Bloodaxe Books is a British publishing house specializing in poetry. Bloodaxe has published British, Irish, American, European and Commonwealth of Nations writers. As well as publishing famous names in literature, Bloodaxe has discovered and helped establish the reputations of many new British 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. Bloodaxe authors have won virtually every major literary award for which poetry is eligible, including four Nobel Prizes.
Bloodaxe Books was founded in 1978 in Newcastle upon Tyne by Neil Astley, who is still editor and managing director. Astley was joined in 1982 by chairman Simon Thirsk. Bloodaxe moved its editorial office to Northumberland and its sales office to Bala, North Wales, in 1997.
In 2013 Astley deposited the Bloodaxe Books archive at Newcastle University's Robinson Library, Special Collections.Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Women Poets by Jeni Couzyn (1985). An anthology of women poets.
Hinterland (1989) by E.A. Markham. A Caribbean anthology.
The New Poetry (1993). Edited by Michael Hulse, David Kennedy and David Morley.
Bloodaxe Book of 20th Century Poetry from Britain and Ireland (2000) by Edna Longley. An anthology of 60 poets.
Strong Words: modern poets on modern poetry (2000). Edited by W.N. Herbert and Matthew Hollis. Essays on poetry by poets.
Staying Alive: real poems for unreal times (2002). Edited by Neil Astley.
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.
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.
Neil Astley was awarded an honorary D.Litt by Newcastle University in 1995 for his work with Bloodaxe Books.
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 Edna Longley’s Bloodaxe Book of 20th Century Poetry from Britain and Ireland and Strong Words: modern poets on modern poetry.
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.
Other initiatives to introduce contemporary poetry to new readers have included working with reading groups in Nottingham and in libraries across the West Midlands.
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. Themes have included Staying Alive; Being Alive; and Changing Lives, which was a theatre piece using poems from books published by Bloodaxe over the previous 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 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 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.