Subversive At All Times: An Interview with Emma Wright

by Tom Cutterham

Emma Wright quit her day-job in publishing to start a poetry press, The Emma Press, which published its first volume, The Flower and the Plough, earlier this year. With an Anthology of Mildly Erotic Verse launched on 26 September, a nation-wide tour underway, and a new series of single-author pamphlets intended for next year, Wright's project is picking up steam. We spoke to her about ambitions, aesthetics, and the elusive ground of the 'mildly erotic.'

You've started your own small press. Pretty brave! What place do tiny ventures like yours have in the cultural marketplace? And how big are you hoping to grow?

Thank you very much. I'd say the main value of small presses is the diversity they bring to the party. Bigger publishers have to consider all sorts of factors when taking on a title, not least being able to predict a certain number of sales, whereas a small publisher just has to think about whether they really, absolutely, love the writer and the book. Of course small publishers have to think about the likelihood of sales as well, but when you know you'll have to work with something intensively for nearly a year and then continue to sell it for potentially the rest of your life, it becomes pretty imperative to choose projects which are close to your heart.

I'd like The Emma Press to grow so it can support me and a small team, and so I can achieve international acclaim for my books and writers, but I'd never want to be so big that I wasn't still involved in every part of the process. It's called The Emma Press for a reason!

Knowing how hard things are even for well-established publishers, especially of poetry, it must have been daunting to set up on your own. How have you managed the financial side of things? Do you see yourself as an entrepreneur - or perhaps more of an artisan?

Sure it was daunting, but I'd been working in a low-paid job for two years with no prospect of progression and it made sense to switch to doing something I actually enjoyed, even if it meant earning no money for a while and having to live at home and off my savings. I heard about the Prince's Trust through a friend and I started their Explore Enterprise Programme last September, which has taught me a lot about how to set my business processes up in a sensible way. To earn money in publishing you really need a decent-sized list, so I haven't put too much pressure on myself this year, with my two books, but in 2014 I'll be turbocharged and producing at least ten more books, and I really hope that by the end of the year I'll be able to move out again!

I read The Flower and the Plough a few months ago and loved it. Rachel Piercey's poems aren't formally groundbreaking or grandiose in their claims. There's a certain modesty, but on the other hand, they do offer a challenge to the whole genre of love poetry! How did you form your own taste in poetry? Tell us a few of your favourite poets and poems.

Hmm, if you're picking up modesty I must be doing something wrong. I think Rachel's poems are groundbreakingly brilliant, and the degree to which I enjoy other poetry is in direct relation to its resemblance to something she might have written. Seriously, Rachel's poetry epitomises everything I love in poetry: it's sharp, elegant, honest and hopeful, with every word chosen like a gift.

My taste in poetry is the same as my taste in everything else - sitcoms, book, films, music - so I guess I've been forming it all my life. Ovid is probably my favourite: I love his playfulness and compulsion to be subversive at all times, and his works will inform several future projects of The Emma Press. Recently I've read and loved: Darling, Would You Please Pick Up Those Books, by Kathryn Maris, Dragonflies by Frances Leviston, Antidote to Curses # 1-17, being a reinstigation of free will following its suspension, by Luke Kennard, and Archimedes and Me, by Lianne Strauss. Also all of the poems in The Emma Press Anthology of Mildly Erotic Verse.

Ah yes, The Emma Press Anthology of Mildly Erotic Verse. There's a bit of a frisson between the words mildly and erotic, isn't there? It seems like another stitch in an emerging Emma Press aesthetic that's both modest and subversive. Perhaps coy is the word? If guitars are erotic, ‘mildly erotic’ sounds like a ukulele. So as for the anthology, did you reject anything for being too explicit? How did you come up with your definition of what constitutes ‘mildly erotic’?

I'm going to ignore your attempts to paint the Emma Press as the MPDG of small presses, Tom. You're right about my erotic anthology being subversive, though, and I really hope that comes across to the readers. I wanted the poems and illustrations to be genuinely erotic, but for the book as a whole to stand as a riposte to all the fluffy, psychologically feeble erotica I'd seen in the charts. Rachel (Piercey, my co-editor) and I didn't reject poems for being too explicit, but we did turn a lot down because they said nothing new or true about human sexuality. We wanted poems which examined intimacy and the weirdness of real-life eroticism, so 'mildly erotic' was meant to indicate to poets that we were looking for something beyond mechanical descriptions of sex. A more accurate title for the collection would be The Emma Press Anthology of Highly Erotic Verse, but that might have put some poets off being involved.

You drew some lovely illustrations – featuring the stick-people in your logo – for The Flower and the Plough. Are you going to be illustrating the anthology as well?

Yes, I've illustrated the anthology too, though I resisted it for a while. I'm not a trained illustrator, so I felt intimidated by how well the poets had captured eroticism in different ways and I worried that I would ruin all their fine craftsmanship with illustrations which either weren't erotic at all or which were undeniably sexual but lacking finesse. But then I ran a weekly poetry book stall at Lower Market market for a couple of months, and when I saw how people responded to the overall look and feel of The Flower and the Plough I realised that this was something I should just try to get better at rather than abandon. So, there are twelve pictures in the anthology, of varying degrees of eroticism, and I intend to illustrate most of my forthcoming books too.

Maybe you could give us a sneak preview? A few lines from one of your favourites in the anthology?

There are snippets from all the poems which have been floating around my head ever since I read them, but I'm going to choose this bit from towards the end of Jon Stone's Glamour:

'They know the thing to do tonight is sleekly slide
against each other's planes the way they do in films,
be spoon and syrup, glass and shadow, blade and blade.
But now the smell of overripeness overwhelms
the both of them, and out they slip from underneath
the glamours that had all but pinned them in their place,'

... and you'll have to buy the book to find out how it ends! It's an amazing, gorgeous, surprising poem which I've described to people as being a bit like a 'metaphysical striptease'. It's exactly the kind of poem we were looking for when we set out to make this book, not least because of the metre, and I'm thrilled to be publishing it.

For tour dates, books, and more information the Emma Press is at