Poet in Profile: The Cream of the Milk

CreamoftheMilk3 - model with copy from launch

Part of the fun of contemporary poetry is the fact that it is culturally marginal in one sense (at least compared to TV box-sets and Tumblr) but has a large dedicated audience.

That combination of sometimes fringe-y art concerns and an attentive public affords poets and publishers a chance to play around, resurrecting old formats to suit their muse. Poetry has kept otherwise obsolete formats like pamphlets and chapbooks alive.

This issue’s poetry page focusses on a broadsheet: a pamphlet which folds out to a poster-size, entitled The Cream of the Milk, a collection of clerihews (whimsical, four line biographical poems) on famous, influential or infamous women from Irish history and legend. The poet is Pauline Hall, and each of her poems is accompanied by an illustration, by cartoonist and graphic designer Alan Nolan.

Broadsheets are traditionally a cheap, almost disposable style of presentation intended, like chapbooks, to be shared or traded, rather than necessarily being given pride of place on a book shelf. The Cream of the Milk is no cheap mass-produced artefact, though. Each copy from the limited edition run is handsomely and vividly printed in full colour, on quality paper. NewsFour spoke with the creators about their collaboration.

Pauline Hall is of Dublin 4 descent, having grown up “on the borders” of Ballsbridge and Sandymount. “My mother always wanted us to say we were from Ballsbridge if asked,” she jokingly confided. “Sandymount was regarded as less salubrious in those days.”

First we discuss the form of the poems: Clerihews are very brief, just a pair of rhyming couplets, named for their inventor, the poet Eric Bentley Clerihew. “They’re quirky takes on their subjects, not necessarily satirical. The first line is just the person’s name, then it’s a simple A-A, B-B rhyme.”

Hall explains that the idea for the work came from a course she took at the TCD School of Creative Writing on Westland Row. “Professor Gerald Dawe mentioned to me that we were in the very room where Oscar Wilde had been born. And I don’t know why, but that got me thinking about Speranza, Lady Wilde. The Cream of the Milk became about women who had defied their times, really. From a separate part of my mind came the idea of the Clerihew.”

The subjects range from the familiar to the obscure, from Nora Barnacle or Constance Markievicz to Peig Sayers, Grawnawale to Iseult the Fair. The illustrations, by Alan Nolan, are crisp, colourful and appealingly stylised. Alan – who comics’ fans might know as the co-creator of Sancho, or the writer/artist of Fintan’s Fifteen – met Hall at the West Cork Literary Festival. “We got chatting about the Festival in general, and I mentioned to her I was a writer and illustrator of children’s books. She told me she was working on a poetry project about Irish women, famous and infamous, and I thought it sounded intriguing.”

The art style was one he had been toying with for some time. “Totally different style to my usual cartoony pen-and-ink illustration style I use in my children’s books. It works really well in a colour context and uses simplified, stylised lines and flat colour shapes, drawn first in pencil and then scanned and rendered as vector files on an Apple Mac.”
As a collaboration, the result is an uncommon but complimentary mix of word and image. The Cream of the Milk may be just that, of this year’s literary oddities. And who knows, maybe it will spark a broadsheet comeback? Time will tell.
See www.creamofthemilk.com to order a copy.
By Rúairí Conneely