hydrohotel.net - a Richard Price webspace

A Gutter, An Alley, An Artery: Vennel Press, A Memoir (2008)

Vennel Press, which ran for over fifteen years, was initially created as a one-off publishing venture, simply to publish a new book, Second Cities, by Donny O’Rourke. In July 1990, O’Rourke, a TV arts producer as well as a poet, was in the United States to research a programme about the "second" city Chicago. At the turn of the nineteenth century Chicago had sent a fact-finding team to Glasgow for civic inspiration. The Scottish city was then one of the most advanced in the world, providing a high standard of education, libraries and public utilities to its citizens: the burghers of Chicago wanted to know how running a successful city was done. O'Rourke was there to report and reflect on the contrasts now.

O'Rourke was heavily involved in the cultural infrastructure in Scotland. The magazine format of his arts programme NB was weekly demonstrating Scotland's cultural wealth to itself. It also showcased visiting international shows, writers, and musicians: with friendly wit and not a little panache NB was helping Scottish artists and audience alike view themselves within a worldwide continuum of artistic exploration, expression and engagement. Grabbing the mass-media medium that, after all, the Scot John Logie Baird had invented, these programmes were tonally diverse and featured elements from the reflective to the adrenaline-fuelled. Produced for the commercial channel STV, they were light-touch rather than dumbed-down, delivering the arts and their contextualisation to hundreds of thousands of viewers in a way that print media (and rival broadcasts) could not equal.

Alongside this there was O'Rourke's In Verse programmes in which many contemporary Scottish poets reading their work in the TV studio. A wider, deeper, precursor to his groundbreaking anthology of Scottish poetry Dream State: The New Scottish Poets (1994), In Verse is one of the treasures, now, of Scottish archival film and, to my knowledge, still has no equivalent elsewhere in the British Isles.

O'Rourke was a cultural activist outside TV. His reading series in Glasgow's Babbity Bowster inn, where poets shared a platform with invited musicians, emphasised the importance of live performance and, because O'Rourke paired younger writers with more established ones, effected introductions and cross-fertilisation. I first met O'Rourke in 1988 when, as a final-year student at Strathclyde University, my poetry won an all-Glasgow universities competition: he was the judge. We became friends, or rather, he became a mentor to me; his influence would be critical to the framing and direction of Vennel Press, as would the remarkable Glasgow efflorescence that was taking place.

At that time, Glasgow's ability to punch above its weight was demonstrable. Alasdair Gray's novel Lanark, Janice Galloway's The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, several books by James Kelman and Alan Spence, and the poetry of Tom Leonard and Edwin Morgan and newcomer Robert Crawford, the poetry and drama of Liz Lochhead, were there in astounding plenitude and depth. Graduates of the Glasgow Art School were making international inroads, too. Most of the writers had a political or philosophical edge (though not necessarily a nationalist one) and their intellectual and artistic challenge was contagious. Inequalities and injustice accentuated by preparations for Glasgow's International Year of Culture made the city seem as if it was a place where writing was more than usually a political act.

This is the background to O'Rourke's visit to Chicago, and to the first stirrings of a new press which took many of its bearings from Glasgow. Poetry and its recalibration for modern times were certainly on O'Rourke's mind in Chicago and, as he recalled, "Over the next few days, in which I slept hardly at all, I found myself keeping a verse journal of the trip." Within only a few months of Donny sending me the typescript, that verse journal became the first collection of Vennel Press.

London and the Poetry Workshop

In the summer of 1988 I had moved to London to work at the British Library. Also new there was the poet, former craft bookbinder and (like me) recently qualified librarian, Leona Medlin. Leona, originally from Michigan, had been living in London for over ten years. She invited me to join a group that didn't have an official name; its members simply called it the "poetry workshop", considering it an activity rather than an entity. The term was put into initial capitals only when the group needed to be more formally defined on an application for are Arts Council small groups National Lottery grant (awarded for creating a CD-Rom, then website, demonstrating the work and process of the group). Its membership in the late 80s and 90s included Chris Hedley-Dent, C. L. Dallat, Hugh Epstein, Elizabeth James, Duncan McGibbon, the playwright Kim Morrissey, Leona and myself.

Perhaps inevitably in London this was a gathering of nationalities – English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Canadian, and American. These writers had quite different social and educational backgrounds and sometimes very different aesthetics. A private group, we met monthly in a room at the Poetry Society's premises in Earls Court Square until the Society sold the property, after which we would meet in each others' houses. The format encouraged the presentation of a single poet's work in progress for the evening in question, often a sequence or longer poem, though by no means always. Because we wrote in different ways the workshop became a means of attuning our reading to different contexts and rules. Workshop attentiveness and (I hope) openness to thinking beyond initial instincts became crucial to our editorial practice. By the end of 1990, in fact very quickly after we had decided to set up Vennel Press to publish Donny O'Rourke's collection Second Cities as a "one-off", we had determined that other books would follow and that the imprint, as far as sales and self-funding would allow (we would remain independent of the arts council secretariats), would have aesthetic range.

From the workshop itself, Vennel published two poets in what had quickly become our standard A5 format. These were Leona's book of lyrical poems The Tilted Mirror and an early book of minimalist poems, 1:50,000, by Elizabeth, later better known for her avant-garde work, including Base to Carry (Barque, 2004) and the collaboration with Frances Presley, Neither the One Nor the Other (Form Books, 1999). When we began to produce A6 booklets on the broad theme Brief Pleasures, the workshop's emphasis on grouped and longer poems found an appropriate published form. The fairly loose topic of the series also meant that we could accommodate different styles and concerns within a single series: there are many pleasures to be explored. Vennel published Duncan McGibbon's beautiful evocation of English rivers, Channel, Elizabeth James's disconcerting interior decorating text, The World of Interiors, Chris Hedley-Dent's frightening mittel-European circus sequence Mirror Talk, and Kim Morrissey's non-smoker's homage to the coughy art, Smoking. In the same series there was also Donny O'Rourke's Modern Music, Peter Snowden's Plat du Jour, Hamish Whyte's Christmasses and (the most oblique pleasure) Peter Daniels Lucynski's Blue Mice.


Before qualifying as a librarian, Leona Medlin had been a fine press book-binder with Morrell’s Bookbinders and Nottingham Court Press, where she also had editing responsibilities. A highlight had been working on the Rainbow Press edition of Remains of Elmet by Ted Hughes and the photographer Fay Goodwin. At Nottingham Court Leona worked on a limited edition facsimile of Walton’s Compleat Angler and An Intimate Landscape, a collaboration between Leonard Clark and the wood engraver Miriam Macgregor. Leona brought to Vennel the appreciation of the book as an art object in its own right, and the ability to realise that goal.

Donny O'Rourke's friendship with Scottish and Scottish-based artists meant that, from the first book, we were able to commission special illustrations for our publications: Second Cities carried work from Dominic Snyder and Gwyneth Leech very much in keeping with the urban observations of the sequence. Donny pointed us in the direction of the jacketed paperbacks that the Irish imprint Gallery had developed and we were influenced by the inexpensive but surprisingly elegant design. I had originally thought of calling the press Cloch Point Press, after the Cloch Point lighthouse in the Firth of Clyde (and the way it evoked "clock", too - perhaps the press would be both a beacon and a measurer of change). Vennel, however, came to me somehow. It's a Scots word, like the English ginnel, that means a lane or alley. Leona and I both liked the retro-futurist urban atmosphere it had, too, and there would, of course, be a significant Scottish element to the books we published. At one time we used a tagline on our adverts to link the urban connotations to a visceral or vital symbolism, "Vennel Press: A Gutter, An Alley, An Artery". I liked the idea of us being a "Gutter Press".

C. L. Dallat volunteered to use a computer from his construction industry software company to typeset Second Cities, after which it was printed by Blackmatch Litho, a small printing concern on Little Russell Street a few doors down from The London Review of Books. This connection of art to text was important to Vennel: all our larger books and several of the smaller ones, had a special connection between the poet and artist. Elizabeth James's book had drawings by her friend Irene Gunston; Peter Robinson, an artist who worked at the British Library, worked with Leona and me on our respective books, absorbing the books and talking over our ideas before providing the artwork. Peter McCarey's friendship with the artist Clara Brasca, based in northern Italy, proved especially rewarding, first in Brasca's remarkable re-interpretation of Filonov's The Magi for the cover of The Devil in the Driving Mirror and then in her hologram-like cover work for In the Metaforest. Chris Hedley-Dent, known in fact more as an artist than a poet, meant that his Mirror Talk had particularly eerie illustrations of circus clowns. Occasionally, as with C. L. Dallat's typesetting assistance on the first book (after which Leona set the books), poets we knew would put their hands to non-poetry activity, as when W. N. Herbert illustrated David Kinloch's Dustie-Fute.

We were learners but that could be turned to our advantage: with Leona's The Tilted Mirror, for example, we made a positive out of forgetting to include no less than the title poem. A special enveloped illustrated insert of the poem was produced, making I think a well-matched physical analogy to the layers of intimacy in the book. Similarly, when Vennel published the festschrift A Gathering for Gael Turnbull I was a little surprised to find that the Paris-based artist Jean-Pierre Leray had sent the actual lino blocks rather than camera-ready copy for the cover. Because it was only days away from Gael's seventieth birthday celebration, I had to manically experiment with hastily bought inks and roller, but the collection was delivered just in time to be there at Gael's breakfast table on the day in question. I hope the rough and ready look conveys not so much slapdashery as the result of hastily but sincerely assembled celebration.

Pragmatics and Practicalities

Our improvisation skills were one thing but it took us much longer to get to grips with the bookselling and promotion side of the publishing business. It was, after all, not our day job. In fact we were both knuckling down to full-time jobs within a profession which, as new recruits from library school, was familiar to us only in theory. As we soon found out, the Library was strongly target-led: the days when a library post was seen as the perfect sinecure for a poet were firmly over, if they ever really did exist.

Nevertheless, Donny O'Rourke's book, launched in Glasgow’s Athenaeum with Michael Hulse’s Eating Strawberries in the Necropolis (Collins Harvill) sold quickly. This was largely through personal sales at his outstanding and numerous readings. We developed a list for encouraging pre-publication subscription, in part based on the lists kept by the magazines I co-edited, and we may have been helped by what appeared to be a then greater interest in poetry in Scotland.

We were able to secure orders for the next books in some bookshops, we rented tables at bookfairs, organised some (but not enough) readings, and made sure that our books were sent to commercial and little magazines alike, and were entered for prizes. Bernard Stone at Turret Bookshop in London bought multiples of all our books and was our most consistent supporter in that respect; he also generously allowed us to give readings at his Lamb’s Conduit Street shop and, later, at the Great Queen Street premises, too.

Frankly, Leona and I are both shy people and it was not easy for us to talk to booksellers but we did our best. Perhaps this is the curse of poetry imprints – they are often run solely by poets and poets, like most people I suppose only more so, are often not comfortable in face-to-face situations, nevermind in ones which require the hard sell. Poetry presses need to have strong marketing talent, too: we weren’t against it, it just didn’t come naturally to us.

Nevertheless, we did have campaigning zeal. I wrote to the organisers of the New Generation promotion to remonstrate against the in-built bias the project had against small presses: in the end one Vennel author, W. N. Herbert, was one of the twenty but the high qualifying sum for promotion meant that it wasn't a Vennel book that was promoted. By the time of the announcement Bill had moved on to Bloodaxe in any case but we shrugged and took it as a measure of Vennel’s success in advocacy.

In any case the Vennel wraparound covers proved fragile on the shelf and, as bookshops withdrew from carrying pretty much any poetry at all, the cover gave a shop an easy excuse not to stock Vennel. We did not feel we could invest in full-colour and commercial paperback binding (which would have meant publishing fewer books) so we emphasised the mail order aspect of the imprint. In the end, though, we were forced to concede: our last major book, Peter McCarey's In the Metaforest (2000) was published in this way.

Au Quai

An offshoot was Au Quai, an imprint within the Vennel stable, so to speak. This was set up by myself and Donny O'Rourke in 1996 to publish poems in Scots and English inspired by the Francophone lyrical modernists, Blaise Cendrars, Robert Desnos, Valery Larbaud, Philippe Soupault and Guillaume Apollinaire. We called it Eftirs / Afters A work by the Francophile artist William Crosbie was featured on the cover. We published it in July, on Bastille Day, at a party in Glasgow where we drank fine champagne, listened to French songs, and heard recitations of French poetry (as well as our own). This was to answer a need in Scotland and further afield, as we thought, for stronger engagement with poetry from overseas, especially with modernism outside the Anglo-American usual suspects. Daniel Weissbort and Leona translated poems by the Russian Yunna Morits and these were issued as A4 sheets in the Au Quai imprint.

Au Quai was also used for the festschrift of the internationalist poet Gael Turnbull, edited by Peter McCarey (A Gathering for Gael Turnbull, 1998); and César Vallejo: Translations, Transformations, Tributes (1998), edited by myself and Stephen Watts. The latter we bundled as a supplement issued with the magazine Southfields, guaranteeing a new audience of perhaps a couple of hundred for this extraordinary Peruvian poet. Because of that cross-publication the Scottish Arts Council inadvertently sponsored the Vallejo book since they gave an annual grant to Southfields; I believe this was the only state sponsorship we had for Vennel.

Gairfish, Verse, Southfields and Informationism

A further context informed the press and this emerged from the little magazine world in which I was involved. I have been involved in magazines since my early teens. I was one of the editors of my school magazine back in Houston, Renfrewshire, then sole editor of the course newspaper when I was a journalism student at Napier College, Edinburgh. Soon after starting at the British Library in 1988, I became the compiler of a trade union current awareness newssheet. I renewed my creative editorial interest in 1989 when I contacted the Oxford-based Scot W. N. Herbert and we decided to relaunch his old student magazine.

The new Gairfish was a Scottish-focused magazine, publishing contemporary Scottish writing and contextualising it within the history of Scottish modernism. A few years after Gairfish was up and running I was approached by Robert Crawford and David Kinloch, founding editors of the magazine Verse, and asked to join their magazine as a co-editor while remaining with Gairfish. Verse had strong Scottish elements but it was more involved in pan-British poetry: many of the New Generation poets were published early on there, for instance. Verse was interested in all kinds of modern poetry and was remarkably internationalist: it would publish a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E special issue one quarter, a New Formalist issue another; European poetry in translation also featured strongly.

I worked as co-editor there for several years but I had come in towards the end of its life, in Britain at least (it was revived and is a US-based journal now). Following the closure of Verse's British side and my decision to leave Gairfish, I set up Southfields with the poet Raymond Friel. Friel had already published one of my first collections Tube Shelter Perspective (1993) in the Southfields Press imprint and, two Renfrewshirians living in London, we were already firm friends. Southfields was in a way a synthesis of Verse and Gairfish but more idiosyncratic and with an interest in contemporary visual arts and, for as long as the Scottish Arts Council was willing to support them, higher production values. There was less of an academic tone and there was a steadying perspective which took neither the mainstream nor the avant-garde at their word, but published both.

The common element in Gairfish and Verse, and later in Southfields, was a group of poets mostly brought up within greater Glasgow and who went to university in the city. In 1991 in an article in Michael Gardiner's magazine Interference , I called them The Informationists. They were Robert Crawford, W. N. Herbert, David Kinloch, Peter McCarey, Alan Riach, and myself. I came to know their work and ideas, and they mine, mainly through reading the work in these magazines and through editorial and personal correspondence with them. At this time, W. N. Herbert and I would meet regularly to discuss and plan issues of Gairfish and ideas about the connections between these authors quickly began to emerge. It was a gang of boys, of course – "brag, sweet tenor bull" might have been a motto – but there was a seriousness of intent among the laddish get-together (a virtual get-together – I don't think we ever all met at once).

All, I argued, were involved in Informationism, a self-conscious engagement with and problematisation of the production, selection, presentation and transmission of information, particularly in authority-asserting media. Government and commercial communication in the print, broadcast and fast-emerging digital media were of especial interest, but so were popular (folk and "common sense") discourses. Importantly, academic and theoretical modes and register were not beyond analysis or play and poetic form itself had to be used – transformed – to effect Informationist scrutiny. Occupying a mercurial space between avant-garde forms and mainstream ones the Informationists were shapeshifters who seemed to occupy several modes of communication at the same time, their comic and serious registers concurrent with each other, ambivalence and engagement flickering and coterminous.

Robert Crawford and Alan Riach were already published by established imprints but the others were not. If Gairfish, Verse, and, later, Southfields were the main journals of Informationism, Vennel Press was to make sure that individual collections of their work also appeared: Vennel was as near to an official imprint for Informationism as was possible (though "official" was not a term any Informationist would accept). With the confidence that Donny O'Rourke's Second Cities had given Leona and myself, we started to publish the Informationists who had yet to secure a steady contract. By the mid-90s, books by W. N. Herbert, David Kinloch, Peter McCarey and myself had appeared in the Vennel imprint. These collections more than backed-up the observation made in O'Rourke's Dream State anthology (where all the Informationists were represented), that the Informationists had rapidly become a significant force in Scottish poetry: a force in terms of the infrastructure (intervening in the editorial and publishing networks) and in the modernity of their poetry. In the same year Bill Herbert and I solicited poems and manifestos for the Informationist 'primer' Contraflow on the Superhighway (Gairfish/ Southfields, 1994): with this and the individual collections, the Informationists now had a body of work for all to see.

The reaction was almost immediate, and contradictory. In Scotland, there was traditionalist disquiet. The poet George Gunn, reviewing Dream State in the magazine Northwords, railed at what he regarded as the academic obscurantism of the Informationists and at their lack of a straightforward political stance. "The main grouping in Dream State call themselves the 'Scottish Informationists'. But their poetry does not inform, it obscures. Because information is power. With power you can control. & with control you can edit. & with editing goes publishing. With publishing goes status & so it goes on. Missing from all this is real lyric talent & that wild ability to create."

Paying an unwitting compliment to Vennel Press and the magazines with which it was associated, Gunn expressed horror that the Informationists had set up their own alternative publishing network. He expressed this as a passive occurrence, suggesting, mistakenly I think, that publishing had somehow landed in their laps: "Let us call a spade a spade: the means of production of contemporary Scottish poetry has fallen into the hands of a few ambitious academics whose terms of reference will kill off poetry in Scotland, if we let them. They are just another kind of English Department imperialism. A lot of nothing is said in these 231 pages [of Dream State]. So much for the Informationists." I believe the negativity towards both a entrepreneurial spirit of innovation and small anarcho-syndacalist groups like the Informationists was and is a major Scottish problem (and an English one), and it is not confined to the arts. The causes, if I could fully understand them myself, would be too complex to go into here, but part of the hostility Vennel came up against was simply because it was a new press with new names and (in some ways) new kinds of poetry.

In England, the avant-garde poet and critic Andrew Duncan, editor of Angel Exhaust and later author of The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry , took on the face of it another view, but in fact with significant areas of overlap. In the short essay on the Informationists, "Is this the sound of today" he declared: "This school is on the map, and I may add that they are the only modern British school sophisticated and selfconscious enough to set down their intentions in manifesti." Duncan, regarding the group as important enough for him to offer constructive advice ("It is time to get past the outright actions of praise"), then proceeded to identify areas for future development that the group should think about. Like George Gunn, Duncan suggested that the Informationists were not political enough; unlike Gunn (who, understandably, was perhaps appealing to a more romantic concept of political solidarity in the same way that Duncan was appealing to a romantic concept of the Marxist intellectual), this was because they had not developed their poetry fully enough within the direction of political theory. They had as yet failed to "go on to dissect the logic of capitalism. Moreover, the Scottish audience wants exactly this."

Singling out Robert Crawford's work in particular, another problem was that the Informationists were too conventional in their treatment of love and family: "it's difficult to write radical poetry if you are going to freeze the analytical process before it reaches personal relations." A third problem, rather in contradiction to this, was perhaps one that Gunn was also hinting at, a criticism that has also been levelled at John Ashbery and, say, Bruce Andrews. This is the deadening effect that prodigious, detailed flattening of the hierarchies all information is contained within can have on real human connection: "There is a kind of hollow defamilarisation, a pointless abundance which severs representations from real social relations and lacks critical charge." Again, in unknowing agreement with George Gunn, Duncan suggested that the Informationists needed to be more Scottish, so that (apparently a priority) they could be better distinguished from similar English poets and, more importantly, because "Disorientation threatens to be the radical's relativisation and practical abandonment of his own politics." Finally, Duncan was as suspicious of the Informationists' careerism as Gunn: are they "going to continue the materialist analysis of language and prestige […] or are they going to freeze it and become cultural managers."

The challenge to the poets that they were selectively radical and instead harboured ambitions to be gate-keepers and kingmakers in education and the arts was on the face of it a well-founded one. Robert Crawford, W. N. Herbert, David Kinloch, and Alan Riach all were or became academics within English Studies departments (Scottish Literature in the case of Alan Riach and Glasgow University). They continue to take on editorial roles of one kind or another within that sub-set of the cultural infrastructure. However, "cultural manager" or "academic" sounds more negative than "lecturer", "professor", "teacher", "champion", "mentor", or even "intellectual", words and functions which are surely not necessarily without honour, as Duncan, who now works for Ofsted, may have come to realise. At a stretch, even I, a librarian, at the British Library could be seen as a kind of arts administrator but, although I am sure there have been counter-examples, librarianship is not necessarily a sinister profession. What appears to be George Gunn’s suggestion, in his catch-all accusation, that an employee of an international organisation devoted to raising health standards across the world (Peter McCarey) is an English Literature imperialist is surely going too far.

Well, we are all older and perhaps wiser now. In any case these criticisms seem to miss the insider/outsider ambiguities played with in the Informationists' texts themselves and the flickering between all the Boolean imperative categories, so that Informationism can be about "and", "or" and "not" simultaneously while it is also litterature engagé at critical points (I think of McCarey's analyses of armed globalisation and Kinloch's gay radicalism). Perhaps it is the problematising techniques of the Informationists’ poetry that is the target here, but that suggests that the Informationists have been successful in unsettling their audience and in beginning to move the poetry agenda on from simple identity-politics reassurances. In fact, looking at the remarkable work of avant-garde Scots who were also emerging at this time, and who Gairfish and Southfields were also publishing, such as Drew Milne and Peter Manson, it could be argued that, if anything, the Informationists’ practice of de-stabilising mainstream discourses did not go far enough (even if one strand in Informationism sought to identify and destabilise hackneyed avant-garde techniques, too).

Nevertheless I believe that the significant political and aesthetic questions raised by George Gunn and Andrew Duncan and others could be answered to differing degrees in the work of these poets at the time these criticisms were raised, as the Contraflow anthology demonstrates (uncharacteristically, this was published by Gairfish and Southfields – I can’t remember why Vennel didn’t do it, but perhaps it was actually too large for Vennel’s unfunded resources). Since the mid-90s, however, with the Informationist moment firmly in the past, the group's individuals now have an even more substantial body of work. The kind of engagement and sophistication that both Gunn and Duncan in their different ways were calling for has been developed more fully, building on the foundation that, with its associated presses and magazines, Vennel Press set down.


Vennel was more than Informationism however. Its championing of modern contemporary poetry produced within Scotland and London has been affirmed by the artistic success of its individual authors in and outside Informationism.

If need be, Vennel's success can be measured by poetry’s public benchmarks. Most though not all of its authors have achieved publication in better capitalised presses as well as individual recognition within the creative writing academy to the level of professorship. They have received public art commissions, participated in media-friendly poetry campaigns, and won various awards. One or two have become more associated with the avant-garde support network of poetics conferences, reading series and new little presses. Though these are all fine so far as they go, the poetry honours system is an institution it is best not to take too seriously, which is to say, it should be taken very seriously for its power of influence, not always for its quality of judgement.

Perhaps most importantly, with only a very small number of other left-of-field presses at that time – long gone were the days of the British Poetry Revival when small presses were numerous – Vennel Press kept one door open in the UK to a range of emerging aesthetic responses within an otherwise highly conservative backward-looking poetry network. That wasn’t unique, but it was relatively rare and so I think Vennel has a small but real place – an alley-sized place, maybe – in the history of late 20th century British poetry.

I am especially grateful to Leona Medlin for contributing to elements of this article. Leona has since started Mulfran Press.

Vennel Press catalogue (bibliography)
More literary criticism by Richard Price

news & events
vennel press


News & Events | Poetry | Fiction
Recordings | Literary Criticism| Art Projects | Translations
Magazines | Vennel Press
Chronology | Born Digital | Links