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Indie Spotlight: Bloodaxe Books

By Ella Davies, Amy Tighe and Charlotte Bonner

Bloodaxe Books was named after the last Viking king of independent Northumbria, Erik Bloodaxe. Upon his death in 954, the North became part of England for the first time. He also features in Briggflatts, a 1966 poem by Basil Bunting. Bloodaxe Books considers Erik Bloodaxe to be the first patron of poetry as he spared the life of saga hero, Egil, who immortalised him in a disingenuous praise-poem.

Neil Astley founded Bloodaxe Books in Newcastle in 1978. It has since become a non-profit limited company, grant-aided by Northern Arts with a national distributor. The press has been based in Newcastle’s Quayside from the start, but it was split into several departments in 1997. It now has locations in Littlehampton, North Wales and the main office in Northumberland. They have come a long way since opening their first Northumberland office, a single room in a farm cottage!

Ken Smith’s pamphlet Tristan Crazy was the first title published by the press. His subsequent works established him as a central figure of British poetry. In later years, Bloodaxe Books went on to publish many successful paperbacks and anthologies, such as Jeni Couzyn’s Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Women Poets and Angela Carter’s Come unto these Yellow Sands.

In more recent years, the press has received international attention for the publication of bestselling poetry anthologies. In 2003, Meryl Streep, Claire Danes and an incredible selection of celebrated poets launched the American edition of Staying Alive at the Cooper Union in New York. Bloodaxe Books has also branched out to publish bilingual editions, including the poetry of Taha Muhammad Ali. Another significant milestone for the press was the production of The World Record in 2012, an anthology featuring work by poets from all the countries participating in the 2012 London Olympics.

In 2018 Bloodaxe Books celebrated forty years of publishing “Poetry with an Edge.” The internationally renowned press has arguably revolutionised the publication of poetry over the last four decades. During this time their authors and books have won a host of major literary prizes, including the T. S. Eliot Prize, the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize.

Bloodaxe Books boast several bestsellers and several books that have won awards, including The Kids by Hannah Lowe, which won the Costa Book of the Year Award in 2021. The Kids is a poetry collection of compassionate and energetic fictionalised portraits of the students Lowe used to teach, integrated with her own coming-of-age story and the experience of watching her young son navigate contemporary London. Touching on social class, gender and race, and how they all fundamentally affect education, Lowe explores the universal experience of what it is to be taught, to learn and to teach, in this beautiful award-winning poetry collection.

Another winner of the Costa Book of the Year Award from Bloodaxe Books is Inside the Wave by Helen Dunmore. This collection focuses on the borderline between the living and the dead – the underworld and the human living world. Dunmore explores the bliss and anguish of the voyage across realms and the intensity of both the living and the dead with eloquent lyricism. A collection even more haunting and beautiful when you realise that this was Helen Dunmore’s last publication before her own death.

Men Who Feed Pigeons by Selima Hill is another impressive title. It was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize, the Forward Prize for Best Collection, and the Rathbones Folio Prize in 2021 and 2022. This collection brings together seven contrasting but complementary poems relating to men and the different kinds of relationships women have with them. Described as having “startling humour and a surprising combination of the homely and outlandish,” Hill’s collection is another not to be missed.

Coming this month from Bloodaxe Books, are three collections of poetry:

Greta Stoddart's Fool, with its Surrealist cover art and its bassline of dirge, promises to become a well-thumbed comfort for winter. The eponymous 'Fool' rings out like a chastising monologue in a cold single-spotlight theatre, showing that bitter can be beautiful; “Once upon a time” feels more like muttering to oneself while stomping away from a heated argument.

Little Silver by Jane Griffiths is a beautiful, nebulous collection of poetry full of vivid imagery and messages of hope. The collection's title refers to the poet's recently demolished childhood home, the absence of which created "a little silvering between the trees" and inspired Griffiths' musings on what lies between childlessness and other types of creation; between life and nearly-death, and between reality and witchcraft (as in “charm” which begins as well-wishes and ends in a curse).

Lastly, Shazea Quraishi's The Glimmer, follows the imaginings of a taxidermist in Mexico, who cares for animals in their afterlife while reflecting on what remains of us after death.

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Neil Astley
Neil Astley
Sep 29, 2022

Thank you for this very welcome notice. However, your second paragraph is completely mixed up. Bloodaxe isn't still based on Newcastle's Quayside. It's now supported by Arts Council England, not Northern Arts, which no longer exists. We haven't used a distributor in Littlehampton for many years. If it's possible to reword that paragraph to the following and delete this comment we'd be most grateful: "Neil Astley founded Bloodaxe Books in Newcastle in 1978. It has since become a non-profit limited company, grant-aided by Arts Council England with a national distributor. The press was based on Newcastle’s Quayside in its early years, but split its operation between Northumberland and North Wales in 1997. They have come a long way since opening…

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