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It was founded in 1978 in Newcastle upon Tyne by Neil Astley, who is still editor and managing director. Joined in 1982 by chairman Simon Thirsk, Astley was later awarded an honorary D.Litt by Newcastle University in 1995 for his work with Bloodaxe Books. The publishing house moved its editorial office to Northumberland and its sales office to Bala, North Wales, in 1997.
As well as publishing famous names in literature from all over the world, Bloodaxe has discovered and helped establish the reputations of many of Britain’s most promising new writers. It has published nearly 1000 books by more than 300 writers, with an annual output of around 30 new titles. The Bloodaxe list has more women poets than any other British publisher and the most substantial list of Caribbean and Black British poets. With its diverse stable of new and established British, Irish, American, European and Commonwealth of Nations writers, Bloodaxe has revolutionised poetry publishing in Britain.
Bloodaxe authors have won virtually every major literary award for which poetry is eligible, including four Nobel Prizes. It is also typical of the broad editorial policy that Bloodaxe has published a great many signiﬁcant but little-known European poets, alongside the more familiar names. As well as Sappho, Catullus, Osip Mandelstam, Federico García Lorca, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva. Edith Södergran and Miroslav Holub (to name but a few), Bloodaxe has published, among many others, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Piotr Sommer, Marin Sorescu, Tomas Tranströmer, Miguel Hernández, Attila József, Jaan Kaplinski, Tua Forsström, Pia Tafdrup and Tomas Venclova, as well as leading poets from other parts of the world, such as Maram al-Massri (Syria), Salah Stétié (Lebanon), Mahmoud Darwish and Taha Muhammad Ali (Palestine), Jack Mapanje (Malawi), Li-Young Lee (Indonesia/USA), Aimé Césaire (Martinque), Evgeny Rein, Tatiana Shcherbina, Elena Shvarts and Tatiana Voltskaia (Russia), Yang Lian and Yi Sha (China), Kenji Miyazawa (Japan), Robert Adamson and Kevin Hart (Australia), and Alden Nowlan and Priscila Uppal (Canada).
Bloodaxe’s American list includes Elizabeth Alexander, Sarah Arvio, Dan Chiasson, Carolyn Forché, Tess Gallagher, Deborah Garrison, Jack Gilbert, Ellen Hinsey, Tony Hoagland, Jane Hirshfield, Jane Kenyon, Galway Kinnell, Denise Levertov, Philip Levine, Samuel Menashe, W.S. Merwin, Naomi Shihab Nye, Mary Oliver, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Ruth Stone, Brian Turner (American poet), Chase Twichell, Fred Voss, C.K. Williams, C.D. Wright and James Wright, along with UK and Irish resident American writers Julie O'Callaghan, Anne Rouse, Eva Salzman and Anne Stevenson. The Bloodaxe list of bilingual editions of French poets includes volumes by Yves Bonnefoy, René Char, Jacques Dupin, Paul Éluard, André Frénaud, Guillevic, Philippe Jaccottet, Gérard Macé, Henri Michaux, Pierre Reverdy and Paul Valéry.
Over 30 years Bloodaxe has become a pioneering publisher of European poetry while at the same time giving a platform to the best new work from Britain and Ireland. After giving ﬁrst publication to poets such as Simon Armitage, David Constantine, Peter Didsbury, Katie Donovan, Maura Dooley, Ian Duhig, Helen Dunmore, Frieda Hughes, Elizabeth Garrett, W.N. Herbert, Jackie Kay, Stephen Knight, Gwyneth Lewis, Glyn Maxwell, Sean O'Brien, David Scott, Jo Shapcott and Pauline Stainer, Bloodaxe has gone on to produce début volumes by a later generation of British and Irish poets including Paul Batchelor, Zoë Brigley, Polly Clark, Julia Copus, Nick Drake, Jen Hadfield, Choman Hardi (exiled from Kurdistan), Tracey Herd, Matthew Hollis, Joanne Limburg, Roddy Lumsden, Esther Morgan, Helen Ivory, Stephanie Norgate, Caitríona O'Reilly, Leanne O'Sullivan (21 when her book came out), Clare Pollard (just 19 when her book appeared), Sally Read and Sarah Wardle.
The Bloodaxe list of poets has been strengthened by its acquisition of many highly respected British and Irish poets previously published by other imprints, including Gillian Allnutt, Connie Bensley, Stewart Conn, Freda Downie, Ruth Fainlight, Andrew Greig, Philip Gross, Tony Harrison, Selima Hill, Frances Horovitz, Kathleen Jamie, Jenny Joseph, Barry MacSweeney, Adrian Mitchell, Grace Nichols, J.H. Prynne, Peter Reading, Lawrence Sail, Ken Smith, R.S. Thomas and Susan Wicks, as well as the writers who joined Bloodaxe after Oxford University Press closed its poetry list: Fleur Adcock, Moniza Alvi, Basil Bunting, Roy Fisher, Carole Satyamurti, Penelope Shuttle, Anne Stevenson and George Szirtes. The Bloodaxe Irish list includes many leading Irish writers, including Rita Ann Higgins, Brendan Kennelly and Micheal O'Siadhail. Bloodaxe has also published several authoritative editions of major poets from earlier periods, including John Oldham edited by Ken Robinson (1980), Rabindranath Tagore translated and edited by Ketaki Kushari Dyson (1991/2010), Kenji Miyazawa translated and edited by Roger Pulvers (2007), Edward Thomas edited by Edna Longley, and Bernard Spencer edited by Peter Robinson (2011).
The growth of Bloodaxe and other specialist poetry publishers coincided with the emergence of a new generation of British and Irish poets, mostly born in the 50s and early 60s, many first published by these imprints. Twenty of these writers were later tagged New Generation Poets in a promotion organised by the Poetry Society in 1994, but this particular grouping was artiﬁcial and should not be taken as a critical guide, for it excluded several key ﬁgures from that generation, including Jackie Kay, Ian McMillan, Sean O'Brien, Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney. The first anthology to represent this new generation was Bloodaxe’s The New Poetry (1993), edited by Michael Hulse, David Kennedy and David Morley, which became a school set text. Sean O'Brien’s The Deregulated Muse: Essays on Contemporary British & Irish Poetry (Bloodaxe Books, 1998) is his account of poetry in the post-war period, from the generation of Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes to the new poets of the 80s and 90s.
As Bloodaxe has grown and expanded its publishing, it has been responsive to the changing literatures of Britain and of other countries. Talented writers have been emerging from all kinds of different backgrounds as Britain has become more culturally and ethnically diverse, and their poetry has evolved in ways which appeal to broader-based audiences. Bloodaxe has published some of the finest writers in the British-Caribbean diaspora – such as John Agard, James Berry, Kamau Brathwaite, Jean "Binta" Breeze, Martin Carter, Fred D'Aguiar, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Grace Nichols and Benjamin Zephaniah – as well as E.A. Markham’s landmark Caribbean anthology Hinterland (1989). Its South Asian poets include Moniza Alvi, Imtiaz Dharker, Arun Kolatkar and Arundhathi Subramaniam, with Jeet Thayil’s Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets (2008) covering 55 years of Indian poetry in English.
One of Bloodaxe’s most significant achievements has been to transform the publishing opportunities for women poets. For many years Bloodaxe has been unusual in having a poetry list which is 50:50 male: female, not the result of positive discrimination except in relation to literary excellence. The first of several influential Bloodaxe anthologies of women poets, Jeni Couzyn’s Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Women Poets (1985) was published at a time when very little poetry by women was readily available to readers. Others have included Carol Rumens’s New Women Poets (1990), Linda France’s Sixty Women Poets (1993), Maura Dooley’s Making for Planet Alice (1997), Robyn Bolam's Eliza's Babes: four centuries of women's poetry in English (2005), and Deryn Rees-Jones’s Modern Women Poets (2005), published as the companion anthology to her critical study Consorting with Angels (2005).
Irina Ratushinskaya’s No, I’m Not Afraid was published by Bloodaxe in May 1986 when the young poet was imprisoned in a Soviet prison camp for the ‘crime’ of writing and distributing poems a judge had called ‘a danger to the state’. At the age of 28, she had been sentenced to seven years’ hard labour. Three years into her sentence, she was in desperate health, unaware that poems smuggled out of the camp had reached the West. As well as translations by David McDuff, No, I’m Not Afraid included documentary material on her imprisonment provided by Amnesty International, statements by her husband and friends, and extracts from a camp diary charting life in the ‘Small Zone’, the special unit for women prisoners of conscience in Mordovia where she was held. Many of her poems were ﬁrst incised with burnt matchsticks onto bars of soap, and then memorised. An international campaign was mounted on her behalf, spearheaded by her own poetry, which led to her release in October 1986 on the eve of the Reykjavik summit after Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan had been given copies of her Bloodaxe collection by David Owen. Allowed to come to Britain two months later for medical treatment, she settled in London for several years before moving back to Odessa. Her ﬁrst reading in Britain was organised by Bloodaxe at Newcastle Playhouse in 1987, and followed a civic reception offered by Newcastle City Council and Newcastle University. No, I’m Not Afraid sold over 20,000 copies.
Many other writers and books published by Bloodaxe have hit the headlines, arousing controversy and debate outside the poetry world. Tom Paulin’s essay collection Ireland & the English Crisis (1984) was savagely attacked by Enoch Powell for its political stance. Another cause celebre was provided by Tony Harrison’s v. (1985), his book-length poem set in a vandalised cemetery in Leeds during the UK Miners’ Strike which captured the angry, desolate mood of Britain in the mid-1980s.
Two years after its publication, Richard Eyre’s ﬁlm of the poem sparked a national furore not over Harrison’s politics but over his skinhead protagonist’s use of ‘bad language’. Attacked by Mary Whitehouse ("this work of singular nastiness") and by Tory MPs wanting Channel 4’s broadcast to be stopped, the poem attracted lurid headlines in the tabloids. "A torrent of four-letter ﬁlth" was the Daily Mail's description: "The most explicitly sexual language yet beamed into the nation’s living rooms…the crudest, most offensive word is used 17 times." The second edition of v. (1989) documents the media reaction to the ﬁlm.
Anthologies have enabled Bloodaxe to make an even greater range of modern and contemporary European poetry available to readers, including two seminal titles, Adam Czerniawski’s translations of Polish poets in The Burning Forest (1988) and The Colonnade of Teeth: Modern Hungarian Poetry (1996), edited by George Szirtes and George Gomori (writer). Many books published by Bloodaxe have given a platform to poets responding to times of oppression, war, political unrest, social division, displacement and global change, including Geremie Barmé and John Minford’s Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience (1989), Ken Smith and Judi Benson’s Klaonica: poems for Bosnia (1993), John Fairleigh’s Where the Tunnels Meet: Contemporary Romanian Poetry (1996), Chris Agee’s Scar on the Stone: contemporary poetry from Bosnia (1998), J. Kates’s In the Grip of Strange Times: Russian poetry in a new era (1999), Neil Astley's Earth Shattering: ecopoems (2007) and Jeet Thayil's Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets (2008).
Bloodaxe's most popular anthology has been Neil Astley's Staying Alive: real poems for unreal times (2002), devised as a book to introduce new readers to contemporary poetry as well as to show existing poetry readers a wider range of poems from around the world than is generally available from British poetry publishers. It has sold over 120,000 copies in Britain and over 40,000 in America, where it was launched in New York in a reading by Meryl Streep and Claire Danes with Paul Muldoon and other poets to a packed house in the Cooper Union’s 700-seater auditorium (where Walt Whitman listened to Abraham Lincoln’s speeches). It was followed in 2004 by a sequel anthology, Being Alive; a third volume in the “trilogy”, Being Human, followed in 2011.
In 2000 Bloodaxe received funding from the Millennium Festival and the National Lottery through Arts Council England for an educational initiative to build a stronger awareness of 20th century poetry. This involved the publication of two books, Edna Longley’s Bloodaxe Book of 20th Century Poetry from Britain and Ireland, an anthology of 60 poets presented with informative introductions, and Strong Words: modern poets on modern poetry, a book of key essays on poetry by poets (half of these specially commissioned), edited by W.N. Herbert and Matthew Hollis. The books were presented at schools conferences and university seminars, and both quickly become set texts.
In 2001 Jo Shapcott gave the ﬁrst of the Newcastle/Bloodaxe poetry lectures at Newcastle University. Several other poets have since spoken about the craft and practice of poetry to audiences drawn from both the city and the university. These public lectures are later published in book form by Bloodaxe, giving readers everywhere the opportunity to discover what leading poets have to say about their own subject.
Other initiatives to introduce contemporary poetry to new readers have included working with reading groups in Nottingham and in libraries across the West Midlands. And in Birmingham, Jonathan Davidson’s team at Book Communications have produced three touring theatre shows which have taken live poetry performances to venues across Britain: the ﬁrst drew on Staying Alive, the second on Being Alive, and the most recent, Changing Lives, was a theatre piece using poems from books published by Bloodaxe over the past 30 years.
In 2008, Bloodaxe celebrated its 30th birthday by publishing the world's first poetry DVD-book, In Person: 30 Poets. In Person was filmed by award-winning film-maker Pamela Robertson-Pearce and edited by Bloodaxe’s founding editor, Neil Astley, and features six hours of readings on two DVDs by 30 poets from around the world with an anthology including all the poems read on the films. Bloodaxe's digital initiative has continued with further DVD-books featuring work by poets John Agard and Samuel Menashe with films by Pamela Robertson-Pearce, as well as books published with audio CDs by Sarah Arvio, Jackie Kay and Galway Kinnell, and a new edition of Briggflatts by Basil Bunting featuring an audio CD of the work read by the author and a DVD with a film portrait of Bunting made by Peter Bell in 1982.
Bloodaxe's most recent anthologies have aimed to represent more recent generations of poets from Britain and Ireland. Voice Recognition: 21 poets for the 21st century (2009), edited by James Byrne and Clare Pollard, showcases 21 new poets who had not yet published book-length first collections at the time of publication, and Roddy Lumsden's Identity Parade: New British and Irish Poets (2010) brings together work by 85 poets first published (or about to publish) from the mid-90s.
- Official website
- Publisher's blogsite
- Publisher's Facebook site
- Interview with Neil Astley by The Wolf
- Neil Astley's 2005 StAnza lecture: "Bile, Guile and Dangerous to Poetry"
- Guardian article by Neil Astley on publishing poetry
- Frances Leviston on 'a groundbreaking multimedia project to mark Bloodaxe's 30th birthday'
- Article by Neil Astley in the New Statesman
- Discussion for Spread the Word between Neil Astley and Bernardine Evaristo
- Publisher profile of Bloodaxe Books on Poetry Book Society website