Earlier this year, uHlanga hosted its first-ever open submissions period for original manuscripts of poetry in South African languages. We received far more submissions that we could have ever imagined, with over 100 poets sending in eligible work.
While we're still reading everything that has been sent in, I thought that, as uHlanga's publisher, I would share some insights that we can take from the submissions period, as well as offering advice to new writers, as well as many of the writers who weren't successful with their submissions.
1) What we might learn about SA poetry
We received, in total, 119 eligible manuscripts for our consideration. This presented a massive challenge for us. As it stands, uHlanga is solely my personal concern. I hire one intern to help me with some tasks, including the reading of these manuscripts. We have also hired readers in languages in which neither I nor my intern are sufficiently proficient (or knowledgeable about their poetic contexts) to judge for publication. As it stands, I judge it will take our team about four or five months to give each manuscript the attention it deserves.
At first, the fact that 119 writers (more, if you count ineligible submissions, such as submissions of single poems or manuscripts that had been badly formatted) had sent in their work to us seems encouraging for the health of poetry writing in South Africa. Analysing these submissions, though, paints a more complicated picture. The vast majority of submissions were made in English, or predominantly in English. Although we were open to submissions in certain African languages, very few submissions in Zulu and Xhosa (and none in Sotho) were sent in. A small amount of submissions in Afrikaans, or predominantly in Afrikaans, were also sent in.
For me, these facts point to a couple things. First, uHlanga likely does not have a reputation for quality publishing in languages other than English. Afrikaans writers will most likely go for Afrikaans presses. This is understandable -- the Afrikaans literary industry is relatively healthy in this regard.
"Although many writers are reticent to write in African languages, much of this reticence is down to a perceived lack of opportunities for publication or appreciation."
More important (and worrying), however, is our inability to attract more writers in African languages. The lack of African language submissions suggests one of two things: either there are few writers in African languages, or uHlanga failed to engage and make accessible our opportunity to people who write or would like to write in African languages. Given my experience working at Paperight and Prufrock, and conversing with writers at poetry events around the country, I think it's more the latter than the former.
Although many writers are reticent to write in African languages, much of this reticence is down to a perceived lack of opportunities for publication or appreciation. The point, then, is to make more opportunities available, and to be consistent with offering them. And although it is unlikely that we will publish a book in an African language from this round of submissions, it is important in future that we do find books to publish in African languages, so that there is a visible and tangible sense that opportunity is still being created.
I must also be frank about my possible failure to engage more with African language writing groups, and to advertise opportunities in more places, and in more places in which more writers are able to find them. Social media is powerful, but can only do so much.
2) What writers must learn
Still, the fact that 119 writers sent in their manuscripts for us to read and consider is a huge vindication of my beliefs that i) people love to write poetry; and ii) we can build a stronger industry and appreciation around poetry in South Africa.
The vast majority (in fact, almost all) of these manuscripts, however, will be rejected. Ten or so will receive letters saying that we enjoyed reading their work, and that they're good poets, but that their manuscript isn't just quite right for our publication needs at this point. This is not a nice letter to receive, often because a near-miss is often more painful than a long shot missing its mark. This, however, is a common letter for any writer to receive. It's an encouragement, and should be taken as such. Running a poetry press (especially one as small as uHlanga) is a highly subjective affair. I will only publish something if I love it. If I just kind-of sort-of like it, the book will have no chance, either in the market or in the critical realm. I have to be fair with people's dreams and ambitions. Their work might be better off with another small press.
That said, people's dreams and ambitions can be discouraging.
Aspiring poets want people to read their poems without reading other people's poems.
Gus Ferguson, the legendary publisher and editor of Snailpress and Carapace, was known for his editorials that were sometimes poems, and poems that were sometimes editorials. One such poem-itorial opined that if he had as many subscribers as he did submitters to his magazine, Carapace would have been a going and growing concern.
The fact remains: Aspiring poets want people to read their poems without reading other people's poems. How do I know this? Two reasons. First, sales numbers don't add up. Second, aspiring poets aren't reading contemporary poetry.
The vast majority of manuscripts that we will reject this period show little to no engagement with South African poetry. The average South African poetry book sells anything between 50 and 200 copies. Magazine subscriptions are also in this realm. We had around 200 writers register their interest in submitting their work to us. I have my reservations about whether the 200 people who submitted their work constitute the poetry book-buying public of Southern Africa.
It's easy to read when someone doesn't read. The same ideas and idioms, cliches and tropes, subjects and experiences, replay themselves over and over across many of the manuscripts we received. If some of these writers engaged with those who were writing in their close proximity, they would know that the poems that they write have already been written. They would know that the best writing often comes from a place of exact and specific context and subjectivity. They would know that poetic forms and techniques have specific uses; that some are old hat, and some are aching to be transformed in new ways.
Many writers and scholars opine that we need to change the poetic canon, to make it more representative of our concerns, our politics, our images. Creating a new canon, however, is a deliberate thing. It requires writers engaging with other writers, and using the spirit of other writing in their own writing. Kafka isn't canonical because people say so; it's because writers transmute the spirit of his work in their own work. Adichie isn't becoming canonical because the Twitterati say so; it's because the images and subjects of her writing are being deliberately carried into, transformed, commented on, and criticised in the creative work of other writers. If you do not engage with your contemporaries, you cannot influence anything.
This is why I would say -- and this might be an unpopular opinion -- that the work of transforming poetry publishing and appreciation in South Africa isn't the sole domain of publishers. It's the task of readers, and readers who are writers.
3) OK, you've pontificated enough; what can I change?
I am very happy to acknowledge that many dozens of people who submitted to our open submissions period write solely for themselves, and thought that they'd send us their work on a whim. I think that's awesome, and should be encouraged. If you write solely for yourself, or your loved ones, and that's your ambition, then don't let anything I say discourage you or stop you from doing that. I play guitar. Sometimes I share my music with people. I don't expect to be signed to Universal Music, though. Likewise, you probably don't expect someone to make a book of your work. If that's your experience, then I only have love for you. Continue to write and share to your heart's content.
If you do, however, want to be more engaged with poetry as a living cultural process, though, there are a couple things you should do. First, read poetry and subscribe to local and international literary magazines. If this is out of your budget, then read online. Then, join writing groups or submit to literary magazines that you have read and like. Start a blog. Share. But most of all, read.
If you don't know of any literary magazines in South Africa, here's a list of the ones I like best: Prufrock, Aerodrome, New Contrast, Stanzas, New Coin, The Kalahari Review, Type/Cast, Itch. There are many more, however. If your ambition is to have a book published, then you should try to have individual poems published in magazines and anthologies first.
4) In conclusion
I know this post might have seemed a little over-critical. That's not my intention. My intention is to speak frankly about how I read the poetry landscape of this country from my limited vantage point, and to give frank advice to people who want to write seriously.
I would like to extend my sincerest thanks to every single poet who submitted to this year's open submissions. Despite my criticism, I want you to know that I have read (and enjoyed reading) all of your work, and that I appreciate the time, love, concern and hard work you pour into your poems. Sharing is scary -- I know this from my own writing career -- and I hope that you don't take any negative feedback or rejection too much to heart. As with all things, we grow more and know more. That applies to me, as much as you.