THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

Introduction

From Shakespeare’s First Folio to live recordings of experimental theatre, from Charlotte Brontë’s love letters to Wendy Cope’s emails, our collections offer unique, fascinating and unexpected sources for your research. Discover more about our manuscript, printed, digital and audiovisual collections here. Follow us on Twitter: @BLEnglish_Drama. Read more

11 January 2019

Harold Pinter: A Line, A Word, An Image

Today we launch a Harold Pinter retrospective in our Second Floor Gallery as part of the wider anniversary season of events marking ten years since his death. Focusing on Pinter’s creative process, this free display of manuscript reproductions from his Archive offers glimpses of some of his most famous plays at various stages in their development.

Antonia Fraser and The Pres and an Officer
Antonia Fraser and 'The Pres and an Officer', the Pinter sketch about a trigger-happy US president which she discovered in 2017. ‘The Pres and an Officer’ is © Fraser52 Limited.

In his Nobel Prize speech of 2005 Pinter noted that ‘most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word, or an image’. It was usually, in fact, a word or phrase – ‘What have you done with the scissors?’ in the case of The Homecoming - that was the starting point, closely followed by an image, typically of a configuration of characters in a room. Inspiration having struck, Pinter would put pen to paper in pursuit of the fleeting figures, working out who they were through the circuitous evasions and revelations of quotidian dialogue though always resisting too deep a probe into their backstories. These adventures on paper are what is on show in this new display.

Seeing Pinter’s large, energetic handwriting filling the pages of his yellow legal pads transports us back to the moment of creation. There are intriguing false starts and changes of mind in evidence, such as a deliberation over where to set the opening scene of Betrayal (a tea shop, flat or a pub) and a diagram suggesting a third presence in the enigmatic two-hander Landscape. The naming of characters (always a secondary act for Pinter) is revealed on the page as initially anonymous As and Bs are christened in later annotations. And there are, of course, many pauses peppering the manuscript pages, always denoted by a lower case ‘p’. According to Pinter in his 1962 speech to the National Student Drama Festival it was in these silences that his characters became most evident to him.

Taking the structure of Pinter’s great play Betrayal as a model, the display offers a selective reverse chronology of Pinter’s playwriting career, taking in the last lines of his final stage play Celebration (written in 1999) as well as early prose pieces that influenced his theatre writing. For those who’ve seen any of the ongoing Pinter at the Pinter season by the Jamie Lloyd Company there are numerous resonances with our selections: we have reproduced the notecard on which Pinter scribbled the threatening lines from One For The Road, performed so memorably by Anthony Sher in the recent 'Pinter One', as well as a number of other drafts which will be familiar to fans of the season. My favourite inclusions, though, are perhaps the early prose pieces which contain the seeds of Pinter’s playwriting career. The pieces in question are a 1955 short story called ‘The Examination’ in which the menacing figure ‘Kullus’ can be seen as a prototype of the threatening interlopers of later plays, and a first draft of Pinter’s biographical novel of competitive male friendship The Dwarfs begun in 1952. Both offer crucial clues to the dramatist that Pinter became and both deserve to be better known.

Although it has been ten years since Pinter’s death on Christmas Eve 2008, his plays continue to speak to us about today’s world, sometimes in astonishingly prescient ways. Pictured above is Antonia Fraser who came to the Library this week for a preview of the exhibition. She stands alongside a dramatic sketch she discovered in 2017 when turning the page of one of Pinter’s old legal pads kept by the phone for messages. There to her astonishment was ‘The Pres and an Officer’, a short piece in which a trigger-happy President of the United States is eager to ‘nuke London’. Donald Trump was entirely unknown to Pinter, but now we know what Pinter would have made of him, so to speak. It seemed fitting to include ‘The Pres’ in our display as a ‘first last look’ (to quote Samuel Beckett’s words about Betrayal) among the other drafts and photographs now on show.

Harold Pinter: A Line, A Word, An Image is on display in the British Library Second Floor Gallery until 17 March 2019.

Join Antonia Fraser and Michael Billington in conversation for Remembering Harold Pinter on Monday 4 March 2019.

04 January 2019

The Sun-Artist, the Typewriter and Bridge of the Ford

A guest blog by Susan Connolly, whose poetry pamphlet, The Sun-Artist, was published by Shearsman Books in 2013, and was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets. The Sun-Artist will be on display in the Treasures Gallery until the end of February as part of an exhibition which celebrates the 10 year anniversary of the Michael Marks Awards.

Sunlight, a big window, ruler, pencil, compass and tracing paper were the tools I used to write my first visual poems on sheets of white A4 paper – cutting and pasting, not on the computer, but with scissors and Prittstick. Written in 2005, these were freehand word-drawings of poems called ‘Mirrors’, ‘Many Selves’ and ‘Like Leaves on a Tree’.

Some of these early visual poems were published in Shearsman magazine in 2008. In early 2009 Shearsman Books published Forest Music, my second full-length collection of poetry. The collection is in two sections: Forest Music and Walking the Seawall. Walking the Seawall contains twenty-three visual poems.

In October 2009 a friend showed me the Olympia portable typewriter which she had bought in a charity shop. I looked at this object and a whole range of possibilities opened up in my mind. I borrowed her typewriter and set to work. The first poem I typed was ‘The Sun-Artist’. It required a huge amount of concentration not to make a mistake and have to start all over again. Later I copiedThe Sun-Artist’ onto my computer.

The idea for this poem came from a visit to the Cross of Muiredach in Monasterboice, near Drogheda, one July evening in 2009. This is an elaborately carved High Cross made of sandstone, dating to the 10th century. Its sides are covered with panels of interlace reminiscent of the Book of Kells. The interlace usually looks faded, but the way the sun shone on it that evening made it look new again. I wanted to depict this interlace in a poem. I wrote the line ‘deepshadowed sunset renews fading patterns’. Then I used these words re-creating how the interlace appeared,  renewed by the evening sun.  

My poetry moved increasingly from word-drawings to poetry which could be made on the typewriter and copied from there to computer. The best font for my work is Courier New, a font which gives equal space to each letter of the alphabet, just like the typewriter. I also realised that there were other possibilities on the computer: changing the size of the letters, line spacing, colour. Nowadays I use only the computer. However, my visual poems have been greatly influenced by my earlier engagement with the typewriter.               

In 2013 Tony Frazer of Shearsman Books asked me if I had enough visual poems for a chapbook. I had and so I concentrated on gathering individual poems into a collection. The Sun-Artist was the title I gave to the chapbook. Several poems had already been published in poetry journals, which was great, but sometimes they were printed too small so that the reader could barely see the letters. The chapbook was my chance to put things right, to have the poems on the page exactly as I wanted them. I made a mock-up of the book and went in search of the right order for the eighteen poems I had chosen.

The manuscript became proofs which were emailed back and forth until everything had settled into place. The cover image is from a poem which was originally in red and black. About six weeks later the first copies of The Sun-Artist arrived in the post. It was an incredible feeling to turn the pages of this very slim book and read the poems again.

 

Susan Connoly Blog

 

Cover page of The Sun-Artist.

With thanks to Susan Connolly for permission to use this image.

The Sun-Artist eventually led to the publication in 2016 of a full-length collection of visual poetry; eighty pages complete with introduction and notes. The main dilemma for me when approaching my third collection was whether it should contain visual poetry only or whether it should also include lyric poems many of which had been published in poetry journals. In the end I decided that Bridge of the Ford would consist entirely of visual poetry.

Bridge of the Ford has thirty-three visual poems. The book is in a larger than usual format to give the poems plenty of space. There are two sections: Bridge of the Ford and The Dream-Clock. The poems in the first part are arranged so that the reader can imagine drifting down the river Boyne in a boat, past the Neolithic tumulus of Dowth, past the mediaeval town of Drogheda (Droichead Átha / bridge of the ford) and out towards the sea. These sites are in my blood as I grew up and still live in this area.

And what happened to those lyric poems? Shearsman Books published them separately in a chapbook called The Orchard Keeper in 2017.

15 December 2018

Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets Announce 2018 Winners

By Imogen Durant, PhD Placement Student working on the library’s contemporary British poetry pamphlets and artists’ books.

On Tuesday 11th December the British Library hosted the 10th Awards Ceremony of the Michael Marks Awards.


Luke Thompson of Guillemot Press won the Michael Marks Publishers Award. Andrew Forster, who introduced the award, highlighted the meticulous craftsmanship and innovate design of Guillemot’s publications, which particularly impressed the judges.

 

MM1 resized
Luke Thompson giving his acceptance speech for the Publisher’s Award


Thompson highlighted the multisensory nature of the pamphlets that he produces when he explained that in addition to the unique look and rich texture, several of his pamphlets also have a distinctive smell, as their covers are made from the spent grain from a brewery.

Of And small  O at the Edge small
Of And, by Keith Waldrop, and O. At the Edge of the Gorge, by Martyn Crucefix, both published by Luke Thompson at Guillemot Press

PR (Ruth Palmer) won the illustration award for her artwork in Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah: The Song of the Willow Tit, published by Wild West Press, with poems by Steve Ely. The illustration award was introduced and presented by Sir Nicholas Penny, who gave a convincing imitation of a willow tit when announcing the pamphlet’s title.

Carol Rumens won the Poetry Award for her pamphlet Bezdelki, published by The Emma Press. The poetry award was introduced by Sasha Dugdale, one of this year’s judges.
 

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Carol Rumens giving her acceptance speech for the Poetry Award

Bezdelki contains a series of elegies for Rumens’ late partner, Yuri Drobyshev. Rumens said that the pamphlet provided her with means of remembering Yuri, and allowed her to explore her own identity after his death.


In a poem entitled ‘Vidua’ (on p. 19), she says:

I wasn’t a bride
I wasn’t a wife.
I’m not a widow.

Rumens explained that the size of the pamphlet form provided a vehicle for her to capture the ‘Bezdelki’, or ‘small things’, such as a hat and an overcoat, which appear in these poems. Dugdale highlighted the strength of Rumens’ imagination and the breadth of the allusions in her poems, which Rumens demonstrates in this pamphlet by including poems inspired by Osip Mandelstam and one which is narrated in the voice of the Nubian Pharaoh Taharqa.
 

Bezdelki small

Bezdelki by Carol Rumens

The awards were presented by Lady Marks, who gave a warm personal introduction to the evening. She outlined the Michael Marks Charitable Trust’s aims of preserving art and the environment in the UK, and emphasized her belief in the poetry pamphlet as being vital form in the creative force of the country. Lady Marks also began the evening’s readings with some sonnets by her late husband, Lord Marks of Broughton, the founder of the Michael Marks Charitable Trust. 
Congratulations to Luke Thompson, Carol Rumens and PR, and to all of those shortlisted for the 10th Michael Marks Awards.