THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

22 posts categorized "Artists' books"

14 February 2020

The Launderers

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a guest blog by Timothy Hawley, Ph.D, a retired psychologist who, for forty years, was the proprietor of the Contre Coup Press, an avocational private press located in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S.A.

In today’s social network-obsessed world, the idea that a fascinating group of novelists, poets, dramatists, artists, actors and others could fly underneath the radar seems inconceivable. But in 1920s London, the situation was very different; public opinion and attention were directed and shaped by journalists and other powerful interests. Thus, the Bright Young People (aka Bright Young Things) — a group of well-connected, affluent young people whose exploits were breathlessly reported in the press and by one writer in particular, Evelyn Waugh — were, despite the attention they garnered, far from being the only game in town. Another group – less well-connected, less affluent, a bit older and a bit less flamboyant – were living parallel lives. This group called itself The Launderers, supposedly because they were committed to washing each other’s clean laundry in public, an apparent reference to their desire to promote, rather than denigrate, each other.

The group’s activities were recorded by Joanna Elder Giles, a young Australian woman and a member of a wealthy and influential family in her native country (the library at the University of Adelaide, for instance, is named after her grandfather). As a budding writer, Elder Giles wrote two books of poetry before coming to London in the early 1920s. She became acquainted with The Launderers through a friend, and quickly met one of the group’s members; her soon-to-be writing partner, Brian Hill, with whom she wrote mystery novels under the pseudonym of Marcus Magill. Joanna, who was known as “Jay,” began writing what she called The Laundry Book at the very beginning of her involvement with the Launderers, in the late fall of 1924, and continued writing this journal of the group’s activities until October 1, 1930, at which point the journal abruptly ends mid-sentence.  The group was centered around the theatre district in London’s West End, and they wrote and performed plays in small theatres and other private venues, most commonly in a restaurant called The Cutty Sark, which was a favored hangout of the Launderers. They wrote and produced a play at Elsa Lanchester’s famous The Cave of Harmony club, known for its bohemian and avant-garde entertainments, which almost proved to be disastrous, despite the fact that The Cave of Harmony was ostensibly a “private club” which generally made it immune from morals prosecutions (more about this incident later).

But they also partied – oh, how they partied. And their parties pulled in many others who might have been considered to be special guests of the Launderers, but who were not in attendance often enough to be considered to be in the inner circle. When only the “members” (notwithstanding the fact that there was no formal membership) were in attendance at a get-together, they called it a “Laundry.” They often held these “Laundries” at the home of Gilbert Beith, known as Hollywood, in Gomshall. The people who would have considered themselves to be “members” would include (in alphabetical order):

Gilbert Beith, an amateur actor, scoutmaster and writer, brother of Ian Hay.

Buena Bent, an actress who appeared on stage and in film during the 20s and 30s.

Antonia Earnshaw-Smith, advertising copywriter for Crawford’s, later to gain renown as the novelist Antonia White.

Joan Garstin, actress.

Joanna Giles.

Mary Grigs, journalist and writer.

George Harvey, solicitor.

Brian Hill, accountant and writer.

Naomi Jacob, actress.

Gladys Morris, actress.

Ben Pendred, son of Laura Pendred.

Laura Pendred, author and dramatist, writing under the pseudonym of Laura Wildig.

Loughnan Pendred, son of Laura Pendred.

Gwen “David” Powell, restauranteur.

Kathleen Stenning, artist.

Marjorie Young, actress.

Many, many others flit through the pages of The Laundry Book, some famous, some infamous, some little known. These include Meum Stewart, an actress who nearly caused catastrophe for Brian Hill (more on that later); Alick Schepeler, artists’ model and mistress of Augustus Johns; Joe Carstairs, at the time running an all-female taxicab company, and many others.

But perhaps the most remarkable person in the book is Antonia Earnshaw-Smith. Several of the Launderers first met her and her husband, Eric, while taking a holiday at Cassis sur Mer. She was brilliant, witty, bawdy and very flirtatious – a perfect fit for the Launderers. Upon returning to London, she became a regular with the group, and bailed out Brian Hill when he was about to be investigated for homosexual writings for a play at The Cave of Harmony (co-written by her).

Meum Stewart, who was to appear in the play, inadvertently left a copy of the script in a taxicab. The cab-driver read the script, finding it highly offensive, and turned it over to Scotland Yard, where it was assigned for investigation to Detective Inspector Jesse W. Keech, one of the top detectives in the organization. But Tony (as Antonia Earnshaw-Smith was called) went and met with Keech and somehow persuaded him to drop the investigation, much to the relief of the Launderers, who feted her with poems implying that she must have done something naughty with the famous detective to get him to call off the dogs.

Later, Jay became jealous of Tony’s relationship with Brian Hill, and Jay and Brian played a practical joke on Tony that backfired. Years later, Tony wrote out a list of men that she had had affairs with, and Brian’s name was on the list. However, it is highly unlikely that this “affair” was sexual. Tony’s first two husbands were gay, and she joked that she was the only woman who had been married twice and was still a virgin. Tony – and Jay as well – was a woman who was very attracted to gay men (Brian was gay, his partner being George Harvey), but only in an intense intellectual way. She was drawn to Brian’s wit, his intelligence, his interests and talents. Jay was also attracted to gay men, and may herself have been a lesbian, although that is purely conjecture.

But being a gay man in 1920s London was a very dangerous situation. Being “outed” in those days was likely to destroy a person’s life. Oddly enough, lesbians were in no danger from the law, supposedly due to Queen Victoria’s naïveté about the mechanics of sexual congress between women. So while many of the people in the Laundry book are gay or lesbian, this fact is only alluded to in regard to the women, since Jay was far too loyal and discreet to write anything down that might endanger her gay friends.

Many other events, large and small, are recounted in The Laundry Book, but the writing came to an end in 1930. It may be that the members were slowly drifting apart. Another possibility is that Jay’s interest in aviation drew her away from the group. She was issued a Pilot’s Certificate in July, 1930, and was one of only 40 women in England who owned their own planes.

The original manuscript of The Laundry Book is in the possession of The Ekstrom Library at the University of Louisville in the U.S.A. It is a remarkable object, made up of large typed sheets folded and sewn into signatures with yarn or string. It includes a large number of tipped-in items, including photographs, poems, clippings and much miscellaneous material, and is enclosed in a cloth clamshell box.

The copy now in the possession of The British Library reprints the entirety of the approximately 80,000 word manuscript and includes over 200 tipped-in items. However, it is not a type-facsimile. Rather, it a typographic interpretation, based on the printer’s whim (or whimsy). The book was printed in a limited edition of only 29 copies, with a 96-page companion volume providing context, explanation and additional information. It was entirely hand-set in metal type and printed on a hand-operated cylinder proof press.

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Photographs of the Laundry Book and its Companion, now in the Library's possession.

22 May 2019

Artists’ Books Now: Writing evening 13 May 2019

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Gill Partington, host of last week’s sell out Artists’ Books Now: Writing evening, shares some of her thoughts on the event the works and the artist in this guest blog

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Artist Sam Winston describing an example of asemic writing from his recent work Reading Closed Books.

Making Your Mark, the British Library’s current exhibition, is all about writing, its long history and the many varied techniques, systems and conventions that have evolved around it.  The latest event in the ‘Artists Book Now’ series on the 13th May approached writing from a different angle, however. It was all about forms of work that stretch these systems and conventions in unusual ways, pushing writing to its limits and beyond. The four artists presenting their work showed us some varieties of writing that sometimes looked very unfamiliar indeed.

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Dia Batal uses a range of media to create Sculptures based on Arabic script.

Dia Batal’s work is as much sculpture as writing, rendering Arabic script physical and three dimensional in metalwork and other media. The letters may be ornate but the materials have a strength and presence, perhaps because the force and impact of writing are her primary concern, dealing in text that details harrowing stories of conflict and displacement. Sam Winston creates work that hovers on the boundaries of drawing and writing, in durational performances that often take place in the dark, gradually covering the page surface in an intricate, unreadable filigree of pencil lines. Stevie Ronnie turned writing into a series of incongruous, witty objects: an ‘audiobook’, for instance, comprising a rope woven from strips of text.  Wound around a metal winch, it unravels, translating text into metallic clinks. Joumana Medlej created delicate folded paper forms adorned with the Kufic script, an Arabic calligraphy not meant to be read, but which instead has a symbolic potency, an aura rather than a literal meaning. These were diagrams and cosmological charts as much as texts.

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Stevie Ronnie’s infectious enthusiasm as he describes how employs a range of objects in the creation of an artists’ book.

In their various ways, these were all forms of ‘asemic’ writing:  that which can’t be read. The work seemed to ask the question of how writing communicates in other ways, and whether it needs to communicate at all. Does writing need a reader? The other major theme that emerged from the evening was that of discipline, and where exactly writing belongs. Maria Fusco, Professor of Fine Art at Northumbria University talked about what happens when writing becomes an art practice rather than a literary one. She read from her new book, Nine QWERTY Bells: Fiction for Live Voice in which she puts art objects in strange kinds of dialogue with one another.

 

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Book artist and calligrapher Joumana Medlej opens her Book of Love.

The particular piece she chose focused on Ignacio Uriarte’s
The History of the Typewriter Recited by Michael Winslow a video artwork in which the sounds of vintage typewriters are recreated orally, with uncanny accuracy. Maria’s reading was all about tracing this complicated network of crossed wires between voice, writing and object. Her aim is not to write about art, but rather to write through it, she explained. She described writing moving backwards through the gallery space and ‘bumping into things’. This collision between writing and objects - and the conjunctions that result from it - seemed to be what the evening was all about. Writing, we learned, can be stranger than you think.

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Gill Partington in conversation Maria Fusco.  

15 March 2019

My Life is a Book: Escape from Coney Island at the British Library

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a guest blog by Rafael Klein, a native New Yorker and artist.  For more information about Klein and his work, click here, and to learn more about the upcoming event at the Library, where Rafael looks back on Lost Americana - artist’s books and short films with Dr.Richard Price, Head of Contemporary British Collections British Library, click here. The Story of a Family Man is available to read here

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Coney Island book, 2002. Silkscreen hand printed

Who doesn’t love a book? How great to lose yourself in the inner world of an author. Turning the pages and revealing previously unknown thoughts and dreams.Turning more pages and finding surprises, unexpected emotions, unimaginable plot twists. Such pleasure also in the tender physicality in holding a book, in finding the corner of the delicate page, leafing over trying not to fold or tear. But this tiny physical movement is all in service of the thoughts being formed. A book is a journey for the reader as well as the writer. We are connected with someone else’s experience and therefore connected in a new way with our own experience.

Alphabetland
Alphabet Land, 2001

The Artists Book

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il benzinaio, 1992, Hand-tipped colour photocopy, cutouts, bronze embeddd in cover

Art is full of seductive surfaces, enticing details, intriguing techniques – but you mustn’t touch! However the appeal of a book is that it asks to be held, touched, for its pages to be turned for its ‘skin’ to be peeled back and to look inside. Not really surprising then that artists are drawn to the book as a form of expression.

Plus for an eclectic artist like myself, it is an opportunity to cross disciplines and unify very diverse approaches into a single entity. I am someone who makes sculpture, painting, prints and films. In the artist book, all of these impulses can be effortlessly combined and given voice. I have always seen the branches of my art as chapters in a book. The gentle physical reality of the book form is outweighed by the much large interior intangible aspect of its meaning. There are echoes of the nature of art itself. The artist book has has a physical form. But unlike the sometimes large, heavy and impressive form say, of a massive sculpture in heavy metal, the book has a tender physicality, and its meaning lives solely within our minds. The perfection of a brilliantly realised painting, exhibiting great skill, can feel closed and uninviting. But the artist book always has a more tender living aspect, the continuous invitation to ‘open me, fondle me’.

The Story
And who doesn’t love a good story. Not necessarily a story with the scope and grandeur of a Tolstoy novel. But maybe just the weird occurrences of everyday life, soon forgotten but sometimes narrated to friend or lover, maybe even entered in a diary. These insignificant fragments are the stuff of life. Are they connected, do they add up to a tale of grand wealth and power? Maybe not, but they are true to life.

Fun fair sketchbook

Tales of New York, 1998

A trip to the supermarket
A holiday trip
A visit to the fun fair
Visiting my parents in Florida
A walk in the country
Getting robbed while driving a taxi cab in New York.

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Tales of New York, 1998. Silkscreen print

Maybe not earth shattering events, but when lodged within an artists book they have resonance and seem like the stuff of personal myth.

The Book
And then there are the seductive techniques which make the artists book richer visually than a simple catalogue or ordinary book. The range of approaches are endless, but I have followed my own instincts. I have used cutouts, which coerce the reader into interacting and reveal hidden threads of story beneath. The popups, which hint at a third dimension. Diverse printing techniques – screenprint, monotypes, digital print, hand colouring, lithography. So many approaches are possible, many more than I myself have explored. And then there are the sculptural elements. This is a great pleasure to me as a sculptor. The tactile physicality of the production is an added satisfaction. The cover might have a small bronze sculpture inset, or a supermarket trolley embedded in it. The paper will be robust, textured, and rich. And the colours – none of that simple offset reproduction. No, it will be hand printed and hand bound, giving just that extra sense of an occasion.


It is simply the best medium an artist could choose to work in!

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Ruckus Rodeo by Red Grooms

The British Library Collection
In addition to rare and historically important works, the British Library has a wonderful collection of artists’ books. Here are some desk references for some suggestions.

  • Lexicon is an altered antiquarian Latin-Greek dictionary by South African artist William Kentridge – General Reference Collection YF.2012.a.4228

  • Nine swimming pools and a broken glass by Edward Ruscha does exactly what the title says, with the artist’s usual wry humour.  General Reference Collection RF.2017.a.56

  • Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, gets the artists’ book treatment by Peter Blake  -  General Reference Collection LC.31.b.13492

  • and a personal favourite, full of pop-ups and cutouts, is Ruckus Rodeo by Red Grooms  –  General Reference Collection YD.2005.b.1635

  • and two of my own works –  Coney Island  –  General Reference Collection YD.2007.b.1355 Florida – or you can’t fight progress  –  General Reference Collection RF.2007.a.68

01 February 2019

Creating Havana

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A guest blog by artist and designer Leslie Gerry. To coincide with the forthcoming evening Artists’ Books Now: América Latina, Gerry talks about his fascination with architecture, urban spaces and street life. He charts these interests into his artist book Havana, which was made by a process of painting and printing digitally. Read more about Leslie Gerry's work hereA copy of Havana is held at pressmark HS.74/2301 and can be consulted in the British Library Reading Rooms.

Havana title Page

Arriving at Havana in the dark, we made our way from the airport through dimly lit streets to a hotel overlooking Central Park. The following morning, I emerged, with cameras, sketchbook and map in hand, into a bright sunlit chaotic street full of vintage American cars spewing out clouds of fumes and bicycle taxis shouting out for business.

 

Havana Spread 1

The first hurdle was coming to terms with the city, the topography, getting my bearings. It was daunting. I just started walking, trying to take it all in, gradually absorbing the atmosphere. The narrow streets of La Habana Vieja, the Old Town, colourful, vivacious, with crumbling tenements, colonial edifices and faded grandeur. A city with an earthy authenticity, full of contradictions. Cuban music would spill out onto the pavements from the many bars and cafes.

Havana Spread 2

I generally limit my trips to a new city from 2-3 weeks, as that first exposure to a place is so intense; with fresh eyes and heightened senses, you see things locals are often unaware of and that you will not notice on subsequent visits. I try to capture this intensity in my paintings. Walking an average of 14 miles a day, I use my camera to “take notes”, recording the colours, light, shadows and patterns of Havana for future reference, often revisiting many of the streets or buildings several times in a day to view the changing light and shade.

Gradually a narrative of the city develops; subjects and compositions begin to form in my mind: a book starts to take shape. At this point I can relax a little and even start sketching in the open, although I find this increasingly difficult with the attention it invites.

At the end of my stay I felt totally exhausted, having absorbed as much as possible, and could only look forward to returning home with memories in tow.

Back in my studio, a long process of going through my photographic notes and sketches, then a year of painting begins. With a stylus and Wacom tablet, I paint on the computer in Illustrator.  Working only with flat areas of colour and no tone, I “cut out” the shapes with the stylus, arranging them on different layers, creating a collage. In fact, I first began working this way years ago by cutting out sheets of coloured paper with scissors, similar to the way Matisse created his paper collages. Starting by sketching a composition in blocks of colour as I would have done painting in oils and using photos as reference only, I gradually build up the painting with darker areas first and then lighter shades. The paintings end up as digital files; vector images which can be reduced or enlarged to any size and are then printed with a flat bed UV ink jet printer on a hand or mould-made paper.

 

All three images reproduced with the kind permission of Leslie Gerry

02 November 2018

Introducing the Artists of Artists Books Now

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by Jerry Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Publications and Emerging Media. ARTIST’S BOOKS NOW is curated by the book artists and researchers Egidija Čiricaitė and Sophie Loss and the librarians Jeremy Jenkins and Richard Price. Each event explores an aspect of the contemporary through a selection of books, presented in an accessible and enjoyable style by artists and commentators. For tickets click here.  For more information please contact jerry.jenkins@bl.uk.

The Artists Books Now event series is nothing without the artists and their works. This post offers brief introductions to those taking part in next Artists Books Now evening, on the 5th of November.  We have programmed the event around the theme of ‘Place’, asking the artists and other contributors to interpret that as they wished.

First, the  writer and UK Canal Laureate 2018 Nancy Campbell:

    'Since 2010, a series of residencies at museums and galleries in the Arctic has resulted in artist’s books on language and landscape including How to     Say ‘I Love You’ In Greenlandic, which received the Birgit Skiöld Award in 2013. Collaboration is an important part of her practice; her work with     the New York based artist Roni Gross is demonstrated here by two books, The Night Hunter and Tikilluarit. Nancy’s other publications include     Disko Bay (shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2016 and the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize) and a cultural history of books     and the environment, The Library of Ice, published this month by Simon & Schuster. Nancy is currently the UK’s Canal Laureate, a collaboration     between The Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust, part of the Arts on the Waterways programme.'

 

 

1Image used with kind permission of Nancy Campbell

 

Véronique Chance, artist and Senior Lecturer at the Cambridge School of Art, explores:

    ‘[t]he representation of the body in contemporary art practice, and its relationship to performance, technology, documentation and the embodied     dynamics of spectatorship. The cross-disciplinary, cultural and creative dynamics of running as a mode of artistic enquiry and expression.     The impact of technology on contemporary art practice/s, especially developments in reproductive media and their role within the ‘expanded’ field     of printmaking.’

 

2Image used with Kind Permission of Véronique Chance.

 

The work of Artist Edmund Clark links issues of history, politics and representation through a range of references and forms including photography, video, documents, found images and installation:

    ‘A recurring theme is engaging with state censorship to represent unseen experiences, spaces and processes of control in contemporary conflict     and other contexts’.

3Image used with kind permission of Edmund Clark. 

Recent MA graduate of Royal College of Art Leonie Lachlan 'is concerned with the ever-evolving relationship between two and three dimensions. She is interested in material and linguistic utterances of spatial concepts. These often find themselves embedded in and performed by the printed page [...] propositions hover on the border between spaces; actual, represented or analytical, ideas of that which is both everywhere and nowhere; they interact with the different modes she encounters with her practice. Her works traverse many materials but she always return to the book. An obsession with flatness and illusion is ever-present; in many cases planes might suppress or compel a sculptural urge.'

An insight in to the text of her 2017 Meeting Point with the opening stanzas of Municipal Kid (MK):               

    'Journey from the middle

    of no consequence as

    there is no beginning or end,

    these do not matter anyway.

    Departure is delayed

    a couple of minutes

    we pull away from Euston

    into the blue April morning.

    Train so new

    seats so very green,

    my disappointment

    reflected around the carriage.

    Opposite

    the man doesn’t finish his Innocent smoothie,

    discards his sandwich packet

    alights at Hemel Hempstead…'

4Image used with kind permission of Leonie Lachlan.

The evening's host is Professor Chris Taylor from the Department of Fine Art at the University of Leeds. He is a practicing artist, curator and publisher working in the field of contemporary printmaking and artists’ books, with a particular interest in the role of the book as primary medium within contemporary art practice. He is co-editor of the Wild Pansy Press, a collective art practice and small publishing house based in the School of Fine Art, History of Art & Cultural Studies.In addition Taylor is co-director of PAGES, an ongoing initiative which provides the structure and impetus for wide ranging activities promoting the development of the medium of the artist’s book, and its dissemination and reception to a growing and diverse audience. PAGES’ annual programme includes the International Contemporary Artists’ Book Fair and a curated projects series, held in partnership with The Tetley centre for contemporary art in Leeds. The evening will have a discussion between Taylor and Clive Phillpot to explore the concept of ‘Place’ within the framework of an artists’ book.

19 October 2018

About Artists Books Now

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by Jerry Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Publications and Emerging Media. ARTIST’S BOOKS NOW is curated by the book artists and researchers Egidija Čiricaitė and Sophie Loss and the librarians Jeremy Jenkins and Richard Price. Each event explores an aspect of the contemporary through a selection of books, presented in an accessible and enjoyable style by artists and commentators. For tickets click here.  For more information please contact jerry.jenkins@bl.uk.

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One of the purposes of Artists’ Book Now is to introduce our visitors to the rich collections of artists’ books within the British Library and to widen the use of artists’ books across the research community beyond the Library.

From the outset, the project was concerned with how to get the audience engaging with the material in manner which could inspire debate, discussion and greater interaction. Traditional Library mechanisms of dissemination such as the Reading Room, exhibition, digitisation or even show and tell present various limitations to what is possible, particularly when dealing with artists’ books. Hence, we hit upon the concept of a host conversing with the artist themselves while presenting their work. Presenting the work in this manner heightens intimacy between the work and its viewer, as well as allowing the maker's thoughts about the work, and its creation, to emerge more fully.  

A key question for a national library, or any cultural institution for that matter, is how best to preserve the collection while ensuring maximum possible access and engagement. By negotiating this interchange between the audience and artists’ books, with the help of the artist, it is hoped that  a richer and fuller experience will be possible.  By using baggy themes as frames for the individual events, the co-curators hope that types of work not normally seen or discussed together will suddenly find common ground. It should be noted that this is all seen through a “Contemporary” lens, demonstrating that, while artists’ books certainly do offer up the pleasures of visual and physical artworks, and can and do use contemporary artistic techniques and aesthetics, they are also important witnesses to the the present, allowing myriad issues, concerns, and interests to surface for contemporary audiences.

 

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12 October 2018

Artists’ Books Now: 'Place'

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by Jeremy Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Publications and Emerging Media. ARTIST’S BOOKS NOW is curated by the book artists and researchers Egidija Čiricaitė and Sophie Loss and the librarians Jeremy Jenkins and Richard Price. Each event explores an aspect of the contemporary through a selection of books, presented in an accessible and enjoyable style by artists and commentators. For tickets click here.  For more information please contact jerry.jenkins@bl.uk.

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The morning after our Artists’ Books Now evening back in April, I was stopped in a stairwell and congratulated on contributing to such as wonderful event.  I was somewhat surprised to hear this, mainly because the colleague I was speaking had been unable to attend! Nevertheless, as more feedback came in from audience members directly, I came to see this as a clear example of the power of word of mouth – last night’s enthusiasm had traveled quickly and perhaps was still travelling. And of course, I could only take a little of the credit as a co-curator – the artists and the books they brought to the event were the real stars.

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Photograph taken from the event in April, reproduced with the kind permission of Sophie Loss

So now as we find ourselves and the end of Summer with Autumn drawing in, it is a good time to  remind my colleagues, and you, that all will have the opportunity to  attend  the next evening  in the Artists’ Books Now  series, which is due to take place on 5 November 2018 at 6:30pm in the Knowledge Centre, British Library. In a similar vein to April’s ‘Now’-themed event the evening will explore the meanings and pleasures of artist’s books in the contemporary scene, this time from the perspective of ‘Place’.

Professor Chris Taylor, the artist and academic, will be master of ceremonies, joined by the book artist and poet Nancy Campbell, the photography and video artist Véronique Chance, artist Leonie Lachlan, and fine artist and photographer Edmund Clark. The essayist, art writer, curator, librarian Clive Phillpott will be in conversation with Professor Taylor. 

03 August 2018

From the strange to the enchanting: the hidden surprises of poetry pamphlets

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by Gemma Meek, PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan University working in collaboration with the British Library, funded by the AHRC NWCDTP.  If you want to discover more about poetry pamphlets, you can search the library’s extensive collections. Or, you can support independent press through purchasing pamphlets on individual publisher’s websites. They are often very modest in price – ranging from £4-10. For a list of independent presses that publish poetry pamphlets visit: The National Poetry Library or Sphinx Review for a list maintained by Helena Nelson at HappenStance Press.

 

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Exploring a doll’s house, beheading a saint and the collapse of an urban café. These are just some of the themes of the pamphlets shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award.

As the 10th Michael Marks Award approaches, it might be a good time to reflect on the current poetry pamphlet scene. As a PhD placement student at the British Library, this involves rummaging through the Michael Marks shortlisted pamphlets. As well as speaking to the various individuals within and around pamphlet publishing – from academics, to poets, publishers and librarians. This post is a reflection on these explorations, and a brief tour of some of the surprises in the pamphlet field.

Reading the Michael Marks shortlisted pamphlets evokes a range of different experiences. Sometimes it can feel like entering another’s dream, walking across a landscape or noticing overlooked aspects of the everyday. Although it is hard to choose a favourite, there are some pamphlets I am particularly drawn to: Sarah Jackson’s Milk (2008, Pighog Press), which includes a strange and uncomfortable exploration of a doll’s house. Richard Scott’s Wound (2016, The Rialto), which contains some violent (and occasionally erotic) poetry – with one written from a witness perspective of a saint’s beheading. And David Hart’s rather long titled: The Titanic Café closes its doors and hits the rocks or: Knife, fork and bulldozer ultra modern retail outlet complex development scenario with flowers. (2009, Nine Arches Press) as a politicised ‘documentary’ style pamphlet, using photography and poetry to explore a Birmingham café closure.  

Traditionally, a poetry pamphlet is a small collection of poems printed and bound with staples (saddle-stitch), glue or thread in a slim publication (normally A5, but not always). Although pamphlets can vary in the number of pages, it is generally much thinner than a book – with the Michael Marks Award only accepting pamphlets up to 36 pages long. This bite-sized format emphasises a cohesive collection of poems, with their selection, arrangement and editing often developed through discussions between publisher and poet (unless, of course, they are self-published).

Many pamphlets are published by independent press, a term used to define small enterprises which produce a limited amount of publications annually, and are often considered an ‘alternative space’ to the mainstream or more established institutions (although there are always exceptions to the rule).

In the case of poetry pamphlets, the publishers are normally involved in the selection of work, its editing, design and marketing. Most presses have some form of selection criteria, whether that is based around the personal preferences of the publisher, or certain thematic/stylistic concerns. These can range from publishing a particular genre of poetry, to a focus on certain identities, dialects or works from particular regional areas.

Some presses have ‘house styles’, in which their pamphlets have uniform cover designs, size, font choices and branding – seen in some of the Smith/Doorstop or Tall Lighthouse Press pamphlets. Whereas others, such as Longbarrow Press or Pighog Press, produce more individualised, or unique pamphlets in accordance with the content and style of the work being published.

Presses also like to push the boundaries of what is possible with the pamphlet form. This is visible in David Hart’s The Titanic Café Closes Its Doors and Hits The Rocks (2009, Nine Arches Press), and in Devorgilla Bridge by poet Hugh McMillan and artist Hugh Bryden (2009, Roncadora Press) – an artist book turned pamphlet. Like This Press have been making ‘books-in-a-box’, with Rupert Loydell’s Tower of Babel (2013) containing a poetry pamphlet, an essay and various postcards of vibrant abstract paintings. There are also free, digital pamphlets which can be downloaded from Platypus Press and Neon Books, challenging a focus on tactility. And it is worth checking out the poetry pamphlets in University of Sheffield Special Collections by CURVD H&z, where spontaneous poetry is stamped on food labels and used envelopes. These various experiments might encourage poetry pamphlets to be seen as a ‘zone of activity’ rather than a fixed definition.[1]

There are also presses working to be more inclusive of the various voices, identities and performances occurring in the poetry scene – although much more work needs to be done in this area. As a recent report by David Coates from Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics shows, not only is there is a lack of BAME writers being published, but there is also little critical review of the work. Chantelle Lewis also raised this concern when she ran an event at the library ‘Bringing Voices Together’, which aimed to highlight independent publishers committed to writers of colour.  

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Rachel McCrum, The Glassblower Dances. Stewed Rhubarb Press. 

Some presses are also breaking tradition by exploring the relations and differences in written and spoken word. For example, Stewed Rhubarb Press shows a penchant for queer, feminist or minority voices– often publishing work that starts off as spoken word. Their pamphlets attempt to convey the poet’s performance through dialectical and formal experiments, to encourage the reader to perform the work.

Test Centre have also been working with spoken word and performance, publishing vinyl and cassettes with pamphlets, scores and books to highlight fiction, poetry and sound works. These multi-sensory publications are slamming, singing, humming and pacing words, whilst still giving the pamphlet form some exposure.  

3

Ian Sinclair. Westering. Test Centre.

As I come to the end of my placement, I hope to pull together these reflections on pamphlet experimentation alongside discussions with publishers on running an independent press. These reflections will be collated into a report, which will consider some of the following themes: definitions, working models, budgets, pamphlet quality and the place/benefit of pamphlet awards.

This report will be a collection of different voices – as I draw together the conversations and information individuals have shared. Although it is difficult to provide a cohesive account of the poetry pamphlet ‘scene’ in three months – I hope this report will generate further discussions about the future of pamphlet production.

 

[1] The idea of a ‘zone of activity’ was used by Johanna Drucker to explain the different experiments and forms within artists’ books. Drucker, Johanna. (2004) The Century of Artists’ Books. New York: Granary Books