In Person: 30 Poets, Edited by Neil Astley, filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce

Sharp voices from the cutting edge of poetry
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The Independent Culture

Bloodaxe Books was founded in Newcastle upon Tyne 30 years ago by Neil Astley. Since then, it has published nearly 1,000 poetry books, quantities probably matched only by Michael Schmidt's Manchester-based Carcanet Press. Bloodaxe has reined in a more left-ward, experimental and internationalist stable, as distinct from Carcanet's conservative bent. Both publishers have recently become more venturesome as well as more prolific than their main rivals. None of these bigger verse-publishing guns could have fired up a tiny fraction of their output without financial support from arts councils and the like, or without the spadework of little presses, magazines, readings, festivals and performance bandwagons.

Astley acknowledges all this, and admits that this birthday book is "Bloodaxe's most innovative title to date". You get not only 270 close-packed pages of poetry, commentary and literary history, but the palpable bonus of six hours of readings by all 30 poets on two DVDs. There have been many poetry volumes with CDs, but very few with such compelling film footage.

The assemblage features texts and recordings in Catalan by Joan Margarit, in Arabic by the Palestinian Taha Muhammad Ali and in Chinese by Yang Lian. The exuberant British-Caribbean cadences of John Agard, James Berry and Benjamin Zephaniah swing delightfully alongside the Irish, Scottish, Welsh and regional-English voicings of Brendan Kennelly, Bill Herbert, Gwyneth Lewis and Ken Smith, the hybrid-American idioms of Anne Stevenson, Naomi Shihab Nye and C K Williams, as well as those of George Szirtes, who was born and brought up in Hungary and the Kiwi expat Fleur Adcock.

Astley's introduction quotes Bloodaxe's patron saint, Basil Bunting: "Poetry lies dead on the page, until some voice brings it to life, just as music, on the stave, is no more than instructions to the player." With this in mind, the closing lines of one of Jackie Kay's mellifluous incantations speak home: "The dead don't go till you do, loved ones/ The dead are still here holding our hands."

In 1964, Adrian Mitchell, another of this celebration's prime movers, wrote "Most people ignore most poetry/ because most poetry ignores most people". The book is a testament to how much has changed around world poetry (though not, alas, around world politics) over the succeeding years. So, congratulations, Bloodaxe: here's to another 30 years of incisive poetic returns from your cutting edge.