed. The Reater was an instant success and paved the way for a succession of iconic titles, the most notable being Ben Myer’s The Book Of Fuck, a semi-autobiographical account of a shell-shocked music journalist and Dan Fante’s picaresque tale of L.A. taxi driver culture, Corksucker. Wrecking Ball’s predilection for literature informed by music saw further rock n roll influenced titles such as Tony O’Neill’s Digging The Vein, a bracing journey into the twilight world of USA junkiedom, as well as second and third editions of The Reater. Other notable writers included Barnsley poet Geoff Hattersley and West Coast giant Gerald Locklin. All of these titles faced the world in Owen Benwell’s trademark Wrecking Ball Press artwork – stark, modernist and instantly recognisable.

The 2015 list looks like a lit. fiend’s wet dream, with collections from US poet celeste doaks, Kingdom, the new novel from Russ Litten, and Niall Griffith’s long awaited debut poetry collection “Red Roar – 20 Years Of Words”. With Hull gearing up for the 2017 City Of Culture, Wrecking Ball Press’s star is firmly in the ascendant. I caught up with Shane Rhodes at their Hull headquarters.

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What is the central ethic behind WBP?

To publish hard-hitting words in a high quality format. I’m into accessibility.

The first poets I got into were Roger McGough and Brian Patten, and they were coming from that vivid pop culture world, non-academic and inclusive. Adrian Mitchell said, “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.” Spot on. I want our books to speak to people beyond the academic world. And I want the design to be bold and vivid. I want our books to look and feel beautiful.

What’s the link between music and literature for you?

Massive. Music was my way in. When I was growing up, vinyl records were a lot more interesting than books. Reading the words on the sleeves. Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen - that was the first time I’d been exposed to any type of poetry that moved me, that properly hit me in the head and the heart and the guts. It was direct and real and instant. Back then records were a lot more interesting than books to me.

You publish a lot of American writers. What’s the allure?

I got into it through reading Bukowski. He made it look easy when it most certainly was not. I just thought American literature used language in such a free and exciting way. It seemed a million miles away rom the buttoned up approach of much of the English stuff. I liked Celtic and European writing, but English writers to me always seemed to be overtly middle class and wilfully obscure.

What do you think of the state of modern literature?

Healthy. Thriving. We run a night called Head In A Book and we’ve had some amazing people up, like Kerry Hudson, Jenn Ashworth, Emma Unsworth, and Richard Milward – all massively talented young writers with interesting things to say and all drawing big crowds. Richard Milward did his reading with a block of flats on his head. That was a highlight. William Letford was astonishing, firing out all these amazing Scottish dialogue poems, full of music and tenderness and attack. Stuff like that makes me very excited about what’s happening and reaffirms to me why I do what I do. And the Humber Mouth Festival gets better every year. We had James Kelman on last year, he was a revelation.

Which writers do you admire at the moment?

I’m enjoying Matt Haig’s novels. I like the clear and truthful sentences. Reasons To Stay Alive is like a modern day Zen Bible. Daniel Woodrell is lighting me up as well, the master of the devastating opening first line. Celeste Doaks is an exciting new discovery; her debut poetry collection is superb. I’m also re-reading a lot of Thom Gunn and finding new things there all over again.

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Where do you think indie press wins against the mainstream publishers?

We can’t afford to buy a big window display in Waterstones but we can offer our undivided attention to our writers and their work. When you only publish five or six books a year your attention is less divided. Big publishers release so much stuff, but a lot of it doesn’t get the push it deserves. Also, the smaller presses tend to take more risks than a mainstream publisher – which is perverse, really, because if we get it wrong we really feel it. We can’t afford to fuck it up. 

All titles available at: www.wreckingballpress.com