Sam Riviere has been producing a series of very limited edition pamphlets from his micro press, If a Leaf Falls Press, since 2015. 34 pamphlets have been published so far (though more are always being added to the list), with some first publications and work from poets you might not have heard of listed alongside pamphlets from the likes of Emily Berry, Chrissy Williams, and Rebecca Perry. The pamphlets share an investment in “procedural,” “appropriative and arbitrary writing processes,” and are produced relatively cheaply on stapled yellow card, each with different symbol on the front cover: Attlee’s Roasting Baby has a microwave symbol; Whalley’s RETURNS, a hand holding a money bag, and so on. Though the pamphlets are produced on very limited runs (I’m conscious that only 19 other people have a copy of the Attlee pamphlet I’m reviewing here), their production seems to err on the side of convenience and disposability, rather than any particular design commitments or desire to produce the kind of art-object pamphlets we might be used to seeing on such short runs. Riviere explains in an interview with Swimmers Club: “I moved to Edinburgh for a two year residency in the autumn of 2015, and discovered I had a staff discount at the University Printing Services.”
I’m not sure how I first heard about the pamphlets, but after missing the first two in the series (including Riviere’s own Cont. – his pamphlets bookend the 23 titles in the 2015-16 series) I managed to keep up with the next five, before losing track again for a little while. This review is the first of two, covering the eight pamphlets I currently have, grouped in the order in which they appeared. Since these pamphlets are in such a limited run, I’m probably going to spend a bit longer than I might normally trying to give a summary of the pamphlet; hopefully this will also make the reviews a little easier to follow.
Ben Fama, PAGE SIX, 16pp.
Fama’s pamphlet consists of one long list of names (and a few places/events), beginning with “MIRANDA LAMBERT,” an American country music singer who I had to google, and ending with “JEWEL,” Jewel Kilcher, another American country singer who I had to google. Most of the people included are celebrities of the first order (“KIM KARDASHIAN,” “CAITLYN JENNER,” and “KENDALL JENNER” all appear on the first page) though “POPE FRANCIS,” “SILVIO BERLUSCONI,” and “NEIL YOUNG” also make an appearance. Sometimes individuals are paired with their current partners (“CARMELO AND LA LA ANTHONY,” “KRIS JENNER AND COREY GAMBLE”) though sometimes the ‘and’ pairings are slightly different: “JENNIFER LAWRENCE AND AMY SCHUMER” are supposed to be writing a film together, while “SCOTT DISICK AND KIMBERLEY STEWART” had an affair while Disick was married to Kourtney Kardashian. There’s no clear link between the names in the list, though sometimes a pattern or grouping by association or sphere seems to accidentally emerge: “GEORGE AND BARBARA BUSH | ANTHONY WEINER | HILARY CLINTON | RAY KELLY,” then we’re distracted by “TOM HARDY | JOAN LUNDEN | CAITLYN JENNER.”
When I first read PAGE SIX I spent a while trying to work out the mad ways in which the names in the list might be related (had Berlusconi dated Bethany Frankel? was Bryan Cranston working on a single with Avicii? did Nicki Minaj play in the US Open?). After trying a few combinations of names I googled “Aretha Franklin” + “Gabrielle Anwar,” and got a link to an article about the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors gala, which Franklin and Anwar both attended. At that point I decided that the names/items weren’t necessarily linked by actual/IRL goings-on (though maybe they hung out, who knows) – but by their proximity on a particular web page. After this revelation, this unpunctuated, capitalised list suddenly seemed like a kind of index or keywords list, which led me to try and see if the names were linked through Wikipedia pages (i.e. the US open is mentioned somewhere on Nicki Minaj’s Wikipedia page) or if there was some kind of Wikipedia game going on…but this didn’t work either. I was pretty stumped on this question of the pamphlet’s procedure, until I googled “Maria Menounos and Catt Sadler,” who turned out to be two E! news presenters. The top search was an article about the pair on a gossip and news site called Page Six run by News Corp. Your source for celebrity news, gossip, entertainment, pop culture, photos, video and more. Just to give you a sense of the site, the current front page articles include: “Pantone creator Larry Herbert to divorce wife of 30 years,” “Pippa Middleton’s world-famous backside to walk the aisle again,” and “Kevin Hart really bombed his SNL audition.” The likely procedure then, is that Fama’s names were linked by their appearance together on the same page (not necessarily in the same article), but the side bars get refreshed so it’s impossible to tell. This could have been Fama’s procedure though, endlessly clicking between articles to produce the 183 items in the list.
Though I generally enjoy this detective work, my desperate attempt to figure out the mechanism that produced the names (and the assumption that they were linked in some sort of perfect or complete way) demonstrates what kind of reader I am (and the limits of this approach). Fama’s list works then as kind of Rorschach test: not only do the names I know (or don’t) say something about the news sites I frequent and my tolerance/love of celebrity gossip, but my desire to connect the names in the list and my investment in joining the dots reveals something about my approach to reading poetry. My googling of different combinations of names looking for a connection between them ended up recreating the circuitous, paranoid logic of these gossip sites. The revenue of news/gossip sites like the MailOnline is built on the site’s ability to construct a certain kind of reader, one who hangs on the smallest detail: the photograph in the back of the restaurant, a missing (or concealed!) ring, a nipple under a dress, and so on. Like these sites, Fama’s pamphlet is built on the strange, the tiny (and the non-existent) links between individuals, connections that entire celebrity empires are built on.
Holly Isemonger, Hip Shifts, 12pp.
Isemonger’s pamphlet features 3 sets of 3 stanzas with variations. Each stanza contains a set of placeholders (to give you an idea, my favourite stanza contains: Tom Waits; dumb; teenage; girlfriend; shopping; mall; car; park; surrounds; house; bruise; drive) and these placeholders are modified and recast throughout the poems. Isemonger leads us through a series of increasingly bizarre set-ups, formed out of new variations in and between the placeholders. To give you an idea, here are the first and last variations of stanza 1:
the tea bag and I make horrible sponge cake.
Later, down by the river mouth at low tide.
The water and how it shifts.
Tide water down at tea, the lost kitchen.
She’s by the mouth and later, the cake
and the horrible river shifts the grandmother
bag, sink it. How I make it low.
There’s an growing sense throughout the pamphlet that the physical landscape (buildings, car parks, houses etc) is encroaching on or interfering with the people in the poems; a kind of mixing up of bodies and objects: “the river mouth” seems to “shift” and speak; a car park is so big it “surrounds our house | like a bruise,” and in the art gallery (the setting of the third stanza) the speaker announces, “I still have | your face as my wallpaper.” These confusions only intensify. By the second variation something seems to have happened to Grandma, “she’s lost how it shifts,” the girlfriend in the second stanza expands until she “surrounds park.” “Tom Waits’ dumb teenage girlfriend” on the other hand, has transformed into “Tom Waits’ dumb car, a house, a teenage mall.” Something terrible is happening by the third cycle, “the horrible river shifts the grandmother | bag,” and the sense (and maybe even sassiness) of the second stanza breaks down into a kind of incoherence, though the speaker has achieved some sort of mastery or control over the variations.
Tom waits, I park. Our surrounds
like a dumb teenage girlfriend
I am a shopping mall.
These final stanzas create new variations in the placeholders: the grandmother is finally separated from her kitchen sink (she previously always appeared “by the kitchen sink”), which transforms into the horrible command for us to “sink it,” and while “Tom waits, I park.” This Waits/waits shift suggests that Hip Shifts is not just interested in generating or accumulating new content. Instead, Isemonger’s manipulations of the stanzas create uncomfortable, lasting scenarios. The speaker is a “dumb teenage girlfriend,” never that far away from “our bruise” or the “bruise house,” and the “stroking and swiping” in the art gallery moves between a cultural critique and an account of abuse.
Unlike my experience of reading PAGE SIX, the success of Isemonger’s pamphlet was clear to me when I realised that I had stopped being interested in any procedure or mechanism behind the poems, and was more invested in the scenes Isemonger constructs and directs our attention around. If you think you’re sophisticated enough to need more than a Tom Waits pun then the irony of the flat, unsatisfying last line will be lost on you (think here of every time you’ve been told that ‘not getting it’ is the point): “I discovered, we are the still life.”
Edwina Attlee, Roasting Baby, 8pp.
Since Attlee’s pamphlet was printed in an addition of just 20, and unlike the other pamphlets, it consists of 6 pages of prose, I’m going to give a quick summary of the plot. We begin with a narrator travelling on a train through the countryside, thinking about a hat they’ve just bought in London. Innocuous enough.
The narrator (a young girl, we later realise) throws the bundle back up in the overhead rack a few times over. Miraculously, the baby remains unharmed. This is an indication of the kind of universe Roasting Baby in. After throwing it around some more, she decides “to study the odd package and found that it wasn’t a bundle at all but a small compact and moving baby.” She ends up taking the baby home, and on the way some strangers on the bus explain that the baby “needs some cheese.”
‘Bees.’ She corrected me.
The story moves with all the pace (and none of the explanation) of an infocom game.
We know something terrible is going to happen (bearing the title in mind) when we end up in the kitchen, looking among “bags of flour” for baby clothes.
This is a key moment, since here the salt seller behaves as the miraculously unharmed baby does; as in a video game, only certain, agreed upon actions are possible. When the narrator returns to the baby after looking for clothes, we’re told (with all the clarification of a ‘Game over’ screen): “I found the baby on the table where it had turned dark blue with cold.” At this point I was beginning to feel uneasy. In a panic, the narrator decides to fashion a dress for the baby out of empty flour bag packets, fastening the packets with string, and with no further explanation, she puts the baby in the oven.
With the usual speed and lack of elaboration, “at this point,” the narrator’s father suddenly comes home and unbelievably, “finding me in the kitchen covered in flour asked what was for lunch.” Dutifully, the narrator explains “that there would be nothing for him to eat as we could not open the oven door lest the baby should get cold.” Oh god, we think, acutely aware that there’s only one page left. Here we go. I had already conjured up some of the worst dead baby jokes from my school days…some distant memories of Something Awful…and then finally, the only thing that makes sense happens.
‘The baby in the oven.’
His wrath was terrible to behold. He pushed me aside rather violently and opened the oven door. We both peered in to see but inside the oven, in the dark of the shelf, there was nothing, only a pool of melted wax and next to that, a very small, very burnt steamed rice pudding.
This aha on the last page, and it’s implied judgement (jesus, you thought she’d actually put a baby in the oven didn’t you) is the real skill of Attlee’s pamphlet. Though the narrative seems arbitrary enough (women buys hat, finds baby) and the narrator repeatedly tries to explain that the baby doesn’t belong to her and isn’t her responsibility, the events unfold with a careful predetermination. Attlee’s strange universe is as disconcerting and inviting as Isemonger’s.
Charles Whalley, RETURNS, 28pp.
Whalley’s pamphlet is a kind of poetry data dump. It lists the 806 (I think) recipients of Arts Council England (ACE) awards for poetry between April 2003 and December 2015, on an almost weekly basis.
On 22nd April 2003, Other Poetry received £5,900.
On 6th May 2003, Redbeck Press received £2,500.
On 13th May 2003, Torbay Poetry Festival received £4,800.
On 27th May 2003, Colpitts Poetry Durham received £4,950.
On 27th May 2003, Fiona Friend received £425.
The pamphlet collates the National Portfolio and Grants for Arts funding figures/data for ‘poetry,’ and is based on Whalley’s earlier work on ACE poetry funding. In an age of useless data graphics and visuals, it is striking (and surprisingly enjoyable) to see this information presented in its ‘raw’ form. Whalley’s unpaginated, overwhelming list resists the kind of reading experience you might have with the Isemonger or Attlee pamphlets, and instead it’s probably fairer to say that you ‘read over’ this material like Fama’s list. I’ve found that I occasionally go back to it every now and then to see if I can find a particular press or individual, or see what the highest award was that year. Despite reading it in this way, I became weirdly ‘invested’ in some of the narratives these awards inadvertently tell: the data tracks the rise and decline of organisations, publications, festivals, projects etc. Some of the awards can be traced back to first publications while some mark one off reading events or writers’ groups. Riviere himself is in there (as are other poets in the IALFP series).
Though this information is freely available online (for those who are interested enough to find it) – my first response to this material was one of suspicion, that is, I wanted to question the motivation behind the republishing or repurposing of this data. Whalley answers this question at the start of his blog post on the research: “With no darker purpose I’ve been looking at records for funding for poetry from ACE.” The fact of my suspicious response to this data however is probably a more interesting angle on the question of Whalley’s motivations. Why was I suspicious, and why might others be anxious about seeing poetry funding data presented in this way (despite of course, it already being public).
You can’t help but be hypnotised by some of the figures here. My first instinct was to find the highest single award (FYI, it is £543,500, awarded to The Poetry Society on 7 December 2006, while Apples and Snakes cumulatively received £848,318 and The Poetry Trust, £671,150 over the period) and it’s hard not to think how much?! when you’re presented with the data in this way. I’ve shown Whalley’s pamphlet to ~poetry lovers~ and ~poetry haters~ alike, and strangely it has provoked similar responses (even though, as Whalley points out, only 22.7% of the ‘Literature’ funding during this period was awarded to ‘Poetry’). I’m reluctant to simplify RETURNS as either an attempt to expose misspent funds, or a demonstration of how valuable and essential ACE funding is, since for me, the fun and intrigue of the pamphlet seems to be in this risky, delicate position it occupies somewhere between the two.