The wee malt
By MIKA ROSS-SOUTHALL
The poetry pamphlet is thriving. Fears about digital poetry killing off print editions are, for the moment, happily unfounded. On Tuesday night at the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets, now in its fifth year, poets and small presses were celebrated for their inventive, high quality contributions to, and ambitions for, this traditional art form, described by Marina, Lady Marks, whose late husband founded the prize and who continues generously to support it, during the welcome speech as “a complete and total expression of the universe” in up to thirty-six pages.
When the writer Jackie Kay judged the inaugural awards in 2009, she said of pamphlets, “their very smallness [makes] them feel special. There’s a great value, particularly in today’s world of blurb, blog and baloney, in keeping things brief. The pamphlet marks a new poet’s potential in a rather dignified way. It’s the wee malt as opposed to the big pint”.
Pamphlets, or “chapbooks”, are one of the first and, arguably, best places readers can encounter poetry and discover new and established poets. What is most interesting – particularly to this year’s judges, Tanya Kirk (lead curator of Printed Literary Sources at the British Library), Judy Brown (poet-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust) and our own Thea Lenarduzzi (of the TLS) – are the different ways poets and publishers interact with the form. Tony Frazer of Shearsman Books, one of the shortlisted publishers, spoke on Tuesday evening about how pamphlets offer what books do not: for example, The Sun-Artist by Susan Connolly, which Shearsman published this year, consists entirely of visual poetry; and pamphlets can accommodate “long pieces that over-tip a conventional book layout”.
Flarestack Press received the award for Best Publisher and were praised for their "impressive local outreach". They support local poets and this year collaborated with illustration students from Birmingham Institute of Art, leading to pamphlets filled with sympathetic typography and design.
And then we moved on to the prize for Best Poet. Kim Lasky, who was nominated for her collection Petrol, Cyan, Electric, gave a serene reading of her science-inspired “Newton Sees the Seventh Colour”. Her precise writing style eloquently reflected (and refracted) the character of Newton, sitting at his desk: “you barely flinch, intent on experiment”. The best line, “as if rainbows were simply mathematics”, neatly applies to the unfathomable/fathomable process of writing, reading and understanding poetry.
Kim Moore’s nominated pamphlet, If We Could Speak Like Wolves, according to the judges “displayed with total assurance how ordinary settings hide the mysterious, bizarre and sometimes frightening”. After a five-hour train journey from Cumbria to the ceremony at the British Library, Moore was prompted to read her poem about a trip from Barrow to Sheffield. Witty observations of the train carriage (the twenty-five-year-olds on their phones talking about their fears of dying; chewing gum stuck on the table; and loos that will never smell fresh) ended with the image of a man dribbling on the speaker’s shoulder suddenly waking up with the rattle of a drinks trolley, shouting “I’ve got to find the sword”.
Neil Rollinson’s collection of monologues, Talking Dead, was wonderfully original. In it, first-person narrators chillingly speak of their, often violent, deaths – though Rollinson assured us that “it’s not a dark book, it’s a hopeful book”. In “A National Razor” (what the French call the guillotine), the poem’s persona feels the “lip of the blade” and hears the “innocent wood” groan. The chop is followed with more bizarre imagery, the speaker’s head lolling in a wicker basket: “I felt the blood run down my chin” and a man “put his fingers through my hair”.
The winning poet, David Clarke, was chosen for his “dark, political brooding”. “He takes risks and pulls them off”, said Thea Lenarduzzi. As Andrew McCulloch observes in his article (printed in this week’s TLS) about this year's pamphlets, “Clarke’s unflinching engagement with all that is fraudulent, artificial and cheap is backlit by a fundamental humanity”. Inspired by his adolescent obsession with the singer Edith Piaf, Clarke’s reading of “My Night with Edith” reminded me of Jonathan Swift’s excremental poems, with its image of a woman, whose name the speaker can’t quite remember, unfastening her stockings, “ripped off your sling-backs”, “your phony wig”, “your threadbare accent”. Unlike Swift’s personas though, the speaker here had “no regrets”.