BUREAUCRACY is everywhere. Commercialism rules. Opening the laptop triggers innumerable algorithms, all set to target you. Turn on the TV and you know what you’ll get. Sign up for a university course and you’re assured of “Intended Learning Outcomes” (ILOs) as promising as the dish that whining ubiquitous chef made earlier. Celebrities are most reliably pointless. So what’s new?

Two literary forms take exception to what presents itself as “culture” in our sorry media universe: the essay and the poem. One takes us wandering through imagined spaces, in touch with the real but unconstrained by it, starting in a known geography and maybe walking across a familiar bridge but into unknown territories. An essay might start confidently uncertain about where it’s going to take the reader or even the writer. If the writer’s good enough the confidence will be trusted, the uncertainty an allowance that can spring surprises.

Who are the great essayists? Michel de Montaigne, Virginia Woolf, Walter Benjamin: there’s three. Only after we’ve read them do we begin to know the consequence of what they delivered. When we read them for the first time we have no idea what their writing will impart. Montaigne could not foresee that he’d be taken up by Shakespeare, his words, translated by John Florio, come from the mouths of countless actors playing Hamlet over centuries.

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Benjamin, lifting the gun to his despairing head, thinking that the Nazis were approaching, could not know that his philosophy of history and foresight of art in our epoch of machines of reproduction would come to govern understanding in the 2020s. And Woolf, crashing down the gauntlet of a woman’s independence, self-possession, self-determination, that it should clatter on the marble floor of the stupid, unmoved patriarchy, could not predict her role as guide, for men as well as women, a scout still leading in the right directions, a century beyond herself.

Essays can go anywhere but poems have to focus. That distinction makes the two forms complementary, both deeply resistant to the measures and constraints of bureaucracy. Their practice dismantles entrapment or blows it to shreds.

So let’s welcome a publisher which slips past the predictable market galleries and eludes the tediums of fashion. Here are two books from The Voyage Out Press, Dundee: Imagined Spaces, edited by Kirsty Gunn and Gail Low (2020) and THIS: Tay Poems by Jim Stewart (2018). They’re unlikely to be found in most commercial booksellers and won’t be promoted through the monstrous mainstream media but they’re well worth discovering.

They are imagination’s antidote to management, help us free ourselves from the bondage of convention, the regulated catalogues of education, the imposed priorities of sales. They are made by what Edwin Morgan called “thinking persons”, beautifully produced on fine paper and card, prompting thought and tactile pleasure, insisting that we give ourselves the necessary time to focus on things that are real.

The publishing venture began from a series of conversations about what might be achieved in the essay form, liberated from academic priorities of assessment (REF: “Research Enervating Farcicalities”). It is not profit-driven. It is independent, as all the best things are. Not a business but a lurching from project to project. It’s risky simply to invest in the production of such books. As the editors of Imagined Spaces tell it: “We wanted to be in a place where we can do what we want to do and not have to strive for ‘mass-market’ appeal.” Jim Stewart’s book of poems likewise “came out of discussions, seminars, around poetry, poetics and literature – conversations going nowhere in particular, with no objective outcome in mind – except that they might go further.”

The university system, in which the editors earn their crusts, demands judgements, A, B or C grades. It depends on paying customers. The question, “What is an essay?” is often less urgent than, “How much is it worth?” When a poet’s value is measured by his or her substance in the national economy – financial economy, not intellectual economy – then we’re in far deeper trouble than can easily be said. After all, there is only one “gross national product” and it is indeed gross, accompanied by methane, hostile to ozone.

IMAGINED Spaces gathers work by many different people, from many different lives and professions. Some essays are formed through correspondence, “essaying” shaped through dialogue. Tomiwa Folorunso and Hamzah Hussain go back and forth on the idea of home, both physical and in mind. Stephen Carruthers and Fiona Stirling question representations of depression in writing, as depiction or evocation. Lorens Holm and Paul Noble explore the architectures of buildings, conversation and the body, and the structural exploitation inherent in capitalism. Emma Bolland and Elizabeth Chakrabarty complement each other’s notions of commitment in love and friendship, the experience of loss after the death of someone close, the value of words in the experience of witnessing. Duncan McLean and Kenny Taylor correspond as one crosses a great moorland and the other seems isolated on a far northern island. Chris Arthur and Graham Johnston bring art, writing and music into complex interplay through lateral associations rather than directed argument.

The concerns of individual authors overlap with these themes or are distinguished from them. Stephanie Bishop describes learning to play the cello less as a practical skill than a way of aligning with an internal melody. Meaghan Delahunt writes movingly of her work in a hospice with the dying and the unobtrusive value of creativity in such a terminal ethos.

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In different ways, Linda Chown, Graham Domke and Gabriel Josipovici open up questions about reading beyond the limitations of mechanical literalism. Jane MacRae evokes the practice of holistic education, the meaning of harmony in nature. Susan Nickalls relates music, nature and structural design in the Dundee V&A building. Philip Lopate and Whitney McVeigh both write about what the essay form can do. Dai John writes of his work in places where mortality is proximate, literally: as a soldier, death is close, felt in proximity. The self-consciousness of writing draws a line between professional and domestic worlds, then brings them together, as surely as the separation and connectedness between the body’s action and the mind’s contemplation.

Jim Stewart’s THIS: Tay Poems (2018) complements Imagined Spaces, closely-focused, tightly-structured. Here’s the title poem:


is this, and this only:

how the kestrel knows

air, not as

the owl knows it, or the wasp.

What’s what

is this: the bat

flying near blind

in the wake of its sound.

And also this:

a slight

movement in the grass,

caught in its history.

Both these books cross the terrain between educational priorities and the unexaminable. But they allow for anyone engaged by the enquiry, open to a giving kindness, confirming an alikeness, through multiple distinctions, whether of essays into unknown, uncharted places, or in poems so focused you can sense the life of different things. That’s what they’re for, after all.

Publications from The Voyage Out Press are distributed by Saraband: saraband.net.