15 December 2018
Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets Announce 2018 Winners
By Imogen Durant, PhD Placement Student working on the library’s contemporary British poetry pamphlets and artists’ books.
On Tuesday 11th December the British Library hosted the 10th Awards Ceremony of the Michael Marks Awards.
Luke Thompson of Guillemot Press won the Michael Marks Publishers Award. Andrew Forster, who introduced the award, highlighted the meticulous craftsmanship and innovate design of Guillemot’s publications, which particularly impressed the judges.
Luke Thompson giving his acceptance speech for the Publisher’s Award
Thompson highlighted the multisensory nature of the pamphlets that he produces when he explained that in addition to the unique look and rich texture, several of his pamphlets also have a distinctive smell, as their covers are made from the spent grain from a brewery.
Of And, by Keith Waldrop, and O. At the Edge of the Gorge, by Martyn Crucefix, both published by Luke Thompson at Guillemot Press
PR won the illustration award for her artwork in Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah: The Song of the Willow Tit, published by Wild West Press, with poems by Steve Ely. The illustration award was introduced and presented by Sir Nicholas Penny, who gave a convincing imitation of a willow tit when announcing the pamphlet’s title.
Carol Rumens won the Poetry Award for her pamphlet Bezdelki, published by The Emma Press. The poetry award was introduced by Sasha Dugdale, one of this year’s judges.
Carol Rumens giving her acceptance speech for the Poetry Award
Bezdelki contains a series of elegies for Rumens’ late partner, Yuri Drobyshev. Rumens said that the pamphlet provided her with means of remembering Yuri, and allowed her to explore her own identity after his death.
In a poem entitled ‘Vidua’ (on p. 19), she says:
I wasn’t a bride
I wasn’t a wife.
I’m not a widow.
Rumens explained that the size of the pamphlet form provided a vehicle for her to capture the ‘Bezdelki’, or ‘small things’, such as a hat and an overcoat, which appear in these poems. Dugdale highlighted the strength of Rumens’ imagination and the breadth of the allusions in her poems, which Rumens demonstrates in this pamphlet by including poems inspired by Osip Mandelstam and one which is narrated in the voice of the Nubian Pharaoh Taharqa.
Bezdelki by Carol Rumens
The awards were presented by Lady Marks, who gave a warm personal introduction to the evening. She outlined the Michael Marks Charitable Trust’s aims of preserving art and the environment in the UK, and emphasized her belief in the poetry pamphlet as being vital form in the creative force of the country. Lady Marks also began the evening’s readings with some sonnets by her late husband, Lord Marks of Broughton, the founder of the Michael Marks Charitable Trust.
Congratulations to Luke Thompson, Carol Rumens and PR, and to all of those shortlisted for the 10th Michael Marks Awards.
30 November 2018
Judges Announce Shortlist for 10th Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets: Library Celebrates Awards’ Anniversary
by Imogen Durant, PhD Placement Student working on the Library’s Contemporary British collections of poetry pamphlets and artists’ books. The Library will be holding a poetry reading on the 10th December in celebration of the 10 year anniversary of the awards. Poets include Christine de Luca, Omikemi Natacha Bryan, Charlotte Gann, Richard Scott and Phoebe Stuckes. You can read more about the event here.
The judging panel for the 2018 Michael Marks Awards have shortlisted five pamphlets and four publishers for the 10th anniversary of the awards. The judges were:
- Sasha Dugdale, poet, translator and editor
- Rachel Foss, head of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts at the British Library
- Declan Ryan, poet and critic
- Sir Nicholas Penny, art historian
Pamphlets shortlisted for the 2018 Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets
The judges commented on the diversity of the submissions they received, and shortlisted the following pamphlets:
- Gina Wilson, It Was and It Wasn’t (Mariscat Press)
- Rakhshan Rizwan, Paisley (The Emma Press)
- Ian Parks, If Possible (Cavafy Poems) (Calder Valley Poetry)
- Liz Berry, The Republic of Motherhood (Chatto & Windus)
- Carol Rumens, Bezdelki (The Emma Press)
The judges highlighted the calibre of this year’s shortlist, praising Wilson’s “dry wit”, Rizwan’s “tonal sharpness” and Parks’ “musicality”. They felt that Berry’s poems had an “electric charge”, and commended Rumens’ “savage and wild but beautifully cadenced” work.
Four publishers were also shortlisted for this year’s publishing award:
- Bad Betty Press – Amy Acre
- The Emma Press – Emma Wright
- Guillemot Press – Luke Thompson
- Tapsalteerie – Duncan Lockerbie
This shortlist includes both new publishers, such as Bad Betty Press, which was founded last year, and more established publishers, such as The Emma Press, which won the award in 2016.
Luke Thompson’s Guillemot Press is an example of a publisher which plays with the possibilities of the pamphlet form, while Duncan Lockerbie’s Tapsalteerie Press shows a commitment to eclecticism, highlighting the crucial space the pamphlet offers to new and emerging writers.
The winners of the poetry, publisher and illustration prizes will be announced at the awards ceremony at the British Library on 11th December. The winning poet and publisher will each receive £5000, and the winning illustrator will receive £1000.
The winning poet will also be invited on a residency at the Harvard Centre for Hellenic Studies in Greece in the spring of 2019.
The Contemporary British Publications team at the British Library have created a new pamphlet to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the Michael Marks Awards.This pamphlet features poems from each of the previous winners of the award, many of which were written during the poet’s residency in Greece. The winners of the illustration award have produced artwork in response to three of the poems in this pamphlet.The Michael Marks Charitable Trust and The Eccles Centre for American Studies have generously supported the production of this pamphlet.
Please join us in what promises to be an exciting evening of poetry and reflections on the success of the first 10 years of the Michael Marks Awards.
07 November 2018
Celebrating Poetry Pamphlets
By Imogen Durant, PhD Placement Student working on the Library’s Contemporary British collection of poetry pamphlets and artists’ books. More information about the upcoming event, Poetry Pamphlets Celebration, can be found here.
Pamphlets are a crucial site for poetic innovation, allowing writers to experiment and offering readers cheap access to new work. Often small enough to fit into your pocket, pamphlets are the ideal way to sample new poetry from an unfamiliar writer. This frequently overlooked form has provided a platform for almost all of our established poets, from Ted Hughes to Carol Ann Duffy, at different stages in their career.
A selection of poetry pamphlets from the British Library’s collections.
To celebrate the poetry pamphlet and the important role that it plays in the UK poetry scene, The Michael Marks Award is hosted annually by The British Library, in partnership with the Michael Marks Charitable Trust, The Wordsworth Trust, the TLS and Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies (CHS). Since it was founded in 2009, the awards have grown to include prizes for publishers and illustrators as well as for poetry. Despite the ease with which poetry can now be accessed online, the pamphlet form has flourished over the last decade, and the quality of the submissions to the awards each year attest to this. To mark the 10 year anniversary of the Michael Marks Awards, we will be hosting a poetry reading on the 10th December, featuring shortlisted poets from previous years. Join us in hearing poems and reflections by Charlotte Gann, Christine De Luca, Richard Scott, Phoebe Stuckes, and Omikemi Natacha Bryan.
Charlotte Gann is a writer and editor from Sussex. Poems have appeared in The Rialto, The North and Magma, among many others, and her pamphlet, The Long Woman (Pighog Press), was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award in 2012. Since then, she published a full collection, Noir, with HappenStance – in 2016. This book – which grew from the seed of the pamphlet – asks: what are we to do with the darkness? The things, and people, often left silent and invisible. Originally, Charlotte studied English at UCL; much later, an MA in Creative Writing and Personal Development at the University of Sussex. By day, she works as an editor – currently, editing a monthly magazine based in her hometown, where she lives with her husband and two teenage sons.
Christine De Luca lives in Edinburgh where her working life was spent in education. She writes in English and Shetlandic, her mother tongue. She was appointed Edinburgh's Makar (laureate) for 2014-2017. Besides several children’s stories and one novel, she has had seven poetry collections and four bi-lingual volumes published (French, Italian, Icelandic and Norwegian). She’s participated in many festivals here and abroad. Her poems have been selected four times for the Best Scottish Poems of the Year (2006, 2010, 2013 and 2015) for the Scottish Poetry Library online anthologies. She has been a member of Edinburgh’s Shore Poets for 25 years. Christine is a linguistic activist, visiting schools, writing articles and taking part in conferences on mother tongue issues. She is a member of Hansel Cooperative Press which publishes poetry and other literary writings in Shetland and Orkney. She also enjoys translating children’s classics from Roald Dahl and Julia Donaldson into Shetlandic.
Richard Scott was born in London in 1981. His poems have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies including Poetry Review, Poetry London, PN Review, Swimmers, The Poetry of Sex (Penguin) and Butt Magazine. He has been a winner of the Wasafiri New Writing Prize, a Jerwood/Arvon Poetry Mentee and a member of the Aldeburgh 8. His pamphlet 'Wound' (Rialto) won the Michael Marks Poetry Award 2016 and his poem 'crocodile' won the 2017 Poetry London Competition. Soho (Faber & Faber) is his first book.
Phoebe Stuckes is a writer and performer from West Somerset. She has been a winner of the Foyle Young Poets award four times and is a Barbican Young Poet. She has performed at the Southbank Centre, Wenlock Poetry Festival and was the Ledbury Festival young poet in residence in 2015. Her writing has appeared in the Morning Star, The Rialto, The North and Ambit. Her debut pamphlet, Gin & Tonic is available from Smith|Doorstop books and was shortlisted for The Michael Marks Award 2017.
Omikemi Natacha Bryan is a writer, poet based in London. Her work has been published in numerous magazines including Ambit and Rialto and featured in Bloodaxe's Ten: poets of the New Generation. Her debut pamphlet poetry collection, If I talked everything my eyes saw, was shortlisted for the 2017 Michael Marks Award. She currently works as an associate writer for Vital Xposure theatre.
03 October 2018
Poetic Afterlives: Change through Artistic Reimagining
Imogen Durant is a PhD student at the University of Manchester. She currently on a placement at The British Library, looking at connections between poetry and art in the Contemporary British collection of artists’ books and poetry pamphlets.
For this year’s National Poetry Day, we have been asked to think about the idea of change. Poetry’s ability to inspire its audiences makes it a powerful vehicle for change. And, while poems change us, poems are themselves changed as they are read and interpreted. Part of the joy of reading a poem is the creative freedom we have in interpreting it, and this process of understanding changes the poem’s impact on the world.
During my placement with the Contemporary British Publications team, I have been thinking about the process of publishing: how publishing changes a text, and how a text might change the world it is released into. Focusing on the library’s collection of contemporary British poetry pamphlets and artists’ books, I have been looking at books and pamphlets which are often published independently and produced in small print runs.
One thing that has particularly struck me when reading these ephemeral texts is that even after being published, a text does not remain static. In the same way that poems can change their readers, so too can a poem be changed as it is reinterpreted in new forms and mediums. Many of the writers and artists in the collection return to texts that have inspired them. Collaborating with others, they creatively reimagine existing works, allowing the texts to change and develop in their afterlives.
An example of this is Susan Johanknecht and Katharine Meynell’s Poetry of Unknown Words (2017). Written in response to Iliazd’s Poesie de mots inconnus (1949), which Johanknecht and Meynell describe as ‘a collective work by 23 poets and 23 illustrators – a male line-up with two women’, Poetry of Unknown Words takes inspiration from a wide range of texts and artwork to produce a ‘feminising response to Iliazd’. The poet H.D.’s jellyfish metaphor in Notes on Thought and Vision (1919) provides inspiration for one section of the text. Printed on thin photo paper to resemble ‘the ‘flimsy’ typewriter paper in the HD Archive at Yale’, this section haptically reproduces H.D.’s metaphor through its use of ‘translucent & visceral’ material.
Section from Poetry of Unknown Words inspired by H.D.’s Notes on Thought and Vision
Structured as a series of loose pamphlets collected in a transparent box, the ‘unbound’ nature of Poetry of Unknown Words offers a new experience with each encounter, as the order of the sections changes through the process of reading. This structure demonstrates the way that sections of poetry and artwork can be changed by simply being contrasted or juxtaposed with other texts. In the same way that an exhibition highlights connections between items and images in order to construct a narrative, Poetry of Unknown Words reveals the ongoing relevance of historical texts by placing them alongside contemporary references.
Complete text of Poetry of Unknown Words
Johanknecht and Meynell play on this comparison to an exhibition by including a ‘notes & colophon’ section, which resembles an exhibition catalogue.
‘notes & colophon’ section from Poetry of Unknown Words
Highlighting the texts which inspired each section, the ‘notes and colophon’ section also changes the reader’s understanding of the sections of poetry and artwork by providing additional information. For example, the comment that Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideas in Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) are ‘still clearly pertinent’ is supported, in this section, by a black and white photo of an activist on a Women’s March in 2017.
Photograph inside the ‘notes & colophon’ section
In Poetry of Unknown Words, Johanknecht and Meynell give new life to Iliazd’s form, responding to and reinventing texts by women which have been ‘hidden from history’. In this way, they show that published works are not simply historical items but that they have the capacity to change, and be changed, by modern audiences and readers.
Photographs used with kind permission of Susan Johanknecht and Katharine Meynell.
 Susan Johanknecht Katharine Meynell, ‘Poetry of Unknown Words – for the book to come: process notes and reading (im)material scraps’
http://www.gefnpress.co.uk/about/essays&downloads/OEI%20Gefn_Press.pdf Accessed 01/10/2018.
 Susan Johanknecht and Katharine Meynell, ‘Poetry of Unknown Words’ (London: Gefn Press, 2017).
03 August 2018
From the strange to the enchanting: the hidden surprises of poetry pamphlets
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 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
20 June 2018
Virginia Woolf's Haunted Walk
A guest post by artist Liz Mathews describing the inspiration and process behind her recently acquired book, The Strand of the Thames, as part of World Refugee Day. For more information about Liz Mathews' work, including Paper Wings -- a collaboration with Maureen Duffy -- see her gallery blog, Daughters of Earth.
Wednesday 23 June 1937
I went shopping, whitebait hunting to Selfridges yesterday, & it grew roasting hot, & I was in black ... As I reached 52 [Tavistock Square], a long trail of fugitives—like a caravan in a desert—came through the square: Spaniards flying from Bilbao, which has fallen, I suppose. Somehow brought tears to my eyes, tho' no one seemed surprised. Children trudging along; women in London cheap jackets with gay handkerchiefs on their heads, young men, & all carrying either cheap cases, & bright blue enamel kettles, very large, & saucepans, filled I suppose with gifts from some Charity—a shuffling, trudging procession, flying—impelled by machine guns in Spanish fields to trudge through Tavistock Square, along Gordon Square, then where? —clasping their enamel kettles. -- The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume 5 1936 - 1941
Virginia Woolf's chance sighting of refugees from the Spanish Civil War in London at midsummer 1937 brought tears to her eyes - 'tho' no one seemed surprised' - and burnt on to her mind's eye an unforgettable image: children, women and young men driven from their country by war, trailing homeless, displaced, dispossessed through the Bloomsbury Square that was her home. This sight, with its implications and consequences, was to return to her vividly on another solitary walk many months later in the winter of 1939:
Tuesday 31 January 1939
Took the bus to Southwark Bridge. Walked along Thames Street; saw a flight of steps down to the river. I climbed down—a rope at the bottom. Found the strand of the Thames, under the warehouses—strewn with stones, bits of wire, slippery; ships lying off the Bridge (Southwark? —no, the next to Tower Bridge [London Bridge]). Very slippery; warehouse walls crusted, weedy, worn. The river must cover them at high tide. It was now low. People on the bridge stared. Difficult walking. A rat haunted, riverine place, great chains, wooden pillars, green slime, bricks corroded, a button hook thrown up by the tide. A bitter cold wind. Thought of the refugees from Barcelona walking 40 miles, one with a baby in a parcel.
These two entries from her extraordinary diary - both so observant of detail, so evocative of the physical setting and of her state of mind - stayed with me, and I was reminded of them in Gordon Square one afternoon some 70 years later, like Woolf combining shopping - but not for whitebait - with a walk through Bloomsbury observing the London summer. We, too, met small groups of refugees, some aimless, some more purposeful: one grizzled man sitting on a box playing a melancholy Balkan air on a battered accordion, one old woman in black sitting on the pavement outside the Co-op, her hands joined in the international gesture of supplication, one young man on a bench in Gordon Square who, when we'd given him some change, asked hopefully if we would buy him a mobile phone, another older man - speechless, wordless, with hunger and despair in his eyes.
Virginia Woolf's discovery under the warehouses was the inspiration for my artist's book, Strand of the Thames, which has recently been acquired by the British Library. In setting this text, the sense of history repeating itself was very strong for me. My partner Frances and I are inveterate mudlarkers, and the Thames low-tide beaches between Waterloo and Southwark Bridges have long been a favourite haunt, yielding a rich and often rather pungent harvest of driftwood, eternal claypipes, button hooks, and yes, the green slime that Woolf observes, along with the occasional shard of ancient terracotta or exquisite porcelain.
One sunny winter's day in 2009, we followed Virginia Woolf on that sacred bus-route and then in her footsteps, choosing our time so that the river would be at low-tide, seeing the sights that she saw - still all there - and reminded inevitably of the other sight she had recalled in that place - perhaps by the river itself, running through time and linking all our days. I photographed each stage of her journey, trying to catch something of the transient light on the water, the darkness of the slippery flight of steps, the ships lying off the bridge, the solid ironwork of the bridge itself, the crusted warehouse walls, just as weedy and worn, the great chains, the immensity of the wooden pillars and the curious sense of separation from the bustling world of the city. We looked for and found the bits of wire, broken glass, stones and chains. We slipped on the ancient wharf stones, smelt the green slime, flinched at the bitter cold wind, and felt ourselves at some unimaginable distance from the clear-lit city we could see through the wooden pillars.
And at the end of our walk together, with the winter sun low on the water silhouetting a couple deep in talk with their patient dogs waiting beside them, we too thought of the refugees, Virginia Woolf's fugitives, homeless exiles with their precious burdens and their useless well-intentioned charity kettles fleeing from machine guns to our home city, and as she says - then where?
Back home in my studio, I translated the photos into 15 grisaille watercolours on sheets of rough handmade paper approximately 21 x 30cm. To draw the material presence of the river itself into the views, I mixed the watercolour paint with Thames water, drawn in a jam-jar from the river as Turner did, and I used a small driftwood stick - picked up on the strand, carved by the tides into a rudimentary nib - as my pen, dipped in ink made from the same paint and Thames water. I looked for individual textures, flaws and quirks of the handmade paper pages that I could use to reflect aspects of the text - for example, the page with the strewn-about stones and bits of wire has a gnarled knotted fibre within the fabric of the paper that I just highlit with paint to embody a bit of wire, so that you can feel it with your fingertip; similarly the textured paper surface produces either a flickering effect of light on water when painted with a fairly dry brush, or the chiaroscuro of stones and rubble when painted with a wet one, as the liquid paint puddles darkly into the shadowy hollows between small raised clumps of paper-pulp. (This kind of paradoxical effect that materials can produce unexpectedly is the sort of thing that fascinates me - I enjoy collaborating with materials in making a physical embodiment of the words, allowing the materials and the words to do their own thing.)
After I'd made the paintings and lettered them, I constructed the lettered images into a battered book made from black handmade paper like our grandparents' photograph albums with their precious wartime portraits and sepia views. And then I made a quarter-size (10 x 15cm) facsimile edition (limited to 20 signed and numbered copies), identically constructed, with the grisaille images re-translated back into black and white photographs, fixed to the album with acid-free photo-corners. The original and one of the edition copies is now in the British Library's permanent collection. Most of my work is one-off, but a few of my artist's books lend themselves well to editions; and this is one of them, where the photo-album concept gives a reference point for both the original and the edition, and a uniting rationale. As an artist, my concern is to make work where form and concept are fully integrated, where words and images are as one, inseparable, rather than co-existing as text and illustrations. Typically, this results in books and artworks whose individual material form is of its nature an expression of the text and therefore difficult or impossible to reproduce; but I do like to enlarge the scope of my books in terms of audience and affordability where it's possible to do so without compromising their integrity, particularly where, as here, the edition adds another aspect to the original, and enhances the meaning of the work.
I have shown Strand of the Thames at many of the artists' book fairs I've been to in the last 10 years, each time hoping that it won't still seem as though nothing changes - that we will have found an answer better than the metaphorical enamel kettles. And every time, with each audience, this book really strikes a chord with people, and together we say again 'Nothing changes', and we honour Virginia Woolf for her engagement with her world, her refusal to ignore the plight of her fellow humans, her recognition of their humanity and her un-fatigued compassion in weeping for dispossessed exiles seeking refuge in Tavistock Square.
26 December 2017
Marking the centenary year of the death of the poet Edward Thomas.
Edward Thomas believed poetry to be the highest form of literature, yet it wasn’t until late in his life that he became a poet. For the greater part of his creative life he was a reviewer, critic and the author of a number of books on nature. He was born on the 3 March 1878 in Lambeth to Welsh parents who instilled in him a strong sense of his Welsh heritage. He was educated at St Paul’s School and then Oxford University. In 1899, while still an undergraduate, Thomas married Helen Berenice Noble, the daughter of an early mentor, James Ashcroft Noble, who had encouraged Thomas to publish essays based on the copious notes he took on his long country walks. After Oxford, Thomas made a precarious living working as a reviewer on the Daily Chronicle much to the dismay of his father, who had hoped his son would follow in his footsteps by joining the Civil Service. Thomas’s determination to earn his living as a writer was to cause a major rift between father and son.
Edward Thomas photograph circa 1905 Wikimedia Commons
In order to support his growing family Thomas had to take on more and more reviewing – leading him to declare to a friend that “I am burning my candle at three ends”, despite his dislike of what he referred to as his “hack work” he became a prominent and influential literary critic. It was through his growing status as a reviewer that Thomas became acquainted with Harold Monro, whose Poetry Bookshop was the centre for an emerging group of poets who became known as the Georgian Poets. The key members of the group at the time were Lascelles Abercrombie, W W Gibson, Rupert Brooke and John Drinkwater.
In 1911 Abercrombie moved to ‘The Gallows’ a house at Ryton, just outside the village of Dymock in Gloucestershire; he was soon followed to the area by Gibson who, with Abercrombie, persuaded the American poet Robert Frost to move to a house in Ledington called ‘Little Iddens’. The three of them formed what became known as the Dymock triangle. The Dymock colony is looked back on today as an idyll, a short-lived golden time, brought to an end by the First World War.
Thomas first met Frost in October 1913 and was subsequently a frequent visitor to ‘Little Iddens’, often staying with Frost until he too rented rooms for his family in a nearby farmhouse. Other visitors to Dymock included Rupert Brooke, John Drinkwater, Eleanor Farjeon, Ivor Gurney and W H Davies. Thomas’s friendship with Frost was to prove a pivotal moment in Thomas’s life. The two men would go for long walks in the surrounding countryside discussing poetry and life. Frost has been credited as the catalyst in Thomas becoming a poet. He suggested that Thomas take his prose and turn it into poetry. In the final two years of his life, Thomas was extremely prolific, writing over 140 poems. One of his most famous is ‘Adelstrop’, written on the 24 June 1914, on a train journey to visit Frost. The poem recounts an unscheduled stop that captures a moment of peace and tranquillity on a summer’s day, which later took on an extra poignancy for those about to be slaughtered in the coming war
There has been much speculation as to why Thomas enlisted in the army. Certainly we know he spent many hours deliberating over whether he should join up. As a married man in his late thirties with three children to support he would not have been expected to enlist. But enlist he did, on the 19 July 1915 as a private in the Artists’ Rifles. A little over a year later he was promoted to corporal and worked as a map reading instructor, an occupation for which he was entirely suited and a position he could have retained for the duration of the war. Ironically, it was the army that gave him the freedom to write, free from the financial worries of how to provide for his family. In November 1916 he was commissioned into the Royal Garrison Artillery as a second lieutenant, the following month he volunteered for active service.
Thomas arrived in France a few months before the commencement of a major Allied offensive, aimed at breaking through the German defences at Arras. The day before the battle, a shell landed near Thomas but failed to detonate. That evening he was toasted in the Officers’ Mess for being blessed with luck. The battle began on Easter Monday 9 April 1917, within the first hour Thomas was dead. Some biographical accounts suggest he was killed by the concussive blast of a shell which left his body unmarked. However, a letter from his commanding officer, which lay undiscovered in the New York Public Library for many years, reveals that he was killed by a direct hit through the chest. The poems that were to make his name were published a few months after his death.
Perhaps his work has been overshadowed by the dominance of modernism, but many poets point to Thomas as an inspiration and he is seen by some as the bridge between Thomas Hardy and Ted Hughes. Hughes described him as “the father of us all”. On Armistice Day in 1985, Hughes unveiled a memorial to First World War poets in Westminster Abbey, which included Edward Thomas among those commemorated.
Duncan Heyes, Curator, Printed Heritage and Contemporary British Publications.
23 November 2017
Artist and Poet collaboration: Carolyn Trant and James Simpson
A guest post by Carolyn Trant.
James and I met at Schumacher College, at a week-long event combining poetry and bookbinding workshops, and soon realised our creative inspiration came from similar sources. We enjoyed discussing our ideas from a position of intuitive understanding. This was quite special, enabling us to get down to the nitty-gritty and fine-tune our arguments without time-consuming explanations, to push ideas forward without tedious back-stories.
Since I was a small child I had always loved poetry but was forced to choose between writing and painting by the tenor of the times (art school in late 60’s/early 70’s); James also makes wood engravings and pots. We respect each other’s judgments and feel free to criticise constructively. Our discussions inspire us each in our own medium, passing images and words between us.
We see the books as parallel texts, word and image, which we develop in tandem; neither ‘illustrates’ the other and a book is gradually extruded, together with the physical processes of its’ making, like red white and blue striped toothpaste from a tube. For me the physicality of the finished book is a major consideration from the start.
As an artist I have always been inspired by words, music, storytelling and the natural world; gradually the Artists Book seemed the natural gesamtkunstwerk I had dreamed of as a child. Although single-minded in pursuing the vision of my books, collaboration urges one to push oneself even further, with the benefits, if one finds the right person, of moral support – creativity can also be a tough and lonely business. I do also continue to make my own personal books, sometimes using texts of my own.
My first book Gawain was inspired by Harrison Birtwistle’s music, the operatic production premiered at Covent Garden and the libretto by poet David Harsent – a fait accompli but very much chiming in with my own preoccupations of links between medieval and contemporary concerns. Similarly my book Winterreise used Schubert’s music and Wilhem Mueller’s words, in both English and German, plus my own text, all layered on top of each other with images underneath. I’ve also made a dual language edition of Llorca’s Sonnets of Dark Love with both texts and images cut in wood. Cutting texts by hand gives them a new dimension.
Working closely with a contemporary poet was an exciting step forward. To date James and I have made Hunting the Wren and Love Poems and Curses; The Untenanted Room – published by Agenda Editions and soon to be re-thought and hand-made as The Ruin; The Rhyme of the Reddleman’s Daughter (2015) and Some Light Remains (2017). Some of these books have also later been developed into more three dimensional forms, cut-out leporellos, peepshows etc.
For a poet, editions are regrettably small as they are very ‘hand-made’ but they find their way to important public collections here and abroad, where there is the potential to be looked read by a large number of people. We also show them at book fairs where many people come by to look, handle and often stand to read them. James also has the poems published in magazines such as the London Magazine, and Agenda, often with an image included. It all feels a worthwhile enough way to get them out into the world.
In terms of art practice, an Artists Book is for me like a little time capsule when deposited in a collection like the British Library. At the same time, when displayed, however briefly, or seen by a ‘reader’, it contrastingly becomes a transitory event – fugitive and volatile - and like a piece of land-art or a theatrical experience it can live on in the mind afterwards, with a variety of meanings for the possibly wider and more varied audience than the regular gallery-goer; a poetic event in itself which the text concentrates and refines even further.
I prefer this idea to the fixed image on a gallery wall. Book Fairs, with a democratic marketplace of tables and stands (and hopefully without curated interventions) leave room for varying kinds of interactions with the ‘the public’ by both poet and image maker, including informal conversations, talks and readings.
Innovation exists in the ways the art takes place whilst embracing longstanding methods of human communication - narrative and storytelling, aesthetic appreciation and emotional response; emotion being not merely a wash of sentiment but something that takes one from one place to another, whether comfortable or not, in a situation where the audience can talk back, critique, discuss. Working with another artist/poet places feedback at the centre of the creative process from the start, keeps one grounded and provides a sounding board at every stage.
Any halfway attempt to reproduce our work digitally always leaves us dissatisfied. For Hunting the Wren we used silk-screened text printed by a local expert; many people thought it looked it like letterpress, which is hugely costly and time-consuming and although lovely, irrevocably linked to a historic aesthetic. Although meticulous within our parameters, we prefer to try to work fast, so that new ideas don’t go ‘off the boil’, and we can move on. I made a point of being trained by a wonderful ‘trade’ bookbinder when the need arose. Sometimes pragmatism is a virtue.
Print runs, like the measure of the ‘acre’, are contingent on how many images for each page can be printed in a day. For Gawain I actually set myself the same task as in the story of the Green Knight, of finishing the whole project within a year and a day. The next impending important book fair often has some bearing on the case, or at least on how many hours sleep I allow myself.
Latterly, the use of magnesium line-blocks, made by a helpful company called Metallic Elephant, has opened up new possibilities for texts; they are tricky to handle on my etching press, which is what I use for the woodcuts, but any imperfections are part of the process – something I always love about medieval technologies which are often working right up to the edge of possibilities.
In other words materiality, ‘words made flesh’ as it were, seems exciting and important alongside the digital world, a sort of ‘slow bookmaking’ for a fast age, within which James and I can keep up the pace of excitement about further collaborations, and battle to get things done with heads full of ideas stretching into the future. The Ruin, with hand-cut texts, is to be finished for the Oxford Fine Press Book Fair in spring 2018.
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