Field Systems | Brian LewisPosted: June 17, 2016
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 displayed 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.