An Alphabets’-Lattice | Mark Goodwin

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At a certain time of the day the jackdaws fly over, although you couldn’t set your clock by them. I can’t be sure, but I reckon it is the light that they feel, as by degrees day changes its frequencies towards night’s. Suddenly the sky is spotted with jacks’ calls, and the odd jackdaw figure being tugged towards favourite willows … and then not much later a slightly dimmer sky is spattered with jack-jacks & dark bird-glyphs constellated in flow towards roost …

An evening or two ago, I decided to set up my field-recorder in the heart of Jackdawia – a nation-less place amongst old water-filled gravel pits, and beneath tall willows. As I arrived the odd jack sparked in the sky as a blackbird chinked and a wren’s hot sonic silver shot through twigs … the long willow limbs were purple-black and blackening against the sky’s energy-fade … the city-rim noises of by-pass cars and the general whirr of the city’s mass fractured into slippery see-through sounds as the entangling alphabets of the trees’ branches – the lattice of cruxes & twig-scripts – re-said some world … and then the jacks, and the crows too, their throats took something from the air and gave something else back … but what it was these creatures were giving, and to what or who … suddenly exquisitely impossible …

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My digital field-recorder on its silvery-legged tripod in the dark, the illuminated square of its interface lonely below the blackening willows & the twig-clots of crows’ nests. I’ve got my ears, on the side of my head, I put my fingers up to them, I can feel them … and yet that technological appendage, the field-recorder just over there, as I stand here surrounded by whirling bird-voice & crossed-crisses of tree-letters from languages not imagined yet, that prosthetic ear almost, even though I’m not touching it, that grammar-changer, that algorithm-driven gleaner of sonic traces … it changes the way I feel with my ears. Degrees of direction explode slowly through degrees of sound, each jack or caw sits its noise on a fibre of distance …

It is actually almost frightening. In fact it is frightening, so I keep my mind on my feet, the pressure of Earth pushing up towards me, just to remind me I’m not radio waves and that I have a core of bones, and that I’m standing on a planet and not being sucked out into space … because now the roost is at climax, the smithereens-cackle around me has taken the dark now and compressed it and exploded it at once, the now, the now purple-black entangled letters of the trees & countless fragments of voices from all-times-gone-&-to-come … all this now has taken dark’s noise and remade it so that the outside of my mind is the same as the inside … unbounded, borderless … except for my feet, I keep my feet, keep them, I don’t let them go, I keep them planted … for if I forget to stand on this ground here then all this utterly-foreign-deeply-familiar eternally migratory creaturely un-language that I love as much as I fear, this burn of noise will not become … this burn of noise will not become sound … and sound’s pattern will not become … will not become words …

Photographs by Nikki Clayton. Listen to Mark Goodwin’s field recordings of jackdaws & crows at roost, Watermead Park, Leicestershire, England, January 2017:

 

Mark Goodwin appears at the StAnza Poetry Festival (St Andrews, Fife) on Friday 3 March; click here for more details. His 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:

steps-large-e-bollandSteps: £12.99

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The Rooms of the House | Chris Jones

blackbirds-nikki-claytonAs a teacher, from time to time I hand out one of my own poems to students with all notes and drafts included alongside the final version. My intention has always been to show how much work and time I have put into finding the right words to put on the page. I’ve never found the process easy – I can’t say I’ve ever been that fluent as a writer – so the drafts attempt in some way to address and illuminate the issues of style, language, form, voice, the choices bound up in telling a story, that I’ve been wrangling with for the past thirty years or so.

On one occasion when I handed out a poem and workings-out to the assembled writers on a residential weekend, I was encouraged to hear a student say that reading the drafts, the multiple versions of the lines I was testing out, was like being shown around the rooms of someone’s house. I say encouraged because I’m never quite sure how students will react to being offered a trail of words. Such an offering might be considered rather inward-looking, possibly self-aggrandising on my part, a superfluous gift: a student might ask what these jottings have got to do with him or her? I was also cheered by such a creative response because the house-viewing analogy resonated with me at a fundamental level. It still does. I like the notion that we present the front of the house for everybody to view (and judge), but then there are also those more intimate spaces we inhabit, dwell in, dream through. The private areas, where we cultivate our own tastes, work through our obsessions, where we experiment, make ‘mistakes’, play: these places are viewed by invitation only, and our guests have to step over the threshold to enter. And even if a reader happens to encounter the Muse on a Sunday afternoon dressed in shorts, an old t-shirt, feet up on the sofa, swigging a can of lager – it’s a chance worth taking.

I once accidentally sent a poem with all the drafts attached to my friend Mark Goodwin. I meant to just send him the finished piece, but I forgot to edit the document and he got all the stuff I had slowly been working through. This is the work as I presented it to him:

Up at five, blackbirds
chirr, shrill, quaver; tuning in
through all that crackle.

Up at five, blackbirds
chirr, shrill, chatter; tuning in
through all that crackle.

Up at five, blackbirds
whistle, chirr, chatter; tune in
through all that crackle.

Up at five, blackbirds
whistle, chirr, chatter; tuning
in through that crackle.

Up at six, blackbirds
chirr, shrill, whistle; tuning in
through all that crackle.

Up at six, blackbirds
whistle, chirr, chatter; tune in
through all that crackle.

Up at six to catch
blackbirds chatter, tuning in
through all that crackle.

Up at five, blackbirds
whistle, shrill, chatter; tune in
through all that crackle.

Up at six, blackbirds
whistle, chirr, chatter; tune in
through all that crackle.

A blackbird broadcasts

A blackbird tunes in
and out,

A blackbird whistles
low frequencies, tuning out
through all that crackle.

A blackbird whistles
out its frequencies, tuning
in garden crackle.

A blackbird whistles
out its frequencies, tunes in
through hiss and crackle.

This blackbird whistles
out its frequencies, tuning
in hiss and crackle.

A blackbird’s whistle
through its frequencies,

A blackbird tuning
through garden crackle,

A blackbird whistles,

A blackbird tunes

tunes through
garden crackle,

its bands of ,
radio [ ]

static
finds its frequency
turning through its frequencies.
Tunes / an old radio
Through garden static crackle hum

A blackbird whistling
through its frequencies,
A blackbird [whistles],
[   ][  ], tuning its dial/broadcasting/broadcasts
Through garden crackle.

A blackbird tunes through
garden crackle, broadcasts [ ]
[  ] [ ].

A blackbird tuning
through garden crackle,

A blackbird tunes through
garden crackle, its bands of ,

radio
finds its frequency
turning through its frequencies.

Tunes / an old radio
Through garden static crackle hum

I’ll supply a few explanatory notes on the composition of the text. The published (final) version of the haiku is: ‘Up at five, blackbirds / chirr, shrill, chatter; tuning in / through all that crackle’. This is not the first poem you actually read at the top of the page, but the second haiku in the sequence. I don’t why I sent the document like this. All I can tell you is that my curiosity to work through the multitude of options available to me led me to try out one further variation (‘blackbirds / chirr, shrill, quaver’) before I went back to the word-order I was happiest with in that second poem.

With regards to chronology: if you want to follow the archeology of my work from starting line to finished piece you should read this poem from the bottom upwards (the first line I committed to the screen was ‘Through garden static crackle hum’).   The words I type out, mull over for a while, then discard are placed in an ascending pile from the foot of the document. Think stalagmite rather than stalactite when it comes to the process of accretion. As a pointer toward general strategies of composition, I write one, possibly two lines at a time. I work through all the combinations that interest me – changing words and phrases as I see fit, then settle on one or two versions that have potential before I move on to the next line. Working on a three-line poem is the same as working on, say, a thirty-line poem in that each line has to chime or be ‘in conversation’ with the lines around it: aural correspondences (for instance: birds/chirr, shrill/all, black/crack) are key to the health of the piece. So why choose ‘five’ instead of ‘six’? This is mostly to do with the fact that blackbirds are the first to sing in the morning: ‘five’ is a more dreamy, more liminal time than ‘six’.

So I inadvertently let Mark into my house. And because Mark is a creative poet who is deeply committed to the play of language, to the plasticity of words, to experiments in form, he saw my drafts as an integral part of the poem. And, to an extent, Mark made the house his own by fashioning an audio poem from the text, picking up on the blackbird’s song, the interference and ‘crackle’. My creative ‘mistake’ of handing him all the unused material led to an act of collaboration, a new work in itself. I came back to my own work as a reader, surprised by the new architecture occupying the ‘footprint’ of the finished piece. You can listen to the poem below. Headphones are recommended for the full ambient effect.

Chris Jones’s second full-length collection Skin is out now from Longbarrow Press. Visit the Skin microsite for more details about the book, or click on the relevant PayPal option below to order:

skin-largeSkin (hardback): £12.99

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Small is Beautiful: On Philip Rowland’s ‘Something Other Than Other’ | Alistair Noon

The Anglophone tradition doesn’t have a lot of time for shortness. Notwithstanding Shakespeare’s ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ (quoth Polonius in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark) or, say, Ezra Pound’s early Modernist quasi-haiku –

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet black bough –

and subsequent periodic haiku mountains, the Anglophone poet has tended to like their poem to be a solid steak and kidney pie rather than a sliver of carrot with half a bay leaf on it. While Dryden and co picked up on the Horatian Ode, there was less take-up of forms such as those of Martial’s epigrams, still less the accidental minimalism of what’s left of Sappho. The quatrains of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat translation seem to have been much read but little emulated.

As in so many things, Emily Dickinson is the exception here: all those hundreds of quatrains foreshadow the early to mid-20th century’s interest in shorter forms. There was a strong minimalist streak to Imagism and Objectivism, and in their different ways, Lorine Niedecker and Charles Reznikoff made a career (largely) of smallness. Basil Bunting’s self-admonitions of parsimony of line resulted in some minimalist work as well. There’s also the concrete tradition, with Ian Hamiliton Finlay’s ‘Windflower’ perhaps taking things as far as they can go in this direction. Not to forget Baldrick’s impression of WW1 artillery in the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth.

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‘Windflower’ (1976) by Ian Hamilton Finlay and Ron Costley. Photograph by Chris Wevers.

At a recent reading in Berlin, US psychedelic poet Will Alexander pointed out that, for him at least, it doesn’t matter what length of form you’re working with as a poet, minimal or epic, the whole of life and the universe has to go into it (especially the universe). Debatable perhaps, but it does point up the paradox of the short form: precisely the apparent easiness of the form, the few words it needs, constitutes its enormous difficulty (this applies, of course, to lyric poetry in general, but it’s even more pronounced with short forms). Every single word draws attention to itself, to all its aspects and associations, in a way that just isn’t the case in much bigger forms. On a bad day it’s throwaway, on a good day it’s something you’ll keep forever. It requires hardcore editing skills, or total genius inspiration.

Given the relative marginality of the various short forms in English-language poetry – I mean in terms of prominence, not of the practitioners’ achievements – it’s not surprising that poets interested in writing this length often look elsewhere for their models. Many readers of this blog will be familiar with Longbarrow poet Matthew Clegg’s Edgelands sequence of urban tankas. And at least two strongly translocal poets writing now have absorbed other traditions to pare things down; George Messo (whose 2006 book Entrances I reviewed here), and now Philip Rowland, long-term Tokyo resident and editor of the superbly produced and excellently named NOON: Journal of the Short Poem, which evidences the wealth of the minimalist tradition, resolutely international and, perhaps for that reason, little engaged with in Brexitland for example. There is nothing throwaway about what he writes.

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‘where rungs were’, Philip Rowland (Noon Press, 2007)

Bear with me, I’ll get to the book in a sec. I have a pet cod-theory on how poetry styles can be categorized according to the number of readings/hearings they implicitly demand of the reader/hearer. Slam poetry (on a bad day, which is, unfortunately, most days) can and must work with only one run-through. Typical UK ‘mainstream’ poetry requires two reads: on the first you don’t quite get it, but don’t worry because by the end of the second read all has been revealed. More or less explicitly Modernist-derived poetry varies quite considerably in its expectations: some offers total initial resistance, but persistence can pay off. To my mind, the more interesting strands tend to give something up straight away whilst just as much, if not more, can be discovered upon subsequent reads, ideally indefinitely and infinitely (this is what W.S. Graham did on a good day, of which there were many, and that is why he was possibly the greatest Anglophone poet of the 20th century – bam!). The pseudo-stuff, such as that which has absorbed J.H. Prynne’s surface style without the discursive substance when it’s there, gives nothing up straight away. This isn’t necessarily a disqualification, though it is banking on the reader having some other reason to not go and load the dishwasher. But subsequent reads reveal nothing more because there is nothing more.

Philip Rowland’s poems run totally counter to all this. The first reading yields a pretty rapid and apparently complete perception and meaning. Because of the brevity, a second read can follow this quickly and painlessly, offering up at least the prospect of a quite different or additional reading:

in the hush before music
the music of who
I am not

With the poet’s geographical location in mind, it’s easy to see the haiku tradition behind him:

Prelude in C –
winter sky
deep in the piano lid.

I’m not aware, though, of another contemporary poet who shows so clearly what can be done in English in the spirit of haiku. The poetry demonstrates how syllable-counting is secondary to, and a distraction from, the haiku aesthetic: those 17 syllables of the classical Japanese haiku contain less semantic information than 17 syllables of English (unless those 17 syllables happen to be pronounced by [insert name of minister/apparatchik you particularly despise]). The key thing is the haiku’s lightness and immediacy – less superdense white dwarf, more returning comet:

inhabiting repetition
listening for the sound
of our listening.

Those three poems form the book’s ‘Prelude’. The music continues: prospective parenthood, existence, our relationship with the dead, public transport, and the experience of the translocal:

still evening –
at home –
in a foreign land
going out of my way
to step in old snow

I have another pet cod-theory whereby lines get more semantically difficult to manage the shorter they are. This is because there are fewer words to do the sense work, assuming that a line visually and aurally draws attention to itself as a unit of sense. The corollary of this is that lines get more rhythmically difficult to manage the longer they are, as there’s always a threat they’ll break in half. This is why we don’t have too many septameters and octometers, and explains the success of the iambic pentameter, the compromise candidate of the English tradition: enough words to get enough sense, but not so many syllables as to become unwieldy.

There’s an odd way, though, in which all that reverses when you get down to the one-word line, which Rowland and others successfully use (the Maine poet Peter Kilgore was expert at this). The vertical replaces the horizontal as the main axis, and the sense that would normally be spread through a line is now spread through the whole poem, though with an invitation to dwell on each word and its possibilities:

winter
afternoon

sun
striping

one
skyscraper

hiding
another

Time for my final pet cod-theory: it’s not a bad idea for a poet to gradually formulate, over time, a few principles that describe and drive their practice to date, in other words, to have a sense of what they’ve been doing. They can then purposively try out forms that deliberately run against this and see where it gets them. In Philip Rowland’s case, there are some discursive pieces, longer texts, as well as poems whose initial reading offers more resistance, though never battening down all hatches. There are short prose pieces, visuals and founds, permutations, puns, word dissections, a moving recollection of a loved one’s death, syntactic puzzles –

small hours the squares of night none fits

Most things are short here, but nothing brief. Never mono-layered, each page to be paused over and returned to, a linger rather than a slog. These 80 pages have a lot of white space and every bit of it is (no pun intended) justified. Time breaks into small sections to be allowed to melt rather than be chewed –

in the time it takes the temple bell

Simple words with a life behind them. Another poetry is possible. Something other than other –

getting or not getting the last word

Philip Rowland’s Something Other Than Other is published by Isobar Press (Tokyo/London).  Click here for further details of the book.  Alistair Noon’s pamphlets with Longbarrow Press (Across the Water, Animals and Places and Swamp Area and his translation of Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman) are available here.  A new pamphlet, Quad, will appear from Longbarrow Press in spring 2017.  His full-length collections include Earth Records (2012) and The Kerosene Singing (2015), both from Nine Arches Press.  Surveyors’ Riddles, a collaboration with Giles Goodland, is published by Sidekick Books.


The Marketplace | Brian Lewis

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Independent Publishers Book Fair, Bank Street Arts, Sheffield, 26 Nov 2016 (Tom Rodgers)

The city-states of ancient Greece had a name for their artistic, political and spiritual centre: the agora, an open, expansive ‘gathering place’, in which the polis would assemble for military duty and listen to consular speeches. Over time, the political function of the agora was moderated by its use as a marketplace, with merchants setting up their stalls between colonnades. The later Greek verbs agorázō (“I shop”) and agoreúō (“I speak in public”) reflect the dual life of the agora as a commercial and civic space, and, perhaps, embody an idea (or ideal) of interdependency. It’s an idea that I’d like to explore, and affirm, while also paying tribute to some of the people and collectives whose inspiration and support has been invaluable to me (and to Longbarrow Press) this year. In England (if not the UK), the cultural and political narrative is, all too frequently, one of mute, impersonal, frictionless transactions; disconnection, dispossession, division; a retreat into echo chambers and virtual exclaves. There’s a case to be made for this, of course, and the claims that our public discourse has been cheapened, that our civic spaces have been eroded. It’s not the only story, though.

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Independent Publishers Book Fair, Bank Street Arts, Sheffield, 26 Nov 2016 (Tom Rodgers)

Longbarrow Press was founded in 2006, and was initially funded with some of the income from my job as a financial services administrator. When I left the security of a full-time (albeit poorly-remunerated) employed position in 2012, to relocate from Swindon to Sheffield and to give my full attention to Longbarrow’s development, I’d barely addressed the question of the press’s economic survival (or my own). My savings wouldn’t last forever, and the prospect of working entirely from home, with little of the routine association with which I’d become familiar in an open-plan office, was faintly alarming. Slowly, I began to make contact with people in my new surroundings, and further afield, picking up bits and pieces of freelance work. Among the first of these projects was Place & Memory, a creative professional development programme devised and mentored by Judit Bodor, Emma Bolland and Tom Rodgers (aka Gordian Projects), taking eight Leeds-based artists into the city for sessions of collective site research, documented through a range of media (photography, film, audio, drawing, found objects, poetry and prose. Some of this material appears in a book). I was recruited as a sound recordist for the project, and found myself spending more and more time at Inkwell Arts in Chapel Allerton, north Leeds, where the group was headquartered. Inkwell is a community-focused arts space, cafe and studio complex on the site of a former pub, renovated and adapted over several years, offering structured support for creative individuals as part of their recovery from mental health issues. The cafe and gallery is the hub, a bright, open, accessible room, enabling conversation between friends and strangers, planned and unplanned encounters. After the project drew to a close in summer 2014, I found that I missed the artists, the staff, the space. Fortunately, I was invited back at the start of this year, working with a new intake of artists to develop websites showcasing their creative CVs and works-in-progress. Most of the sessions were 1-1 tutorials, with space for discussion, application, and growth, the focus and pace varying from one hour to the next. Invariably, I’d be asked at least one question to which I didn’t have an immediate answer, and we’d work out a solution together. There was a sense of shared discovery in each of these encounters: listening, looking, learning. The mentoring programme spanned three months, time enough to rethink my ideas about dialogue, project development and workspace.

shoddy-coverA week or so after leaving Inkwell, I returned to Leeds for the opening of Shoddy, a group exhibition organised and curated by disability rights activist Gill Crawshaw. The exhibition was both a collective exploration of reused textiles (alluding to the original meaning of ‘shoddy’: new cloth made from woollen waste, a process patented in West Yorkshire) and a creative challenge (or rebuke) to the government’s ‘shoddy’ treatment of disabled people. Fittingly, the venue was the former premises of an Italian clothing wholesaler, now ‘repurposed’ by Live Art Bistro, a Leeds-based, artist-led organisation. The preview was packed, and, unlike some that I’ve attended, the work on display was central, not peripheral, to the occasion. And it was fresh, the thinking and the making, shaped from recycled materials, installed in a secondhand space. Felt. Cloth. Polythene. Paper. Yarn. Natalia Sauvignon’s ‘Beautiful but Deadly’, a sculpture utilising woollen remnants, plastic plants, seashells from the east coast, human hair. ‘Shoddy Samplers’, a duo of embroidered textiles by Faye Waple, juxtaposing the early and later usages of ‘shoddy’ (as noun and adjective). A collaborative, multi-sensory wall hanging by Pyramid of Arts, incorporating marks, stitches and woven parts from each of its members. All the leftovers from the marketplace, the scraps and offcuts, gifts passing from hand to hand. A few months after the first Shoddy exhibition, Gill hatched another, to be held at Inkwell in August. She had a small budget for a print publication, drawing on texts and photographs from the first show, and asked me if I’d be interested in taking on the design and editing work. I said yes, and we met to discuss the brochure spec. We agreed that the Shoddy booklet should aim to meet the accessibility criteria of the exhibitions. Translated into print, this meant taking care to ensure that the page layouts were interesting, without presenting obstacles for readers with visual or cognitive impairments. We settled on Futura, a clean, modern sans serif typeface, for the headline and body text (the latter in 12pt throughout); paragraphs flush left; black body text with blue titling; wide margins; minimal italicisation. Although I’d spent several years refining my approach to design with many of these questions in mind, it was the first time I’d asked them in the interests of something other than my own aesthetic. A printed page, like a public place, should invite us in, without clutter or impediment; once inside, it should enable us to navigate, to apprehend each part and to make connections, to read the space between columns. Gill, assisted by volunteers at Inkwell, arranged the Shoddy display with good sightlines, texts and labels at a height accessible to wheelchair users, and a clear, inventive visual narrative from wall to wall. As with the first show, it developed from a sense of community, affirmed and renewed by the audience at the opening night at Inkwell, and in the days that followed. People gathering, talking, drinking coffee, tea, taking in the work.

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Independent Publishers Book Fair, Bank Street Arts, Sheffield, 26 Nov 2016 (Tom Rodgers)

I picked up the Shoddy assignment the day after Hillsfest, an ambitious arts weekender for North Sheffield, conceived and directed by Karen Sherwood (founder of Sheffield’s Cupola Gallery) and staged in my own community of Hillsborough. I’ve reflected on my part in the festival (as curator and MC of the spoken word programme) in an earlier blog post, but I’d like to restate my appreciation for Karen, and acknowledge the extent to which her ethos (as a gallery owner, arts entrepreneur and community organiser) has influenced my own. Sheffield is, by common consent, a welcoming city; Cupola has always been among its most welcoming spaces. Visitors are greeted with free coffee (and, if they’re new to the gallery, a brief tour) and immediately put at ease. The work on display is as varied, challenging and thoughtfully presented as you’ll find in any contemporary art space, and it’s framed by warmth, not cool detachment. Karen, it must be said, is a resourceful, effective salesperson (a key factor in the survival and growth of Cupola over the last 25 years), but she has no appetite for persuading customers to buy things that they don’t need. People trust her judgment, and, in turn, learn to trust their own. At first, I wasn’t convinced that I had all the skills required for the Hillsfest role, but Karen believed that I was equal to the task, so I came to believe this too. It helped that the festival team felt like a small community, working for the benefit of a larger community, one nested inside the other. It’s important to me and, I think, to others, that these principles of openness and interdependency should be to the fore in every Longbarrow event, shared within the collective and with the audience. Our long-running series of poetry walks (the most recent of which took place in the Rivelin Valley a few months ago, led by Karl Hurst and Fay Musselwhite) is, among other things, a space for conversation, conviviality, companionship. The landscape invites us to listen, to catch fragments of observational detail, musings on ecology and history, anecdote and conjecture. We all learn, even (or especially) those of us who have been walking these paths for years, we all gain. I don’t think of ‘the local’ as something to be fetishised, monetised, or, for that matter, disparaged. I don’t understand the recent use of ‘community’ as a pejorative term, a prefix that limits or weakens a project or initiative. It tells me that there’s something at stake. A few months ago, I took part in the Small Publishers Fair at London’s Conway Hall, organised by Helen Mitchell. It was the second year that Longbarrow Press had taken a stall at SPF (sharing, once again, with Gordian Projects); as in 2015, I was struck by the sense of common endeavour, mutual interest and support that prevailed throughout (which some might find unusual in what is, ostensibly, a marketplace). We might attribute this to several factors (none of them predominant): the character of the artists and publishers, selected by Helen; her calm, friendly, positive influence, sincere engagement and focused direction; the volunteer teams; the audiences, some of whom I’d encountered at previous events, who brought their conversations to our tables, and made the exchanges reciprocal, not transactional; and the Conway Hall itself, built in 1929 by nonconformists (the Conway Hall Ethical Society now advocates secular humanism), and still an important gathering place for political and cultural events. It was Helen who made me aware of the hall’s history as a meeting place for collective walks; the society’s members would congregate at 25 Red Lion Square, then set out for Bloomsbury and Clerkenwell. In the heart of the city, yet altogether local. A community in itself, and a place for communities to gather, from near and far.

Independent Publishers Book Fair, Bank Street Arts, Sheffield, 26 Nov 2016 (photo: Tom Rodgers)

Independent Publishers Book Fair, Bank Street Arts, Sheffield, 26 Nov 2016 (Tom Rodgers)

It was the spirit of the Small Publishers Fair that had called me back for a second year, and which I now sought to muster in Sheffield. On the last Saturday of November, I presented an Independent Publishers Book Fair at Bank Street Arts, in the city’s Cathedral Quarter, with the support of Tom and Andrew at BSA and Emma Bolland (who was also staffing the Gordian Projects stall at the fair, and curating a programme of talks, readings and projections in the evening). I’d participated in two previous book fairs at Bank Street Arts, and wondered if a one-day event, along similar lines, might be viable; Tom and Andrew were immediately receptive to the idea, and put their creative and technical resources at our disposal. The opportunity to invite presses whose work I admired was a privilege; happily, almost everyone I contacted was able to take part. The line-up comprised mostly Sheffield-based (or Sheffield-affiliated) publishers and artists – And Other Stories, enjoy your homes, Gordian Projects, Joanne Lee, Longbarrow Press, The Poetry Business, Tilted Axis Press, West House Books – with others from further afield: Bradical (Bradford), Comma Press (Manchester), Jean McEwan (West Yorkshire), Peepal Tree Press (Leeds). This was the balance I’d hoped we might achieve: artists’ books, poetry, fiction, art writing, literary criticism, zines; a showcase for some of the work being published in Sheffield, while making (or renewing) connections with fellow practitioners in the north of England. As well as being a one-day ‘marketplace’, I wanted the fair to offer an opportunity for creative exchanges, unhurried conversations, surprise and reciprocity. I knew that everyone I’d invited would have something to contribute, and I was especially pleased that Jean McEwan and Bradical (who shared a table on the day) were able to take part. Jean is a collage artist, a maker of zines and ‘altered postcards’, and founder of Wur Bradford, an art and social space in a stall in Kirkgate Market, central Bradford. The stall hosts printmaking and zine-making workshops, art parties, community dialogues, informal education sessions, artists’ talks, and more. Bradical (who I first met at a Wur Bradford event) have been an important part of this development, challenging Islamophobia and stereotyping through pointed and playful zines and actions, and sharing Jean’s DIY ethic and strategies for engagement. Jean has invited me to speak at a couple of Wur Bradford events in the past few years, and I’m always humbled and inspired by the creativity, generosity, and energy in the room. On Saturday 26 November, these forces were at work at Bank Street Arts, in the dialogues and discoveries, the acts of friendship and solidarity. Jean said something about the inherent value of being in a room with people, of simply talking with them, and I remembered something else that she’d said, that validation was nothing to do with status, or sales, that it is something that happens in the act of exchange. I thought of my mother, now in her late 70s, staffing the Lawn Community Centre Christmas Bazaar that same day, in Swindon, many miles south. The community centre was a group sketch in the 1970s, and was eventually realised in 1999, on the site of an extinct pub. The intervening decades were spent fundraising, campaigning, organising, and challenging indifferent councillors (who maintained that the project was futile, then declared it a success shortly after it opened). Through it all, the community association kept their nerve, their humour, their belief. I watched them, a child of the estate, helping out with jumble sales and recycling drives, I saw what they could do, working together, supporting each other.

Finally, I’d like to thank someone whose support and creative stimulus has been invaluable throughout 2016, as it has been for several years; the artist and writer Emma Bolland, without whom many of the people, places and projects mentioned in this piece would almost certainly be unknown to me. There is no debt, only reciprocity, and work continuing.

Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press. He tweets (as The Halt) here. The second edition of East Wind, a pamphlet comprising three prose sequences and one haiku sequence, is available now from Gordian Projects; click here for further details.


Writing and the Autodidact | Matthew Clegg

img_3503In making an application for a fellowship of the Higher Education Academy, I was invited to reflect on the philosophy behind my teaching practice. As I teach creative writing in a university, and am a working poet, you would expect there to be a strong relationship between my teaching and my creative practice. I had some rewarding conversations with a colleague about the education philosophy of Ivan Illich, and his work Deschooling Society (1971). If you’re not familiar with Illich, he believed there are roughly two types of education: one based on the notion of syllabus, legitimised by authority, and designed to serve its agendas; and one based on the notion of conviviality, whereby people come together to learn what they want to learn – that is, what is convivial to them. If the former is disseminated through conventional institutions, the latter could be organised through what Illich described as ‘learning webs’ – or informal networks.

My colleague and I agreed that conviviality is central to creative practice – and that if we were to explore this principal more freely, we would need to set something up outside the conventional syllabus, and the orthodox classroom. This is why we created the Co-Conspirators salon in Derby, a space for students, ex-students and creative practitioners to come together and exchange passions, interests and ideas in the spirit of convivial learning. The group has been meeting for over a year. It’s both a supplement to the creative writing degree, and an open forum.

Going back to my earlier question – about the link between my teaching philosophy and my creative practice – I realise that both are tied up with notions I have about the value of being self-taught, of being an autodidact. My own writer’s apprenticeship followed this path – as many have in the past. I first recognised the value of poetry whilst I was undertaking low-paid, low-status jobs, in my twenties, not when I was in conventional education. Whilst working as an ice-cream man, someone gave me an anthology of poems, because I looked bored. A poem called ‘Roe Deer’, by Ted Hughes, switched on my whole nervous system, and from then on I was curious. Later, I was employed by Argos as a Christmas temp, working in the basement – filtering out a soundtrack of Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door. I carried a copy of Ted Hughes in one pocket, and a copy of T. S. Eliot in the other. I inhabited these books, and began making my own incantations out of words.

img_3505One thing I worry about, now I teach creative writing in a university, is that I’m serving two phenomena I’m uncomfortable with: a cultural addiction to syllabus, and a possible institutionalising of creative practice, through affiliation with the orthodoxies of academe. Let me take care: I’m not questioning the value of the best work undertaken by my colleagues and myself in higher education. You will certainly find a healthy spirit of imagination and integrity disseminated by creative writing staff at Derby University. Artists need to balance integration and differentiation in their creative lives, and there is value in learning how to integrate with cultural institutions. Equally, the differentiation that occurs along the autodidact’s less orthodox path is of value too. Illich wrote eloquently about how the position of the autodidact has been discredited in modern society, and how this has perpetuated the interests and economy of syllabus and power. Become too integrated, and you risk being institutionalised, addicted to validation; but become too differentiated and you risk being nowhere.

Perhaps some students sense this, and this is why they feel they must chase grades rather than pursue passions, or get lost in a subject. Of course, as an ex-student of mine told me recently, it is possible to do both – that the differentiated passions can lead to the grades.  

Let me write briefly about the first autodidact I knew: my grandfather. He began his working life as a butcher’s boy, in London, eventually becoming a butcher’s driver. During the blitz he was a fire-warden, and the story goes that this offered him an experience that changed his life. After an air raid, he gained entry into an exclusive London hotel and restaurant. He was incensed by the luxury he witnessed there. At a time where the London poor were struggling with rationing, the wealthy were dining extravagantly. After the war, he left London, and travelled north, where he taught himself to be a joiner and interior decorator, and where he helped build houses, churches and schools for ordinary people. He taught himself the basics of car mechanics too, and, when he retired, taught himself to build boats. He made a cabin cruiser out of plywood and fibreglass – a boat I’ve written about in the poem ‘Jasmine’, from The Navigators.

img_3497When we were children, my sister and I received many home-made toys and presents from him: bikes, sledges, go-carts, model yachts, doll’s houses, a see-saw that also span around like a merry-go-round. Our house was filled with his handiwork: chairs, tables, cabinets, chests, a sliding partition. This was a man without a single formal qualification – and yet he embodied craft, skill and creativity. I have been in danger of idealising him and his generation, perhaps in proportion to all the ways in which our society of syllabus, qualification and legitimised practice has made his kind a thing of the past. In my imagination, he is something akin to Yeats’ fisherman – ‘a man who does not exist, / a man who is but a dream’ – more symbol than flawed flesh and blood. Nevertheless, I think about him more as I get older, and I’d like to work out a way to infect my students with something of his independence and convivial ingenuity.

His son – my uncle Bill – was certainly as independent and ingenious as his father, but I think he understood all the ways in which his father’s path would be harder to follow in the modern world. He did become a qualified engineer – through the army – but he also saw how legitimisation ran even deeper than qualifications. My mother says he became embittered – acutely sensitive to class orthodoxies and discriminations. He disappeared into the kind of voluntary nowhere where the too-differentiated often go to escape the painful and frustrating jostle for place. A talented engineer became an odd job man in a private marina – living on a lifeboat he’d converted into a home. He died of cancer of the spine, in his early 50s. I didn’t get the chance to know him. I wish I had.

img_3493I certainly haven’t walked a conventional path through academe. I haven’t served much of an apprenticeship as an orthodox scholar. My research abilities are no doubt adequate to the kind of poems I write, but they are no more than that. If you measure the worth of a poet by their scholarship, or their more pedantic tendencies, then you are likely to pass over mine. Many of my students will go on to become better academics than I will ever be. I find it extremely hard to write anything as pure research – without the filter of experience, or near-experience – or without a creative objective. According to some orthodoxies, my work is likely to appear insufficiently impersonal – and I’m ill-at-ease with the jargon vocabulary of academe, or its enlightenment sense of knowledge, or what counts as original research. But I persevere. I am interested in creative practice, however, and in how each practitioner will need to both integrate and differentiate themselves, if they are to continue on their own with a life of convivial, creative growth.

 

The Co-Conspirators currently meet on the second Tuesday of each month, in Derby. If you’re interested in coming along, please email Matthew Clegg at betweenstations@hotmail.com for the time and location, and any other details.

Matthew Clegg’s second full-length collection, The Navigators, is available now from Longbarrow Press; click here for more information about the book.

Images: Bark, Endcliffe Park, Sheffield, 28 May 2016 (photographs by Brian Lewis)


Black Square | Brian Lewis

goetheschillerogYellow is a light which has been dampened by darkness;
Blue is a darkness weakened by light.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colours (1810)

A public park, a Sunday, a late July afternoon. I am standing at the edge of a path with Angelina D’Roza, a Roland R-05 recorder in my hand, a fourteen-line script in hers. We have been standing here for several minutes, listening and waiting, for the air to level, the wind to soften and fall, so that we might record her poem, ‘This Sea the Colour’. We can’t direct the wind, nor shelter from it; the tall trees that line the path seem only to amplify the gusts. Nor can anything be done with the voices trailing through the park, human, animal, they start, we stop, we start, they start. The poem is a desert poem. There are no children or dogs in the sonnet, no grass, no trees. No purples, no greens. If there is wind, it is not this wind that banks and twists between script and stereo microphone, chipping the tones, I watch the waveforms buckling, the white peaks. The park is not the desert. It is full – of sound, of weather – and we cannot empty it. We’ve nowhere else to go, and we’re running out of time. Think of a colour. We start again, title, first line, then the next, an orange thread paid out to the end of its spool, wound in, and out again, two takes, two tries. The thread is a measure, it is finite, it marks each difference in weight and tone, the poem’s elsewhere and its end. Somehow, in this managed, peopled place, a clipped corner of south-west Sheffield, we close in on the sonnet’s colour space, cadmium orange, soaking blue light, salt, sand and snow, a world of flakes and grains. It is ‘nearer and farther’, a speck made smaller, blown into air, land and sea. We listen to the fade.

goetheschillergreyThe path lies within the Porter Valley Parkway, a sequence of green spaces laid out along the line of the Porter Brook, six miles of woods and water linking the Peak District to Sheffield city centre. We’re somewhere in the middle of this course, perhaps 50 metres from Shepherd Wheel, an ancient dam and grinding workshop, looking west towards Whiteley Woods. I’ve been here before, the thought comes, four summers back, four Julys ago, living on Cherry Street, close to the Porter and its confluence with the River Sheaf, the iron-rich brook trickling into brick conduits, a dark river made darker still. Four summers back, late evening, putting the house in order, the city behind me, finding the river at Pear Street, an embankment, a drop, the water hardly tinting the stones, and the walled greens of the General Cemetery to the south, railed offices and care homes to the north, then a schoolyard, a blank, grey quad and four sprayed walls, high contrast, purple overwriting red, yellow buffing into blue. Spent cans, squeezed tubes. The path climbing to Sharrow Vale Road, the Porter low, a brownout in culverts and bridges, everywhere and nowhere, the dry bright overground mix, residential and commercial, Porter Cottage, Porter Pizza, Porter Pets, the name spelled out in every colour, the lightless river. At the turning circle of Hunters Bar, the course untangles, a clear profile, the water making its own way through Endcliffe Park, close to the entrance, and I go to it, my west to its east. As the park narrows, the river widens, then straightens: a reflective strip, two streets out, bits of broken lamplight, I am reading it backwards. I run out of green, and into another roundabout, spinning off to Whiteley Woods, the next link in the municipal chain. Within a few hundred metres, the sides steepen, the tall trees close in, the streets and their electrics fall away. The park desaturates. If there is a moon, I don’t see it. I raise my right hand before me, but can’t place it. I have hearing, and touch, and I know that I am still with the path, and that the river is still with me. The word that comes is pitch, the wrong word, I know that this cannot be pitch, solid black in a suburban park, I know that the eyes can make adjustments. I pause, not quite stopping, and spin slowly. I wait for a reference tone, a stimulus, one bead of light, absolute threshold. The adjustments don’t happen. No shadow, no movement, no form. Not a speck. Only my spinning, which I stop. I take a few moments to find my bearings from the sound of water. I expect to feel fear, but there is nothing to feed it, the mind is flat, the dark is not disturbed. I stare straight ahead. There is no line, no plane, no vanishing point. I walk into it, the body aware, I realise that the arms are projecting, perhaps for balance, I find that I am disinclined to run. I walk, sounding each step, a thread spooling at my back, until the trees break down, and bits of orange sodium get in. The measures return, the bounds return. Sounds of a road in the south, interrupting the park, then the road itself, yellow on yellow. The mood turns. The park continues, the darkness is restored, and something snaps in the thin corridor, a thread, a thought, and I turn back, at the edge of Hallam Moors, near the Derbyshire border, a mile or so from Rud Hill, where the Porter rises from blanket bog, Redmires to the north, White Stones to the west.

kazimir_malevich_1915_black_suprematic_square_oil_on_linen_canvas_79-5_x_79-5_cm_tretyakov_gallery_moscowIn 1915, the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich exhibited Black Square at Marsovo Pole, Petrograd, as part of The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10. It was the first of four identically titled oil paintings that Malevich would produce; the subsequent versions, executed between 1923 and 1930, vary in size, but all recreate the arrangement of the original, a square of black pigment in an off-white border. Malevich conceived the first Black Square as a foundation stone of Suprematism, a short-lived art movement with an emphasis on basic geometric forms and a restricted palette; a ‘grammar’ in the service of ‘pure feeling’, and in stated opposition to the language of objects, objectivity, and representation. On encountering the work today, what is immediately apparent is that none of the versions are geometrically perfect. All four squares are lopsided, skewing into the borders. The present condition of the 1915 Black Square helps to explain why Malevich remade the piece for later exhibitions: even in reproduction, we see the acute deterioration of the flat plane (a process that was reportedly observed within a few years of the Petrograd exhibition, and exacerbated by decades of neglect by the Soviet authorities, decaying in archival darkness), oxidized, flaking, a distressed surface. Light and air have got to the oil, weakening the bond, the white ground exposed by the cracks. Recent X-rays of the painting show not one, but two, earlier compositions; the first of these is Cubo-Futurist, while the second, directly below the Black Square, is proto-Suprematist. Both of the overpainted works display rich, variegated tones, a field that now rises from the darkness, a field into which the Black Square decomposes. What was black is now midnight blue. The object is unstable, in both a physical and a phenomenological sense; the work that exists is no longer the work that was intended, and invites a form of cognitive dissonance when we attempt to reconcile the painting with its title. Malevich declared both the 1915 painting and the Suprematist movement as the birth of ‘a liberated nothing’, an achromatic ‘zero of form’ (though he would make use of colour in contemporary and later works, it’s interesting to consider this statement from 1920: ‘I regard white and black as excluded from the colour spectrum.’). This ‘zero’ is, in Malevich’s view, both empty and full, a ‘desert’ (to which he also likens the painting on several occasions) in which ‘nothing is real except feeling’. It is, perhaps, the idea of the black square that outlives its moment, an idea that persists through the later variations, an idea that, above all, is preserved in the title itself.

goetheschillergrBlack does not feature among the colours matched to the four temperaments in Goethe and Schiller’s diagram of 1798, though it is present in the four humours of Hippocratic medicine (as black bile, or melaina chole) from which their Rose of Temperaments is distantly derived (and is that dark, irregular blot at the centre of the colour wheel, the shade of dried blood, edging towards blackness?). It is also present, as a trace, in the poems by Chris Jones, Alistair Noon, Geraldine Monk and Helen Mort that comprise two-thirds of our new Rose of Temperaments (the first two poems, by Angelina D’Roza and A.B. Jackson, are discussed here). Each of the four sonnets is flecked with ‘black’ or ‘dark’. In Chris Jones‘s ‘Green’, it is the human eye, the organ of light perception and colour differentiation, in which the eponymous hue is located: a ‘pale green’, ‘born of black and yellow melanin’ (melanin, unsurprisingly, shares a root with melancholia: melas, ‘black, dark’). The apparent simplicity and certitude of the poem’s opening lines, which offer pigment as proof of heritage (‘pincered out to mark the Irish in him’), gives way to the speaker’s preoccupation with a greater exactitude, the iris distilled from mineral and vegetal shades, always between one green and the next, the light shifting with each refocusing. Here, many of the objects that mediate an idea of green are on the threshold of diffuse (rough) and specular (smooth) reflection: ‘oxidised copper’, ‘heavy bottle glass’, the ‘greenish blue’ of rippling water, a ‘jade porcelain’ bowl. They refine and refract. Alistair Noon‘s reworking of the sonnet foregrounds the dubiety of colour perception from the outset: firstly, by adopting a rhetorical strategy that calls into question the premise of the original poem (‘Sure? I thought they were brown, his eyes’); and secondly, in unpicking its light green stitching and introducing a darker thread. The shade ‘born of black and yellow’ is now ‘greenish brown’, a ‘muddier’ pigment that nudges the sonnet, by some degrees, towards red, the province of Noon’s own Rose of Temperaments poem. In ‘[red]‘, it ramifies outward, a season (summer) and a continent (Europe) taking the colour; and, at the edge of its range, a human subject, ‘lips and gums’ sensitized and ‘enstrawberized’, contemplating each sweep of the ‘radar-hard Med’. Chris Jones’s response to the poem takes the form of an indirect intervention, a parallel text; the body of the sonnet is left intact, but is tagged with footnotes, in which each reference to red is challenged or critiqued, a fourteen-point argument for ‘a greener tinge’ in every line (‘Surely ‘radar’s emerald’?’). As with Noon’s version of Jones’s poem, the opposition of the two colours is both dialectical and literal, to the extent that they threaten to negate or absorb each other. One is a viridescent portrait darkened by a crimson wash; the other is a red canvas in a green frame.

goetheschillerpurpleIn some respects, red and purple are close neighbours. However, purple was not among the colours of the rainbow identified by Newton, or, for that matter, among those named in Goethe and Schiller’s Rose of Temperaments. It is a composite of red and blue (unlike violet, which is also between red and blue, but occupies its own wavelength of light, and is thus designated a ‘spectral colour’). In her ‘Purple’ sonnet, Helen Mort assigns it a complex value: it speaks of intimacy and estrangement, presence and absence, and of deferred, displaced pain (‘although you’re sure you never fell’), spreading and darkening through the poem, a memory that bruises from lilac to black. The effect is that of an eerie suspension, between unreflecting, abyssal wells (‘too deep and never deep enough’) and the still, shallow irises that stare out from the cover of a children’s book. The irises are violet, a symptom of ocular albinism, in which a lack of pigment in the pupil causes the iris to become translucent and reflect light back. The poem ends with a vision of these eyes: eyes that can only be ‘met’ in the act of closing one’s own, in darkness, in dreams. Geraldine Monk, representing purple (or violet)’s ‘complementary’ hue, restricts its influence to three lines of the octave in her version of Mort’s poem, in which the skin takes the burden: here, the bruise is ‘yellowing’, the epidermis ‘jaundiced’. The yellow of bruising and jaundice is attributable to an excess of bilirubin, which, in turn, refers us to the ‘yellow bile’, or choleric imbalance, hypothesised in the four humours, and which survives in Goethe and Schiller’s Rose of Temperaments. Their colour wheel places yellow on the cusp of the choleric and the sanguine, a state of division that Monk’s ‘Yellow’ acknowledges, ‘harmony and warning / wrapped into one everlasting opposition.’ The poem itself is, appropriately, between states: it is an eighteen-line sonnet, a form that dates to the 16th century (John Donne’s ‘The Token’ is an early example). Monk departs from the alternative rhymed quatrains usually found in the ‘heroic sonnet’, but retains its heroic couplet, by which the poem is summarized and concluded:

Whatever binds this colour to our eyes and hearts
we cannot part its salve and sting of ambivalence.

In Goethe and Schiller’s diagram, the traits and occupations associated with choleric and sanguine temperaments are, respectively, ‘tyrants, heroes and adventurers’ and ‘hedonists, lovers and poets’. Well-marked characters, in other words, demanding attention, as does this colour, above all others: ‘we pick you out yelling the origin of your name’. Etymologically, ‘yellow’ has the same root as ‘gold’ and ‘yell’: gleaming, crying out. Monk alludes to the status of yellow in ancient Egypt, and the belief that the skin and bones of the gods were made of gold. In this setting, they are ‘yellowing with eternity’: an ‘undying dying’. She also considers more recent (and notorious) cultural significations; in particular, the mandatory ‘badges of persecution’ that marked out the Jewish populations of Nazi Europe (a practice first introduced in the early Islamic world, and perpetuated through medieval and early modern Europe). This, the brightest of colours, the shade of ‘springtime sunbeams’, is steeped in sickness, too, and is always tilting towards opacity; as Goethe reminds us, it is ‘a light which has been dampened by darkness’.

goetheschilleryellowA hotel lounge, a Thursday, a late September afternoon. I am sitting at a low table with Geraldine Monk, a Roland R-05 recorder in my hand, an eighteen-line script in hers. After some minutes surveying and testing the acoustics of the reception spaces of the Mercure Sheffield – the lobby, the long corridor parallel to the administration wing, the waiting area adjacent to the spa – we have settled into a padded nook, and are preparing to record her ‘Yellow’ poem. Sounds from the cafe terrace pass through the open doors: squeaking pushchairs, rattling china, and, under it all, the cascades of the Peace Gardens, embodying Sheffield’s rivers and molten steel, encircling the fountain, the white point. We make a first take, of which we are uncertain. We make another. Five lines into the sonnet, the town hall clock sounds its bells, a chime that travels to the end of the poem. We listen to the fade, then look up, for a moment, and look down again, at the small table, its black square, the small vase, its yellow flowers.

The development of The Rose of Temperaments, and the sonnets by Angelina D’Roza and A.B. Jackson, are discussed in ‘White Point’, an earlier blog post. Click here to access the index of all six sonnets commissioned for The Rose of Temperaments. Listen to Geraldine Monk reading her ‘Yellow’ poem at the Mercure Sheffield:


Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press. He tweets (as The Halt) here. The second edition of East Wind, a pamphlet comprising three prose sequences and one haiku sequence, is available now from Gordian Projects; click here for further details.


White Point | Brian Lewis

goetheschillerbrickredThe nomenclature of colour is most inadequate.

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.

goethe_schillerThe 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…’

goetheschillerorangeThe 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.

goetheschillerblueThe 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.