Trained as an Illustrator and now practicing as a visual artist I have, in recent years, been developing my work in terms of exploring the relationship between poetry and three-dimensional form, creating fragile, intricate objects, christened ‘Poem-Houses’. Often inspired by the book form, each a space, or sequence of spaces, in which fragments of both text and image intermingle, these ‘Poem-House’ forms were first developed as small ‘shrines’ to my creative process – as a form of escape from the constraints of commissioned projects. Acting as repositories for my inspiration, these provide a space of safekeeping where lines of poetry connect with fragments of found objects, natural forms or photographed elements of buildings. Working initially with the words of dead poets: John Donne, T.S. Eliot and others, but gradually seeking out living poets and other creative practitioners with whom to work, I have been searching for my identity, through collaboration:
If the soul is to know itself
It must look into a soul
(Seferis, 1995, p.6)
Realising myself to be, partially, on familiar ground (that of the ‘Poeme-Objets’ of Andre Breton, etc.) I also felt that I was in uncharted territory, due to my ability to ‘move’ around inside a poem as if it were three-dimensional space in my mind. Like shedding a pair of protective gloves, to adopt a metaphor used by the poet, Adrienne Rich, as described (2005, p.288) in ‘The Norton Anthology of Poetic Form’, this seems to have allowed me to begin to handle materials I could not, previously, have picked up bare-handed. In this charged space, there is a place where ideas can form, before the work is made. A liminal space, somewhere between the mind and the object, it is a place where thought can happen.
A process, described by Martina Margetts, in her essay, ‘Between Worlds’, for the catalogue of an exhibition of International Contemporary Art Textiles at The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh: ‘Interface’ (curated by Jeweller, Susan Cross), as “attending to the material, spatial and technical qualities” (2005, p.9) of my ‘Poem-Houses’ has brought me to investigate materials such as wire and thread, the flexibility and gestural qualities of which appeal. Alone or in combination, these materials have brought a new level of complexity to my making process, encouraging a sense of ‘drafting’, whilst simultaneously presenting particular technical difficulties in terms of the development from ‘draft’ to ‘finished’ object. Akin to the craft of the poet, working in this way allows my process to become embedded in the object – the process is the object. This sense of ‘is’-ness, a major concern in the work of Irish poets Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland and Patrick Kavanagh and Scottish poets John Burnside and Larry Butler, is a vital component in my own work, allowing words themselves to become a material which can be played with.
It is this potential for a continuing dialogue, emerging from pauses in the creative process and the sense of playfulness suggested by them, along with my desire to further investigate this notion of moving around, inside the space of a poem, that have led me to seek out practitioners from other disciplines who share my interest in this area, ripe for creative exploration.
Architect Tom Morton feels poetry and architecture to be “closest during the process of struggle to articulate, a feeling, an idea, a relationship, be it through words or physical form”* and is equally inspired by the exploration of what we see as common ground between our disciplines. This understanding, that a poem is less a perfect object and more a process, which continues even after it is ‘finished’ – enriched by becoming an object (poem), whilst remaining restless and incomplete – is one which we share with poet, Larry Butler.
In much poetry, words are selected for their sensory qualities, their usage evoking a sense of movement. As if in conversation, I add fragments of text (lines from a poem) to the lines of wire that move through jewellery and metalworker, Teena Ramsay’s pieces. Together, their movement takes many forms – twisting, folding, bending, layering, pivoting, hinging, wrapping, looping material lines – both wire and words articulating space, through their construction and their placement.
The line is also fundamental to the perception of poetry, since it is an important factor in the distinction between prose and verse. A line-end can be a signal for a slight pause or, when ‘enjambed’ (‘enjambement’ being a kind of ‘run-on’ device used in poetry), becomes suggestive of a sense of forward motion. Wire and fragments of collage can be used expressively to begin to articulate the possibilities of these and other poetic devices, or nuances, when placed within a spatial context.
A body of research has been produced, by means of a creative exchange (via The Royal Mail), which includes poems, ‘Poem-Houses’, poem-objects, Artists’ books, photographs and an essay, along with documentation relating to the creative exchange process between us. This was gathered together, as an informal exhibition, at WASPS (Patriothall, Edinburgh) in 2005.
Larry Butler’s craft epitomises the simplicity and intensity of the short poem form, within which the moment can be felt, most intimately. His poems pivot and fold, making twists and turns that are playful in their suggestion of space, often using the device of an ‘envelope’ (in which a line, phrase or stanza is repeated so as to enclose other material) to suggest a screen, or membrane, that must be passed through as the reader journeys in, and out, of a poem. These permeable ‘edges’ are equally suggestive of the journey from external to internal space (both psychical and psychological) and back, particularly evident in his ‘haiku’, a short oriental form of poetry, each one a self-enclosed universe of play.
Teena Ramsay works intuitively, with precious and non-precious metal and wire, to form complex, yet playful structures. When working together, our process is one of developing understanding through doing. We share many similarities in terms of the tools we utilise in the creation of our pieces and wire is a material that is common to the work that we each make. As a result of our thinking through doing, we have been developing a process that could be described as finding sophisticated containers to carry an innocent message.
If the communication of the tacit and experiential knowledge that is gleaned from the process of collaborative making that we are engaged in is, at times, uneasy, it is in part due to a reliance on sensory interaction, with both materials and the world, rather than on logic and planning. This is made even stronger, ironically, by the incorporation of text, in the form of poetry. The intermingling of layers of perspex, tissue, thread and wire in our work creates a kind of semi-permeable membrane, which acts as a carefully articulated filter between the viewer and the text. It is hoped that, as light moves across these layers, casting delicate shadows, a sense of mobility may be glimpsed, both in terms of meaning and of the imagination.
This playfulness, inherent in Ramsay’s work, is paralleled in my own sense of playing, inside a poem, both in terms of interpretation and of an exploration of the space(s) to be ‘found’ within it. Our thought processes meet at points relating to a growing need for space(s) – metaphorical and physical – in which this simple, if elusive, pleasure may be found.
Our collaborative work has recently influenced a commission, to create an award for The National Short Story Prize (2006). Here, I used a simple book form, weaving a line of text through a window within it, through which can be seen a piece of the plant ‘Honesty’. Silver-leaf is used for the sense of preciousness it imparts.
Another recent collaborative piece, ‘what to remember when waking’ (inspired by a poem by David Whyte), made by Teena and myself, led to a deepening of our collaborative exchange. Beginning as a fragile book form onto which fragments were typed and into which ‘window’ space(s) were created, it was passed to Teen who added delicate wire forms, which hold the form, in space, before returning it to my studio, where fragments of silver-leaf and natural forms were added. The process of exchange thus continued, in a crossing and re-crossing of the perceived boundaries between our disciplines.
In the course of our collaboration we naturally encountered stumbling blocks, not least of which was Ramsay’s initial reluctance to allow others to physically alter her work in any way, which she now readily admits was counterproductive to the collaborative process, whilst acknowledging that this is rooted in what had been a very private creative practice, prior to this. The surprise revelations that have been a continual feature of our creative exchange, particularly in terms of authorship, have served to challenge any assumptions we (may have) had, regarding the scope of what is possible, as a result of such a process. The perceived loss of control inevitable in such an exchange has clearly transpired to be of help, rather than hindrance, to the creative process and the contradictory forces, inherent in any human exchange, seemed to render the process more plastic than we could have imagined possible.
What also became clear is that the kind of creative exchange we set in motion was (is) one to which reflection is key. Creating a space, so preciously free of the constraints, of commissioned work, as well as of any perceived boundaries, is essential to the process and our greatest insights into the true nature of collaboration have been made in that space. Jeanette Winterson describes something of the nature of this in her novel, ‘Lighthousekeeping’:
“Some people say that the best stories have no words. They weren’t brought up to Lighthousekeeping. It is true that words drop away, and that the important things are often left unsaid. The important things are learned in faces, in gestures, not in our locked tongues. The true things are too big or too small, or in any case always the wrong size to fit the template called language.
I know that. But I know something else too, because I was brought up to Lighthousekeeping. Turn down the daily noise and at first there is the relief of silence. And then, very quietly, as quiet as light, meaning returns. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.”
(Winterson, 2005, p.135)
An exhibition, “Poem-House”, at The Open Eye Gallery in Edinburgh subsequently acted as a showcase for a series of new collaborative pieces, developed from these early ‘Poem Houses’ and are currently being created, incorporating new poems by Butler. This has presented us with an ideal opportunity to distil this research material into an output, in an entity that communicates the collective creative process of our seemingly autonomous creative disciplines, in relationship to these yet to be articulated forms.
That an intermingling of seemingly disparate elements – words, images, objects, ideas – into a coherent whole becomes possible is an on-going inspiration for my work. My exploration with collage has opened my mind to the possibilities that arise when what might appear to be disparate elements are brought together, the fragment holding a particular fascination. Incomplete, broken, carrying traces of lives not fully lived yet found, later (perhaps folded into a book), a fragment exists as part of a potentially complete whole, demanding a context.
The production and publishing of an Artists’ Book, “a place where thought happens…” became a further step in what has been a natural progression of this collaborative process and funding was secured to facilitate this. It’s publication has provided a juncture at which to further distil what had been a period of creative experimentation, into an object which embodies an essence of what has been revealed about the relationship between poetry, space and making, as well as the nature of collaboration and the common ground between our disciplines that has been uncovered through this process of collaboration.
The separation that exists between the visual arts and literature has forged a gap which, through this work, I have felt inspired to go as far as possible to negotiate, by articulating and moving within the meeting points either strayed-upon, uncovered, or consciously set-up in my practice as an artist. The form of the book provides the kind of protected three-dimensional space in which this gap has the potential to lessen, acting as a metaphor for the three-dimensional space I feel around me as I enter into the world of the poet.
To conclude, I am in agreement with the writer and artist, Suzi Gablik, when she observes that
The great era of academic specialisation…is coming to an end. The demarcation between professional fields is being absorbed by a new understanding of the omnipresent relevance and intimate connection of all fields to each other. We need to change our basic one-dimensional linear models to something more dynamic, branched and multi-dimensional – something that is more in harmony with the interconnected nature of the real world.
(Gablik, 2004, p.16)
It would now seem pertinent to ask whether, through interdisciplinary collaborative practice, we can rework some of our assumptions and prejudices, to discover genuinely new ways of approaching our collective challenges?
Quoting a Zen saying:
“When you pick up one piece of dust, the entire world comes with it.”
Margetts, M., 2005, ‘Interface: International Contemporary Art Textiles’ (Exhibition Catalogue essay), UK: The Scottish Gallery.
Seferis, G., 1995, ‘Complete Poems’, eds. E. Keeley & P. Sherrard, UK: Anvil Press.
Strand, M., Boland, E. (eds), 2000, ‘The Making of A Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Form’, UK: Norton.
Winterson, J., 2005, ‘Lighthousekeeping’, UK: Harper Perennial.
Gablik, S. (2004) ‘A New Front’, Resurgence No. 223, March/April, p.15-16.