The Helens of Troy, NY by Bernadette Mayer (New Directions Poetry Pamphlet #3, 2012)
The Heretic’s Feast by Michèle Roberts (Rack Press, 2012)
The Groodoyals of Terre Rouge by Jude Cowan Montague (Dark Windows Press, 2013)
The poetry pamphlet is a wonderful format for exploring the very boundaries of what language can do. Moreover, the risk-taking often doesn’t stop at the mere word. Instead, the authors tend to venture into visual, conceptual, textural and tactile terrains as pamphlets have a rich potential for doing just this; experimenting with form.
Sadly, many libraries and bookshops are despondent about pamphlets (and poetry pamphlets in particular) as these publications are commonly stapled or spineless items that have a habit of vanishing between hefty volumes and collected works. Even if at times they have a spine, they might contain two dozen poems or less, which is nowhere near enough to count as a full collection. But to see these chapbooks as cheap and cheerful samples is too narrow a view. The poetry pamphlet is a dynamic format appropriated by contemporary poets, established and aspiring alike, because there is something intimate as well as immediate about them.
Having examined countless pamphlets I have found that it takes a distinct skill to master the form. If the full poetry collection pursues many strands of enquiry and is therefore, comparable to a novel, the successful poetry pamphlet aims to focus its attention; the way a short story does, for instance. The twenty odd poems that make up a booklet are usually in-depth meditations on a particular theme or experience.
Pamphlets come, however, in all forms and sizes; from the hand-bound letterpress artefact to the wacky photocopied fold-up-poster, from minimalist Language Poetry to the elaborate banquet of the senses, from the highly-polished to the idiosyncratic. I would like to discuss three of these pamphlets by way of giving an indication of what is out there. The one thing these three authors have in common is an ambition to express a visual component alongside a more conventional use of the written word.
The Helens of Troy, NY is a project by the well established avant-garde writer Bernadette Mayer. Each poem is a portrait and comes complete with photograph of a woman with the Christian name of Helen, resident in the town of Troy, Upstate New York. The fifteen Helens that took part are published in alphabetical order, from Helen Corrigan to Helen Sheeran. The poems seem summaries of their lives and presumably have, via an interview process, derived directly from their own words. Indeed, it would be interesting to find out to what extent the ‘sitters’ were involved in the writing process. Mayer is known for favouring modernist and Dada approaches. Some of these poems adopt established versification while others are word collages, using statements like mantras or juxtaposing mundane and profound experiences in what seems an almost indiscriminate fashion. But make no mistake, the villanelles, sonnets and sestinas are equally innovative. They challenge coherence and in doing so create unexpected new meanings. Poetry is of course, traditionally used for myth making and here the original myth of Helen of Troy is cleverly resurrected, re-examined and re-written. The lives of modern-day Helens of Troy have as much or as little to do with the ‘original’ Helen, as the poetry in Mayer’s book has with the original text in The Iliad. This chapbook is a masterpiece but I would argue that its brilliance is down to conceptual rather than poetic merits; even though some may suggest that no line can be drawn between these two criteria.
The Heretic’s Feast by the widely published author and Creative Writing Professor, Michèle Roberts, is an inspired and in places elusive invocation for a symbiotic relationship with the maternal. The ‘mother’ here seems to fluctuate between concrete and abstract manifestations as Roberts interweaves domestic ritual, flora and fauna as well as art references into a tapestry of the senses to create a nonchalant perspective. Yet beneath the eloquent voice of poised free-verse poetry we can find an urgent evaluation of the feminine, an assessment of what it is like to survive. The Times suggested that her work is indebted as much to Monet and Debussy as it is to Virginia Woolf and Keats. This I take also to mean that here the visual is absorbed by the word and the two blend seamlessly into one another. There is however, a paradox between the sensual richness and the fact that Roberts seems to strip the reader’s expectations, layer after layer, until only poetry remains.
The Groodoyals of Terre Rouge is a collection by the former Birkbeck student, poet, artist, performer and musician Jude Cowan Montague, and takes her recent trip to Mauritius as its subject matter. It is hard to say if this is a picture book with poetry or a poetry book with images as this full-colour publication includes images made through various experimental printmaking techniques as well as poems bursting with visual references. Overall, this publication conveys an unrestrained freedom to engage with creative expression. The work is essentially experiential as we get a diary-like insight into the encounters she made during her stay on the island. This is an utterly playful, bouncy and bountiful booklet, although personally I would have liked to see more poems and perhaps not quite as many prints.
But, let’s not forget that the poetry pamphlet is by definition an object and so, arguably, it celebrates the physicality of the printed word like no other publication. This said there are many PDF files floating about on the internet, but these seem poor substitutes for the real deal. However, I guess an e-version is better than missing out altogether. In any case, thank Zeus and his Muses that there are still small publishers in existence that are brave and committed enough to launch these commercially dubious but artistically unique booklets. Here are a few intrepid presses for further reading: Veer Books (Birkbeck’s ‘very own’), Smith/Doorstop, Templar Poetry, Hearing Eye, Pig Hog Press, Tall Lighthouse, Crater Press, Knives Forks and Spoons Press, Penned in the Margins, etc.