Category Archives: photography

On Not Being Caroline Bergvall

Some time ago I wrote about Ms Bergvall and expressed some desire to be her in that I wanted to ‘do’ poetry in art galleries. This article is an extended way of saying that I am now doing (more or less) that very thing. Our local art centre has just shortlisted my collaborator (Julian Winslow) and I for its ‘Duets’ competeition and we’ve been there to talk about display and acoustics and everything. According to Ju, this now means that we are artists but I’m not entirely sure that I want to have that much to do with art. What I think I want is to be able to explore the potential for poetry (as poetry) in that kind of quite formal and culturally structured arena.

This is not the same as a performance or reading. I’ve had quite a busy year and have been reading poetry and performing multi-vocal poems in a number of different settings but the art aspect is quite different. The voices are recorded and accompany the ‘film’, the piece (art term, apparently) runs on a fifteen minute loop and will do so throughout the two month duration. So, it’s a rendition that doesn’t need me or anyone else to be present and, as the vocals are layered, it can’t be a book. There will also be times when the gallery is open when it will play right through with nobody present, as if to itself. I like that.

Surprisingly (we didn’t intend to do this until we saw the ad for the competition), we’ve found that making this piece has created a number of further possibilities in that we’re now exploring how this documentary format can present other subjects and events. I’m delighted that both the piece, “Hello Austin!”, and the performances have met with such a warm response: this was a complete shock to me because I just wanted to see if I could get the idea out of my head and into the world – I had no idea that people might relate to it and like it.

Given that I’m now both a performer and an artist it seems time to try and work out some kind of framework for these events / objects to operate in. I don’t think this is the same as Bergvall’s thoughts on ‘language practice’ but it’s a first attempt to build a set of rules for the work that is being produced.

Trust the People.

This isn’t original, it is stolen from Emile de Antonio, the finest documentary film maker that the world has produced who said you should let your interviewees lead and steer your content and recognise that any attempt to impose your own take is doomed to failure. This seems straightforward but isn’t, in the film piece I wanted to talk more about our friendship and the things that maintain that and much less about the practical problems involved in the collaboration. I was also immensely tempted to insert what I think wanted to say rather than what I actually said. There’s a piece that I use which I talk about landscape as a performance, it sounds stilted, it doesn’t contain the central point that I wanted to make but I couldn’t leave it out because that was my staring point in the collaboration.

Keep the poetic in sight.

When I started thinking about this, there was an enormous temptation to break things down and scramble them into each other and was reasonably content with the results but then realised that this was more an exercise in cognition than in creative expression. I then started to take more notice of what seemed to be important to people and the way that they talked about these things and that wilfully breaking up these importances wasn’t very honest. So, I’ve introduced longer phrasing into the performances and recordings and this has created a chance or an opportunity for something with a touch of the lyric. As regular readers will know, this i quite a shock as I am of the view that there is far too much of the poetic in poetry and we need to get rid of (most) of this pernicious vice. I was then taken aback when mastering (technical term) the sound file for the film to discover that it has quite intensely lyrical passages and even more surprised to find that I didn’t mind.

Keep on changing the frame.

This is important. Poetry works best when it puts itself in new and uncomforatable places. It should continually try itself against other forms and in other places and it should not be frightened that this will dilute its purity or strength. One of the reasons poetry isn’t attended to any more is because it looks inward to itself and it has conversations only with itself which results in stupidly (stupidly) spiteful factions that deter and repel any converts that it might attract. The best way to amend this sad malaise is to engage with musicians, painters, sculptors, film makers and any other creative types that are open to dialogue. This should involve explaining and justifying poetry to those who have no attachment to it and working with others to make different but poetic things.

Take care with image and the poem.

We started with what we didn’t want: we wanted to move away from illustration and augmentation. I’m not making a soundtrack and Ju isn’t illustrating the sound(s). I started out with the improv model in that we’ve had broad themes and then working around these in a way that’s mindful of the images. With the ongoing landlying project this has been refined down ready for the next phase. With ‘Hello Austin’ we took collaboration as our theme and ourselves and our processes as the subject matter. So, the sound is a recording of things that were said during this filming session and one other but as an expression rather than an account of the conversation. I’m trying not to get too complicated on this but it is important to be mutually aware in some detail of the processes involved and to share in the making process from both perspectives. We think we’re now at the point where we’re beginning to get what we want but it’s still got a way to go.

Noise is okay.

This is odd. I’ve disccovered the astounding aporee site which collects and presents geo-tagged field recordings from all over the world. I’ve listened to many of these and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a case to be made for some unmediated recordings as poems. It transpires that there is someone in one of the Baltic states who is making these poems and they are quite wonderful. I’m using ‘noise’ rather than sound as a kind of protest over the way that both technology and architectural strategies have been used in the last 100 years to deny the noise that things make. I don’t want to get to carried away (manic) on this but I was listening to the noise made by patients who were waiting for their drugs in a hospital in Taiwan yeaterday and decided that this was a 5 minute poem….

How collaborative poetry might work

The Fugalists

Rachael Berry, me, Chris Jones and Keri Highland post-gig 17.8 2013

Regular readers may know that I dabble in making my own attempts at the poetic. Recent efforts have used archive material, photography and/or multiple voices with minimalist piano. After more than a few months of working through permutations I think I’ve got a collaborative ‘form’ that works. I usually define my stuff as ‘working’ when it does what was in my head at the beginning (or thereabouts) regardless of the reaction of others- which has usually been one of mystification and/or disdain. On this occasion however, I seemed to have struck a balance between what I want to achieve and what people like. Last week-end my collaborators performed this vocal improvisation in a yurt at a local arts festival. It was the last item of the evening and I rounded things off and joined a friend outside in the gathering gloom to discuss the evening as a whole. Before we could start I was approached by a lady in her fifties who asked for my contact details, I asked her what she thought and she said the last piece really “worked” and then became quite emotional about how well it worked.

I’d liked to have been able to write this off s a single reaction but there has been positive feedback from equally unexpected quarters. I find myself to be ridiculously pleased about this but the main point of writing about it here is to try and fathom what it is that appeals and why it should appeal to such a broad group of people. I’ll start with the motivation: for many years I’ve been interested in work with multi layered vocals; I’m of the view that there’s too much of the poetic in poetry; I’m incredibly interested in what people say about their passions and how they say it.

So, the initial plan involved a collaboration between myself and Julian Winslow, a local photographer who is also my best friend. Our theme is landscape and my contribution involved interviewing a number of people who worked on or with the land in order to make a multi-layered sound file which would then be played at the same time as people viewed Julian’s pictures.

This ran alongside a series of interviews and discussions with a local musician/song writer, Keri Highland, about mental fragility. I then distilled these down to about twenty phrases each which we improvised around at a couple of gigs earlier this year. We were both taken aback by the response. As part of my collaboration with Julian we’d been recording interviews with each other as to the creative process and he suggested that I should interview others from different disciplines. Rachael Berry and Chris Jones had both been exhibiting their art at the second gig where Keri and I had performed together and I cajoled them both into a series of interviews as to their various processes, I also interviewed Keri on the same subject.

The next few weeks were spent playing the sound files and extracting what seemed to me the most honest and unvarnished things that the subjects had said and subtracting the same from the interview that I had with myself – which was essentially my response(s) to what the other three had said.

We then rehearsed once or twice a week, refining the format. I’d known from previous attempts on the landscape project that three voices talking together mostly descends into incoherence whereas it is possible to make some sense from two voice. After some tweaking we decided to alternate the two male voices (with some cross-over) whilst the two female voices should do the same. This produced a piece whereby a male and a female voice were speaking at the same time but not in response to each other. The improvised element was that people could read the phrase that they wanted whenever they wanted in response to or against what the other had just said.

After some further discussion we decided to try a fairly abstract keyboard backing. After some brief exchanges Keri came up with and recorded something that we all felt that we could ‘lean’ into and which enhanced the work rther than turning it into any kind of song.

I’d produced these events through the summer and could therefore decide on where to place this amongst the poets musicians and story tellers. Because the mental health improv had been so well received in previous gigs, I decided to finish the evening with it and was amazed by the warmth and enthusiasm of the response.

I’m still not sure why this material gets this kind of response, now why it should appeal to an audience with different interests and tastes. I’d like to think that it’s because it carries some transparent honesty that people can relate to and be absorbed in. The friend who was waiting outside the yurt is of the view that it demands some audience involvement in that people have to really listen to follow a particular thread. I think he’s right and I’m very pleased that people do seem prepared to pay attention.

The other element that is ideologically important for me in my ongoing war with the poetic is that it made use only of what people said in non-poetic and reasonably ordinary conversations. You may argue that interviewing myself is a bit of a cheat and you’d be right. The first ten minutes of my conversation with me are full of neat and pithy little phrases, I then realised that I wasn’t supposed to be making an impression and wittered on about the material that I think is incisively brilliant and the rest of the world is completely indifferent to.

I also discover that I’m on bit of mission to challenge assumptions about poetry: I red half an episode of a soap opera that I’d poeticised which was very well received and a much more standard poetic rant about cultural saturation that was inventive, lyrical and quite skilled but ws ded after about the third line of many.

The next challenge is to try and maintain the momentum without being too ambitious. The obvious dimensions that I seem to be playing with are: subject matter; number and gender of voices and the nature of the musical backing if we feel we need one. Beyond that there’s visual material but I’m concerned that this might detract from the attention that is currently paid to the words.

For some reason I’m also of the view that we should only perform this at the moment because it appears that this collective involvement / attention might be the core aspect.

A final note on collaboration, I know that some find it intolerable and other projects crash and burn due to big egos but I have to say that my experience both with John Matthias and these three have brought me out of my shell in quite unexpected ways.

The Landlying Project

This is essentially a shameless piece of self-promotion disguised as an extended discussion of the Poetic Collaboration problem. For the past few months I’ve been involved in a collaboration with Julian Winslow, a photographer, on the general ‘theme’ of landscape. Here’s a it of a taste:

landlying pic

The River Medina Feb 2013

Before we go any further, I need to point out that I have been a poetry purist in that I don’t think that the poem should be sullied by other forms of expression. This is primarily because one will inevitably detract from the quality of the other. I’ve felt this since being very disappointed by Hughes’ ‘Remains of Elmet’ in 1979 and there has been little to change my mind since.

So my excuse for the above is that it didn’t start as a poetic endeavour but as an attempt to construct a ‘mix’ of oral history and image in such a way that each element informs rather than illustrates/accompanies the other. Regular readers will know that I have a creative interest in the appropriation of what people say (in formal settings) about things that are important to them and their lives. I therefore determined to interview local people who worked on or with the land. I bought one of those voice recorder gizmos and then gathered about twenty hours of interviews with eight different individuals.

A further creative ambition of mine has been to create something with overlaid/fugal voices in a way that plays with our notions of coherence. I tried this initially last year in overlaying and phasing my own voice reading excerpts of the Saville Report and this endeavour had given me the confidence to take things a bit further.

In terms of collaboration, I’m very fortunate to have Julian Winslow, an outstanding professional photographer, as my best friend. This creative partnership works for us because we respect each other’s respective skills and because we don’t need to worry about offending each other. Needless to say we haven’t produced what we intended to but we’ve allowed things to move in the direction of the material. Talking to people has revealed, in this narrow but eclectic sample, the central importance of parental influence in engendering an interest in the natural world and that one of the first steps into this interest is the naming of things.

For an ego-maniacal control freak like me this was intensely annoying because I wanted people to talk about moments of epiphany and transfiguration and about the placing of the body and about the myriad of processes in the environment occurring at the same time. What people actually said (once I’d let go of my ‘themes’) was far more compelling because it was considered, heartfelt and honest. People did want me to understand their experiences and perspective and were incredibly generous with their time so that I could clarify what was being said.

With this kind of generosity and honesty comes a sense of responsibility. My first fifteen efforts were aimed primarily at technique and pandered to my own preference for the abstract with short phrases that I’d ripped completely out of context and overlaying that too often fell into non-coherence. I then started to give some thought to the wy that polyphony has developed in different cultures and this gave me a new ‘hook’ to build the audio around.

I decided to use longer extracts and to concentrate on what I feel are the most honest and authentic things that people said, things that people seemed keenest to get across, the things that matter to them. This ranged from seeing the landscape as a primary source of education, a site of ecological paradox, a place of interlocking narratives to a place of healing and an ongoing source of child-like wonder. I also tried to honour the multi faceted nature of landscape processes by overlaying the voices so that the listener does have to concentrate to follow one or more particular thread.

The other quite important point to make is the absence of purpose involved in the collaboration. Early on we got accustomed to the idea that we didn’t know where this project was taking us and (after a while) relaxed into that fact and have tried to let it become both a key feature and a technical advantage. I’m not going to get too ‘deep’ about this but I’ve certainly found being playful for it’s own sake has had a significant and positive effect on my other activities.

One of the best aspects of collaboration is enhanced objectivity, as a fully fledged bipolar suffering artiste I have this inbuilt tendency to destroy almost everything within two days of making it. I now have to explain to Julian why stuff isn’t any good and this (it turns out) means that I keep much more- and I have a range of non-depressive reasons for doing this. This has also led to a reconsideration of ‘failure’- previously I’ve judged my output in terms of its proximity to what I want to achieve and rejected anything that was remotely wide of the mark. Now, I find I’m taking an interest in those things that turn out different and trying to work out why this is and what might be done with them.

We now come to the music, I really struggled with the use of recorded music initially but the reaction thus far has been that the minimal/repetitionist music of Lawrence Crane and the monotone trumpets of South Sudan do help to ‘frame the audio in a way that is (oddly) more involving on the ear.

In conclusion, Id like to thank those who contributed so much of their time- Irene Fletcher, Mary King, Chris Kidd, Tim Johnson, Julian Winslow, Max Hastings, David Biles, Keri Highland and Ian Boyd.

Feedback on any of this would be much appreciated. On the audio track below, things start with 10 seconds of almost deliberate silence.

Medina river Feb 2013

Medina river Feb 2013

Roland Barthes and the generosity of pornography

A couple of evenings ago Tomas Weber tweeted: “roland barthes said there was no genorosity in pornography. discuss” and I indicated (on only two large glasses of red wine) that I’d like to ‘discuss’ – a suggestion warmly welcomed by Tomas. Think I need to make a couple of things clear before we proceed:

  • Roland Barthes was French and wore a black leather jacket. A lot;
  • Tomas Weber is one of those annoyingly but outrageously talented poets that we ought to be very grateful for;
  • pornography is a movable feast;
  • Barthes was writing about photography and makes a distinction (being French) between the “‘heavy’ desire of pornography and the ‘light’ (good) desire of desire of eroticism”

Now, the temptation is enormous in this discussion to try my hand at some distinctly Gallic meanderings in consideration of porn and literature but instead I’m going to get personal. I think first of all we need to mark some distance between pornography and material (in whatever format) that disturbs. I’m accepting here the entirely sensible OED definition of pornography which is:

The explicit description or exhibition of sexual subjects or activity in literature, painting, films, etc., in a manner intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings; printed or visual material containing this.

Of course, here we have the moveable feast- did Joyce intend only to stimulate aesthetic feelings, can aesthetic feelings also be erotic feelings, what (exactly) is an erotic feeling?

If I understand the reactionary position on porn correctly, it is that this material causes its users to become in some way depraved or defective. In the UK recent murder trials have increasingly featured the accused’s use of ‘violent’ porn as conclusive proof of his inherent badness. I therefore worry about Barthes’ bracketed ‘good’ as quoted above.

For me, there’s a line between that which arouses me and that which disturbs me. Given my professional background, there isn’t much of human behaviour that disturbs me but there are two passages of prose that I haven’t been able to remove from my head. Thirty or so years ago I read something by John McVicar (reformed bank robber) describing a riot at Durham prison where he and others got access to the files on Ian Brady (moors murderer, subject of ongoing moral panic etc etc) that contained transcripts of the tapes that Brady had made whilst torturing his victims, who were all children. The only specific aspect of this that was described has disturbed and upset me ever since. The other disturbance is much more recent and occurs in Bolano’s 2066- one aspect of one of the very many serial murders that he describes has had an equivalent effect.

I don’t think that I’ve been depraved by either of these, I don’t want to carry out these acts and I can accept that others would not be disturbed whilst a very (very) small minority might be aroused hence the ‘moveable feast.

All of the above is reasonably standard ‘enlightened’, middle ground, Guardian-imbibing stuff, I even feel a surge of reasonableness welling up within me as I type and then we come to the Jonny Liron problem.

Before we get to this particular point I must digress to the fact that Barthes was writing with specific reference to one of Robert Mapplethorpe’s early photographs:

This boy with his arm outstretched, his radiant smile, though his beauty is in no way classical or academic, and though he is half out of the photograph, shifted to the extreme left of the frame, incarnates a kind of blissful eroticism; the photograph leads me to distinguish the “heavy” desire of pornography from the “light” (good) desire of eroticism; after all, perhaps this is a question of “luck”: the photographer has caught the boy’s hand (the boy is Mapplethorpe himself, I believe) at just the right degree of openness, the right density of abandonment: a few millimetres more or less and the divined body would no longer have been offered with benevolence (the pornographic
body shows itself, it does not give itself, there is no generosity in it): the photographer has found the right moment, the kairos of desire.

I’m of the view that the shows/gives juxtaposition says much more about the author than it does about the subject and that any assertion of generosity (or otherwise) is more than a little spurious because it misses the ‘point’. I’m going to try and open up this point with the honourable example of J Liron:

            unforgetting skin banner boys in
            oh, you fell and broke your leg so
            your polychild made up the last
            wake up poem ain't attacked to any
            menopause / touched to the scum
            hilt of infernal chauvinism like it's
            not an issue because . universe .

Enter warchild; war child is naked and dirty, covered in flesh and old blood
and oil, soil and some of Leonardo Di Caprio's bone fragments. A ragged fore-
skin hangs out of his mouth, he is fucking himself with the severed head of
Leonardo De Caprio, he has already tied up war girl and is making her kiss the
dead head of Leonardo Di Caprio. She cums into a cup which war child drinks
before fucking her and then squatting and taking a shit while war girl tries to
fuck the head of Leonardo De Caprio, she unties herself and starts to smear her
cunt with the fresh faeces of war child who masturbates as she does this. War
child is tied up and then fucked by war girl, the faeces on her cunt mingling
with his smeared small cock when they both cum.

           language and theories de cauterize
           and un captivate the attention of a 
           child bent fixed hell for leather of
           fucking like a pretend dog, this should
           be what you stand for, not the press 
           or forgetting.

I have a bit of a history with the above, I wrote one piece condemning this as (and I paraphrase) as a highly mannered piece of attention seeking – then I read more of Liron’s work in ‘Better than Language’ and recanted because I had arrived at the view of his strategic importance in whatever the future of English poetry might be. There are many people who would consider the prose paragraph as pornography in that it is explicit and depicts some activities that could be considered as depraved. I’m of the view that (as with Joyce and Bataille) these things do need to be viewed in context and read with authorial intention in mind.

Just realised that I’ve neatly glided over the ‘generosity’ problem- I am tempted to appreciate the Gallic paradox: the more you reveal the less generous you become but this assumes that generosity is a quality that can or should be applied. It isn’t. Discuss.

David Jones and the shape of the Anathemata

I’m re-reading the above poem in conjunction with Rene Hague’s commentary and this has (together with a re-reading of Jones’ preface) added a bit more perspective on the rationale of this remarkable poem. Many months ago I wrote something speculating about why some parts of poems are in prose and others are in verse, with specific reference to Jones, Olson and Sutherland, I don’t think I made too much progress then but what Jones has to say about ‘shape’ does begin to clarfy things a little.

Hague quotes Jones as saying “I have tried to make a shape in words” and it is both the verb and the noun that strike me as important. In his preface Jones talks about the appearance of the poem in these terms:

I intend what I have written to be said. While, marks of punctuation, breaks of line, lengths of line, grouping of words or sentences and variations of spacing are visual contrivances they have here an aural and oral intention. You can’t get the intention unless you hear the sound and you observe the score; and pause-marks on a score are of particular importance.

This seems reasonable but these visual patterns are also the components of the poem’s shape and in this regard Hague has drawn my attention to Gregory Dix’ ‘The Shape of the Liturgy’ which Jones admired and gives this definition of liturgical shape:

If the whole eucharist is essentially one action, the service must have a logical development of one whole, a thrust towards that particular action’s fulfilment, and not merely a general purpose of edification. It must express clearly by the order and connection of its parts what the action is which it is about and where the service as a whole is ‘going’. It is this logical sequence of parts coherently fulfilling one complete action which I call the ‘Shape’ of the Liturgy.

We now come to the question of emphasis and the difference between what Jones and Hague have to say about schemes and themes. Hague is of the view that Maurice de la Taille’s interpretation of the Last Supper and Calvary forms the ‘very scheme upon which ‘The Anathemata’ is built. Jones, on the other hand says “What I have written has no plan or at least is not planned. If it has a shape it is chiefly that it returns to its beginning. It has themes and a theme even if it wanders far.” These would appear to be contradictory because there’ isn’t that much difference between ‘scheme’ and ‘plan’. I may be missing huge chunks of Hague’s reasoning but his claim doesn’t seem to hold up in various parts of the poem. Let’s start with de la Taille. I’m going to paraphrase the quote that Hague uses because it runs for two pages even though I may be accused of ripping material from its context.

The first point to be made is that the Last Supper and Crucifixion can be thought of as a ‘twofold immolation’. Before we go any further in this, I do need to say that I know that ‘immolation’ is a loaded term with a number of different connotations but that I’m going to take it on this occasion to stand for ‘sacrifice’. The second point is that these two acts should be thought of as one ‘complete sacrifice’. There then follows quite a bit about the role of the priest as victim but then Hague explains that all of this was important for Jones because it ‘insisted on the significant act contained in the Last Supper where the sign (the breaking of the bread, the drinking of the wine) made inevitable, in a sense created, what took place on Calvary.’

My initial, readerly response is that this deeply felt belief, doctrinal view, isn’t the overriding concern of the work and I would point to the most accessible section, ‘The Lady of the Pool’ for my evidence. I also need to acknowledge that Hague has far greater insight and personal knowledge about this material than I ever will so what follows should be seen as a tentative suggestion rather than an outright refutation. ‘The Lady of the Pool’ is mostly the soliloquy of a London lavender seller in the 15th or 16th centuries. It makes extensive use of John Stow’s late (ish) Tudor account of the city and its wards. It also mentions a number of dates in terms of feast days but there’s much more emphasis on place and on love / romance / relationships than there is on liturgy.

I’ll concede that the section begins and ends with references to masses for the Passion but even here these do not seem to reflect the ‘two foldedness’ referred to above.

                               In all the white chapels
in Lud's town of megara
when we put up rejoicing candles bright
when we pay latria
to the Saving Wood.
About the turn of the year, captain, when he sings out loud
from his proper in ligno quoque vinceretur
twisting his cock's egg tongue round
the Vulgar lingua like any Trojan licentious of divinity.

Neither Jones’ notes nor Hague’s gloss make mention of the de la Taille interpretation as above, Jones is at pains to stress what the cross stands for and why paying ‘latria’ to it isn’t idolatrous whereas Hague glosses ‘he’, ‘cock’s egg tongue’ and the ‘Vlugar Lingua’.

When I first read ‘The Anathemata’, I grasped and held on to the notion that it was a representation (a making) of Jones’ personal cultural clutter or ‘res’. I therefore struggle a bit with Hague’s view of de la Taille forming the basis upon which the poem is structured because I think that there is much more going on than theology. I’m not suggesting that the liturgy isn’t important, I just think that it isn’t the only important / structuring element.

I’m not entirely sure that Jones’ musical score analogy is the only thing that is going on with the way that the poem looks, the above extract would also seem to draw the eye towards ‘the Saving Wood’ as being central in terms of Jones’ faith rather than the ‘sense’ of this part of the poem. What I do think is clear is that I need to pay more attention to the various shapes that Jones makes both on the page and the way in which the sections are structured and relate to each other. ‘The Lady of the Pool’, for example has a structuring device, a ‘frame’ and uses the layout of the London wards, at or about the time of John Stow, to tell a story. I’m also intrigued by the possibility that Dix’ notion of ‘shape’ as a sequence is reflected in how the whole poem ‘fits’ together.

Of course, Hague is probably correct but his is not the way that I read the poem – a range of emphases is better than no range at all. I also wonder if I’d read this poem differently if I had some kind of religious belief.

Sarah Kelly’s ‘cables / to the telescopes’

This has a number of disclaimers. Last year I wrote about Sarah Kelly’s work in the ‘Better than Language’ anthology and made these pertinent observations:

In this instance the halo effect refers to qualities that we like in ourselves that we see in others. It is something managers are told to guard against when selecting candidates for employment, we are likely to select those that appear to be most like us regardless of whether they are the best candidate for the job.

The thing is that Sarah Kelly is writing the kind of poetry that I would be writing if I didn’t think that poetry is currently too poetic. The other thing is that Sarah Kelly is much better at writing the kind of poetry that I would be writing if I wasn’t making poems out of sketch map labels and Gillian Welch set lists. This does at least have the advantage of not having to write poetic poetry ever again which is a bit of a relief but it’s also a bit weird because I feel as if I know what’s going on in this work at an unusually deep level so I read it as a kind of co-conspirator rather than as an ordinary passer-by.

Obviously, this stuff is absolutely brilliant and will single-handedly save the poetic sort of poetry from itself. It fulfils and surpasses all of the Bebrowed criteria:

  • short lines;
  • absence of titles;
  • absence of big or foreign words;
  • a satisfyingly sparse intensity
  • exceptional word choice;
  • great endings.”

The next part of the disclaimer (before we get to the digression) relates to the fact that we have corresponded fitfully since the first piece was posted and I remain of the view that Sarah’s work is essential.

The bad news is that I might have to start writing ordinary / normal poetry again instead of culling sketch maps and set lists because Sarah’s work has taken a new direction which means that there is now nobody writing the kind of poetry that I would write if I believed in poetry. The good news is that this new direction is stunning and shows to the rest of us (me) that our thinking is really one-dimensional even when we’re trying to be original.

Set out below are three images from a series currently entitled ‘cables / to the telescope’-

page 3 from the cables series sarah kelly

page 4 from the cables series sarah kelly

page 8 from the cables series sarah kelly

This is what Sarah has to say “which is a collection of around 35 poems called ´cables/to the telescopes´ using collograph too and the same technique of putting everything inside the paper rather than inscribing it upon the surface. Here are some of the images, the plan had been to turn them into a kind of artists books, but we´ll see. For now, it´s hugely rewarding and pushing me in different directions which feels like movement, and movement for me is at the very crux of it all”. Sarah has been learning to make paper and these pieces have come from that, the key thing for me is the idea of putting text inside the paper as part of the process of making the paper which sets off a whole range of thoughts related to good wrongness because text isn’t supposed to have three dimensions, it isn’t supposed to be tactile and it should exist on the surface of things rather than within them.

In the earlier post I identified Sarah as a co-conspirator because I seemed to grasp at an intuitive level what she might be ‘about’ and this remains the case, the possibilities from this new work are certainly making me think again about text as image and about text as thing.

I now need to digress, artists are better at putting poetry in pictures than poets are at putting pictures in poems. Anselm Kiefer and Cy Twombly both incorporated lines from poetry into some of their more famous works, books have been written about Kiefer’s use of Celan and books will be written about Twombly’s use of Rilke. Poets have made pattern poems and concrete poems and have written poems about paintings and to accompany paintings. Some time ago I was of the view that poets should steer well clear of the visual, that what mattered where the words on the page and what they meant and that anything else is just distraction. Then I came across the work of Erica Baum which seemed to suggest that image and text (or image of text) can function as a viable (whatever that might mean) alternative to the poem on the page. I then had a look at Caroline Bergvall’s work and decided that I want to be Caroline Bergvall so I thought I was reasonably au fait with this corner of things poetic. Sarah’s work has thrown this into doubt because the text-as-thing within instead of on the page seems to reconfigure my assumptions and remind me of how little I know and how deeply unoriginal my thinking has been. This reconfiguration seems to have caught some of the Whitehead notion of process.

Digression- I spent some time yesterday recording a layered reading of a poem, I did this with two friends who own the equipment. What was interesting / satisfying for me was the way in which we were able to work together to get something from out of my head and into the real world. I was pleased that this process (which was deeply tentative) worked but the ‘doing’ seemed as important / interesting as the audio file.

Sarah’s new work is about process and showing that movement through to final object which can be seen and felt across the contours of the paper and the text and what’s just becoming additionally interesting is how and when you decide that the object is ‘finished’ / ‘complete’ and I am fighting the opportunity to take this too far down the Whitehead route.

Unusually, I haven’t discussed the words and this is in part because of the brilliance of this particular conceit but also because I think I need to find a different way of writing in order to do justice to the material and it seems that conventional enthusiasm isn’t going to be enough.

Paul Celan, Osip Mandelstam and fateful language

Plough match 2012 # 17 Julian Winslow

The last post on Celan’s term ‘the angle of inclination’ attracted some debate and a very helpful contribution from Pierre Joris (Celan’s best translator who also spent seven years of his life producing the English version of the notes for the Meridian), I thought that I’d return to this issue and add a few more elements into the ‘mix’.

For those unfamiliar with Celan’s work, it is probably sufficient to say that he was the greatest poet of the 20th century and that his later work embodies much of what poetry must be about. The notes made in preparation for the Meridian offer a crucial insight into Celan’s poetics- the Meridian address is the only time that he expressed his views on poetry in any depth. I’ve paid intermittent but close attention to the notes since last summer and have learned a number of things which appear to be reasonably central to Celan’s practice:

  • the poem comes from a primordial darkness and this blackness is “congenital” to the poem;
  • the poem carries the potential for an encounter and the encounter between reader and poem is both tactile and intimate;
  • the poem is described as being “under way” en route to some “other”.

I’m reasonably confident of the above but there are many other aspects that are resistant to ‘easy’ interpretation. One of these is the use of the ‘angle of inclination’ which I speculated about in the last post. To recap this is what Celan said in the address:

This always-still can only be a speaking. But not just language as such, nor, presumably, not verbal “analogy” either.

But language actualized, set free under the sign of a radical individuation that at the same time, however, remains mindful of the borders language draws and of the possibilities language opens up for it.

This always-still of the poem can indeed only be found in the work of the poet who does not forget that he speaks under the angle of inclination of his Being, the angle of inclination of his creatureliness.

The the poem is – even more clearly than previously – one person’s language-become-shape and, according to its essence, presentness and presence.

Last time I speculated that this angle may refer to being leant forward so as to pay close or respectful attention to something. In response, Courtney Druz suggested that this might refer to a “bending under pressure” whilst Tom D’Evelyn made this observation- ““Inclination” may point to the intersubjective understanding of otherness. The I is opened to the other by transcending itself, the self that is “intended” in time towards an object, and this transformation of the self creates a space where Being may show its “otherness” as inclination: a point of entry into this space. The pressure Courtney mentions is a “pull” that co-operates with the opening self to open the space.” Pierre Joris put forward a Deleuzian perspective- “I’ll confess to problems with the translation of Celan’s term “Neigungswinkel” — which I eventually returned to its most literal translation as “angle of inclination”. For many years —the whole book took 7 years (meager? fat?) to translate — I used the term “clinamen” which in its Deleuzian inclination had seemed useful & accurate to me & my own thinking about PC. Vagaries & vanities of translation.”

In responding to these I came across a more detailed paragraph which I should have included in the initial post:

The poem that I have in mind is not surface-like: nor is this changed by the fact that even recently, with Apollinaire or with Chr. Morgenstern, one had the shape poem, rather, the poem has the (complex a double spatial depth of the soul of the) spaciality of the who demands it of the soul and indeed a complex one: the spaciality and tectonics of the one who demands it of himself and the spaciality of the of his own language ie (language which) not simply of language as such but of the language which configures and actulizes itself under the special angle of inclination of the one who speaks and thus the poem is fateful language.

(The words in brackets are the ones that Celan crossed out in his notes.)

The next paragraph expands on ‘fateful’:

“Fateful”: a highly contestable word, I know; but let it function at least as an auxiliary word; as auxiliary word for ex., for the description of an experience: that one has to emulate one’s poem, if it is to remain true; that concerning this or that poem one has to ask oneself if it hadn’t been better to have left it unwritten; that (one) even (the) most (pronounced, most articulated) literal irreality form speaks the language of the imperative: “You must pass through here, life!”

(The words in brackets are again the ones that Celan crossed out in his notes.)

So, there are now some additional words and phrases that we need to think about. I’m taking ‘the one who speaks’ to be the poet or the maker of the poem and that the poem actualizes itself because it is made by the poet who has this ‘special’ angle of inclination. It is because of this process that the poem is said to be ‘fateful’ language.

Let’s give some consideration to this ‘highly contestable word’, fateful has five definitions in the OED:

  • Of a voice or utterance: Revealing the decrees of fate; prophetic of destiny;
  • Fraught with destiny, bearing with it or involving momentous consequences; decisive, important. Chiefly of a period of time;
  • Marked by the influence of fate; controlled as if by irresistible destiny;
  • Bringing fate or death; deadly;
  • Having a remarkable fate; of eventful history.

Given what we know about Celan, it is likely that this contestable word is being used as a combination of both the first and second definitions although the fourth definition may also be intended, the notes have “Death as the principle creating unity and limits, this its omnipresence in the poem.” but we do have to tease out whether this is Celan the follower of Heidegger or Celan the depressive…..

With regard to “You must pass…”, the notes contain “poems are narrows: you have to go through here with you life – ” with an additional comment that was put in later- “…..not all the poems one writes: no one is a poet through and through…”. So poems carry or are laden with fate/destiny and also carry death and that the poet has a kind of duty to ‘emulate’ the poem- in another version of the ‘fateful’ paragraph this is “one has to live according to one’s poems”.

The Notes also contain Celan’s radio-essay on “The poetry of Osip Mandelstam” which contains this: “These poems are the poems of someone who is perceptive and attentive, someone turned toward what becomes visible, someone addressing and questioning: these poems are a conversation.

Celan was a fervent admirer of Mandelstam’s work and had translated it from the Russian, here I think the idea of turning towards something that becomes visible may also provide context for ‘inclination’.

I think Courtney is right that the leaning forward is also experienced as a burden, as a responsibility to bear witness for the other- which requires an openness and careful attention. The imperative to bear witness to the fate of the Jewish people is a recurring theme in Celan’s work which is made more difficult and complex by the fact that his mother tongue was German. “Tenebrae” has ‘we’ going to look at the bodies in mass graves but it is also set out as a prayer that addresses God directly.

So, inclination may combine- attention, reverence, the burden of responsibility toward the other or otherness and may also be concerned with all of the above working to expose an aspect of truth or reality.

As always with Celan all of this has to be provisional and I haven’t begun yet to address Pierre’s ‘clinamen’ and the Deleuzian Celan but I do find it very useful to try and think these things through.

Erica Baum’s Sightings

I wrote some time ago about Erica Baum’s ‘Dog Ear’ and now an intriguing outfit called onestar press published ‘Sightings’ in 2010 which sells at 35 euros but can also be downloaded as a pdf.

Before we go any further I think I’d better describe my current feelings about conceptual work. Kenneth Goldsmith has defined conceptual poetry as material that’s more interesting to think and talk about as an idea than it is to read. I can see how this might apply to some of Goldsmith’s output although I do remain an occasional but avid reader of his ‘Traffic’.

I’d like to draw a distinction between this kind of ‘pure’ conceptualism and the kind that does start from a conceit (in the sense that Spenser used it in the letter to Raleigh) but consists of work that can and should be read as well. The work of Vanessa Place falls into this category and I’m making the same claim for ‘Sightings’.

I’d also like to make a case for appropriation, i.e. the practice of using already produced material as the text for the poem. In some circles this is also frowned upon because it undermines the notion of the poet as the solitary creator of carefully crafted and original lines. I think that this misses the ‘point’ and doesn’t give sufficient weight to the process of selection, it also carefully avoids the fact that all poetry is an echo of the poems that have been written in the last three thousand years and that some of our very best poetry is soaked though with what has gone before.

This is what Baum has to say about ‘Sightings’-

Prose poems depict witness descriptions of ufo encounters. Figures and shadows loom suggestively. Newsprint collages attest to the variety of odd occurences. Is the evidence of an alien invasion all around us ? The transparant and elastic meanings in ‘sightings’ suggest a transformation of ordinary facts, an absurdist archaeology of the everyday.

To produce an ‘absurdist archaeology of the everyday’ is an ambitious goal and I’m not sure that Baum achieves it. What I do know is that the juxtaposition of words and photographs of words and photographs that may or may not depict ufos seems to be a very successful way of saying complicated things about the uncanny and about the way things come to an end.

The most accessible parts of the text are the prose accounts of ufo sightings. I am old enough to recall a time when such events were treated much more seriously than they are now, particularly in the US. It seems to me that this kind of fevered paranoia was a neat ‘fit’ with the cold war angst about the ‘red menace’ presented by the Soviet Union. None of the accounts here appear to have any kind of ‘literary’ merit and read as authentic- the tone is reminiscent of the media reports of the time.

Of course, extra-terrestrials can be considered to be the ultimate Other in that we can attribute to them any attributes that we choose but these aren’t descriptions of alien life forms but of the craft that carry them- which have been the focus of conspiracy theories ever since. It may just be my optimistic perspective but I find it hard to conceive of a film like ‘Close Encounters’ having the same success now. UFOs aside, the other textual material relates to phrases and parts of phrases photographed as if the pages have been placed in a filing cabinet. Some of these phrases are only partially visible which means that a few are difficult to read. It is possible to read the legible lines as verse, albeit absurdist verse-

That Trouble
falling into a ravine of moths or butterflies
us inside a space meant to evoke packed with
stars that wobble under the influence of

Their are other photographs depicting what appear to be the edges of books so that parts of images and text are visible. Other images are of clouds, shadows and what might be ufos.

So, what I’m trying to say is that this is the kind of collection that might be labelled as ‘conceptual’ but also has serious and thought-provoking content. Here we have a series of points being made about the way we have thought about and imagined the strange / Other and the relationship between cognition and only partial or occluded phenomena. There’s also something about the end of things in this post-analogue, post soviet world.

Incidentally, the ubuweb site has a collection of Baum’s earlier stuff in pdf- I’m particularly fond of ‘The Naked Eye’ and ‘Card Catalogue’ both of which are equally startling but in very different ways.

Olson and past and present

past in the present

I was directed to the above by the indispensable Wood s lot where I found a remarkable series of images put together by Sergey Larenkov. I can’t read Russian but he appears to have taken pictures from World War of several European cities and ‘mixed’ these with pictures taken this year of the same scene. This shot was taken in Leningrad during the siege and carries this incredible juxtaposition of dead bodies, crumbling buildings and contemporary  pedestrians trying to cross the road.

Coincidentally, I’m still trying to write something intelligent and coherent about Olson for the Ardutiy project and my mind leapt to his views on the relationship we have with the past. I’m aware that the ‘past in the present’ thing is a bit of a cliché and doesn’t do justice to the complexity of Olson’s thinking on this but the fact remains that Maximus makes great use of archival material and Olson is deeply aware of the history of Gloucester when he writes about himself in its landscapes.

Reading Maximus brings home to me both the importance and complexity of this awareness and has changed the way that I experience my place in the world (I live in a fading resort town on an island off the south coast of England).

These images should make us reconsider our relationship with the tragedy that was World War 2- they certainly have this effect on me.

Erica Baum on ubuweb

I’m not normally a fan of conceptual/concrete poetry and Erica Baum isn’t a poet but what she does with photography is both stunning and poetic. As I intend to demonstrate, her work is both witty and confrontational. Some of her work can be found on the ubuweb site and I want to draw attention to two of these ‘pieces’.

‘Dog Ear’ consists of a series of images of pages which are folded in such a way so as to produce text which runs from top to bottom as well as from left to right. This sounds fairly simple but the experience of looking at these images is such that they force the viewer (reader) to question the nature of language and its relationship to communication.

What (literally) struck me first about ‘Dog Ear’ is the amount of violence that it does to the eye. By this I mean the amount of damage that is done between seeing the image and trying to make cognitive sense of it. I don’t think that this is due entirely to the fact of juxtaposition (text going in one direction, more text going in another) but also due to the immense roadblock that this simple act (the folding of paper) can create in our/my understanding of how language may be used.

We now come to the words and fragments of words (and letters) as they appear on the folded page. The first image begins on the left-to-right side with the page number (174) and then- “Yes? / Yes / How”, the first line is followed by a long gap and then “MI” followed by part of what looks like a capital ‘S’,the last word is followed by part of what may be the letter ‘l’ but this is purely guesswork on my part. The top-to-bottom side of the fold begins with the page number (175) and then- “I? I would not do that / differently. There is a huge gap between the first and second line so there may be further words that are hidden from us.

I will notice that I am writing about this image as if it was a poem. This may say far more about me than Baum but I feel as if I have to make some kind of sense of what is before my eye. These could be randomly selected pages from yellowing second-hand books but I don’t think this is the case- I’m guessing that you’d have to spend a long time in the selection process before arriving at what is presented here.

The second image that I’ve chosen begins (left to right)- “threw his elegant solution into di / red tape held thing up. Peopl / with their successors didn’t / front concentration ca / heavy snowfalls. Pow / Rail lines were b / of uncertainty / At his / His rec”. We then go top to bottom- “round sort of clearing. Surrounded / gigantic well. Sunlight shoots / illuminating the ground at / sit down in the sunlight / a chocolate bar from / ll over again how / ach second of / sness I felt / he sun’s /path”. I’ve avoided the temptation to include the letters that are partly hidden by the fold- there’s a letter after “concentration ca” that could be an ‘m’ but could also be an ‘r’. As a reader of poetry I’m fairly familiar with allusive stuff and find myself rushing to fill in the gaps with this image, putting together ‘solution’ with ‘Rail lines’ and wanting ‘concentration ca’ to be ‘camp’ when it could be anything.

As I said at the top of this piece, I’m not a great fan of fucking about with text but ‘Dog Ear’, in its own quiet way, has taught me that even tired old sceptics like me can still be jolted out of long-held prejudice and this is surely a Good Thing.

The other Baum piece that I really like is nowhere near as clever but still has a kind of grainy, spectral wit. ‘Card Catalogues’ is a series of images of library card catalogues which mostly show the index headers protruding from the files. I think it’s safe to say that this is primarily about juxtaposition which others have commented on (especially ‘Subversive activities / Suburban homes’ image) but it’s also a historical document. ‘Card catalogues’ was produced in 1997 at a time when we were beginning to move our indexing processes onto servers (which is now the norm) and these images stand as a reminder of what life was like when knowledge / information / data wasn’t readily available via the click of a mouse.  In terms of the images, there’s one shot of a open filing cabinet drawer that just has the word ‘God’ protruding and another is the front of an old wooden drawer which is labelled ‘Jersey City – Jesus’ both of which made me smile a lot.