For many of us, pamphlets might seem like the quiet, mysterious cousins of poetry collections: except, of course, they are every bit an art form in their own right. We caught up with Phoebe Stuckes (PS) and Alyson Sarah Hallett (ASH), both shortlisted for the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets in 2017, about the stories behind their pamphlets and their forthcoming projects.
The Kindling (TK): Congratulations once again on both being shortlisted for the 2017 Michael Marks Awards! Could you tell us a little about the story behind your shortlisted pamphlets?
PS: Thanks! I always say that Gin & Tonic (smith | doorstop) is the story of how I fell in love twice, got hospitalised once and lost a single shoe on the Metropolitan line. It’s also about how I moved to London, tried to make myself a life there and got really into Carly Rae Jepsen.
ASH: Most of the poems in Toots (Mariscat Press) burst out of me on the last day of a writing fellowship at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland. I had been there for a whole month working on a different manuscript. Then, around eleven thirty on my final day, new work started to arrive. I felt as if I was exploding. The poems poured out of me. All at once and all of a sudden. When I got home, I printed them out and put them in a folder and forgot about them for quite a long time, maybe a year. They were different in style and content to my usual work. I think I was a little frightened of them. I didn’t really understand them. They had no punctuation and were hauled from a time in my life that was so long ago that they shocked me with the force of how they came back to me.
TK: How did you decide on a press for these pamphlets, and how much say did you have over the look and feel of the pamphlets?
ASH: I chose Mariscat because they are a Scottish publisher and the poems came from a time in my life when I lived in Scotland. Also, they publish beautifully made pamphlets. I was asked what colour I would like the cover to be – I chose purple and within days a little swatch of purple card turned up in the post for me to see. Hamish Whyte was an amazing editor.
PS: I had a stack of poems I was reasonably happy with and I had been wanting to do a pamphlet for a while. The New Poets Prize (run by The Poetry Business) is a fabulous opportunity with lots of support for writers just starting out, and I knew I loved Helen Mort’s work and that I wanted to work with her on the pamphlet as well as Peter and Ann Sansom. Smith | Doorstop also has a history of publishing very interesting poets so that was part of the decision. I spent basically a whole day picking out the colours for the cover and the title lettering, I wanted it to be the colour a gin and tonic would be if a gin and tonic wasn’t translucent.
TK: In your opinion, what makes the pamphlet different from the collection? Has this changed the way you think about these poems?
PS: I think usually a pamphlet is a precursor to a full collection or a short piece of work where everything revolves around a single theme. I think I wanted to publish something that said – ‘Hello I’m here this is what I’ve been making’ – without the pressures of having it be a First Book. I still like the poems but some of the early ones were written three or four years ago, they feel like they’re part of a very different world to the one I live in now.
ASH: The poems in this pamphlet create a narrative. Working with fewer poems than a collection meant that I could make different decisions about what to include and what to exclude. I wanted to make a world and I chose a very specific focus for that world – a love affair. If I’d been making a collection, I would have had more digressions. The pamphlet may be smaller than a collection but it intensifies the contents in a different way. I like this – it’s a few glasses of whisky – just enough to send you tottering down the road.
TK: Toots is firmly rooted in the geography of Iona, while Gin & Tonic seems to pulse with an urban rhythm. Do you find yourself drawing inspiration from place, or trying to write ‘out’ of it?
ASH: Yes, always, place is as much a character and as alive as people. Without place, nothing can happen as there would be no ground to stand on. Place is the infinite number of connections that happen in a particular location between everything that’s there. On Iona this includes the sea, the sky, the stones, the politics, the people, the ghosts, the ferry that crosses the water. It also includes Glasgow, the city is hovering in these poems too.
PS: I think the reason why Gin & Tonic is partly a love letter to London is because it’s so different from where I grew up. I was born and raised in West Somerset which is extremely rural, very beautiful and very cut off. I think a lot of poets want to escape the urban for the countryside but I had the opposite impulse. London always seemed romantic to me. Now I’m living in Oxford and I’m not exactly a dreaming spires poet, all my writing is about people.
TK: Finally, what’s next on the creative horizon for you both?
ASH: I’ve just come back from a residency in Italy. I wrote a lot when I was there and now need to sit down and transfer what I’ve written in my notebooks to my computer. I’ve also got a few readings coming up so I’ll be taking the pamphlet on tour this summer. That will be fun. Opening up the covers and letting the words fly out.
PS: Alongside my Master’s degree I’m doing some writing on the myth of Cassandra for the Bedtime Stories for the End of The World project. I’m also going to the pub later.
Phoebe Stuckes is a poet from 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 the Poetry Cafe, and was the Ledbury Festival young poet in residence in 2015. Her poetry has been published in The Missing Slate, Rising, The Morning Star and Ambit among others. Gin and Tonic is her first pamphlet.