This month I managed to pin down the trailblazing energy of Daphne Astor.
Daphne, you did something extraordinary in 2020! You set up a new independent publishing press, Hazel Press. This seems such a brave thing to do in the middle of a pandemic with the world locking down around us. I know you are a farmer and conservationist as well as a poet/writer and artist. I gather the idea to create a new press came to you while you were digging! Could you tell us more?
Setting up a press is a lot like digging and preparing the ground for planting, gathering seeds, designing the space, sniffing the air – at least that is how Hazel Press got going. I had been thinking about creating a press for years and throughout my life have been involved in many and various ways with making, growing, nurturing land and life as well as engaging with books, writers and artists.
I can’t even begin to imagine how you might get started on such a venture! What skills from former roles helped you to create the Press?
There are a few helpful roles that have endured since childhood and the most important has been keeping a journal/sketchbook/field notes since I was ten years old, basically making private books. And reading, I am addicted to reading!
Another is from the early 1970’s in NYC when I studied graphic design with Milton Glaser. He taught us to train and trust our instincts and to devote our lives to work in realms we love. Glaser believed in apprenticeship, collaboration and attention to detail, his four H’s were – hard work, humility, happiness, Helvetica. All wise lessons for life itself and embodied in the process of setting up Hazel. Perhaps this press is my fifth H?
I love the idea of the four Hs, that’s brilliant! I know that the eco friendliness of the press was hugely important to you. How easy was it to bring the ethical aspects of the press to fruition?
A central concern and rule for Hazel is to create books that have very light or positive environmental impacts including the process of creation, sourcing, shipping and use of materials. ‘Work local, think global’ is a useful motto.
Hazel’s office and origins are in my studio/study at home in East Anglia, (UK) production and design are local. I embarked on a few months of research online or by telephone and after many false starts discovered Anglia Print Ltd based in Beccles, Suffolk where director John Popely prints with vegetable dye ink, UK recycled paper (less resource material miles), his printing presses and processes are carbon positive. Hazel’s book designer Dale Tomlinson is in Cambridge and was suggested by my close friend Lida Kindersley. The font is Mrs Eaves invented by Zuzana Licko in the UK in 1996. Director and resident artist of North London art space C4RD Phil Goss’s art graces each of Hazel’s covers.
We launched online with four films by Eileen Haring Woods at the Cambridge Literary Festival last November and thanks to CLF the London Review of Books (LRB) Bookshop in London still sells our books as does The Aldeburgh Bookshop along with a few other indy bookshops. We also sell directly from our website and send the books from a small local Post Office in recycled envelopes and reused bubble bags and boxes collected by family and friends over many months. I am at the heart of Hazel Press, but the books are absolutely a collaborative and shared effort.
A fascinating insight into the process of getting the initial set-up going. Hazel Press has brought out four inaugural books. They are all very different. Could you say a little about the selection process and why these four books felt important in terms of launching the press?
A friend referred to the inaugural Hazel books as ‘the quartet’ which feels right as they sit well together in terms of intention, content and design. Each of the books reflect different facets of the prism of our credo as stated on our website ‘ Hazel Press is an independent publisher with a focus on the environment, the realities of climate change, feminism and the arts’.
I chose each writer because I knew and respected their work. I wanted to work with each of them and felt that they would be right for Hazel.
I first read Ella Duffy’s work in my role as patron to the Ginkgo Poetry Prize and invited her to perform at Poetry in Aldeburgh where we briefly met once. Early last year, I invited her to write something for Hazel, Rootstalk is the result and what a remarkable, accomplished and intoxicating poem it is. At first reading it took my breath away, lifted me out of time and into the loamy earth, mythology, botany, love, absence, mystery. Book One for Hazel.
Matthew Hollis, originally a Norfolk fellow, was one of my teachers at Faber Academy many years ago. He shared his own writing process with the class showing us cascading typed pages – many versions of each poem – redrafts, radical form changes, scrawled notes, explanations, references etc. That session was brave, thrilling, later I bought and treasured Stones his six-part single poem hand-sewn pamphlet carefully produced by Incline Press. I asked Matthew if he had something on the go, or if he would write a long poem for us. He gave Hazel Leaves, a profoundly moving poem about the perpetual choreography of autumn, a father and daughter, the five elements, time and balance. Hazel Book two.
I began to feel more confident about Hazel and to think about the four seasons, the farming calendar, four points of the compass and balancing Hazel’s debut with two female and two male poets. Also rather superstitiously about my birthday, the 22 December, two twos. Sometimes it falls on the winter solstice, other years the day after, but always on the day when light begins to return.
Next I contacted Sean Borodale whose poetry, especially Bee Journal and Human Work, are volumes I return to again and again. He responded that he had an essay about Sylvia Plath and would I like to read it? I read Re-Dreaming Sylvia Plath as a Queen Bee and found an illuminating and complex new path into Plath’s life, family context and writing. I always planned to publish essays and other forms alongside poetry so Sean’s Re-Dreaming was a compelling definite yes. Book Three.
In the autumn of 2019 poet and naturalist Anna Selby had invited me to attend an international conference about the endangered situation of salmon titled ‘The Science and Poetry of Salmon’ run by Cambridge Conservation Initiative and Pembroke College – Ted Hughes’s old college. We had met previously a few times at Poetry in Aldeburgh, I had heard Anna read one or two poems there in 2016, but we had never spent any time together. In honour of salmon we shared three days sitting side by side learning, listening and despairing about the plight and extremely tragic lives of salmon worldwide after which I invited Anna to do a residency here in a cottage at our farm sometime in the summer of 2020.
Around 12 March, Anna began her residency here early, as the spectre of Covid and lockdown were beginning to seem inevitable. I was still working on Hazel alone and had already asked her the previous year if we could publish Field Notes, which is a series of poems written over three years, mostly underwater in real time in pencil on waterproof notebooks. The poetry is simultaneously brave, compassionate and absolutely not anthropomorphic. Anna explores aquatic species and their environments with a naturalist’s sensibility, a poet’s gaze and pulse. Anna is still here on an extended residency, advises Hazel as a Consultant and Field Notes completed the 2020 Hazel quartet.
These are wonderful choices Daphne and the books are so beautiful to hold in the hand, slim and subtle works of art. As a keen cold water swimmer, I was delighted to discover that Anna Selby actually writes while underwater – extraordinary! So, what’s the gameplan now the first four books are out in the world?
In those early months while working alone I planned the first five years for hard copy books by Hazel Press. Since then we have established a website with various capacities to engage with online writing, a blog, direct sales and we hope to embrace many other online possibilities in the future. My youngest daughter Ella Astor has been essential for Hazel as she is skilled in digital work.
How do you see the future of poetry publishing? Do you think the smaller presses are finding more of a voice and a place at the moment?
Poetry publishing seems to be healthy in the UK, there are many independent presses I admire, read and buy from. Poetry is an art that thrives online, as e-books and magazines and readings. I also respect and learn from established publishers. Page, stage, radio and screen all are of interest and are arenas that Hazel has engaged with, we look forward to participating in live poetry events when they are again possible. Different mediums fit different kinds of poetry and we are happily in communication with, and selling to, people all around the world. As one of many small presses I feel Hazel has the pleasure and freedom to be nimble and experimental but making books is an expensive and time-consuming process that needs support, engagement and encouragement from readers.
You are very involved with the big picture both in terms of the poetry world and environmental concerns. Could you tell us a little more about what you have been involved with in recent years and how you are taking your concerns forward?
The environmental crisis and situation have been evident for many decades, people know what is happening, feel concerned and yet we find it difficult to change our personal behaviour to live more sustainably. I am no expert but do know that the first steps towards change always rest on our own shoulders and would encourage everyone to make changes in their lives in support of the environment and common good.
The initial responsibilities are to inform ourselves, reduce our carbon footprints and find like-minded people to enjoy that journey with. Shop locally, fly and drive less, if you are in the countryside stay on footpaths and keep your dogs on leashes so that ground nesting birds can breed and wildlife is not disturbed – basic stuff. These simple things can all be seen as versions of informed respect for the planet and many, many people are already living with these ideas and taking action.
Finally, as a writer and a farmer, how influenced/inspired are you by farming and the farming year in terms of what you write? Do you write to escape the day-job or does it seep into your writing?
The rhythm of the farming year is a melody that affects all of us because it is a pattern in harmony with the seasons. As I type, here in January buds are growing on trees, the early snowdrops have appeared, we are planning vegetable gardens, seeing the first peach colouring on distant willows, sweet nettles and wild garlic abound, in darkness foxes are barking for mates, other mammals are pairing up and migrating birds are restless.
Everything is in some sense collaborative so when you eat a piece of toast spare a thought for how it came to be in your hand, all the people from farmers to bakers at all stages who contributed to that bite you’re about to enjoy…and read something while you are chewing. This farming year will be more complicated than most as Brexit and Covid will impact everything for birds, beasts, fish, insects, plants and humans. We will all do our best and next November Hazel Press will produce another quartet, maybe a quintet, after our 2021 poetry is gathered in and printed.
Thank you so much Daphne, this is a masterclass in how to set up a small press and so much more besides. WorldCity wishes you all the best for the future of this important new voice in the publishing world!
Daphne Astor is an American-born British environmentalist and farmer working with literary and visual arts organisations in the UK since 1977. In 2016 she founded and curated Poetry in Aldeburgh, she is currently chairperson of C4RD and was a long-term trustee of the Poetry School. Her poetry has appeared in several anthologies and magazines including Magma, Finished Creatures, Edgewise and Coast to Coast to Coast. She recently became publisher and editor of Hazel Press.
Go here for more information on Hazel Press: https://hazelpress.co.uk/