The Anglophone tradition doesn’t have a lot of time for shortness. Notwithstanding Shakespeare’s ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ (quoth Polonius in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark) or, say, Ezra Pound’s early Modernist quasi-haiku –
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet black bough –
and subsequent periodic haiku mountains, the Anglophone poet has tended to like their poem to be a solid steak and kidney pie rather than a sliver of carrot with half a bay leaf on it. While Dryden and co picked up on the Horatian Ode, there was less take-up of forms such as those of Martial’s epigrams, still less the accidental minimalism of what’s left of Sappho. The quatrains of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat translation seem to have been much read but little emulated.
As in so many things, Emily Dickinson is the exception here: all those hundreds of quatrains foreshadow the early to mid-20th century’s interest in shorter forms. There was a strong minimalist streak to Imagism and Objectivism, and in their different ways, Lorine Niedecker and Charles Reznikoff made a career (largely) of smallness. Basil Bunting’s self-admonitions of parsimony of line resulted in some minimalist work as well. There’s also the concrete tradition, with Ian Hamiliton Finlay’s ‘Windflower’ perhaps taking things as far as they can go in this direction. Not to forget Baldrick’s impression of WW1 artillery in the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth.
At a recent reading in Berlin, US psychedelic poet Will Alexander pointed out that, for him at least, it doesn’t matter what length of form you’re working with as a poet, minimal or epic, the whole of life and the universe has to go into it (especially the universe). Debatable perhaps, but it does point up the paradox of the short form: precisely the apparent easiness of the form, the few words it needs, constitutes its enormous difficulty (this applies, of course, to lyric poetry in general, but it’s even more pronounced with short forms). Every single word draws attention to itself, to all its aspects and associations, in a way that just isn’t the case in much bigger forms. On a bad day it’s throwaway, on a good day it’s something you’ll keep forever. It requires hardcore editing skills, or total genius inspiration.
Given the relative marginality of the various short forms in English-language poetry – I mean in terms of prominence, not of the practitioners’ achievements – it’s not surprising that poets interested in writing this length often look elsewhere for their models. Many readers of this blog will be familiar with Longbarrow poet Matthew Clegg’s Edgelands sequence of urban tankas. And at least two strongly translocal poets writing now have absorbed other traditions to pare things down; George Messo (whose 2006 book Entrances I reviewed here), and now Philip Rowland, long-term Tokyo resident and editor of the superbly produced and excellently named NOON: Journal of the Short Poem, which evidences the wealth of the minimalist tradition, resolutely international and, perhaps for that reason, little engaged with in Brexitland for example. There is nothing throwaway about what he writes.
Bear with me, I’ll get to the book in a sec. I have a pet cod-theory on how poetry styles can be categorized according to the number of readings/hearings they implicitly demand of the reader/hearer. Slam poetry (on a bad day, which is, unfortunately, most days) can and must work with only one run-through. Typical UK ‘mainstream’ poetry requires two reads: on the first you don’t quite get it, but don’t worry because by the end of the second read all has been revealed. More or less explicitly Modernist-derived poetry varies quite considerably in its expectations: some offers total initial resistance, but persistence can pay off. To my mind, the more interesting strands tend to give something up straight away whilst just as much, if not more, can be discovered upon subsequent reads, ideally indefinitely and infinitely (this is what W.S. Graham did on a good day, of which there were many, and that is why he was possibly the greatest Anglophone poet of the 20th century – bam!). The pseudo-stuff, such as that which has absorbed J.H. Prynne’s surface style without the discursive substance when it’s there, gives nothing up straight away. This isn’t necessarily a disqualification, though it is banking on the reader having some other reason to not go and load the dishwasher. But subsequent reads reveal nothing more because there is nothing more.
Philip Rowland’s poems run totally counter to all this. The first reading yields a pretty rapid and apparently complete perception and meaning. Because of the brevity, a second read can follow this quickly and painlessly, offering up at least the prospect of a quite different or additional reading:
in the hush before music
the music of who
I am not
With the poet’s geographical location in mind, it’s easy to see the haiku tradition behind him:
Prelude in C –
deep in the piano lid.
I’m not aware, though, of another contemporary poet who shows so clearly what can be done in English in the spirit of haiku. The poetry demonstrates how syllable-counting is secondary to, and a distraction from, the haiku aesthetic: those 17 syllables of the classical Japanese haiku contain less semantic information than 17 syllables of English (unless those 17 syllables happen to be pronounced by [insert name of minister/apparatchik you particularly despise]). The key thing is the haiku’s lightness and immediacy – less superdense white dwarf, more returning comet:
listening for the sound
of our listening.
Those three poems form the book’s ‘Prelude’. The music continues: prospective parenthood, existence, our relationship with the dead, public transport, and the experience of the translocal:
still evening –
at home –
in a foreign land
going out of my way
to step in old snow
I have another pet cod-theory whereby lines get more semantically difficult to manage the shorter they are. This is because there are fewer words to do the sense work, assuming that a line visually and aurally draws attention to itself as a unit of sense. The corollary of this is that lines get more rhythmically difficult to manage the longer they are, as there’s always a threat they’ll break in half. This is why we don’t have too many septameters and octometers, and explains the success of the iambic pentameter, the compromise candidate of the English tradition: enough words to get enough sense, but not so many syllables as to become unwieldy.
There’s an odd way, though, in which all that reverses when you get down to the one-word line, which Rowland and others successfully use (the Maine poet Peter Kilgore was expert at this). The vertical replaces the horizontal as the main axis, and the sense that would normally be spread through a line is now spread through the whole poem, though with an invitation to dwell on each word and its possibilities:
Time for my final pet cod-theory: it’s not a bad idea for a poet to gradually formulate, over time, a few principles that describe and drive their practice to date, in other words, to have a sense of what they’ve been doing. They can then purposively try out forms that deliberately run against this and see where it gets them. In Philip Rowland’s case, there are some discursive pieces, longer texts, as well as poems whose initial reading offers more resistance, though never battening down all hatches. There are short prose pieces, visuals and founds, permutations, puns, word dissections, a moving recollection of a loved one’s death, syntactic puzzles –
small hours the squares of night none fits
Most things are short here, but nothing brief. Never mono-layered, each page to be paused over and returned to, a linger rather than a slog. These 80 pages have a lot of white space and every bit of it is (no pun intended) justified. Time breaks into small sections to be allowed to melt rather than be chewed –
in the time it takes the temple bell
Simple words with a life behind them. Another poetry is possible. Something other than other –
getting or not getting the last word
Philip Rowland’s Something Other Than Other is published by Isobar Press (Tokyo/London). Click here for further details of the book. Alistair Noon’s pamphlets with Longbarrow Press (Across the Water, Animals and Places and Swamp Area and his translation of Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman) are available here. A new pamphlet, Quad, will appear from Longbarrow Press in spring 2017. His full-length collections include Earth Records (2012) and The Kerosene Singing (2015), both from Nine Arches Press. Surveyors’ Riddles, a collaboration with Giles Goodland, is published by Sidekick Books.
The city-states of ancient Greece had a name for their artistic, political and spiritual centre: the agora, an open, expansive ‘gathering place’, in which the polis would assemble for military duty and listen to consular speeches. Over time, the political function of the agora was moderated by its use as a marketplace, with merchants setting up their stalls between colonnades. The later Greek verbs agorázō (“I shop”) and agoreúō (“I speak in public”) reflect the dual life of the agora as a commercial and civic space, and, perhaps, embody an idea (or ideal) of interdependency. It’s an idea that I’d like to explore, and affirm, while also paying tribute to some of the people and collectives whose inspiration and support has been invaluable to me (and to Longbarrow Press) this year. In England (if not the UK), the cultural and political narrative is, all too frequently, one of mute, impersonal, frictionless transactions; disconnection, dispossession, division; a retreat into echo chambers and virtual exclaves. There’s a case to be made for this, of course, and the claims that our public discourse has been cheapened, that our civic spaces have been eroded. It’s not the only story, though.
Longbarrow Press was founded in 2006, and was initially funded with some of the income from my job as a financial services administrator. When I left the security of a full-time (albeit poorly-remunerated) employed position in 2012, to relocate from Swindon to Sheffield and to give my full attention to Longbarrow’s development, I’d barely addressed the question of the press’s economic survival (or my own). My savings wouldn’t last forever, and the prospect of working entirely from home, with little of the routine association with which I’d become familiar in an open-plan office, was faintly alarming. Slowly, I began to make contact with people in my new surroundings, and further afield, picking up bits and pieces of freelance work. Among the first of these projects was Place & Memory, a creative professional development programme devised and mentored by Judit Bodor, Emma Bolland and Tom Rodgers (aka Gordian Projects), taking eight Leeds-based artists into the city for sessions of collective site research, documented through a range of media (photography, film, audio, drawing, found objects, poetry and prose. Some of this material appears in a book). I was recruited as a sound recordist for the project, and found myself spending more and more time at Inkwell Arts in Chapel Allerton, north Leeds, where the group was headquartered. Inkwell is a community-focused arts space, cafe and studio complex on the site of a former pub, renovated and adapted over several years, offering structured support for creative individuals as part of their recovery from mental health issues. The cafe and gallery is the hub, a bright, open, accessible room, enabling conversation between friends and strangers, planned and unplanned encounters. After the project drew to a close in summer 2014, I found that I missed the artists, the staff, the space. Fortunately, I was invited back at the start of this year, working with a new intake of artists to develop websites showcasing their creative CVs and works-in-progress. Most of the sessions were 1-1 tutorials, with space for discussion, application, and growth, the focus and pace varying from one hour to the next. Invariably, I’d be asked at least one question to which I didn’t have an immediate answer, and we’d work out a solution together. There was a sense of shared discovery in each of these encounters: listening, looking, learning. The mentoring programme spanned three months, time enough to rethink my ideas about dialogue, project development and workspace.
A week or so after leaving Inkwell, I returned to Leeds for the opening of Shoddy, a group exhibition organised and curated by disability rights activist Gill Crawshaw. The exhibition was both a collective exploration of reused textiles (alluding to the original meaning of ‘shoddy’: new cloth made from woollen waste, a process patented in West Yorkshire) and a creative challenge (or rebuke) to the government’s ‘shoddy’ treatment of disabled people. Fittingly, the venue was the former premises of an Italian clothing wholesaler, now ‘repurposed’ by Live Art Bistro, a Leeds-based, artist-led organisation. The preview was packed, and, unlike some that I’ve attended, the work on display was central, not peripheral, to the occasion. And it was fresh, the thinking and the making, shaped from recycled materials, installed in a secondhand space. Felt. Cloth. Polythene. Paper. Yarn. Natalia Sauvignon’s ‘Beautiful but Deadly’, a sculpture utilising woollen remnants, plastic plants, seashells from the east coast, human hair. ‘Shoddy Samplers’, a duo of embroidered textiles by Faye Waple, juxtaposing the early and later usages of ‘shoddy’ (as noun and adjective). A collaborative, multi-sensory wall hanging by Pyramid of Arts, incorporating marks, stitches and woven parts from each of its members. All the leftovers from the marketplace, the scraps and offcuts, gifts passing from hand to hand. A few months after the first Shoddy exhibition, Gill hatched another, to be held at Inkwell in August. She had a small budget for a print publication, drawing on texts and photographs from the first show, and asked me if I’d be interested in taking on the design and editing work. I said yes, and we met to discuss the brochure spec. We agreed that the Shoddy booklet should aim to meet the accessibility criteria of the exhibitions. Translated into print, this meant taking care to ensure that the page layouts were interesting, without presenting obstacles for readers with visual or cognitive impairments. We settled on Futura, a clean, modern sans serif typeface, for the headline and body text (the latter in 12pt throughout); paragraphs flush left; black body text with blue titling; wide margins; minimal italicisation. Although I’d spent several years refining my approach to design with many of these questions in mind, it was the first time I’d asked them in the interests of something other than my own aesthetic. A printed page, like a public place, should invite us in, without clutter or impediment; once inside, it should enable us to navigate, to apprehend each part and to make connections, to read the space between columns. Gill, assisted by volunteers at Inkwell, arranged the Shoddy display with good sightlines, texts and labels at a height accessible to wheelchair users, and a clear, inventive visual narrative from wall to wall. As with the first show, it developed from a sense of community, affirmed and renewed by the audience at the opening night at Inkwell, and in the days that followed. People gathering, talking, drinking coffee, tea, taking in the work.
I picked up the Shoddy assignment the day after Hillsfest, an ambitious arts weekender for North Sheffield, conceived and directed by Karen Sherwood (founder of Sheffield’s Cupola Gallery) and staged in my own community of Hillsborough. I’ve reflected on my part in the festival (as curator and MC of the spoken word programme) in an earlier blog post, but I’d like to restate my appreciation for Karen, and acknowledge the extent to which her ethos (as a gallery owner, arts entrepreneur and community organiser) has influenced my own. Sheffield is, by common consent, a welcoming city; Cupola has always been among its most welcoming spaces. Visitors are greeted with free coffee (and, if they’re new to the gallery, a brief tour) and immediately put at ease. The work on display is as varied, challenging and thoughtfully presented as you’ll find in any contemporary art space, and it’s framed by warmth, not cool detachment. Karen, it must be said, is a resourceful, effective salesperson (a key factor in the survival and growth of Cupola over the last 25 years), but she has no appetite for persuading customers to buy things that they don’t need. People trust her judgment, and, in turn, learn to trust their own. At first, I wasn’t convinced that I had all the skills required for the Hillsfest role, but Karen believed that I was equal to the task, so I came to believe this too. It helped that the festival team felt like a small community, working for the benefit of a larger community, one nested inside the other. It’s important to me and, I think, to others, that these principles of openness and interdependency should be to the fore in every Longbarrow event, shared within the collective and with the audience. Our long-running series of poetry walks (the most recent of which took place in the Rivelin Valley a few months ago, led by Karl Hurst and Fay Musselwhite) is, among other things, a space for conversation, conviviality, companionship. The landscape invites us to listen, to catch fragments of observational detail, musings on ecology and history, anecdote and conjecture. We all learn, even (or especially) those of us who have been walking these paths for years, we all gain. I don’t think of ‘the local’ as something to be fetishised, monetised, or, for that matter, disparaged. I don’t understand the recent use of ‘community’ as a pejorative term, a prefix that limits or weakens a project or initiative. It tells me that there’s something at stake. A few months ago, I took part in the Small Publishers Fair at London’s Conway Hall, organised by Helen Mitchell. It was the second year that Longbarrow Press had taken a stall at SPF (sharing, once again, with Gordian Projects); as in 2015, I was struck by the sense of common endeavour, mutual interest and support that prevailed throughout (which some might find unusual in what is, ostensibly, a marketplace). We might attribute this to several factors (none of them predominant): the character of the artists and publishers, selected by Helen; her calm, friendly, positive influence, sincere engagement and focused direction; the volunteer teams; the audiences, some of whom I’d encountered at previous events, who brought their conversations to our tables, and made the exchanges reciprocal, not transactional; and the Conway Hall itself, built in 1929 by nonconformists (the Conway Hall Ethical Society now advocates secular humanism), and still an important gathering place for political and cultural events. It was Helen who made me aware of the hall’s history as a meeting place for collective walks; the society’s members would congregate at 25 Red Lion Square, then set out for Bloomsbury and Clerkenwell. In the heart of the city, yet altogether local. A community in itself, and a place for communities to gather, from near and far.
It was the spirit of the Small Publishers Fair that had called me back for a second year, and which I now sought to muster in Sheffield. On the last Saturday of November, I presented an Independent Publishers Book Fair at Bank Street Arts, in the city’s Cathedral Quarter, with the support of Tom and Andrew at BSA and Emma Bolland (who was also staffing the Gordian Projects stall at the fair, and curating a programme of talks, readings and projections in the evening). I’d participated in two previous book fairs at Bank Street Arts, and wondered if a one-day event, along similar lines, might be viable; Tom and Andrew were immediately receptive to the idea, and put their creative and technical resources at our disposal. The opportunity to invite presses whose work I admired was a privilege; happily, almost everyone I contacted was able to take part. The line-up comprised mostly Sheffield-based (or Sheffield-affiliated) publishers and artists – And Other Stories, enjoy your homes, Gordian Projects, Joanne Lee, Longbarrow Press, The Poetry Business, Tilted Axis Press, West House Books – with others from further afield: Bradical (Bradford), Comma Press (Manchester), Jean McEwan (West Yorkshire), Peepal Tree Press (Leeds). This was the balance I’d hoped we might achieve: artists’ books, poetry, fiction, art writing, literary criticism, zines; a showcase for some of the work being published in Sheffield, while making (or renewing) connections with fellow practitioners in the north of England. As well as being a one-day ‘marketplace’, I wanted the fair to offer an opportunity for creative exchanges, unhurried conversations, surprise and reciprocity. I knew that everyone I’d invited would have something to contribute, and I was especially pleased that Jean McEwan and Bradical (who shared a table on the day) were able to take part. Jean is a collage artist, a maker of zines and ‘altered postcards’, and founder of Wur Bradford, an art and social space in a stall in Kirkgate Market, central Bradford. The stall hosts printmaking and zine-making workshops, art parties, community dialogues, informal education sessions, artists’ talks, and more. Bradical (who I first met at a Wur Bradford event) have been an important part of this development, challenging Islamophobia and stereotyping through pointed and playful zines and actions, and sharing Jean’s DIY ethic and strategies for engagement. Jean has invited me to speak at a couple of Wur Bradford events in the past few years, and I’m always humbled and inspired by the creativity, generosity, and energy in the room. On Saturday 26 November, these forces were at work at Bank Street Arts, in the dialogues and discoveries, the acts of friendship and solidarity. Jean said something about the inherent value of being in a room with people, of simply talking with them, and I remembered something else that she’d said, that validation was nothing to do with status, or sales, that it is something that happens in the act of exchange. I thought of my mother, now in her late 70s, staffing the Lawn Community Centre Christmas Bazaar that same day, in Swindon, many miles south. The community centre was a group sketch in the 1970s, and was eventually realised in 1999, on the site of an extinct pub. The intervening decades were spent fundraising, campaigning, organising, and challenging indifferent councillors (who maintained that the project was futile, then declared it a success shortly after it opened). Through it all, the community association kept their nerve, their humour, their belief. I watched them, a child of the estate, helping out with jumble sales and recycling drives, I saw what they could do, working together, supporting each other.
Finally, I’d like to thank someone whose support and creative stimulus has been invaluable throughout 2016, as it has been for several years; the artist and writer Emma Bolland, without whom many of the people, places and projects mentioned in this piece would almost certainly be unknown to me. There is no debt, only reciprocity, and work continuing.
Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press. He tweets (as The Halt) here. The second edition of East Wind, a pamphlet comprising three prose sequences and one haiku sequence, is available now from Gordian Projects; click here for further details.
In making an application for a fellowship of the Higher Education Academy, I was invited to reflect on the philosophy behind my teaching practice. As I teach creative writing in a university, and am a working poet, you would expect there to be a strong relationship between my teaching and my creative practice. I had some rewarding conversations with a colleague about the education philosophy of Ivan Illich, and his work Deschooling Society (1971). If you’re not familiar with Illich, he believed there are roughly two types of education: one based on the notion of syllabus, legitimised by authority, and designed to serve its agendas; and one based on the notion of conviviality, whereby people come together to learn what they want to learn – that is, what is convivial to them. If the former is disseminated through conventional institutions, the latter could be organised through what Illich described as ‘learning webs’ – or informal networks.
My colleague and I agreed that conviviality is central to creative practice – and that if we were to explore this principal more freely, we would need to set something up outside the conventional syllabus, and the orthodox classroom. This is why we created the Co-Conspirators salon in Derby, a space for students, ex-students and creative practitioners to come together and exchange passions, interests and ideas in the spirit of convivial learning. The group has been meeting for over a year. It’s both a supplement to the creative writing degree, and an open forum.
Going back to my earlier question – about the link between my teaching philosophy and my creative practice – I realise that both are tied up with notions I have about the value of being self-taught, of being an autodidact. My own writer’s apprenticeship followed this path – as many have in the past. I first recognised the value of poetry whilst I was undertaking low-paid, low-status jobs, in my twenties, not when I was in conventional education. Whilst working as an ice-cream man, someone gave me an anthology of poems, because I looked bored. A poem called ‘Roe Deer’, by Ted Hughes, switched on my whole nervous system, and from then on I was curious. Later, I was employed by Argos as a Christmas temp, working in the basement – filtering out a soundtrack of Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door. I carried a copy of Ted Hughes in one pocket, and a copy of T. S. Eliot in the other. I inhabited these books, and began making my own incantations out of words.
One thing I worry about, now I teach creative writing in a university, is that I’m serving two phenomena I’m uncomfortable with: a cultural addiction to syllabus, and a possible institutionalising of creative practice, through affiliation with the orthodoxies of academe. Let me take care: I’m not questioning the value of the best work undertaken by my colleagues and myself in higher education. You will certainly find a healthy spirit of imagination and integrity disseminated by creative writing staff at Derby University. Artists need to balance integration and differentiation in their creative lives, and there is value in learning how to integrate with cultural institutions. Equally, the differentiation that occurs along the autodidact’s less orthodox path is of value too. Illich wrote eloquently about how the position of the autodidact has been discredited in modern society, and how this has perpetuated the interests and economy of syllabus and power. Become too integrated, and you risk being institutionalised, addicted to validation; but become too differentiated and you risk being nowhere.
Perhaps some students sense this, and this is why they feel they must chase grades rather than pursue passions, or get lost in a subject. Of course, as an ex-student of mine told me recently, it is possible to do both – that the differentiated passions can lead to the grades.
Let me write briefly about the first autodidact I knew: my grandfather. He began his working life as a butcher’s boy, in London, eventually becoming a butcher’s driver. During the blitz he was a fire-warden, and the story goes that this offered him an experience that changed his life. After an air raid, he gained entry into an exclusive London hotel and restaurant. He was incensed by the luxury he witnessed there. At a time where the London poor were struggling with rationing, the wealthy were dining extravagantly. After the war, he left London, and travelled north, where he taught himself to be a joiner and interior decorator, and where he helped build houses, churches and schools for ordinary people. He taught himself the basics of car mechanics too, and, when he retired, taught himself to build boats. He made a cabin cruiser out of plywood and fibreglass – a boat I’ve written about in the poem ‘Jasmine’, from The Navigators.
When we were children, my sister and I received many home-made toys and presents from him: bikes, sledges, go-carts, model yachts, doll’s houses, a see-saw that also span around like a merry-go-round. Our house was filled with his handiwork: chairs, tables, cabinets, chests, a sliding partition. This was a man without a single formal qualification – and yet he embodied craft, skill and creativity. I have been in danger of idealising him and his generation, perhaps in proportion to all the ways in which our society of syllabus, qualification and legitimised practice has made his kind a thing of the past. In my imagination, he is something akin to Yeats’ fisherman – ‘a man who does not exist, / a man who is but a dream’ – more symbol than flawed flesh and blood. Nevertheless, I think about him more as I get older, and I’d like to work out a way to infect my students with something of his independence and convivial ingenuity.
His son – my uncle Bill – was certainly as independent and ingenious as his father, but I think he understood all the ways in which his father’s path would be harder to follow in the modern world. He did become a qualified engineer – through the army – but he also saw how legitimisation ran even deeper than qualifications. My mother says he became embittered – acutely sensitive to class orthodoxies and discriminations. He disappeared into the kind of voluntary nowhere where the too-differentiated often go to escape the painful and frustrating jostle for place. A talented engineer became an odd job man in a private marina – living on a lifeboat he’d converted into a home. He died of cancer of the spine, in his early 50s. I didn’t get the chance to know him. I wish I had.
I certainly haven’t walked a conventional path through academe. I haven’t served much of an apprenticeship as an orthodox scholar. My research abilities are no doubt adequate to the kind of poems I write, but they are no more than that. If you measure the worth of a poet by their scholarship, or their more pedantic tendencies, then you are likely to pass over mine. Many of my students will go on to become better academics than I will ever be. I find it extremely hard to write anything as pure research – without the filter of experience, or near-experience – or without a creative objective. According to some orthodoxies, my work is likely to appear insufficiently impersonal – and I’m ill-at-ease with the jargon vocabulary of academe, or its enlightenment sense of knowledge, or what counts as original research. But I persevere. I am interested in creative practice, however, and in how each practitioner will need to both integrate and differentiate themselves, if they are to continue on their own with a life of convivial, creative growth.
The Co-Conspirators currently meet on the second Tuesday of each month, in Derby. If you’re interested in coming along, please email Matthew Clegg at email@example.com for the time and location, and any other details.
Matthew Clegg’s second full-length collection, The Navigators, is available now from Longbarrow Press; click here for more information about the book.
Images: Bark, Endcliffe Park, Sheffield, 28 May 2016 (photographs by Brian Lewis)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colours (1810)
A public park, a Sunday, a late July afternoon. I am standing at the edge of a path with Angelina D’Roza, a Roland R-05 recorder in my hand, a fourteen-line script in hers. We have been standing here for several minutes, listening and waiting, for the air to level, the wind to soften and fall, so that we might record her poem, ‘This Sea the Colour’. We can’t direct the wind, nor shelter from it; the tall trees that line the path seem only to amplify the gusts. Nor can anything be done with the voices trailing through the park, human, animal, they start, we stop, we start, they start. The poem is a desert poem. There are no children or dogs in the sonnet, no grass, no trees. No purples, no greens. If there is wind, it is not this wind that banks and twists between script and stereo microphone, chipping the tones, I watch the waveforms buckling, the white peaks. The park is not the desert. It is full – of sound, of weather – and we cannot empty it. We’ve nowhere else to go, and we’re running out of time. Think of a colour. We start again, title, first line, then the next, an orange thread paid out to the end of its spool, wound in, and out again, two takes, two tries. The thread is a measure, it is finite, it marks each difference in weight and tone, the poem’s elsewhere and its end. Somehow, in this managed, peopled place, a clipped corner of south-west Sheffield, we close in on the sonnet’s colour space, cadmium orange, soaking blue light, salt, sand and snow, a world of flakes and grains. It is ‘nearer and farther’, a speck made smaller, blown into air, land and sea. We listen to the fade.
The path lies within the Porter Valley Parkway, a sequence of green spaces laid out along the line of the Porter Brook, six miles of woods and water linking the Peak District to Sheffield city centre. We’re somewhere in the middle of this course, perhaps 50 metres from Shepherd Wheel, an ancient dam and grinding workshop, looking west towards Whiteley Woods. I’ve been here before, the thought comes, four summers back, four Julys ago, living on Cherry Street, close to the Porter and its confluence with the River Sheaf, the iron-rich brook trickling into brick conduits, a dark river made darker still. Four summers back, late evening, putting the house in order, the city behind me, finding the river at Pear Street, an embankment, a drop, the water hardly tinting the stones, and the walled greens of the General Cemetery to the south, railed offices and care homes to the north, then a schoolyard, a blank, grey quad and four sprayed walls, high contrast, purple overwriting red, yellow buffing into blue. Spent cans, squeezed tubes. The path climbing to Sharrow Vale Road, the Porter low, a brownout in culverts and bridges, everywhere and nowhere, the dry bright overground mix, residential and commercial, Porter Cottage, Porter Pizza, Porter Pets, the name spelled out in every colour, the lightless river. At the turning circle of Hunters Bar, the course untangles, a clear profile, the water making its own way through Endcliffe Park, close to the entrance, and I go to it, my west to its east. As the park narrows, the river widens, then straightens: a reflective strip, two streets out, bits of broken lamplight, I am reading it backwards. I run out of green, and into another roundabout, spinning off to Whiteley Woods, the next link in the municipal chain. Within a few hundred metres, the sides steepen, the tall trees close in, the streets and their electrics fall away. The park desaturates. If there is a moon, I don’t see it. I raise my right hand before me, but can’t place it. I have hearing, and touch, and I know that I am still with the path, and that the river is still with me. The word that comes is pitch, the wrong word, I know that this cannot be pitch, solid black in a suburban park, I know that the eyes can make adjustments. I pause, not quite stopping, and spin slowly. I wait for a reference tone, a stimulus, one bead of light, absolute threshold. The adjustments don’t happen. No shadow, no movement, no form. Not a speck. Only my spinning, which I stop. I take a few moments to find my bearings from the sound of water. I expect to feel fear, but there is nothing to feed it, the mind is flat, the dark is not disturbed. I stare straight ahead. There is no line, no plane, no vanishing point. I walk into it, the body aware, I realise that the arms are projecting, perhaps for balance, I find that I am disinclined to run. I walk, sounding each step, a thread spooling at my back, until the trees break down, and bits of orange sodium get in. The measures return, the bounds return. Sounds of a road in the south, interrupting the park, then the road itself, yellow on yellow. The mood turns. The park continues, the darkness is restored, and something snaps in the thin corridor, a thread, a thought, and I turn back, at the edge of Hallam Moors, near the Derbyshire border, a mile or so from Rud Hill, where the Porter rises from blanket bog, Redmires to the north, White Stones to the west.
In 1915, the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich exhibited Black Square at Marsovo Pole, Petrograd, as part of The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10. It was the first of four identically titled oil paintings that Malevich would produce; the subsequent versions, executed between 1923 and 1930, vary in size, but all recreate the arrangement of the original, a square of black pigment in an off-white border. Malevich conceived the first Black Square as a foundation stone of Suprematism, a short-lived art movement with an emphasis on basic geometric forms and a restricted palette; a ‘grammar’ in the service of ‘pure feeling’, and in stated opposition to the language of objects, objectivity, and representation. On encountering the work today, what is immediately apparent is that none of the versions are geometrically perfect. All four squares are lopsided, skewing into the borders. The present condition of the 1915 Black Square helps to explain why Malevich remade the piece for later exhibitions: even in reproduction, we see the acute deterioration of the flat plane (a process that was reportedly observed within a few years of the Petrograd exhibition, and exacerbated by decades of neglect by the Soviet authorities, decaying in archival darkness), oxidized, flaking, a distressed surface. Light and air have got to the oil, weakening the bond, the white ground exposed by the cracks. Recent X-rays of the painting show not one, but two, earlier compositions; the first of these is Cubo-Futurist, while the second, directly below the Black Square, is proto-Suprematist. Both of the overpainted works display rich, variegated tones, a field that now rises from the darkness, a field into which the Black Square decomposes. What was black is now midnight blue. The object is unstable, in both a physical and a phenomenological sense; the work that exists is no longer the work that was intended, and invites a form of cognitive dissonance when we attempt to reconcile the painting with its title. Malevich declared both the 1915 painting and the Suprematist movement as the birth of ‘a liberated nothing’, an achromatic ‘zero of form’ (though he would make use of colour in contemporary and later works, it’s interesting to consider this statement from 1920: ‘I regard white and black as excluded from the colour spectrum.’). This ‘zero’ is, in Malevich’s view, both empty and full, a ‘desert’ (to which he also likens the painting on several occasions) in which ‘nothing is real except feeling’. It is, perhaps, the idea of the black square that outlives its moment, an idea that persists through the later variations, an idea that, above all, is preserved in the title itself.
Black does not feature among the colours matched to the four temperaments in Goethe and Schiller’s diagram of 1798, though it is present in the four humours of Hippocratic medicine (as black bile, or melaina chole) from which their Rose of Temperaments is distantly derived (and is that dark, irregular blot at the centre of the colour wheel, the shade of dried blood, edging towards blackness?). It is also present, as a trace, in the poems by Chris Jones, Alistair Noon, Geraldine Monk and Helen Mort that comprise two-thirds of our new Rose of Temperaments (the first two poems, by Angelina D’Roza and A.B. Jackson, are discussed here). Each of the four sonnets is flecked with ‘black’ or ‘dark’. In Chris Jones‘s ‘Green’, it is the human eye, the organ of light perception and colour differentiation, in which the eponymous hue is located: a ‘pale green’, ‘born of black and yellow melanin’ (melanin, unsurprisingly, shares a root with melancholia: melas, ‘black, dark’). The apparent simplicity and certitude of the poem’s opening lines, which offer pigment as proof of heritage (‘pincered out to mark the Irish in him’), gives way to the speaker’s preoccupation with a greater exactitude, the iris distilled from mineral and vegetal shades, always between one green and the next, the light shifting with each refocusing. Here, many of the objects that mediate an idea of green are on the threshold of diffuse (rough) and specular (smooth) reflection: ‘oxidised copper’, ‘heavy bottle glass’, the ‘greenish blue’ of rippling water, a ‘jade porcelain’ bowl. They refine and refract. Alistair Noon‘s reworking of the sonnet foregrounds the dubiety of colour perception from the outset: firstly, by adopting a rhetorical strategy that calls into question the premise of the original poem (‘Sure? I thought they were brown, his eyes’); and secondly, in unpicking its light green stitching and introducing a darker thread. The shade ‘born of black and yellow’ is now ‘greenish brown’, a ‘muddier’ pigment that nudges the sonnet, by some degrees, towards red, the province of Noon’s own Rose of Temperaments poem. In ‘[red]‘, it ramifies outward, a season (summer) and a continent (Europe) taking the colour; and, at the edge of its range, a human subject, ‘lips and gums’ sensitized and ‘enstrawberized’, contemplating each sweep of the ‘radar-hard Med’. Chris Jones’s response to the poem takes the form of an indirect intervention, a parallel text; the body of the sonnet is left intact, but is tagged with footnotes, in which each reference to red is challenged or critiqued, a fourteen-point argument for ‘a greener tinge’ in every line (‘Surely ‘radar’s emerald’?’). As with Noon’s version of Jones’s poem, the opposition of the two colours is both dialectical and literal, to the extent that they threaten to negate or absorb each other. One is a viridescent portrait darkened by a crimson wash; the other is a red canvas in a green frame.
In some respects, red and purple are close neighbours. However, purple was not among the colours of the rainbow identified by Newton, or, for that matter, among those named in Goethe and Schiller’s Rose of Temperaments. It is a composite of red and blue (unlike violet, which is also between red and blue, but occupies its own wavelength of light, and is thus designated a ‘spectral colour’). In her ‘Purple’ sonnet, Helen Mort assigns it a complex value: it speaks of intimacy and estrangement, presence and absence, and of deferred, displaced pain (‘although you’re sure you never fell’), spreading and darkening through the poem, a memory that bruises from lilac to black. The effect is that of an eerie suspension, between unreflecting, abyssal wells (‘too deep and never deep enough’) and the still, shallow irises that stare out from the cover of a children’s book. The irises are violet, a symptom of ocular albinism, in which a lack of pigment in the pupil causes the iris to become translucent and reflect light back. The poem ends with a vision of these eyes: eyes that can only be ‘met’ in the act of closing one’s own, in darkness, in dreams. Geraldine Monk, representing purple (or violet)’s ‘complementary’ hue, restricts its influence to three lines of the octave in her version of Mort’s poem, in which the skin takes the burden: here, the bruise is ‘yellowing’, the epidermis ‘jaundiced’. The yellow of bruising and jaundice is attributable to an excess of bilirubin, which, in turn, refers us to the ‘yellow bile’, or choleric imbalance, hypothesised in the four humours, and which survives in Goethe and Schiller’s Rose of Temperaments. Their colour wheel places yellow on the cusp of the choleric and the sanguine, a state of division that Monk’s ‘Yellow’ acknowledges, ‘harmony and warning / wrapped into one everlasting opposition.’ The poem itself is, appropriately, between states: it is an eighteen-line sonnet, a form that dates to the 16th century (John Donne’s ‘The Token’ is an early example). Monk departs from the alternative rhymed quatrains usually found in the ‘heroic sonnet’, but retains its heroic couplet, by which the poem is summarized and concluded:
Whatever binds this colour to our eyes and hearts
we cannot part its salve and sting of ambivalence.
In Goethe and Schiller’s diagram, the traits and occupations associated with choleric and sanguine temperaments are, respectively, ‘tyrants, heroes and adventurers’ and ‘hedonists, lovers and poets’. Well-marked characters, in other words, demanding attention, as does this colour, above all others: ‘we pick you out yelling the origin of your name’. Etymologically, ‘yellow’ has the same root as ‘gold’ and ‘yell’: gleaming, crying out. Monk alludes to the status of yellow in ancient Egypt, and the belief that the skin and bones of the gods were made of gold. In this setting, they are ‘yellowing with eternity’: an ‘undying dying’. She also considers more recent (and notorious) cultural significations; in particular, the mandatory ‘badges of persecution’ that marked out the Jewish populations of Nazi Europe (a practice first introduced in the early Islamic world, and perpetuated through medieval and early modern Europe). This, the brightest of colours, the shade of ‘springtime sunbeams’, is steeped in sickness, too, and is always tilting towards opacity; as Goethe reminds us, it is ‘a light which has been dampened by darkness’.
A hotel lounge, a Thursday, a late September afternoon. I am sitting at a low table with Geraldine Monk, a Roland R-05 recorder in my hand, an eighteen-line script in hers. After some minutes surveying and testing the acoustics of the reception spaces of the Mercure Sheffield – the lobby, the long corridor parallel to the administration wing, the waiting area adjacent to the spa – we have settled into a padded nook, and are preparing to record her ‘Yellow’ poem. Sounds from the cafe terrace pass through the open doors: squeaking pushchairs, rattling china, and, under it all, the cascades of the Peace Gardens, embodying Sheffield’s rivers and molten steel, encircling the fountain, the white point. We make a first take, of which we are uncertain. We make another. Five lines into the sonnet, the town hall clock sounds its bells, a chime that travels to the end of the poem. We listen to the fade, then look up, for a moment, and look down again, at the small table, its black square, the small vase, its yellow flowers.
The development of The Rose of Temperaments, and the sonnets by Angelina D’Roza and A.B. Jackson, are discussed in ‘White Point’, an earlier blog post. Click here to access the index of all six sonnets commissioned for The Rose of Temperaments. Listen to Geraldine Monk reading her ‘Yellow’ poem at the Mercure Sheffield:
Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press. He tweets (as The Halt) here. The second edition of East Wind, a pamphlet comprising three prose sequences and one haiku sequence, is available now from Gordian Projects; click here for further details.
Josef Albers, Interaction of Colour (1975)
I’m staring through the compact square of my office window at the brick wall of a neighbouring property. The double glazing has failed, misting the edges, blurring the foreground, but the brick fills half the frame, and the sun’s light hits the wall, and I say that the brick is red, the wall is red. Beyond the wall, a seam of cloud-strained blues, thinning as the afternoon frets at its tethers, the slow fade of a late English summer. I look again at the wall. It is not red, the brick is dull orange, rust brown, flame and soot. Each brick is unlike the next, each course unpicks the pattern, heat falling and rising, a stain, a bruise, a burn. The lower third is indistinct: fogged glass, coral smears. It is still a wall, a brick wall, but I can’t think of a colour. I google ‘brick red’, to find out what it means, and the image search sends back a gallery of sliced tones, taking in pastel pinks, chocolate browns, flat burgundies, dusty rose. Some of these are commercial paint, wallpaper and vinyl samples rendered as digital previews; some are tagged and coded RGB swatches aimed at web developers; and there are proprietary colour spaces, owned by Pantone and other corporations, in which tints and tones are assigned secure positions in a universal system, each colour a value, each value a constant, expressed in paint, plastics, fabrics and print. The Pantone Smart Swatch designates Brick Red as 19-1543 TCX. This is not, of course, the value that I see when I look out of my window, where the memory of clay has gone soft; nor can I match the neighbour’s wall to any of the search results, all of which claim, or have been claimed for, the authority of ‘brick red’, which now seems no more stable than the clouded blue or the misted glass. Perhaps the idea of ‘brick red’ is an idea only, a shade in the mind. Perhaps it can only exist in the space between two unlike things. Dull orange. Rust brown.
The six sonnets that comprise The Rose of Temperaments, a project conceived by artist Paul Evans and co-curated by Evans and myself, are, in essence, six responses to an invitation to think about colour, or, rather, a specific colour, arbitrarily assigned to each poet earlier this year: red (Alistair Noon), purple (Helen Mort), blue (A.B. Jackson), green (Chris Jones), yellow (Geraldine Monk) and orange (Angelina D’Roza). The original Rose of Temperaments was a colour wheel, devised by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller at the close of the 18th century, in which the spectrum was divided into four quarters and aligned with the traditional temperaments and their respective occupations (among them tyrants, teachers and philosophers). Goethe and Schiller’s annotations nudge the colour wheel beyond the realm of the abstract and the illustrative, linking hues to ancient humoral theory, developed by Hippocrates (460 – 370 BC), who believed that human behaviours and moods were caused by a surfeit or lack of blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. The Greek physician Galen (129 – c.200 AD) adopted and adapted the Hippocratic system for his typology of temperament, the categories deriving their names from the four humours: sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic. Galen also hypothesised the complementary pairing of ‘opposed’ temperaments, a ‘mix’ in which we might find balance or imbalance; these binaries are also implicit in Goethe and Schiller’s diagram, where the choleric (red/orange/yellow) is ‘opposed’ to the phlegmatic (cyan/blue/violet), for example. In Goethe’s Theory of Colours (1810), the symmetric arrangement of colours on the wheel reflects the ‘natural order’: ‘…the colours diametrically opposed to each other… are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye. Thus, yellow demands violet; orange [demands] blue; purple [demands] green…’
The question of how much orange might be ‘demanded’ by blue (and vice-versa) is particularly relevant to this project. Having allocated the six colours to the six poets, Evans then arranged them in reciprocal pairs (orange/blue, green/red, yellow/purple), in the spirit of Goethe’s Theory, and invited the ‘paired’ poets to ‘recolour’ a few lines of each other’s completed sonnets. In one such pairing, Geraldine Monk was tasked with adding a yellow tint to Helen Mort’s poem; Helen, in turn, might introduce a dash of purple to Geraldine’s sonnet. Both versions of each poem – the ‘original’ and the ‘recoloured’ sonnet – would be posted on the Rose of Temperaments website. It’s interesting to consider the status of these ‘recolourings’, especially in the light of the fact that Evans, whose previous collaborations with poets have emphasised his work as a visual artist (including the ongoing series The Seven Wonders, a ‘mediation’ of the Peak District focusing on new poems by ten writers, with drawings and paintings by Evans), has elected not to provide any images for the project. Arguably, the absence of illustrations serves to heighten each poem’s visual attributes and impacts, enabling post hoc ‘collaborations’ between the primary poet and the recolouring writer in the second versions of these poems; and, of course, between all six (or twelve) sonnets and their readers, the red of the poem and the red in my mind (or another red in another mind), the anticipation of the incoming green (too little? too much?). The act of reading becomes a (passing, unrepeatable) act of collaboration, the poem’s colour balance shifting in our minds with each encounter. When we contemplate a contemporary colour wheel, we see that there are no hard boundaries on the spectrum: one colour shades into another, with innumerable gradations between red and orange. Goethe and Schiller’s segmented Die Temperamentrose both simplifies and complicates the model: it is both a diagram of affective determinism, in which we find that red is for introverted rulers, and of indeterminacy, as we consider the influence of contiguous colours, and, in particular, ‘the colours diametrically opposed’. Our course (or temperament) may be set, but our position is always relative. The uncertainty of colour is, in many ways, the uncertainty of language.
The Rose of Temperaments unfolded over six weeks in August and September 2016 (coinciding with Sheffield’s Year of Making and the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind, for which the project was commissioned), a ‘primary’ sonnet appearing online every Thursday (with the ‘recoloured’ version following a few days later). The first of the poems to be made public was ‘This Sea the Colour‘, Angelina D’Roza’s ‘orange’ sonnet. It is prefaced with a tone borrowed from another poet (Tony Hoagland): ‘…this orange / and tender light // taking a position inside of me’. One more colour, a trace of which persists as the poem enacts its own shifts, toward the light of the shoreline, a promise of ‘distance’ and diminution (‘ a tiny blemish on a peach’), intimacy and absence. A moving border, on which nothing settles for long, and from which we consider the passing of seasons (the ‘pale orange snow’ and the ‘tan lines’). With only a few locational or directional cues (the land is a desert, the movement is northward), the gradations of orange become the contours of a place. The ’empty space’ is coloured in. In A.B. Jackson’s reworking, the salt shore is lightly mapped, its waters now ‘Persian-impossible’, and the last word is given not to orange, but to ‘blue’. It is hard not to think of ‘the blue of distance’ examined and explored by Rebecca Solnit in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, the second section of which starts from the limits of the visible: ‘The world is blue at its edges and in its depths.’ It is blue that ‘disperses’ in air, ‘scatters in water’, and ‘does not travel the whole distance…’ The blue of distance is ‘the colour of an emotion, the colour of solitude and of desire, the colour of there seen from here, the colour of where you are not.’ This blue, that speaks to us of elsewheres, of longings, shades into A.B. Jackson’s own poem (‘The Blue‘), which opens on a different shore: that of ‘Low Point, Nova Scotia’, a named north, an island’s edge (Cape Breton, in the east of the province). The maritime setting is the pale blue to the ‘outlandish’ indigo of a lobster that surprises a ‘fishing boat crew’; its rarity (the deep blue resulting from a uncommon gene mutation) an omen of good fortune, the colour and the luck both preserved by the decision not to cook the creature (which releases the lobster’s red pigment). Angelina D’Roza’s ‘recolouring‘ of this poem is restricted to a single line, but one which also relocates the fishing crew 1500 miles south-west to ‘Orange Beach, Alabama’, on the Gulf Coast; another blue, another distance. The poem’s preoccupation with accident and augury takes on a darker tone when we remember that Orange Beach was on the edge of the Gulf area contaminated in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in 2010, the ocean basin bruising to black. Both versions invoke a hope, or plea, for ‘good hauls offshore / no fires below’: the thought of flame, its orange flash, returns us to Angelina’s ‘This Sea the Colour’ (‘of fire / and light’), to another shore, another Gulf.
Often, when I think of a colour wheel, I find that I am also thinking of a compass rose; the diametric opposition of colour and direction, the common centrifuge, the white point in the dead centre. Gradation and division. Is there, perhaps, a relationship between direction and colour? Since Newton’s original colour disc (circa 1670), there have been many circular diagrams, but no consensus regarding the orientation of the spectrum, no cardinal directions. Where might we find our north? Is it red? Green? Yellow? Or further off, somewhere between blue and orange?
Click here to access the index of all six sonnets commissioned for The Rose of Temperaments. Further reflections on the project will be posted on the Longbarrow Blog in the near future.
Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press. He tweets (as The Halt) here. The second edition of East Wind, a pamphlet comprising three prose sequences and one haiku sequence, is available now from Gordian Projects; click here for further details.
I have what could be described as a penchant for balancing along things – fence rails or tree branches or cables etc. Such balancing is intensified walking. I so enjoy the precision of toe, ball-of-foot & heel placed on solidity, and feeling for friction, as the rest of my body sways in air and pulls only against its own muscles to stay placed, and connected by feet.
As a poet I have a penchant for lines, for sound-shapes & text-shapes measured out, sometimes even in feet. The metaphor of balancer precisely stepping along a rail equalling poet is no metaphor at all, nor a symbol. Humans walk, and humans balance, and humans speak.
Very near to where I live there is a country park. It has an abundance of solid lines to balance along. One of my favourite lines is made from old railway track bolted to short pillars. This single railway rail is just a foot or two above the water of the river Soar, and it was placed here as a guard, to keep boats off the weir. Just the other day an elderly couple paused on the walkway running parallel with the rail, they watched me intently as I walked backwards along the line. When I got to one of the pillars, I stood on its rectangular top and got chatting with the couple. I mentioned to them how last summer an elderly woman, probably in her mid-seventies, had watched me just as intently as they, and that when I’d finished my walk she came over to me smiling. She was delighted, and told me that she had last walked along that very rail when she was twelve years old.
When I first started balancing in the park I was a little shy, or rather I didn’t want people to think I was showing off, so I would try to wait until no one was about. This was almost impossible, and so I was hardly getting any balancing done. And to grow the power of balance one has to do a lot of it. So, I decided that I must balance whatever, whoever was about, and that part of the practice should be to ignore whoever was watching me or speaking to me whilst I was balancing, but that once done with my balancing, should someone ask me about it I should tell them as much as I could. This practice has led me into delightful, and sometimes inspiring encounters with various kinds of people, from cheeky teenagers through to a serious but gentle Indian doctor. Most people have been inspired by my balancing and have inspired me by the ways they have questioned me.
There have been a few incidents. Once on the railway rail by the weir a lad threw a football at me. It skimmed in front of my face. I didn’t even flinch, not one teeter. My body was so focused on being in balance on the rail, that it, or was it me?, just accepted the flying object as being part of the place & the moment. I suppose sudden ducks & low-flying geese had helped in my training. In no way do I know Kung Fu! But I certainly know how Kung Fu becomes possible. But then again, most of us can tie our shoelaces blindfold and at speed. If we really watch the dexterity of someone tying a shoelace, and detach from our habitual familiarity towards that calligraphic knotting procedure, then we see that shoelace tying is Kung Fu.
To walk along a handrail by the side of a footpath is to disobey. This is, I feel passionately, what poetry should be. Poetry is just next to the conventional ways (or habits) of being human … but it disobeys, which only goes to show those conventions more clearly, even celebrate them … but certainly challenge them.
I was challenged by a very young man, a very angry young man actually. He was dressed in a dark uniform, he was a park warden. I was balancing along a rail that was placed in the landscape with the intention of keeping pedestrians & feeders of ducks & such from falling into the lake. It was never intended to be a way. But this rail has been one of my ways for some years now. As the water lapped to my right this young man barked his commands at me from my left. Part of my discipline is to ignore anyone who talks to me whilst I’m balancing. So that is what I did. I regret that this only made the young man even more angry, as he protested what he believed to be my irresponsibility. However, I would not change the way I behaved at that point. What I would change is the way I tried to reason with him afterwards, tried to get him to see that should I hurt myself, well, it would only by my fault and I would have to be responsible for it. I think it is probably illegal for me to balance on this rail, and so my argument only served to anger further this young man in his uniform. I now feel that I should’ve let the young man tell me off … and once he’d gone just carried on along my way. It’s well over a year since this took place, and I’ve not seen the young uniformed man since.
The first time I balanced the thin white rail over the lock gate my fear was intense. Although I knew falling into the lock was unlikely to do me much harm. But the lock, its narrow slot, its dark obscure water – the lock holds a terror. The terror in the bottom of the lock is still there. It’s a simple terror, and a true one – it consists of no oxygen & filthy cold wet depth. No place to live in. Over the years my balance has become so sharp that walking the thin white rail over the lock gate poised breathing above no place to live where the terror still is has become a joy. I love poetry!
The short film embedded above (created by Goodwin and filmmaker Martyn Blundell) is based on a recent visit to Watermead Park, north of Leicester, in which Goodwin’s ‘rail-balancing’ is to the fore.
Mark Goodwin’s fourth poetry collection, Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014) explores themes of climbing, walking and balancing. Click here to visit the Steps microsite for extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below:
After the storm the concrete pathways
through Hillsborough Park gleam like channels
easing their way through wide estuaries
of silt and sand ferrying moonlight.
‘Moving with Thought’, Matthew Clegg
Friday 24 June 2016, mid-afternoon. It’s Midsummer Day, I’m told, though parts of the internet dispute this. The air is, by turns, vacant, oppressive, turbid and flat. I’ve been awake since 3am, taking in and not taking in the result of the EU referendum, and its fallout: the Prime Minister’s resignation, the sinking pound, the waves of judgment and misjudgment. Dust rises and resettles. The news feeds are choked and refreshed. I slump to the screen, the browser idling, Twitter, Facebook, icons and tabs, thumbnails and microstates. The apparent collapse of certainties at a national level, the sense of a blank prospectus, seems to have emboldened some voices, entrenched others, and silenced many more. I trawl the timelines, picking out bits of mood with which I might agree or disagree, like or unlike. There are short, intemperate verdicts; denunciations and lamentations; feverish petitions; and questions, some rhetorical, some not. None of us, in our chambers and clouds, has any answers. We don’t expect them. What we hope for is contact, connection, the suspension of our unbelonging. What we find is a numbness, the blunt aggregates of reaction, sub-reaction and counter-reaction. Nigel Farage is not nice. Boris Johnson is a buffoon. I skim the bubbles, the pattern repeating, then mutating, a curdling froth at the edges. I have nothing to add, no contribution to make. The network slows and reloads. An interruption from another network finally breaks the cycle; a text message from a friend, reminding me of the Ted Hughes Poetry Festival launch in Mexborough this evening, inviting me to join them, to share the journey from Sheffield. I find that I have limited enthusiasm for company and travel, but even less for solitude and stasis, and so I accept.
The Ted Hughes Poetry Festival is now in its second year, thanks to the continuing efforts of Steve Ely, Dominic Somers, Ian Parks and a team of energetic volunteers. As in 2015, the festival hub is the Mexborough Business Centre, formerly the town’s grammar school, which Hughes attended in the 1940s. The atmosphere in the centre is relaxed, informal, welcoming. People gather in small, open groups, or drift from wall to wall, chatting amiably, greeting newcomers, setting up the bar and bookstall. In one corner stands Ian McMillan, who’ll be joined by two fellow Ians (Parks and Clayton) for this evening’s performance; he’s talking with photographer Karl Hurst, the two men exchanging thoughts on the legacies of the South Yorkshire coalfields, with a dozen of Hurst’s prints of these ‘recovered landscapes’ arranged on the wall behind them. I wander from fringe to fringe, picking up loose threads of conversation, eventually settling at a table with good sightlines, stage left. In all the overheard talk, there is scant mention of Brexit, though it can’t be far from the surface. One theme that does recur throughout the evening – onstage and offstage – is community: not in an abstract sense, or in worthy, dutiful proclamations, but as a lived and living thing, shared and particular, the point from which many of tonight’s poems, tales and songs begin. No-one exemplifies this more than Ray Hearne, a poet, musician and songwriter raised in Parkgate, a few miles south-west of Mexborough, who closes the Friday evening with a set largely drawn from his new album Umpteen. I’ve seen Ray perform in some varied settings over the last few years (including a walk along the South Yorkshire Navigation with Longbarrow poet Matthew Clegg, which Hearne and Clegg have reprised as part of this festival). His work always travels well, always connects, its geographical specificity a portal, and not an impediment, to feeling and understanding, its heritage a common heritage, if only we care to look for it. Ray invites us to add our voices to the choruses of several songs, and the songs add to us; although it’s late, the hall feels fuller at the end, more human. We make ready to leave, and I’m asked if I’d like to come back tomorrow, to help out with a few things; I say yes.
Saturday 25 June 2016, 10am. A small group has assembled near the foyer of the Mexborough Business Centre. Some of us have been issued with yellow aprons, bearing the festival logo, and canvas bags with shoulder straps, bags that I last used when I had a paper round in the 1980s. These bags are not filled with copies of the Daily Mail, but with poetry pamphlets. We are instructed to advance on Mexborough town centre and distribute as much poetry as we can carry to as many people as we can find. Duly laden, we march down a twisting bank in light drizzle, halting at our rendezvous, a bollard in the middle of the pedestrianised High Street. The bollard has been adopted by Bud, a laconic Milwaukeean now resident in Mexborough, who, it transpires, has been waiting for us for nearly an hour. Bud has volunteered to declaim Hughes poems via a portable PA system while the rest of us scatter the pamphlets. Unfortunately, his pitch is adjacent to several market stalls, and the traders have no need of amplification. He must battle it out with the fruit criers. Those of us in aprons disperse along the length of the street. We don’t know how the Saturday shoppers will read us, or the fistfuls of verse, but most of the people we speak to are receptive and friendly, and are happy to take a pamphlet; the few that decline are civil and cheerful. The stock runs down, sooner than expected. I notice that Clegg has disappeared, and decide to make a search of the side streets, to no avail. Minutes later, he reappears in the sky above Poundland, at the edge of the car park roof. Clegg, who is wielding a loudhailer, is joined by Karl Hurst, cradling a camera. The two men calibrate their equipment and train it on the street below. Something that might be an excerpt from Crow bounces off the stalls and shopfronts. A few people look up, trying to get a fix on the sound. More poems spill from the roof, in a loose, distant dialogue with Bud’s ground-level recitation. It’s hard to know what passers-by are taking from this, but it does seem to be changing the space, opening it out, making it a temporary theatre. As midday approaches, the performance winds down, and we regather ourselves for the walk back, pausing to chat with the youth teams at the cricket club opposite the business centre. The centre itself is now beginning to fill with the audience for the festival’s afternoon programme, encompassing readings, discussions and talks on Hughes; it’s at capacity for the evening performance, which features Cathy Galvin, Mick Jenkinson, Helen Mort and Frieda Hughes, the latter, it seems, making her first visit to her father’s old school, calmly conducting a passage through her work while absorbing the spirit of the place. There are some among us who can read this building from back to front: Ted Hughes’s former schoolfriends, involved in this project from the beginning, and who are now in their late 80s. I’m struck by the warmth in the hall, how the organisers, volunteers, poets and audience have used their wits to create a resonant space for speaking and listening. It’s a thought that I try to bear, intact, to Hillsborough, North Sheffield, where I’ll be coordinating a two-day programme of poetry, music and performance in less than two weeks.
Saturday 9 July 2016, 12 noon. I am frowning wordlessly at a frozen laptop and a faulty projector. Earlier in the year, I was asked by Karen Sherwood, founder and director of Sheffield’s Cupola Gallery, to curate the spoken word zone at HillsFest, a wide-ranging, ambitious weekend of art and music planned for Hillsborough Park. Karen visualised the festival as an opportunity to give something back to the communities – the residents, the local businesses – that have supported the gallery throughout its 25 years of existence. Most of the activities, installations and performances will take place in the sprawling, sloping park itself, some in tents and domes, others – like the chainsaw carving – on open ground. For the spoken word programme, we’ve been given the loan of the Bowling Green Pavilion, a modern, rectangular building that nestles in the park’s north-western quarter. Our performance area is the wood-panelled community room, with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the green banks and pitches. I want to make the best possible use of this space, this opportunity (deadlines and budgets permitting). To this end, I spend several weeks assembling a programme of poetry readings, live music, ensemble performances and illustrated talks. Both days are loosely organised around themes of cultural memory and heritage, with the accent on Hillsborough and the neighbouring districts. I don’t want to overdetermine the narrative, though; I want to leave enough space for the audiences to make their own connections between the constituent parts. In some respects, this task is made easier by the fact that a handful of speakers and performers were booked before I took on the role of lead programmer, none of whom I know. Apart from what I can glean from their technical requirements, I’ve only the least inklings of how their sets will look and sound. I like this. It adds an element of uncontrol; it also forestalls the possibility of the weekend becoming an extended Longbarrow showcase. By early June, the line-up is in place, leaving me to focus on the practical issues; working out how many microphones we’ll need, measuring the stage area, compiling details of the musicians’ PA inputs, anticipating the intervals between sets. The weeks pass in a blur of publicity, planning, panic. The weekend of the festival arrives, as does some decidedly mixed weather. This doesn’t affect the work in the pavilion, but it’s an obstacle for the artists, technicians, traders and volunteers setting up in the park. Artboat, a Hillsborough-based creative duo, have been working with several local schools on a series of ‘fantastical birds’, built to mythic scale and ‘flown’ into the park (with the help of the children) the day before. As I’m returning from an errand at the east entrance, I encounter Soo and Charlie from Artboat, working hard to secure the last of the birds against the approaching rain and wind. Wings fixed, we leave; I realise I’m walking in the wrong direction, so I double back, to see a mother and her young daughter paused before the giant bird, both lost in wonder and delight. It’s an image I’ll revisit over the weekend, a reminder of why we’re doing this. Reminders are useful when the rain soaks the park and everything in it, when the pavilion’s club members dispute our room booking, and when the laptop and projector I’m using for the talks develop irreconcilable differences less than an hour before showtime. I reboot and reconnect and get nothing but bleached, flipped and strobing frames, a perished lantern. I’m preparing to flee the scene when my partner Emma arrives with her laptop. Within a few minutes, we have perfect projection, rescuing the event, and me. The rain has stopped. We have the makings of an audience. I take the stage and introduce the first reader.
The first reader is Chris Jones, followed by another Sheffield poet, Shelley Roche-Jacques. Both are on fine form, but I’m tense and distracted, hunched over scraps of paper and bits of kit. I’m worried about overruns and glitches, and I’m anxious about the next performer, Stan Skinny. I know little of his act, other than that it is ‘wrestling-themed’, and that his costume and persona will be suitably brash. Stan has requested a small, square table for his performance, which I’ve promised to supply from the pavilion store cupboard; upturned, the table will convey the effect of a pretend wrestling ring. On the day of Stan’s appearance, however, the pavilion’s stock of square tables has mysteriously shrunk from 4 to 0. The cupboard is bare. Shelley leaves the stage, and I explain the situation to Stan. Together, we rummage through dusty shelves and dark corners; our search yields a metal panel, a handful of sticks, and a length of coloured rope. I pass a roll of gaffa tape to Stan, who does his best with the materials, improvising a wobbly, gnome-sized paddock before disappearing into the changing room. I place the flimsy compound on the stage and wait for him to reappear. After several long minutes, I’m given my cue to start the recorded fanfare, and a cartoon grappler with false features bounds into view: pacing the room, vaulting the chair-backs, baiting the audience and, as the music fades, executing a perfect leap onstage, into the dead centre of the tiny ring. Over the next half-hour, Stan’s character wears down the physical boundaries of the hall, and of the audience, a shouty moustache hell-bent on submission. The act has no connection to anything preceding or following it. What it does do is change the dynamics, for the speakers and the listeners, opening out the space and adding to the sense of possibilities. As ‘disruptive’ as the performance is, it’s effected a process of depolarisation, a rebalancing; there’s less resistance in the room. The audience seems more attuned, or retuned, perhaps.
Stepping into the aftermath is Amanda Crawley Jackson, presenting the first of today’s illustrated talks, which focuses on her work as director of Furnace Park, a derelict industrial site in Shalesmoor that Amanda and a cohort of volunteers have transformed into an outdoor community space; a wasteland seeding new projects, a workshop without a building. The talk introduces ideas of cultural salvage and renewal that will be developed in two further presentations this afternoon: Karl Hurst’s exploration of ‘abandoned space’ and collective amnesia in his photographic practice, which takes the industrial landscapes of his own childhood as a starting point (including Orgreave, a site that, in Hurst’s view, has been depleted, contested, abolished and forgotten); and a lecture by Dr Alexy Karenowska of the Institute of Physics, unpacking the pioneering work of digital archaeology, which enables not only the virtual reconstruction of long-vanished sites of cultural importance, but also the ‘resurrection’ of antiquities recently destroyed by ISIL, such as the Monumental Arch of Palmyra in Syria. The arch, dynamited in 2015, was recreated in Egyptian marble earlier this year, each age-old flaw captured by 3D modelling; the life-size replica was unveiled in Trafalgar Square in April, then sent on a tour of world capitals, before coming to rest in Palmyra itself. It’s a portable echo, a defiance of erasure, a testament of and to collective memory (the 3D model was compiled from hundreds of pre-2015 photographs of the arch, sourced from the Institute of Digital Archaeology’s Million Image Database). In all this, it’s the ideas that persist; the idea of a building that crosses borders, the idea of a small, local community supported by a larger, international community. The resilience of communities and cultures, their capacity to absorb change and welcome newcomers, is a theme taken up in readings by Suzannah Evans and River Wolton (the latter reflecting on Sheffield’s recently-designated status as the UK’s first City of Sanctuary for asylum seekers and refugees), and in a gutsy, moving performance by Ray Hearne. Saturday evening closes with a remarkable set by Sieben (aka Sheffield-based musician Matt Howden): a hour of looped, layered violin, both trancelike and visceral, Howden striking his instrument to create beats, scraping his stubble against the strings, ritual and mass straining through the PA, the energy spilling out of the pavilion. The house lights come up. I scan the room, recognising no-one, this is not the audience we started with. In and out.
Sunday 10 July 2016, 1pm. A clear, still day, and I’ve somehow caught up with my sleep, a full five hours. Easing into my role, I mention the activities in Hillsborough Park, including some that aren’t real, like fossil weaving and sponge racing. No-one seems to notice. Our first speaker, James Caruth, reads a poem for the pigeon lofts of the Penistone Road embankment, a mile south of the park: ‘abandoned crofts / of an island community’. Many of today’s performances and talks will orbit this territory, literally and figuratively. The same dilapidated, contingent structures appear in Fay Musselwhite’s poem ‘Flight from Cuthbert Bank’, the last poem of her afternoon set, in which an encounter with their ‘flaking roof terraces’ conjures a vision of ‘a flock / of men released by work clocks’, called, like the pigeons, ‘to claim their reach of sky’. As Fay notes, the walk that inspired the poem was led by Mark Doyle and Emilie Taylor in 2013, as part of their Unregistered project, a series of walks and workshops focusing on the ‘forgotten spaces’ between Wardsend and Parkwood Springs. Fay’s reading is preceded by a presentation from Mark, who recounts the aims and development of the project, shading in the ‘memory maps’ of North Sheffield with excerpts from interviews with former residents of Parkwood, the oral histories and short films effecting the partial recovery of a world many of them had left decades earlier. Haunting the same landscapes, though reaching further back in time, are Stewart Quayle and Ghosts of the North, with a suite of poems, ballads and tales that illuminates the lives (and deaths) of the people of Wardsend, encompassing the Great Flood of 1864 (which swept through the district) and the Great War, a flight from which many did not return. Visions of the Flood recur in Rob Hindle’s reading (and in Fay Musselwhite’s set, the two poets reimagining the devastation on the rivers Don and Loxley respectively); as the waters recede, we find ourselves in the Hillsborough of the 1930s, Hindle tracing the journey to the Middlewood Asylum made by his great-uncle, another one-way flight, the narrative slowing to walking pace.
It’s now early evening, and we’ve also taken in a reading by Elizabeth Barrett, the words and electronica of Michael Harding and Linda Lee Welch, and a set by Pete Green that links poems and songs on a northward trajectory. As we rearrange the stage for the next performance, I look out at the park, dimly aware of the exchanges and encounters in the grounds below, a faint chainsaw buzz at the north end, a slow, thudding blues to the south. A few people have gathered at the threshold of the pavilion, taking the air, refreshed by a brief, unexpected shower. One by one, I call them in. The next performance brings together two sequences by Matthew Clegg, in which the park and its environs feature heavily: Edgelands and Chinese Lanterns. Edgelands, which has evolved through numerous iterations in performance and on the page, is presented as forty tanka (read by Clegg and Karl Hurst) prefaced by a dictaphone recording of children and scooters at the edge of Hillsborough Park, made in September 2007, shortly after the sequence was written. The taped sounds seem to swell from, then die back into, the chainsaw drone. Chinese Lanterns moves further into the park itself, lifting our eyes to the ‘liquorice clouds’ rising from the nearby Bassett’s factory, lowering the gaze to the rain-glossed ‘concrete pathways’ that now ‘gleam like channels’, before coming to rest in a climbing hammock, ‘the sky a reservoir of darkest blue’. I recall how, in 2013, we’d discussed the possibility of hiring the pavilion for the launch of Clegg’s first collection, West North East, in which these sequences appear. This feels more appropriate, somehow; it’s both a homecoming for the poems, and the occasion of a transformation in the work, the porosity of the sequences echoed by our surroundings, the pavilion doors and windows open to the breeze and its music.
For the last two sets, the room sheds more layers, and gains in intimacy. The PA is scaled back; the blackout material (shielding the projections) is removed from the windows; the performers forgo the stage and set up a few feet from the audience. Sally Goldsmith appears first, threads of song and story running through and beyond her poems, shuffling hats, accompanying herself on squeezebox, a one-woman theatre. There’s a natural warmth and rugged humour at play, and an invigorating conviction, too, the spirited defence of common causes, common land. The final performance of the festival is given by Rommi Smith and Jenni Molloy, a collaboration-in-progress drawing on material from Smith’s Poems from Mornings & Midnights, reworking it as a dialogue for voice and double bass. It’s spellbinding, from the first note to the last, Rommi’s meditations on the hidden histories of jazz and blues women enmeshed with Jenni’s sublime improvisations. As we near the end of the set, Rommi falls silent, and the burden is carried by bass alone; in the spaces between the notes, we hear birds, their evening songs drifting through the open windows, Hillsborough Park at dusk. Although it’s almost nightfall, there seems to be more light in the room than when we started. There is applause, conversation, a moment of farewell. I walk with Rommi and Jenni to their car, and see Karen’s hi-vis tabard in the gloom, emerging from HillsFest’s makeshift control centre. That the festival happened at all is due to the skill, persistence, craft and unglamorous hard work of dozens of people, but Karen is the one who started it all, who kept it going, and who saw it through, however the odds were stacked. Her courage encouraged others. Whether the festival will happen again is a question for another day. For now, it’s enough to take in this last view of the site: the people dawdling towards the exits, the fantastical birds suspended beneath the trees, the smaller birds still singing from them, the sharing of labour and laughter, the pavilion at the park’s edge.
Thanks to the following people for their support for the HillsFest spoken word programme: Adrian Friedli and Steve Manthorpe (for their successful funding bid and initial steering); Mesters Events (for their excellent technical support); Emma Bolland (for staffing the bookstall, rescuing the projector, and countless interventions); Matthew Clegg, Chris Jones and Fay Musselwhite (for staffing the bookstall); all the performers and speakers; all the volunteers; and, in particular, Karen Sherwood, for making it happen.