The pace of ‘The Footing’ | Brian LewisPosted: June 23, 2014
Make my impediment mean no ill
But be itself a way.
‘Malcolm Mooney’s Land’, W S Graham
Early in the summer of 2008, Longbarrow Press published two sequences that would set its course for the next five years. The first of these was James Caruth’s Dark Peak, a poem in the form of a Catholic Mass, presented as a tall, slender pamphlet. The second was Matthew Clegg’s Edgelands, a series of between 30 and 56 ‘mongrel tanka’, which appeared in several different handmade, limited editions, including a pamphlet, a CD, a set of postcards, and a concertinaed strip measuring two inches by six feet, compressed into a bespoke matchbox. The tall pamphlet and the small matchbox seemed, at first, to suggest two distinct modes or practices, on the part of the poets and the publisher. As the objects came into use, however, it became clear that each format had been chosen for its respective sequence with the same aim in mind; that of slowing down the experience of reading, of recovering space for the poem. The volume of space around and between the ten sections of Dark Peak is necessitated by their variable line length and line count (from 7 lines to 27 lines). The regular lineation of the Edgelands poems invited a different approach; the discrete space of the individual tanka and the rhythm of the extended sequence are both enabled by the simple folds that mark each poem from the one that follows. In this way, the space of the poem also measures its pace.
The idea of pace was, undoubtedly, informed by the fact that Dark Peak and Edgelands are ‘walking poems’. Although the act of walking is not foregrounded in either sequence, it can be inferred from the speed at which the poems move through their respective landscapes. These landscapes – drawn from Sheffield’s western and northern edges – seemed to speak to each other, and the two works were eventually programmed side by side at Line Break, an evening of poetry, painting and performance at Sheffield’s Site Gallery in November 2008. A few days after the event, I invited a handful of poets to contribute new walking-themed poems and sequences to a full-length Longbarrow anthology, provisionally titled The Footing. The only guidelines offered to the poets were that the poems and sequences should take the idea or practice of walking as a starting point; interpretation, form and length were left to the writer’s discretion. Most of the poems were completed within 18 months; however, it would be almost five years before the book made it into print.
During this five-year period, Longbarrow Press continued to publish pamphlets and curate events, but The Footing slipped further and further back in the schedule. Summer 2010. Summer 2011. Summer 2012. I’d been running Longbarrow since 2005, in the evenings and weekends off from my job with a financial services provider in Swindon, travelling to Sheffield every few weeks to discuss scripts, host events and record poets. My circumstances had enabled me to acquire (or borrow) the resources to edit, design and produce short runs of handmade pamphlets, a process that was often part accident, part refinement (the watery blurs of the cover design for the Edgelands pamphlet resulting from a printer breakdown, for example). The technical limitations and temporal constraints quickened the creative development of the press, but the path to full-length book production (which was, clearly, beyond the scope of slow craft) was distant, unclear. For all the talk, I couldn’t make a start: on developing the skills needed to master industry-standard publishing software; on discussions with commercial printers; on visualising the production of 1000 hardback books from which I would be physically absent. I couldn’t let go of the process I’d pieced together from photocopied scraps and toner spills. I was blocked; the route to the anthology was blocked.
The Footing would almost certainly have remained blocked had it not been for two things. The most important factor was the commitment of the poets involved in the project. No contracts were exchanged in the years prior to publication; the poets were free to take their scripts elsewhere, but they chose not to. I’d like to think that this was something other, or more, than loyalty to me, or even to Longbarrow: a belief that the idea of the book was still alive, perhaps. The other thing that helped to clear the impasse was the vitality and invention of the poems themselves.
This was evident both on the page, and – crucially, for the continued life of the project – in the exploration of alternatives to the page, alternatives to the book: the field-based events, recording projects and collaborations with visual artists that began in 2006 (with our first publications) and which continue to this day. It’s likely that many of the creative reinterpretations of the work in The Footing would not have happened without the blockage that imperilled the anthology, or the slow path to clearing it; perhaps the poems on the page would be outwardly unchanged by the absence of these public and collaborative processes and outcomes, but the life of the poems, and the shape of the book, would, I think, be markedly different.
Rob Hindle’s contribution to the anthology is a series of five long poems and sequences collectively titled Flights and Traverses, based on several walks in and around Sheffield taken by Hindle between 2008 and 2010, each responding to the idea of a one-way journey made by people at different points in history. Two of these walks focus on Hindle’s ancestors, travelling the short distance from the country to the city in 1782, and the even shorter distance from Hillsborough to the South Yorkshire Asylum in 1931; the other three revisit episodes from Sheffield’s public history. The last of these, and the last sequence in The Footing, is a walk in the traces of the Sheffield Blitz, following the imagined route of the Luftwaffe from Dore Moor on the city’s southwestern outskirts to the Marples hotel near the Cathedral, both of which were targeted by the bombers. Rob had walked the route one cloudless night early in March 2010 and, having written the sequence over the following months, suggested that we re-walk it, with an audience, on 12 December 2010: the 70th anniversary of the first night of the Sheffield Blitz. A small group set off from Dore Moor at 2pm that Sunday, the light and stillness of the snow-flecked moorland shading into the darkness, noise and flow of the city, where our journey reached its end shortly after 8pm. Rob had revisited the research undertaken for the initial walk and the writing of the sequence; extracts from eyewitness accounts of the bombing were stitched into his own commentary, prefacing his readings from the sequence, and jostling for space with other histories.
This wasn’t the first poetry walk that Longbarrow Press had presented – the launch of Matthew Clegg’s Edgelands in June 2008 was marked by a walk through the hills of North Sheffield, followed by a series of city walks in 2008-2009 – but it was the longest. Arguably, the small group size, the sense of historical occasion, the ritual pacing, and the crossing of boundaries – country to city, light to darkness – focused the relationships between the poems, the historical narratives and the terrain. It also renewed and deepened my connection to Rob’s project, and strengthened my conviction that the anthology should strive to ‘remake’ itself through these events – before and after publication. As the group was preparing to disperse at the end of the Blitz walk, I handed everyone a package comprising a short essay by Rob (reflecting on the making of the sequence) and a mini CD featuring a recording of the sequence that Rob and I had made along the route a few weeks previously; a short film documenting the walk appeared a few years later.
Over the next few years, further work from The Footing would be introduced to audiences in this way. Rob led a shorter walk through the Wicker in early 2011, retracing the steps taken by Sheffield gang members on a particularly bloody night in April 1925; as with the Blitz walk, a package comprising an essay and a field recording of the poem was given to the audience. Last year’s Flights and Traverses walk found Rob recomposing fragments of these and other sequences into a new map of the city – a map that foregrounds the boundaries of the old city, the residues of its former entrances and exits.
Other poems commissioned for The Footing were adapted for a range of visual media. Chris Jones’ Reformation-era sequence Death and the Gallant, which follows the progress of two journeymen as they move from church to church destroying the remnants of Catholic wall art, was the subject of a striking interpretation by the artist Paul Evans in an exhibition at Sheffield’s Bank Street Arts in 2011; the 10 paintings were ‘decomposed’ (or partially erased) by Evans’ application of a belt sander to their surfaces. Another poem by Rob Hindle, ‘Attercliffe to the General Cemetery’, was reworked as a short animated film by the artist Hondartza Fraga; the film, Cortege, has been exhibited at a number of film festivals over the last few years. James Caruth has worked with a local photographer on a series of images for his sequence Tithes, in which the echoes of recent and historical conflicts sound the byways of the North Sheffield village of Stannington. The four years between the completion of the first poems and the publication of the anthology were also measured by a programme of recordings in and around Sheffield, often returning to the locations that appear in the poems: the English Pewter Company, the Quaker graves of Bowcroft Cemetery, the banks of the River Rivelin, the banks of the River Don.
It might be argued that ‘multimedia’ activity on this scale, and over this period of time, threatens to pre-empt, or outpace, the anthology; that the poems, when encountered on the page, might appear overfamiliar, adrift from a collaborative context, or eroded by its pressures. It might also be argued that the programme of events and collaborative activities preparatory to The Footing was an acute, extended form of displacement activity; a distraction from the unmade book. I would suggest that the anthology has been enriched by these inventive presentations and explorations of other media. In all cases, they have engaged audiences who, by their own admission, are bored or alienated by conventional modes of poetry presentation, and have helped to create a genuine appetite for the anthology among these audiences. The development of The Footing via alternatives to print media has, arguably, ‘validated’, or tested, the work by a different route: we have not sought to produce a work that is pre-validated by way of including prize-winning poems, retrospective selections, or the jacket endorsements that even ‘radical’ poets seem obliged to seek.
2013. I’d resettled in Sheffield (having quit my job with the financial services provider) and, over five laborious days, had acquired a practical understanding of InDesign, Photoshop and the other applications with which I needed to be familiar before creating PDFs to send to the printer. I was, in fact, working on two books: The Footing and Matthew Clegg’s debut collection, West North East. The making of West North East (discussed in an earlier blog piece) had been attended by similar delays and uncertainties, for similar reasons. Clegg had decided to withdraw the script of The Power-line, a collection that had existed in various forms (and which had sat with various publishers) since 2005, and had structured a new arrangement of poems exploring different ideas of ‘crisis, journey and imaginative crossing.’ West North East was to be a book in three parts, and Edgelands, a sequence due to be republished in The Footing, was to form its central section. I couldn’t make a case for taking Edgelands out of West North East; the sequence is essential to the book’s texture, development and dynamics. This did, however, present a problem for The Footing. The two books were likely to appear within weeks of each other; publishing the same sequence in both books made little sense, and would probably make even less sense to the prospective reader.
Since returning to Sheffield, I’d developed working relationships with the poets Angelina Ayers and Fay Musselwhite, resulting in a series of newly commissioned poems and recordings for two projects (Call & Response and The Seven Wonders) in the summer and autumn of 2012, as well as a series of performances and events. Sheffield’s rivers ran through a number of their poems; the urban Don emerging as an embodiment of both stillness and flow in Angelina’s work, with the ‘post-traumatic’ Rivelin disturbing the outwardly ‘settled’ landscapes of Peak-facing west Sheffield in Fay’s poems. The rhythms, tones and images were fresh and unexpected; they expanded the territory that The Footing had been operating in. I wanted these poems in the anthology. The only way to make space for them was to remove Edgelands. I contacted Matt, who felt that this was the best outcome for both books; I then contacted Angelina and Fay, who were happy to see their work included.
The Footing finally saw publication in October 2013. I wanted the book to reflect the curatorial values that had shaped its gradual making; these values had to be present in every aspect of its structure and production. They also had to be worn lightly. The arrangement of the sequences and long poems should be suggestive of relationships between the constituent parts, and of a development throughout the book, without precluding other readings or associations. A pattern, not a collage. The typesetting had to be sympathetic to the poems; they must not be cramped into page-sharing with other poems, but should, like the earlier pamphlets, be arranged as discrete units for the reader to encounter. This last point meant that the introduction could only run to two pages. Fine. I had no desire to see the anthology burdened with commentary or critical apparatus likely to be redundant in a few years’ time. The introduction offers a few paragraphs of context for the book’s ethos, development and settings: a way in, not a way through.
The launch of The Footing in November 2013 presented us with a further opportunity to remake, or reroute, the book. The poets devised their own approaches to presentation; some opted for reflective commentaries, others for short readings, others for performance. Projected media and pre-recorded audio were carefully integrated throughout. These principles were also brought to bear on Pilgrimage, a recent event at Bank Street Arts in which all seven poets performed a new arrangement of work from the anthology: a continuous performance with the accent on memory and memorial.
Further projects will extend – or outpace – the work that began several years ago: a CD of location-based recordings, presenting yet another arrangement of the poems, is in the pipeline, as are further walks and collaborations. The most recent walk, Fay Musselwhite’s Contra Flow, led the audience west through Sheffield’s tree-lined Rivelin Valley, moving against the river’s course. It’s interesting to note that Fay presented more poems about the Rivelin Valley on the walk than appear in the anthology. In this context, The Footing was merely a starting point. As Rob Hindle notes in his essay ‘Cartography, Flights and Traverses’:
We are at the moment between getting lost and finding a way forward – between the original itinerary and a new route, made at that moment and not until then. I find this moment entirely creative, and settling, and inspiring. We might be on a track thousands of years deep, but in passing along it, we are itinerant: we are at a point between the journey recorded and the journey anticipated.
This is a revised and extended version of a paper presented at the Midsummer Poetry Festival Symposium on Anthologies and Anthologising in Contemporary Poetry, Bank Street Arts, Sheffield, Friday 20 June 2014. Thanks to Ágnes Lehóczky and Angelina Ayers for organising the symposium. Click here to visit The Footing microsite.