The Keep News: Anna Mendelssohn archive now available to researchers

29 September 2015                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

By Simon Coleman, Archivist

University of Sussex Library Special Collections and The Keep are pleased to report that the archive of the avant-garde poet and artist, Anna Mendelssohn, is now catalogued and available to researchers.

This rich and varied collection comprises many thousands of draft poems (mostly unpublished) and drawings, with correspondence, life-writing, paintings, prose writing and other papers. It includes over 770 notebooks and sketchbooks which provide a wealth of insight into both her creative processes and private thought world.

Anna Mendelssohn (original name: ‘Anne Mendleson’) was born into a Jewish family in Stockport, 1948. She became involved in radical left-wing politics at the University of Essex between 1967 and 1969: she dropped out after her second year. As one of the ‘Stoke Newington Eight’, she was convicted in 1971 (after the longest trial in British legal history) of being involved in the bombing campaign conducted by the ‘Angry Brigade’ and sentenced to ten years in prison. After her release on parole in 1976 she returned to academic study, eventually winning a place at Cambridge University in 1983 to take the English Tripos. During her undergraduate years (which extended to 1989 because of illness and personal difficulties) she self-published a number of small poetry collections and began contributing to journals. In the 1990s she had three poetry pamphlets (beginning with Viola tricolor, 1993) published by Cambridge-based ‘Equipage’ and began to achieve wider recognition. Selections of her work appeared in significant anthologies such as Conductors of Chaos (ed. Iain Sinclair, 1996) and, in 2000, her only perfect-bound volume, Implacable Art, was published by Folio Equipage. In Conductors of Chaos she was anthologised with a group of avant-garde poets associated with the British Poetry Revival.

Pages from notebook c. 1975 (ref: SxMs109/2/A/13)

Pages from notebook c. 1975 (ref: SxMs109/2/A/13)

A highly experimental writer, operating on the outer fringes of the human imagination, Mendelssohn was influenced by 20th century French surrealist poetry and writers such as ‘H.D.’ and Osip Mandelstam. Her work explored feminist ideology, themes of loss, love and violence, experience of nature and radical left-wing political thought. Her art was also innovative, taking inspiration from Cubo-surrealism.

There is much content of a very personal nature within the archive, some of it contained in her letters. Her correspondents were wide-ranging, and included poets, academics, artists, writers, editors and family members. Several of these poets and academics etc were Mendelssohn’s friends and her long draft letters to them often covered an astonishing diversity of literary, artistic and social topics, with lengthy (and often unhappy) narration of her personal troubles and the turbulent events of her youth. While the bulk of the collection covers the period 1977 to 2009, there is significant earlier material. Twenty exercise and drawing books which Mendelssohn used during her incarceration in Holloway Prison survive and there are also items from her childhood, chiefly secondary school exercise books and adjudicators’ forms from elocution and drama competitions.

The cataloguing of the Mendelssohn archive will open up the work of this unique writer and political activist to researchers across a wide spectrum of interests and topics. The collection will be valuable for exploring areas such as female and late modernist / contemporary avant-gardism, feminist literature, 20th century political activism and its relationship to art, and prison writing.