‘A beautiful endeavour’: Hilary Menos on Poetry Pamphlets

Hilary Menos was selected by Neil Astley, Michael Schmidt and Amy Wack as a winner of the 2019 International Book & Pamphlet Competition. Her winning collection, Human Tissue is published by Smith|Doorstop in February 2020.

Her first collection, Berg (Seren, 2009) won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2010, and she has previously won a Templar Pamphlet & Collection Award (2010) and the Poetry Business Book & Pamphlet Competition (2005). In this article, Hilary shares her thoughts about what a poetry pamphlet is, and offers advice on how to put one together.

A poetry pamphlet is a beautiful endeavour; it is a larger canvas than a single poem, and easier to sustain than a full collection. As a writer, it allows you to approach a thing from all sides, or take one approach and deepen or develop it, experimenting beyond the confines of forty lines without committing yourself to forty poems. As a reader, it’s a chance to get a taste of a new poet breaking into publication, or an established poet going off piste or riffing on a theme.

Previous winners of the Poetry Business Book & Pamphlet Competition have given excellent tips on how to put a pamphlet manuscript together. Like many others, I print everything out and lay the poems out on the floor or a big table and rearrange them over a period of days, weeks, sometimes months, looking at how the poems rub up against each other, how themes or narratives develop, whether I have used a particular word too often. I also like to make sure that there is some variety in form so, for example, I don’t have a whole bunch of poems in tercets together, unless there’s a reason for it. I show them to my husband and/or a couple of close friends, and I try to listen to what they say. After a while I get page-blind and have to put it all away for a few weeks. It’s a process of sifting, combing, allowing things to rise to the top, and recognising eventually that one poem is repeat business, another poem does not fit, or that the poem I wrote to fill a specific gap or bridge the distance between two others is simply not working, however much I want it to. The poems that I rescue from the reject pile and grant another go-round generally end up back in the bin. Less is usually more.

The Poetry Business Book & Pamphlet Competition is the best pamphlet competition out there by far, and I’m almost unspeakably proud to be among the number of poets who have won it.

Human Tissue was particularly important to me because it was rooted in a very personal experience – donating a kidney to my son Linus. I wanted to get it right for myself, and also for Linus. I absolutely didn’t want the pamphlet to be some kind of bloodletting or therapy. Obviously all poetry comes out of lived experience, but a poem must be more than that; the experience has to be transmuted into something separate, different, something which stands alone and carries its own truth. It must allow for a connection between my experience and that of the reader, making space for others to bring their own stuff to the poem and find their own meaning in it. Happily the three judges of the competition, Neil Astley, Michael Schmidt, and Amy Wack, were convinced enough; now it’s up to readers to determine whether I’ve succeeded, and up to future writers to continue to grapple with this issue.

Getting the phone call that I’d won the International Book & Pamphlet Competition was joyful and validating and a matter of great relief. The staff at the Poetry Business are a pleasure to work with, and Ann and Peter Samson are very fine editors. Just the process of honing your manuscript is enormously instructive. It’s the best pamphlet competition out there by far, and I’m almost unspeakably proud to be among the number of poets who have won it.

Exploring the tension between our need for spiritual comfort and the stark realities of science, Human Tissue tells of one family’s experience of kidney donation — their fears, hopes and losses — together with the history and future of organ donation, and the hard truths that people who live with chronic kidney disease have to face.

There is a genuine pressure of content in the best of these skilfully managed and imaginatively engaged poems. The evidently real life story as it unfolds is quietly told and affecting.

Neil Astley, Michael Schmidt and Amy Wack