‘Zero-cost outlets’: an interview with Brian Lewis

An interview with Brian Lewis, conducted by Sufyan El-Harti for the South Yorkshire platform Shreem in January 2022 (as the Shreem website appears to be defunct, we’ve reproduced the feature on this site).

Many thanks to Sufyan for coordinating and conducting the interview.

What inspired you to set up Longbarrow Press?
The press gradually evolved from a series of conversations, and open-ended collaborations, with several Sheffield-based poets. During this period (2004-2006) I was living in Swindon, working as an administrator, and taking photographs in my spare time. I’d started to misuse the equipment in my workplace, making photocopies of the photographs, and realised that the office printers might offer a zero-cost outlet for experimenting with print and design. Neither I nor my collaborators had any formal experience of print and design – or editing and publishing – so this gave us time, and space, for research and development, which resulted in the publication of our first few titles in 2006. We didn’t know what we were doing, or how to get it done, but we knew why we were doing it, and we knew that we needed to do it.

Do you have a personal favourite poet or poem?
No. You never read, or hear, the same poem (or poet) twice.

What is your favourite medium to experience poetry? Or does it depend on the poem itself?
Different media accentuate different qualities in a poem. Having said that, the circumstances are always variable. There’s a common belief that longer poems seldom fare well with live audiences, but it depends on the poem, the strength of the reading and presentation, the acoustics (and other conditions), etc.

Why is it important to Longbarrow that poems are recorded in certain locations? As opposed to all being recorded in a studio.
One way of thinking about this is that it’s both a means of collaborating with a place, and a record of that collaboration. We began making audio recordings in 2008, in north Sheffield, as part of an effort to document the poetry walks that we’d started to develop earlier in the year. I’d acquired a handheld digital recorder, which enabled us to capture sound on the move, and archive events in a way that was less intrusive than filming. That experience opened up the possibilities for making work in these environments, rather than merely responding to them at a distance. As well as reading poems in the locations for which they were written, we wanted to preserve something of the texture of each place. To this end, I found myself making ambient recordings, picking out things that caught my ear – birdsong, the hum of a power-line, the crunch of snow underfoot – while the poets improvised commentaries that included the things we couldn’t hear: the scent in the air, the view from the ground, the atmospheric conditions. These recordings were then carefully edited and sequenced to foreground the relationship between each poem and its place: a ‘constructed space’ to be re-inhabited by the listener. It’s possible to take a more ‘studio-led’ approach with this material, of course, but we wanted to bring the place, and the moment, into focus.

How involved are the poets during the publishing process at Longbarrow?
It varies from poet to poet, and from project to project, but the poets are usually very closely involved in all stages of the process, from the initial discussions about the format of a pamphlet or book, through line-by-line editing and proofing, to the layout and design of the pages and the jacket artwork. Obviously, there is a degree of continuity from one publication to the next, but I’ve always resisted an inflexible ‘house style’: the object should reflect the work, as thoughtfully and accurately as possible, and the poet’s intentions for the work. In other words, it’s an open, collaborative process, rather than me dictating the terms of publication. To an extent, I have to set aside what I think I’ve learned, what I think I know, when embarking on a new project. An important aspect of creative collaboration is knowing which questions each partner needs to ask of the other, and how to ask them, which can only happen with trust, and an understanding of each other’s practices. The last thing that anyone wants is a book that falls short, for want of time, resourcefulness, or an honest conversation.

Does Longbarrow host any events for local fans of poetry?
Pre-pandemic, we had an active (if irregular) programme of readings, performances and other events taking place in Sheffield and elsewhere. At some point, when the forecasts for public health have improved, we’ll start over. During the pandemic, our events have been restricted to occasional online launches and readings, though we did organise a poetry walk in October, led by Chris Jones, which spanned the peaks of Stannington and the lowlands of Bradfield, via Storrs, Dungworth, and Damflask Reservoir. It was as Covid-proof as an event could be – a small group of 10 or 12 people, socially distanced, and out-of-doors throughout – and it offered some much-needed connection and focus after 18 months of restricted engagement. Hopefully there’ll be more walks to follow in 2022.

How important is art and poetry for society in dealing with stressful global events like the COVID pandemic?
It’s important at all times. The work itself, and the networks and conversations that make it possible.

How has the pandemic affected the independent poetry business in the region?
I can only speak on behalf of Longbarrow, really. We’ve been more fortunate than some, in that we have few overheads (it’s a one-person press, and I work from home), and we’ve been able to continue without serious interruption. Given the limited opportunities for in-person events, the closure of bookshops for lengthy periods, and almost no book fairs taking place, our sales have been surprisingly healthy (albeit mostly via the website). I’m more concerned about the health of Sheffield’s cultural infrastructure; what the last few years have meant for venues and audiences, and what will happen to them in the months ahead. It’s a fragile ecosystem; even before the pandemic, there were few suitable, affordable spaces in the city (as far as I’m aware, Sheffield has never had a purpose-built arts centre, and, even now, many poetry events tend to happen in the back rooms of small pubs, or in the bowels of the city’s universities), and the future of these spaces is by no means guaranteed. The people give me hope. In some respects, poetry is a ‘grassroots’ form, and perhaps this sets up fewer barriers for access. We’ve never had the same audience twice, which suggests crossover and renewal, and, over the years, I’ve found that the city’s spirit of resourcefulness seems to drive both the work being produced here and the way in which people engage with it.

What makes poets from the Yorkshire region different from those in other parts of the country?
I don’t know. I’m not from Yorkshire, and, even though I’ve spent the past 10 years living and working in Sheffield, and travelling throughout the area, I’m not sure that I’ve developed any great insight into Yorkshireness, if such a thing can be said to exist. It’s a vast and varied region, for a start, and its richness and heterogeneity is reflected in its poetry. This does make it harder to define, but this, I would argue, is its strength. Whether you’re from Yorkshire or not, the landscape changes the way that you work when you’re in it.

Can you tell us more about how you support new talent and their poems?
We’re not a writer development agency (unlike The Poetry Business, who have been doing excellent work in this field, alongside their publishing activities, for many years). Our resources are limited, and we publish fewer books, and fewer poets, than most presses (usually 2 or 3 publications per year). This pace of work means that we can give more support to each title over its lifetime, rather than focusing on a brief period before and after publication, then moving on to the next project. As a result, people are still buying books that we published 10 years ago (along with those that we’re publishing now).

What advice would you give aspiring poets aiming to have a successful career in poetry?
Read, as widely as you can, and listen, as closely as you can.