In 2014 I supplied a few poems to Burning Eye for their consideration after they’d opened their submission list. Burning Eye is a company that I’ve long admired, and I must have read almost every one of the books that they have published. As a spoken word artist, I’ve worked with most of their poets including Rob Auton, Vanessa Kisuule, Megan Beech and Joelle Taylor, and I’ve long been an acquaintance of Lucy Lepchani. When Lucy held her book launch at the end of 2013, I met Clive Birnie, so he already knew a little of my oeuvre.
Towards the end of 2014 I received a telephone call to say that Burning Eye wanted to publish a book with me. I was in Bristol at the time, preparing to appear with Vanessa Kisuule at the Hammer and Tongue event, and I remember how I couldn’t really concentrate that much because I was so overjoyed. I may even have danced at one moment.
From the outset of compiling ‘Nice’ I had a very clear idea of the effect I wanted the book to have. The image I had in mind was of a pop music album, something ostensibly throwaway and disposable, yet quietly insistent, understated and wholly positive. I also wanted it to have an iconic cover that was simple and yet instantly recognisable. For this reason I wanted a one word title and I thought of words I might have used: ‘OK!’, (already taken by the magazine), ‘Yo!’, (too much like the sushi bar), ‘Yes!’ (the Pet Shop Boys got there first), and finally, ‘Nice!’. I liked the idea of the exclamation point until I realised that ‘Nice!’ sounded a bit sarcastic. So it became ‘Nice’, an understated word, bland yet positive.
Clive suggested that only ten percent of the book should have been published elsewhere. I also gave myself the challenge of only including the positive or funny poems, entertaining rather than literary. It is often said that my funniest poems still have an undercurrent of truth and deep seriousness about them though I’m sure that this is true of many comics. The image persisted of bright, summery poems, and as the year progressed I whittled down my list of possibilities while working on a few new ones just for the collection. The rap about fuchsias was originally a song idea for the music group Croydon Tourist Office and was intended for someone else to rap over a backing track, but it never came about. The poem about weird fetishes was written just for this book, while the poem about someone being concerned about their quiet next door neighbours was actually a non-paid commission for a talented Exeter musician, who requested it and provided the idea in its entirety.
It was deeply fascinating, being at the heart of the process of getting a book ready for publication.. I worked with an editor and a proof reader, who went through the manuscript in painstaking detail and would send me the oddest emails every day about the poems. Thanks to her, I learned all about the correct use of brackets, (which was fun!), the trials and tribulations of page layout, and how not to get sued by the Disney Corporation. I wanted a quote from a favourite song to open the book with but she pointed out that it would be in copyright and Burning Eye would probably have to cough up a lot of money. She would also email me and tell me what she liked about the book, too, which was fun. For example, she added a note to the poem about unrolling a new bin liner: ‘Finally, someone had drawn the world’s attention to this!’
I kept the news of the book secret for a long time. The main reason for this is that I didn’t want to jinx it. I thought that if I might blurt it out on Facebook one day, then the whole thing would suddenly cease to exist. I thought that Burning Eye would change their mind once they’d realised what they’d let themselves in for. In fact it only ever started to feel real when I went up to Edinburgh in the summer to appear at an event called ‘Burning Eye Presents . . .’.
Finally, after many emails and drafts and queries, the manuscript was complete and all I had to do was to wait for its appointed publication slot. And this is when the doubt started to creep in, that maybe the poems I’d written wouldn’t work so well on the page, and I even had a bit of a wobble over the title. I remember sending Clive an hurried email from the car park in Woking while I was waiting for my sister to give me a lift. His response was that he liked it, and that I had nothing to worry about.
The best advice I had was from Vanessa, who said that I should just compile a book that I would be proud of.
The feedback from the book has been positive and I feel so glad that it is now out there, playing with the big boys and acting all grown up. As a spoken word artist, it’s often the case that a poem does not translate so easily to the page, but this collection is, I think a fair representation of my work and of me as a person. Looking back I realise that I loved every part of the publication process and I’ve felt very involved in designing the look and feel of the book. I feel very privileged to have worked with such professional and caring people. I’m incredibly proud of the book, and I’m glad that people now have a part of me that they can take home with them once the gig has finished!