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.
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.
A network of bright lines falls over experience, like a field system, breaking the grip of totality as the wave breaks on the shore or the air on the mountain side.
A few years ago, Longbarrow Press published The Ascent of Kinder Scout by Peter Riley, a re-envisioning (or a re-walking) of a Peak District landmark; a prose poem (with a parenthetical verse section) that blends cultural history, personal memoir, natural description and anti-austerity invective. It commemorates the mass trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932, a collective act of civil disobedience that, arguably, gave us the National Parks legislation in 1949 and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000, establishing walkers’ rights to travel through common land and open country. It is also a requiem for the welfare state, the purported dismantling of which frequently interrupts the poetic reverie; this makes for a meditation that is certainly timely, if uneasy. The concern with access and equity – and with community and communication – is never far from the surface of the poem, with an implicit invitation to consider what these terms might mean today:
It could all be wiped out at any moment by a falling aeroplane or a Tory axe, this town and all its chat. So it is also necessary to be able to get out, to maintain a summit line in secret, to be still up there in image, spinning on the crest under the moon. Forest! Forest! Moors and mountains! Electronic networks! be there to protect the forsaken.
The ‘town’ is not named, but we might think of it as one of the settlements on the edge of the Peaks, or, further north, perhaps one of the towns in the Calder Valley, where Riley is now based. One of the reasons why the Kinder plateau became a focus for the right to roam movement in 1932 was that it offered working people respite from the polluted, congested industrial towns and cities to the west and east of the Peak District. Since then, of course, the manufacturing sectors have declined or disappeared in many of these towns, with the economic consequences of deindustrialization still manifest today. We might infer from this extract that the viability of these communities is now decided by transport infrastructure and broadband speeds; with bus services under seemingly permanent threat in rural areas, and library services closing all over the UK, access to the ‘electronic networks’ becomes increasingly important in determining our access to, and experience of, place. Digital technology is how many of us now encounter places that we cannot afford to visit. However, access to this technology is far from universal. A little over 80 years ago, Kinder Scout was the sole province of the Duke of Devonshire and the grouse-shooting gentry. The right to roam physical territory has since been established, but no comparable rights of access to digital space exist; in an age in which almost everyone is expected to register online for basic services, many are digitally excluded.
I’d like to recount some of my experiences as a member of a digital community, in my capacity as editor of Longbarrow Press and in my own walking and writing practice. Longbarrow Press was launched in 2006, exploring the possibilities of print through a range of non-standard publishing formats (maps, posters, matchboxes), while pursuing alternatives to the conventional poetry reading (multimedia performances, installations, poetry walks). However, the press lacked even a basic web presence for the first five years of its existence. With hindsight, it’s possible to argue that this allowed us to establish an aesthetic and an ethos – and, indeed, an audience, a community – independent of digital agendas and conventions. At the time, though, it felt like an obstacle to our creative development and to our audience development. Publications could only be advertised and sold at events, or via a small-circulation email list. Events were advertised through paper flyers, the distribution of which was ad hoc and erratic. There was nowhere to encounter our work online, with only brief sightings populating the search results. I’d like to think, though, that this extended period of digital obscurity, while awkward, gave us time to devise the form that the Longbarrow website, and its associated outputs and platforms, would eventually take: what it would need, and what an audience might need from it.
The Longbarrow website went public in spring 2011. One of the reasons for the lengthy delay was that I was both inhibited by my lack of technical expertise, and too stubborn and tight-fisted to entrust the job to anyone else. I’d assumed that there would be a lot of coding involved, and costly set-up charges and maintenance. After a friend introduced me to WordPress, and showed me how to create a simple, effective, self-administered site, I realized that the expertise could be acquired gradually, on a need-to-know basis. I spent the first few hours formatting text, then added a few photos, then embedded a few links. Within a couple of days, I had a competent, well-designed site, focusing on new and ongoing projects while doubling as an archive for several years of Longbarrow essays, interviews and photos. However, I was more interested in exploring the creative potential of this new resource; in making new work that could be crafted with digital tools and disseminated online.
Around this time, I’d also invested in an Edirol digital audio recorder, a lightweight, high-quality device with which I’d begun to make recordings of poets reading their work in varied settings, from waste ground to churches, moorland to sea caves; reflecting and, I think, enhancing the engagement with place that has been a feature of our collective working practices from the outset. Within a few months, I had a small archive of these recordings, but little incentive to edit them, and nowhere to put them. The website gave me the motive and the resource; I taught myself the basics of editing on Audacity (free, open-source audio software), signed up to SoundCloud (on a free account), and began to upload the first few tracks, and also to embed these on the Longbarrow website. What I hadn’t realized was that SoundCloud was (at that time, at least) also a digital community (something that Longbarrow poet Mark Goodwin, who has curated a number of SoundCloud groups, was quick to recognise; these groups include air to hear, in which the exploration of poetry-and-sound (and poetry as sound) is to the fore, as is Mark’s support for his fellow makers). Before long, SoundCloud users in Germany, Canada and Australia were listening and commenting on our recordings, seemingly unprompted by us. For me, it was particularly significant that perfect strangers, half a world away, were encountering this side of our work: the recordings are documents of the poets at a particular time, in a particular place, with the external conditions (weather and traffic, for example) determining – and audibly part of – the ‘flow’ of the work. It meant a great deal that someone in Arizona could hear a recording that we’d made under a pylon in Hillsborough just a few days before, with the crackle of rain falling through the power-line. Each of these recordings is a field in itself.
Shortly afterwards, I also picked up an inexpensive digital movie camera, and started to make a few short films for Longbarrow, encompassing performance footage, landscape studies and animated stills, which were uploaded to Vimeo and embedded on the Longbarrow site. As interesting as this was, and useful in the development of our practice, I found the process less absorbing than the audio work. Perhaps I was disengaging from the moving image; perhaps I was looking for a different kind of immersion. In late 2012, Matthew Clegg and I travelled to Flamborough Head on the East Yorkshire coast, where we spent a morning recording a sequence of poems in a sea cave. Along with the recordings of the poems, we also captured Matt’s considered reflections on the sequence, and his improvised responses to the conditions in the cave: the shifting light, the colours in the chalk and in the rock, the tide-swell breaching the cave-mouth. On returning to Sheffield, I spent two days sifting three hours of material for a thirty-minute podcast, with an accompanying essay by Matt, both of which were uploaded to the Longbarrow website (and reposted here). The extended format of the podcast invited us to rethink our ideas about structure, time and the experience of ‘place’. I was conscious of the artifice brought to bear on the recordings; although I’d refrained from interfering with the natural acoustic that we’d discovered in the cave, I’d changed the sequencing of the fragments of commentary, with Matt’s closing remarks now appearing at the start of the podcast, for example, and the rest of the material was reordered according to the narrative that I – or we – sought to present. And it worked. After two days of lengthy, intensive editing sessions, we were able to share the portable, constructed space of the sea cave. The art of the podcast – indeed, of any editorial work – is in concealing the process. The mess and clutter of process is cleared out of the field; the resulting work is an artifice of trance assembled from moments of trance. If the listener’s ear is disturbed by glitches or clumsy edits, then the trance of listening is broken and the cave, the field, the place, disintegrates, becomes digital dust.
Since then, we’ve continued to develop the podcast series, with field visits to Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, West Yorkshire, and, last August, Denaby Ings nature reserve, a wetland site in South Yorkshire where Matthew Clegg and I spent an afternoon listening to rain beating on the metal roof of a bird hide, the damp air folding around us like sheets, lending an unexpected intimacy to the recording. One of the reasons why I enjoy working with the Edirol is that it’s unobtrusive; unlike a film camera, it doesn’t disturb the visual field, and it doesn’t project a visual field. Towards the end of the afternoon’s recording in the bird hide, I’d almost forgotten it was there. On this occasion, however, I also decided to take some images, documenting the process and the place, and these found their way into a Longbarrow blog post reflecting on the experience. For me, it’s important that our work online – the podcasts, the essays, the short films – should have a value in and of itself, rather than as part of a promotional strategy; it’s also important that this work should remain free and accessible to all (the aforementioned issues around digital exclusion notwithstanding). Obviously, if we are to survive as a press, then we do need to sell books, but the sense of exchange – of reciprocity – within the digital community is much more valuable. When I think of the digital community with regard to Longbarrow and my own practice, I’m usually thinking of Twitter; for the last five years, it’s been a vital part of our audience engagement, making connections with people we would almost certainly not have encountered otherwise, and, just as importantly, whose work and friendship we have enjoyed in return.
I’d like to close with some reflections on the part that Twitter has played in the development of my own writing practice. In August 2010, I set off for a three-day walk along the east coast of England: Felixstowe to Lowestoft, a meander of 80 miles or so. Breaking a habit of several years, I left my camera at home; my only recording instruments were pen, paper and a text-only mobile phone. Although I hadn’t attempted any creative writing for several years, I began composing haiku on the hoof; drafting them on scraps of paper and then, as night fell, typing them directly into my phone, texting the poems to a handful of friends. A few years later, I decided to revisit these poems – a sequence of 20 or so – at around the same time that I set up a Twitter account for my own work. As many users have observed, haiku is ideally suited to Twitter. The formal constraints of the poem (17 syllables) are neatly enveloped by the constraints of the application (140 characters): a field within a field. It therefore seemed a natural step to rework the sequence online, posting one poem each day. Some poems were revised; some were left unrevised; some poems were omitted; new poems were drafted and included. Revisiting the work also prompted me to revisit the territory I’d walked a few years previously. I fished out the Landranger maps I’d used on the journey: mediations of place that, over the course of three days, had in turn been mediated by the place itself – rain-wrinkled corners, impacted mud, insect traces and other imprints and residuum of Suffolk. After mining the physical map for its memories, I turned to Google Maps. Without realising it, a process of sorts was beginning to evolve.
I set off for a walk, usually on or near the east coast of England, usually somewhere between 12 hours and three days. There’s something in the eastern counties that is especially conducive to rhythm and trance; a depth of field apparent in the flat landscapes, the earth finite and low, the sea a distant border. I don’t take a smartphone, or a camera, but I do carry maps, paper and pen. A few days or weeks after the walk, I will often find myself with the beginnings of a sequence of poems. This moves me to reexamine the notes I have made, the maps I carried with me, and the digital version of the landscape, the multiple layers of Google Maps, satellite images, spatialized street views. The poems that develop from this process are where the physical, paper and digital territories intersect. The haiku and tanka are then posted on Twitter, a kind of public sketchbook for this purpose, the drafts digitally dated and assimilated to the timeline, absorbed by an expectant field, then parcelled into a sequence of fields. Although the paper and digital maps do intersect in the making of the poem, I’m very much aware that they can’t be reconciled; the land features and the retail tags are discrete, neither belonging to the other, the bounded, furrowed sheet of print, the scrolling, scalable screen. The paper map, of course, can only hold so much text, can only support so many symbols. The digital map – non-linear, multi-dimensional, multi-platform – is constrained only by bandwidth. Clickable fields of harvested data, bright icons in embedded space, colour-coded clusters in the digital estate. We imagine ourselves moving through this territory, and we do move through it, pitching and rolling through Street View, pivoting around blurred faces and license plates. And yet the privileging of commercial data on Google Maps often seems to overwhelm the territory itself, even in rural and suburban areas.
Wichelstowe, in Swindon, Wiltshire, is a new urban extension to the south of the town, built on a flood plain between a former branch railway line and the M4. The infrastructure works started in 2006, but the development was paused in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and partially restarted a few years later. Of the planned districts of West, Middle and East Wichel, only the latter has been built, a housing project comprising around 800 homes, most of which were completed by 2012. Surveying the first two, on foot, we encounter no buildings or foundations, only hooded lights, roads blocked by concrete cylinders, signage for places that still don’t exist.
In the ‘Street Map’ view of East Wichel, we find a network of roads, evidence of settlement, businesses and services named and located: The Bayberry public house, East Wichel Community Primary School, Kevin Jones Psychic Medium. Four years after the first residents moved in, there are still no shops on the estate; there is, however, a new Waitrose half a mile to the west, and a short stretch of restored canal, marking the boundary of what might, one day, become Middle Wichel.
In the ‘Satellite’ view currently on Google Maps, the screen has frozen on the old territory, still caught in pre-development: a binary ghost, haunting the landscape, the field system yet to be dismantled by Taylor Wimpey. It is 2008, 2009, a timeline breaking off, the new development yet to be authenticated. Digital space disinvests from physical space. The streets are white lines that fade out as you close in; the bricks sink back into the ground. The fledgling community is erased.
Down from the old line,
sunk in clay: parcels of land,
projecting the plain.
The home is approved
in outline, in plan. It takes
years to colour in.
Still wrapped, the stop lights
and idle rubble: lost maps
of Middle Wichel.
A bridge to nowhere,
abandoned to a wide-skied
The new settlement
starts without us. We won’t live
to see it finished.
We could walk out there,
take stock: the fens filling in,
the sky building up.
An earlier version of this text was presented at Digital Re-enchantment: Place, Writing & Technology, a one-day symposium convened by Dr David Cooper (Department of English, Manchester Metropolitan University) at Great Hucklow, Derbyshire, Saturday 11 June 2016. My thanks to David Cooper and Helen Darby of MMU, and to my fellow speakers: Clare Archibald, Emma Bolland, David Borthwick, Sarah Cole and Charles Monkhouse.
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.
Click here to listen to the Longbarrow audio podcasts discussed in this piece.
It’s occurred to me lately how many years I’ve been honing and flexing the parts of my mind I write poetry with, and how transferable the craft skills I learned as a child and in early adulthood have proved to be. With this in mind, talking to someone who runs for fun has revealed shared strategies for sustained focus.
I’ve always read, and written a bit, but my childhood creative apprenticeship was in sewing, knitting, crochet, macramé, embroidery, patchwork, any kind of textile alchemy. By the time I was nineteen, I understood the rudiments of several processes, and felt at times like a stream of whirling ideas about colour, texture, line; with an urgency to try making the things I could see and sense in my mind.
Materials were begged, found or bought cheap: friends brought me interesting cast-offs, and charity shops were quite idiosyncratic back then. One of the best things was going on missions to Wilton Carpet Factory, where they sold end-lengths of wool too short for their looms, in the vast range of hues and tones required by carpets. I was enthralled by the subtle distinction, visceral contrasts, and journeys of gradation evident in the colours. Skeins were randomly mixed, so I’d always bring home surprises, some of which became treasured shades that ran out too soon.
Commissions were sometimes for specific designs: occasional wedding outfits, a cover for a pub piano; while most orders for jumpers, other knitted clothing, cushion covers and bedding, were for the design as well. Waiting their turn were my own projects, often generated in part from demands made by commissions, these were where necessary experimentation took place. I was on the dole with no children: if little else I had time, and a free flowing mind, each to do what I wished with.
I’d be up at the crack of midday, eager to get on with whatever was current, to see last night’s work in daylight, to master the next difficulty. My fascination with materials and processes, and the growing field of their possibilities were both purpose and reward. My drive was to express in a garment, or surface design, the flavour or tone of a notion, scene or story that I’d glimpsed in a barely accessible region of my own primordial swamp – by that I mean the colours and textures evoked by emotions and memory, some real, some conjured from personal and cultural sources.
That much of what I made had practical and aesthetic value, and that people liked it, was validating, meant it didn’t pile up too much, and must’ve helped with my sense of purpose. But really, that seemed faint and far away compared with the actual work, the thrill of flexing my creative muscle, striving to translate the inside of my head into things in the physical world: the colour palette on a pair of socks, the cut of a jacket, the tone of a freestyle patchwork. My partner through some of this time commented on the serenity in my face and posture at work, especially when at the sewing machine. What I remember feeling is that I was doing precisely what I was supposed to be doing.
At the helm of the craft that carried me, I was channelling my energies in their natural direction, learning how materials behave, honing skills, experimenting, and especially learning from when experiments go disastrously wrong. If I was learning then I wasn’t failing, whatever the thing in my hands looked like. This was the first time I’d experienced my brain laying down new information of its own free will, then keeping it alive by addition and adaptation, and it felt as though I’d found a way of letting more oxygen in. I fully realised that the mind is a muscle not a sponge – it’s not for filling up and squeezing out, but for flexing and bringing to bear on things.
State education in this country seems unwilling to seek out, validate and explore what pupils bring to the art room or creative writing class. Instead it imposes rigid and spurious templates for ‘creativity’, then only evaluates whether or not the rules have been followed. Art can’t be made under these circumstances: tools and techniques need to be tested, then taken on board accordingly. To make a thing that offers truth in a usable form requires us as artists to retain full access to our inner selves – our hopes, fears, emotions – as that’s where we source our unique materials.
As we mature, the journey is sometimes distressing, and I found the practical elements of craft helpful in this, by keeping me grounded while I risked going about in my own murky interior. Attention to rhythms, like knit one purl one for so many rows, protected me from getting burned by some of the coruscating demons I was colour-conjuring. It’s as though the physicality of the craft absorbed some of the energy, and stopped me becoming overwhelmed by my strongest responses to the world; let me look at my own fear, for instance, without being afraid, afforded the space to hold it away from me, draw from it without indulging it. To knit a jumper for someone to wear, the knitter needs to not be overcome by rage, lust, or any emotion. By the same notion, to write a poem to send out in the world for others to use, the poet must master shame, grief, or rapture, while writing. Years later, a chance viewing of Tony Harrison, on TV, explaining the craft of sonnet building, was one of the sparks that led me towards writing.
Defining ‘craftsmanship’ might demonstrate how these skills transfer. To paraphrase Coleridge, craftsmanship is the best available materials brought together in an arrangement best suited to the use of their finished product. Those materials include the craftsman, who melds tools and materials from her own mind with those in the workshop, some of which are uniquely adapted or made from scratch, to create something she believes the world needs – otherwise she might not be a craftsman but some kind of charlatan.
So craftsmanship is the antithesis of shoddy goods made quickly for profit or status. In writing, I want to make something that didn’t exist before, and I want it to cast my own light on a shared human experience. Crafting a poem isn’t taming timber or chipping away at marble: the material is word, the craft is in negotiating between sound and meaning, the only muscle to wield is the mind.
Walking the dogs by the river, we often see runners; in the last few years my sister Mary, visual artist by trade, has become one. For her it’s meditative, about feeling part of the land. Talking about it, we find parallels between running as meditation and poetry as craft: she trains and flexes muscles in her body as I do in my mind, and for the same reasons.
A runner who runs alone only competes with himself; a poet writes his own poems the best he can, and must be his own most rigorous critic. Like me with writing, my sister’s not asking for it to be easy. Here’s an extract from a piece she wrote about running by the River Rivelin in Sheffield: she’s just forked left off a main path, and says –
I especially like this part of the run because the path changes; it narrows and undulates round quick corners, tree roots everywhere, as well as rocks, and brickwork forming curved tunnels where the run-off water re-joins the river. You have to really watch where you place your feet and I like this focus, hearing my breath coming hard but steady, concentrating on every step.
Sometimes, for me, writing feels like this – I’m in my stride, words bounce along for a line, maybe several, sometimes a whole stanza, and more. When I miss my footing, I go back, find surprisingly apt solutions, carry on, as if in my own backyard. Then in the next draft I tease out connections and meanings that I never thought I’d the skill to bring to a poem, and by the next draft it’s starting to sing. An explanation for this kind of flow is that I’m applying what I now know – what I’ve found hard before and struggled to learn has become available, it’s in my mind’s muscle-memory and can be deployed to greater effect than before.
But there’s always more to learn, that flow won’t last long, and new depths soon become shallow. The next obstacle will require another kind of path: the only poems I know how to write are the ones I’ve already written.
The running analogy holds for when the writing again begins to flag. At the river, I sometimes see a runner walking. I don’t like to see it as they look out of place in their running gear – as though dressed up and out, but not up to it. However, this is a stage of the process: the runner has run as far as she can, pushed herself still further – just to that next tree, then the next one, dragged up the energy from somewhere, nearly made herself sick, and now needs a break. This option of walking is very useful: it’s a thing a runner can do to stay on track, stay on the river path, keep propelling himself through the material, keep his muscles moving, warm and supple, all this while temporarily unable to perform what he’s there to do, due to a snag in terrain or energy supply, but after a while of this walking, he will be able to run again.
Similarly, when I get stuck in a poem, I just write dull for a while. I know it’s dull, yet when I try to sharpen it nothing works, my mind’s muscle isn’t toned for it. If it’s the poem I’m supposed to be writing, then it will take off when the muscle is ready. “Memoir of a Working River”, which runs to twenty pages, forced me to dig out new resources to stay with the project, especially as it piled up behind me and seemed worthwhile.
For as long as I’ve understood the Rivelin’s history I’ve wanted to write it as poetry, yet for years my efforts stumbled, led only to short poems of smaller journeys. So, fail better… I kept trying, and eventually tricked myself by beginning where I wanted the poem to end, wrote fifty odd lines, got stuck again, and this time, those lines alone would not make a poem. But I was onto something, and though I didn’t know how, I pushed on for the sake of what I’d written, and for the tale that needed telling.
At such times, I recall a runner walking and write dull for as long as it takes. If I can’t admit it’s dull while it’s costing the same effort as past gems, then I’d be afraid of writing dull forever, so I must acknowledge this and stagger on. Some of the output is useful – a word or phrase, narrative progress, a solution for some half forgotten problem, but the lines on the page are leaden. Nevertheless, I’m by the river, and in motion; soon I’ll learn what I need to go further.
To alleviate the drear, and tickle the muscle, I actively read poetry that seems spurred by the same energy as what I think I’m doing; this helps me tune to that energy. The competitor in me hates this: how come these guys can do it and I can’t? So I shut that voice up, like the walking runner, when another runner passes her, must rinse it from her mind. The poetry I’m reading is published; I wasn’t there while it was made. I didn’t see the poet walking by the river in her running gear, her hair all straggled, mud splattered up her aching calves; listening to the same stuff in her head, fighting the urge to give up and go home; and at the same time waiting, hoping, willing herself to be ready again to drive on. With both disciplines, staying with it is the only way, and when the flow kicks in, whoosh – what a payoff.
My sister started running with a friend who, when she slowed, would grab her wrist and pull her along, forcing her to run further before taking a walk break. My sister hated this, as I would. But it must be like being told by a respected fellow poet that you probably need to redraft a section or line of your poem, when you know how long it took you in the first place, and don’t believe your mind’s muscle can work harder, write it any better. Yet the giver of that advice believes you can, as the wrist grabbing showed my sister that her legs could run further, and she’s grateful to her friend for risking verbal abuse at the very least, by encouraging her to risk trying harder.
When I’m at home, alone, working on my poem, I have to grab my own wrist and pull myself on. Forget the fear of not being up to it. The poem’s arriving, whatever the sacrifice I must learn all I need to deliver it, keep going till it’s done – this time to another, further tree. The marvellous thing is, as poets, we do this in private. So, I snuggle into my writing chair, exposed only to the terrifying rigours of my own mind.
Fay Musselwhite’s debut full-length collection Contraflow is available now from Longbarrow Press. Visit the Contraflow microsite for further extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below:
Disrupting the Lexicon Location Myth
I recently received a rejection slip from a respected publisher that has resonated much more deeply than I had envisaged. The knockback didn’t bother me so much as the reasoning behind it. The body of work was a series of photographs then titled Recovered Landscapes: Reclamation of the South Yorkshire Coalfields. The publishers basically said that there is no or little commercial interest in these landscapes, that they are invalid, obsolete, without a criterion that fits the current publishing climate. Friends suggested that I drop the specific locational moniker and resubmit them as a more generalised way of treating landscape. But to do this would risk losing the essential value of what I was trying to achieve – namely, that something deep within the regional psyche was being lost through the treatment of post-industrial sites and the value system that surrounds them.
Having work rejected because the work isn’t of an industry standard is one thing, but the dissemination of its values through the market is another. Part of the problem is that of exoticism; of displacement chic. If you replace South Yorkshire with the Russian or South American coalfields, interest increases, and value increases. I think of John Clare, who suddenly and irrevocably became absent through his absolute insistence on describing what he knew and his fateful attachment to his own microclimate. I guess, in deep introspection, Clare wanted to preserve what he felt to be already over, though few wanted to hear it as it hardly fitted prevailing sensibilities. However, I think it goes much deeper than this and into our expectations of what cultural values are and what purpose they serve. I will return to this as the essay progresses.
Too often in today’s climate, cultural hegemony is cultivated through a seemingly ad hoc mixture of arts festivals, commercial galleries, managerial processes and academic interventions into spatial politics. What has become harder, and to some extent impossible, is to work outside of these frameworks. A priori positivist assumptions about ‘community’ often head up these processes and their adherents. Empirical knowledge of social or event planning bypasses more deep-seated resentments of and dissatisfaction with cultural ‘re-presentation’. Added to this is an accelerated reliance on digital topographies (through sat-nav, gaming terrains, Google earth, etc). The end effect is often a geopolitical dysmorphia, a fantasy world. The ordinary, caught as it is between the sublime and the banal, is often erased and replaced with heritage green space, business or retail parks, faux-archaeological aesthetics, or is simply fenced off and marked as an absence, reflecting the value of keeping sites empty as fiscal or cultural currencies. Rarely in the former coalfields has land been left to naturalise as a post-industrial site. The management of landscape through extraneous principles is nothing new; however, when photographing the region, my criteria have increasingly been informed by the questions ‘by whom’ and ‘for whom’. Photographing the former site of Denaby Main colliery, and its subsequent use, highlighted the failure of consultancy and multi-agency bodies to understand the deeper needs of the site. The deliberate depoliticisation of the region is also evident in its restructuring. For example, the site of Orgreave coking plant (scene of the worst mass brutality conducted during the bloody 1984-85 miners’ strike) has now been re-named as the softer-sounding and benign ‘Waverley’. To date, no official acknowledgment or representation of the conflict has been made on the site. What seems clear is that the region has a diverse set of meanings and histories and its future value must attempt to try to accommodate this range in a meaningful way.
Before continuing with a discussion of the points raised above, I want to describe what I mean by the ordinary. To create work en plein air in a contemporary setting is deeply unfashionable and is often seen as anachronistic. Counter to this are a plethora of site-specific works that seemingly reveal personal and geopolitical histories, or documentary works aiming to capture event-specific ‘decisive moments’. I have used ‘ordinary’ in this context to mean work that neither reveals a particular important event, nor uncovers a familial or archival particularity. Some of these sites might even be described as ‘non-sites’, places where nothing happens very slowly. Absence of meaning and the ordinary seem perfectly syntagmatic of a region that has had its major resources continually disputed and exploited until little remains but traces: scars and residues. It is the condition of these remains at this particular time that interests me. The future and the past are other photographs, other representations; any meaning here should be through what is visible as a surface.
It is important in this context to distinguish between the normal and the ordinary. Normative values have a systematic relationship to the production and dissemination of agreement criteria, of validating work through its ‘usefulness’. On the other hand, ‘ordinary‘, in best usage, might include the disregarding of official (and often arbitrary) boundaries, the use of land as playful, or as an absence of distinctions between urban and rural, ruin and foundation. Here the categorical dichotomy between the sublime and banal also begins to loosen. If sites are only validated through their context (crime scenes, accident sites, historical human activity etc) then the suggestion (and presupposition) is that all other criteria are supplementary. However, the ordinary falls short of these criteria; for example, in plein air photography, conditionality plays a major part in the methodology of production values. The weather or time of day isn’t secondary here, but essential. This ‘it was as it is’ attitude isn’t quite as benign as it first appears, though. I will go on to discuss how I completed the series of photographs, and what such close scrutiny of the value systems and dissemination of landscape might imply within a broader context.
On reflection, I think the series has a couple of things going against it in the prevailing climate. Firstly, as I have suggested, the series is primarily focused on absence. The human element in the photographs is secondary and often invoked as a negative principle. To create work that isn’t human-centric and doesn’t show the species as benevolent or flexible doesn’t fit with utopian or community values. Secondly, the medium itself becomes problematic inasmuch as the series aims to create its meaning, not through the singular ‘important’ definitive image but through a series of non-specific variants. The ordinariness of landscape not being shot at its most beautiful angle or at the poles of dawn or dusk aims to suggest a non-partitioned, plain version of the world and not a locus we head toward as a point of interest. When I discussed this series at a gallery opening, someone suggested to me that the reason that many of these sites are screened from the casual passer-by is because people don’t want to see them. This seems reason enough to show them.
As the series developed and extended, I began to focus less on the coalfield sites themselves and more on their peripheries. The idea of momentarily catching a landscape without any presupposition began to appeal to me deeply. As the focus shifted from the specific to the commonality of waste ground or scrub, I realised that although all landscape isn’t treated equally that doesn’t mean all landscape isn’t equal in and of itself. So eventually I dropped the original title and began to divest the images of any bias of particularity I could. By refusing meaning, landscape itself can be disruptive. Photography as a lacuna is doubly bound to re-present the point of interest as facile, as of no great significance: whether you choose to look or not, it’s there. The series attempts to put a strain on our presence as passive viewers of landscape by pushing its absence onto our own, refusing along the way such overworked terms as ‘banal’ or ‘sublime’. The non-identification with landscape as picturesque or sublime searches for its imagined communities elsewhere. The process of being in the landscape itself finds its exegesis in the limits of identification and not in co-opting its value as a regulatory system of materialism. It is this ‘tramping’, wandering quality that the series aims to acknowledge. How much ‘use’ this quality can be put to remains to be seen.
Karl Hurst’s photographs of the South Yorkshire coalfields will be exhibited as part of The Ted Hughes Poetry Festival 2016 (Mexborough, 24-26 June); click here for further details. Further images in this series can be viewed as part of Hurst’s Flickr photoset.
Three essays on photography (under the series title ‘On Liminal Spaces’) appeared on the Longbarrow Blog in 2015; the first essay (‘Reflections on Impracticality’) appears here, the second essay (‘Meditation on Carl Wark’) appears here, and the third essay (‘Winter Hare at Alport: A Theory of Disappearance’) appears here. Karl Hurst’s Flickr photosets can be viewed here. Boxed editions of prints are available from his Etsy site. Details of his publications with Longbarrow Press (writing as Andrew Hirst) are available here. His sequence ‘Three Night Walks’ appears in the walking-themed poetry anthology The Footing (Longbarrow Press).
Last night, in the middle of a city in the middle of the desert, I was listening to music at my friend’s apartment when Jackson Browne came on. It’s a few years since I heard “Late for the Sky”. It’s one of Nick Hornby’s 31 songs, and he says when the album came out in 1974, he was too into punk to have time for delicate Californian flowers with pudding-bowl haircuts and songs about marital discord. It was a couple of decades later that his own marital discord gave him a sense of what shaped these songs. The intro of “Late for the Sky” is instantly moving. But now it’s like I’ve never heard the lyrics before, how deeply sad and felt they are: “looking hard into your eyes / there was nobody I’d ever known / such an empty surprise to feel so alone.” That’s the thing about endings. The past gets rewritten, you get rewritten (I am no one you’ve ever known). Shared stories no longer match up, so you lose yourself and your past as well as an imagined future. And now it’s dark outside and I’m listening to Jackson Browne in the middle of a city in the middle of the desert.
I write about the desert sometimes. This is the second part of a poem called ‘Fairytale No. 9’:
He said his country had only two seasons,
all or nothing, no spring or fall.
He longed to see snow
but I told him how leaves brittle
and burn up in love for the trees,
sacrifice themselves – little drops of blood –
to lie over exposed roots, warming them
from the early frost.
Autumn, I said.
Outside, sand and sky were all one colour.
He turned back from the still heat
asked me to write
this new word on his hand.
I love England for its seasons. I have something good to say about them all, but what makes them magical are the visible changes that are most associated with spring and autumn, the little drops of blood, and the shoots that are just now turning the garden green in my absence. It’s a good backdrop for a fairy tale, all that transformation.
In my poem, change comes at a cost, a “sacrifice”, and elsewhere, the speaker’s transformations are quite traumatic:
Heavy with buds, I took to bed, dreamt
of being a woman –
the weight of nesting birds
on my chest was only grief, the body taking
its share of the pain.
I lost my silver bark,
its counter-light reflecting the names
of passersby cut into my ribs.
e.e. cummings’s “Spring is like a perhaps hand” appears to offer transformation without the pain, a gentle placing and arranging – “a perhaps / fraction of flower here placing / an inch of air there) and // without breaking anything.” – but so many carefullys can’t be what they seem … actually, we’re only looking through a window, while spring affects how we see the world. Somewhere else days are getting shorter. And somewhere else again, spring and autumn are barely words.
Change as part of a cycle only looks like change close up, doesn’t it? So it’s not always obvious that you’re going round in circles. In her short story, “Her Bonxie Boy”, Sara Maitland combines fairy tale, spring and science, using the method of charting seasonal bird migration with microchips that record light intensity; length of day tells latitude, and you can tell longitude according to the hours of sunrise/sunset, so you can work out where a bird was twice a day. Except when it’s equinox because days and nights are the same length across the hemisphere: “The vernal equinox is exactly when migratory sea birds are migrating. So, at the very moment I want to know most what they’re up to, they disappear. Vanish somewhere between winter and summer”. Is that what I’ve done? Have I disappeared? Have you forgotten me? I have a different name here, different job, clothes. I’ve shed many of the roles I used to have. Here I’m no one’s daughter, no one’s significant other. I’m still a (Skype) mother, but most people here would be surprised at that. Will this migration really bring transformation or is it just part of a bigger circle than I can see? Truth is I’ve held onto more than I’ve let go of, and if some days it hurts, I don’t know if it’s change that’s more painful or trying to hold still.
I wrote ‘Fairytale No. 9’ while thinking about Rebecca Solnit on pain and empathy (in The Faraway Nearby). Thinking about pain and touch as a boundary of the self: “Those who suffer are considered to be worse off than those who don’t, but those who suffer can care for themselves, protect themselves, seek change […] recover.” Hornby describes it as peeling away “yet another layer of skin (who knew we had so many, or that their removal caused such discomfort?), and thus allows us to hear things, chords and solos and harmonies and what have you, properly”.
Hornby adds that he wishes he still had those layers of skin, but when my son grew up I realised life is much longer than I’d imagined, and I wonder what it would be like to go through it and never change or be changed. In Ultimate Classic Rock, Michael Gallucci wrote, “[Browne] sang like someone who had the end of the world in his rear-view mirror and a wide open road in front of him”. In those chords and solos and harmonies and what have you, in “Late for the Sky”, I hear that potential for transformation, to see the open road more clearly for having the end of the world in sight. The lyrics, sad as they are, are about waking up. Once you see “the changing light”, you lose what certainty you thought you had, but what do you gain?
In Hope in the Dark, Solnit says change happens in the imagination first. You have to be able to imagine the possibility of a different future, before you can head towards it. And if you think that’s scary, that’s where the hope is. There’s no hope in certainty, only in the dark, and perhaps a little in the desert.
‘Fairytale No. 9’ appears in Envies the Birds, Angelina D’Roza’s debut full-length collection (available now from Longbarrow Press). Visit the Envies the Birds microsite for further extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the book (hardback, 80pp) via the relevant PayPal button below: