Your pamphlet Epigraphs is a collection of quotes from a wide variety of sources, including contemporary poets, philosophers, films, song lyrics, comedians and one of your own Facebook updates in which you notice a parallel between the opening of The Muppet Movie and Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Can you say a few words on the idea behind this book and how you sequenced it?
I was at a reading once where the poet spent far too long introducing the multiple epigraphs to one of his pieces, and they turned out to be much more interesting than the subsequent poem itself. I wondered if you could therefore get away with just having epigraphs, so I put five epigraphs together that acted as a single poem. I think they work best when they share a theme but are taken from dramatically different sources (e.g. Blake and Buffy), partly to keep the reader on their toes, but also as a way to demonstrate that contemporary and / or apparently ‘casual’ sources can have just as much impact as ‘classical’ ones. We’re all living in one giant grey area, after all.
This was developed into a fuller sequence of 100 quotes partly through curious ambition and partly through confusion. The term ‘cento’ means a sort of patchwork poem that’s generally put together with source material not created by the writer. However, as I’m half-Italian, and the Italian word for 100 is ‘cento’, I somehow managed to internalise the notion that all centos therefore had to be 100 lines long. I’m quite grateful for this confusion though, as I’m not sure I would have had the gall to attempt it if I didn’t think it was already an existing form.
I tried to make the quotes as various as possible, but they’re almost all still highly personal to me. You don’t need to know the details to read the sequence though. I liked the idea of trying to harness the power of all these quotes, quotes each designed to have an individual impact, and see what their cumulative effect might be. The result is a cross-section of my brain, but hopefully one with a broader appeal and narrative drive that propels not-me readers through it.
Last month on September 18th was International Angela Lansbury Appreciation Day. Having crafted a (albeit slightly sinister) tribute in the form of your pamphlet Angela (illustrated by Howard Hardiman), can you explain what you admire about the actress Angela Lansbury and what your favourite Angela role is?
Sinister? How dare you. Well, yes, I suppose that’s fair. We combined Murder, She Wrote with Twin Peaks, after all… I grew up with Murder, She Wrote and still adore the optimistic benevolence and rational thinking of the Jessica Fletcher character. She retains hope for humankind, as opposed to so many other detective characters, and in a random cosmos devoid of meaning, being hopeful is more appealing to me than the alternative.
As for my favourite ever Angela Lansbury role? That would perhaps be Angela Lansbury herself. She’s just turned 91 and she’s still on the stage. She says things like: “I want to play real women. I don’t want to play stereotypes.”; “Better to be busy than to be busy worrying”; and, “I never have a sense of finishing up, just new things beginning.” Isn’t she marvellous?
In the latest issue of Poetry London you interview the twin poets Michael and Matthew Dickman and your final question to them is to ask how important they would say ‘play’ is in poetry. How important do you think ‘play’ is in your poetry?
Absolutely vital. Play is linked to experiment and exploration, and also to enjoyment. Play doesn’t have to imply lightheartedness and it doesn’t imply childishness. Play is fundamental, I think, to anyone interested in artistic expression, and communication.
You are the director of the Poetry Book Fair held each September in London, which has expanded significantly in the last five years. While working on the fair have you noticed any trends in poetry/ poetry publishing and would you say poetry is on a positive trajectory?
I could try to talk about trends in poems themselves, but with so much stuff being published at the moment (at least 180+ publishers in the UK bringing out books and pamphlets, and that doesn’t even include magazine publishers), I don’t know what I could say that isn’t enormously reductive or in ignorance of huge swathes of books I haven’t engaged with.
I can tell you which books have most excited poetry publishers this year though. We did a survey for our recent Poetry Almanac (a book produced by the Poetry Book Fair, listing UK poetry publishers and doubling as an anthology of this year’s poems, available on the website, shill, shill, shill). What was fascinating was the breadth of the resulting list, everything from Choman Hardi’s Considering the Women (Bloodaxe Books), to an anthology of poems inspired by The Simpsons (Clinic), The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara (University of California Press), Verity Spott’s TRANS* MANIFESTOS (Shit Valley), and ‘everything by Anne Carson I haven’t read yet’. Many of the books weren’t even published this year, which reinforces the sense that poetry doesn’t have the same imperative to be consumed immediately upon release as many other art forms do.
There were a handful of books that were mentioned repeatedly by various publishers though, which are worth repeating here I think (especially curious given the overlap with the Forward and T.S. Eliot Prize shortlists): Luke Kennard’s Cain (Penned in the Margins), Denise Riley’s Say Something Back (Picador), Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation (Carcanet) and Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake (Cape).
Poetry is on a positive creative trajectory I think – I’m not worried about the medium so much as the breadth of readership. We all have a responsibility to make sure that a diverse array of voices are heard, cultivated, published, shared and generally lavished with attention. As an example, poetry prize culture in the last couple of years has shown us that you get decidedly more interesting and diverse shortlists when you have a more interesting and diverse panel of judges. We need to keep looking outwards, not down at our feet.
Your love poem for Robot Unicorn Attack deals with the somewhat psychedelic and retro-styled video game of the same name, while you are also a fan of the recent and significantly more advanced planet exploration game No Man’s Sky. Can you say a few words on what you love about video games?
Video games let you die with few or no consequences, and then live again, often able to pick up right where you left off. I mean – that’s good for starters, right? They’re also a good way to combat boredom, and to practise problem solving and decision making (useful for someone with my many anxieties). They also include pastimes of the most familiar kind like Scrabble or Solitaire that you might play on your phone, that serve to distract, relax or refocus the mind. They’re also a way to experience new worlds, both visually and in terms of movement and motivation. They’re another medium, another art form, with as many possibilities for delight and dire abomination as any other. Also, and I don’t want to alarm anyone here, but – they’re really fun.
You co-edited the anthology Over the Line: an Introduction to Poetry Comics, published by Sidekick Books. What initially sparked your engagement with this hybrid genre and to what extent would you say this is a new form or a re-classification of an existing form?
I was pulled abruptly back into the world of comics when I began editing my husband’s scripts five or six years ago (he’s a comics writer). Returning to comics as an adult made me see them more clearly as an art form, and appreciate their great capacity for complex communication. I think they do lots of things similarly to poems, in terms of the compacting of information, and the reliance on the reader to do a lot of work. But they’re also very different, and seeing what comics choose to do with page structure and composition can be massively instructive to poets, or at least it is to me. Is poetry comics a new form? Hm. Let’s say it’s perhaps a hybrid form, and not worry too much about the word ‘new’. I don’t think the nomenclature is nearly as important as the messing around with form in the first place though. Form is there to be prodded and poked, so we can continue to explore and keep things interesting.
Chrissy Williams is a writer, editor and tutor living in London and is director of the Poetry Book Fair. She has previously worked in educational publishing, children’s publishing, in videogames magazines, as Digital Co-ordinator at the Poetry Library, and most recently as a comics editor. She is also currently teaching poetry at the University of Hertfordshire. Her first full collection of poems Bear will be published by Bloodaxe Books in 2017.
Her pamphlet Flying into the Bear was published in 2013 by HappenStance Press and was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Awards. The TLS called it “the most energetic, delightful collection you will read this year”. (That year.)
Her poems and essays have appeared in various places, including Adventures in Form, Poetry London, Poetry Review, The Rialto, The Scotsman, S/S/Y/K and Tears in the Fence and she has read at many venues, including the Southbank Centre and for BBC Radio 3. She is Joint Editor of the (currently snoozing) world’s first and finest edible poetry magazine: Poetry Digest.
Chrissy has three other pamphlets, most recently Epigraphs (if p then q), as well as The Jam Trap (Soaring Penguin) and ANGELA (Sidekick Books), both created in collaboration with comics artists (ANGELA originally started life as pamphlet/concrete poetry broadside Murder, She Wrote). She has taught on poetry and comics for the Poetry School, and run an informal poetry and comics workshop. There’s a poetry comics scrapbook online here.
She recently edited the UK’s first book on poetry comics for Sidekick Books: Over the Line: An Introduction to Poetry Comics. Alan Moore was kind enough to say “I really can’t recommend this venture highly enough”.