In Praise of Pamphlets

From one perspective, contemporary poetry in the UK revolves around a single dominant model: the 60-page slim volume. Poets spend their early careers building up to that “breakthrough” first collection, and the successful ones continue in 60-page increments for the rest of their careers (punctuated by the occasional Selected or Collected to roll-up previous books). In this model, the <30 page pamphlet is an interim step between placing single poems in magazines and achieving 60-page legitimacy. The good poems from a pamphlet will be republished in a poet’s first full collection; the bad will be quietly forgotten.

This view casts the pamphlet as an ephemeral rite of passage rather than a fully-realized thing in its own right. In doing so it ignores the energy, focus and taut artistry of many good pamphlets. Far from being a mere stepping-stone to (often illusory) slim volume glory, pamphlets are a serious and vital form of poetry publishing.

Part of the appeal of pamphlets comes from the same factors that have made the 60-page slim volume so dominant. A 60 page book is pretty much the minimum you can economically print for perfect binding in a trim size aimed at distribution and sales via bookshops. Which is a publisher’s way of saying: if you want to sell poetry books in the same way that you sell novels, the 60-page slim volume is the optimum format.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, and every year some wonderful slim volumes are published (I’m not trying to rubbish the 60-page format – quite the opposite, given the enthusiastic reviews elsewhere on this site). But there are some problems with this “monoculture” view of poetry publishing:

  1. The material majority of sales of contemporary poetry (around 80%, depending on whose estimate you’re using) don’t happen in bookshops. As well as online intermediaries and sales direct from publishers’ websites, a non-trivial number are bought direct from the author – including at readings and other live events.
  2. Most poetry books lose money because they don’t sell enough of their printrun. Although digital printing has made short printruns of 60-page slim volumes more viable (allowing forward-looking publishers to reduce their “investment” in unsold stock), each remaindered copy of a 60-page book is nonetheless significantly more expensive than each unsold copy of a pamphlet.
  3. A lot of poets struggle to produce enough good material to fill a 60 page volume every ~5 years. There are exceptions to this, but there are plenty of slim volumes padded-out with inferior poems.

Pamphlets are ideally-adapted to the contemporary poetry ecosystem, where more copies are sold post-reading in the backroom of a pub than over the counter in a high street bookshop. They also give readers an affordable way to discover new authors (on average, pamphlets are priced at around half as much as a 60-page slim volume). More importantly, they give 20-30 pages of concentrated poetry with less pressure to pad out with sub-par poems. Unless a poet genuinely has 60 pages of first-rate poems ready, I’d always rather have 25 pages of brilliance for £4 than an extra 35 pages of padding for £8.

Although pamphlets are generally less expensive than full collections, many still have high production values. A random sweep of my shelf has just found four examples: Hang Time by Graeme Richardson (Landfill Press, 2006); Scissors, Paper, Stone by Gina Wilson (Happenstance, 2010); Chrysalis by Erin Halliday (Templar Poetry, 2012); and The Escape Artists by Ben Parker (tall-lighthouse, 2012). Because this isn’t a review I’m not going to dwell on the content, other than to say that all four are excellent – and to urge you to read John Field’s review of The Escape Artists here.

For today I’m interested in how each publisher has produced something stylish that doesn’t shy away from its own pamphlet-ness, but each in a very different way. Hang Time is a clean A6 stapled booklet that’s an ideal vehicle for the concentrated sonnet sequence inside. Chrysalis is a small stitch-bound book with French flaps, a gloss cover and four-colour images (high-end production values in miniature). The Escape Artists has a larger trim size than either, like a thin cross-section sliced from a literary paperback. Scissors, Paper, Stone is a simple but elegant A5 staple-bound booklet on cream paper (I really like the Happenstance house style). Design-wise (and content-wise), all four can more than hold their own alongside the full collections on our bookshelf.

Pamphlet-length collections have a long and distinguished history (to pluck one obvious example, arguably the most important poem of the 20th century was published as a pamphlet in 1922). They are also attracting serious critical attention today, with dedicated review sites such as Sphinx or Sabotage and good coverage on many poetry review blogs.

There’s some fantastic poetry being published in 60-page full collections, but I’d also urge anyone who’s curious about contemporary poetry to spend some time on pamphlet publishers’ websites and to hunt down some of the innovative, fresh and great-value work that’s being published in 30 or fewer pages.

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8 thoughts on “In Praise of Pamphlets

  1. Pingback: Long or short? | The Antiphon Blog

    1. Gareth Prior Post author

      Thanks for the link – it’s interesting to put all of these trends (or observations) alongside each other. I also wonder how much of the proliferation in poetry publishing is linked to the way online/digital media make it easier to connect with what would otherwise be niche audiences.

  2. Christie Williamson

    I’ve got a lot of time for pamphlet poetry. I think the rule for book length collections should be that if you need to pad it out, it isn’t ready. I also feel there’s something more inherently poetic about the pamphlet. If poetry is using language to go beyond where language can (a rough and ready definition but what isn’t), the pared back and precision guided pamphlet is much more appropriate to the form than something longer. That said, I’ve read plenty book length collections which are indeed pared back and precision guided.

    Nice post.

    1. Gareth Prior Post author

      Thanks, Christie. I agree that there are plenty of full-length collections that manage to stay pared-back throughout and avoid padding; and also plenty that don’t. And I really like the idea of a “precision guided” pamphlet.

  3. C. A. LaRue

    We were just having this discussion about the state of poetry publishing in the US. I talked about why chapbooks (aka pamphlets) are the way to go. Here’s the link to the post.
    Also, discussed why poetry can’t find its public in that article. Seems to be a big factor in my mind. Great ideas about how to combat that in the Ploughshares Part Two (see the link in the comments of my post). I’m liking some of the things that Emma Press is doing over there. Have you seen the video for “Symbiosis” to promote their newest pamphlet? I’d love to see you do a followup about some of the things that are being done over there along those lines.

    1. Gareth Prior Post author

      I agree (strongly) with all of this: videos, tie-ins, live events, soundcloud – anything to get “outside the poetry box” (as you aptly put it). Thanks for the links. I was talking about this whole issue with a marketing friend recently and may well do a follow-up post along the lines you suggest.

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