Review Article

Chrissy Williams
Flying into the Bear, HappenStance, 32pp, £4

Talk of a poetry pamphlet revival, in recent years, implies a fall from favour in the past. One reason pamphlets might have been marginalised, is that they’re under-represented in bookstores. Their physicality is key to their value; they’re in opposition to the online form, and this is their strength: their objectness, and their ability to adapt, informed by content. They need to be handled. So why haven’t they found a sustainable home in bookshops? I think there’s a perception that pamphlets don’t sell – but that could be because they’re marginalized. Most pamphlets don’t have a spine, so they’re lost on the shelves, left to get battered by bigger books being pulled off and shoved back, unseen, and so eventually, returned to the distributor. In part, the answer to this, I think, is stock more pamphlets, have a subsection, whole shelves devoted to the form, where they can be merchandised properly, faced out, so the customer can see the individuality of each design, the purposeful way these art-objects have been crafted to enhance, support, comment on, the text.  

But in a declining poetry market (by 15.9% in 2012, according to Nielsen figures in the Guardian), who’d blame the bookseller for trying to attract their customers with Simon Armitage and Seamus Heaney collections? Of course, you could have the best of both worlds, with Armitage’s Smith/Doorstop pamphlet The Motorway Service Station as a Destination in its Own Right (2010). Booksellers are competing with the virtual world, and it’s by investing in forms that are valuable as objects, as well as text, that they will survive.

Faber’s 2009 new poets scheme did much to raise the profile of pamphlets, as did the emergence of the Michael Marks Award for Poetry Pamphlets. But there are many thoughtful publishers working with the form. Smith/Doorstop, founded in 1986 and now based in Sheffield, has been publishing the winners of the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition for decades. Longbarrow Press, also Sheffield-based, is a remarkable example of how the form can be developed to complement the subject and texture of the poems. Online can do much, and as that form develops, there’ll be many new, exciting ways to experience poetry, (online journals, including Antiphon and Blackbox Manifold, publishers of online chapbooks, such as Smithereens Press) but they won’t replace the print pamphlet. They’ll be in addition to it.

That sorts out pamphlet v. online, but what about pamphlet v. collection? Can publishers justify £4 or £5 for a handful of poems, when a full collection costs as little as £7.99? But this is a false binary. A pamphlet isn’t merely a truncated collection. It’s a form in its own right, a coherent structure that establishes the poet’s gaze. It allows the poet to take risks, create something urgent and sustained in a concentrated space.

HappenStance have been publishing pamphlets since 2005, and with no public funding, are financially dependent on subscribers. They’ve published three pamphlets this year, including Chrissy Williams’s Flying into the Bear: energetic poems that exist along a continuum of contemporary experience and imaginative expedition, creating a vibrant world that sets its own terms, and won’t be pinned down.

The opening poem, 'The Bear of the Artist', illuminates this world:

I asked him, ‘What kind of artist are you anyway?’ and he said,
‘I am the one who exists to put bears in your head, who exists 
to put ideas in your head in place of bears, who mistrusts anyone 
who tells you they know what kind of place the heart is, 
the head, how it should look, what size, what stopping distance …  ' 

The bear reads like a sign for something else, as though it can be decoded.  But with its recurrence in later poems, I feel less inclined to shoehorn the bear into fixed meaning, happy to take it at its word.  In 'Bears of the Light Brigade', “bearhugs flood the sights / of the enemy.  Those who live / bearhug to bearhug will die / by the bear”. These lines are witty, provoking.  I don’t know what makes them effective. They don’t need that sort of working-out.

Such wit is evident throughout. 'Sheep' retells The Terminator, replacing Sarah Connor with a flock of sheep: “Sheep wearing short pink diner uniforms, serving coffee, / startling easily … Sheep firing shots / from a speeding car.” The poem could be read as critiquing violence in film, or as feminist, that transposing the female hero into a homogenous group of fluffy, easily startled animals, comments on the treatment of women in film, or society; after all, Connor is the hero, not the star. But Williams suspends this sort of reductive reading. There’s meaning to be had, but not so quickly parcelled off and paraphrased.

Williams uses touchstones such as The Terminator to outline her frame of reference, re-presenting shared cultural points through her distinctive outlook. 'The Lost' is a collage using various translations of the first three lines of Dante’s Inferno to create a new poem:

At one point, midway on our path in life
When I had journeyed half of our life’s way
Half way along the road we have to go
      I came to in a gloomy wood

This stuttering not-quite-repetition mimics the narrator’s apprehension, reflecting the experience of finding yourself “astray”, “searching / Through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost”.

From Dante to Lars von Trier, Williams’s range is impressive.  She positions prose poems, script and sonnet alongside each other, disrupting formal expectations, manipulating typeface to use symbols that enact her subject: visual cues we access differently to speech, complicating how we read these poems.  In her love poem to a video game, 'Robot Unicorn Attack', the act of playing is made tangible through the command: “Hit / <X> to make your dreams / crash into stone.”  And a hashtag in “The Burning of the Houses” brings us right up to date in a poem not about the London riots, but about how lots of us experienced them:

This is London.  Croydon is on fire now
and Anna is Facebooking furiously from Manchester

I am watching the BBC and reading Twitter
flicking between #LondonRiot and my friends.

But it’s okay now, some of my friends
are linking to videos of kittens which must mean
everyone is fine …

Yet, as the media turns its attention elsewhere, the poem ends, “This is London. It is on fire. / I go to bed while it is burning. I wake up / and parts of it are still burning.”  

The pamphlet is clever, innovative and ultra-modern, but it’s also personal and warm. Its range doesn’t undermine its coherence; Williams is sharing what she sees, talking directly to you about this time and place. In the endnotes, you feel her presence familiar on the page, chatting about moorhens and Tommy Cooper. Her note on Robot Unicorn Attack', “Glorious, addictive lunacy”, tells you where to play it for free: – Good luck.

Angelina Ayers



long stairs