I was going to say the London poetry world is quiet this weekend, pulling itself back to spring forward on Tuesday for the Southbank Centre’s Poetry Parnassus festival – 6 days and SCORES of events with poets from all over the world – but no. Roddy Lumsden and Emily Hasler’s New Poets’ Festival has been rocking the Betsey Trotwood pub in Farringdon since Friday, and is going strong today from 3pm. Fantastic readers and many of them.
I’m sure there’s more, too, there always is.
Last week had its own attractions, two of which struck very different notes off the same chord.
First was a small, unusual exhibition in Clerkenwell. Baa features art by Bryan Illsley, and poems by Christopher Reid.
They’re not just any poems, either: they’re variations on what we might call the rhetorical form of ‘Baa Baa, Black Sheep’. (It’s hard to resist the temptation to say that a ‘Martian’, landing on Earth, might think this was an important form, similar to a sonnet – or more likely a clerihew. Kind of like the time we had a Bonfire Night party and I suddenly realised that there were seven children in the house called Felix.)
Not only are these poems playful, insouciant and joyous – they’re also hand-painted onto the gallery walls in beautiful handwriting, around corners, up the ceiling, and onto doorframes, like little imps that can’t stay still in print. They also roam the space as a light projection.
I’d be painting poems on my walls now if it wasn’t for the fecking awful woodchip wallpaper we have here in the Rooms of Baroque, and for the chockablock pictures it’s covered with. (I mean, all my lovely pictures.)
The artworks by Bryan Illsley are also playful, joyous, and multi-media. They’re a series of abstract collages, paint with drawing with swathes of sand and bits of paper – including, which you can see above, a lovely drawn tartan. You can’t always tell for sure which is what, because they’ve been reproduced on sticky-back plastic and mounted directly to the walls, as if sliding up onto the ceiling or slipping down onto the floor, and mooching round corners…
There are no original artworks to look at, to get the texture of, to participate in. And there looks like lots of texture. But this mediation, I can’t help feeling, is the point. It distances and also renders.
The exhibition really is about transforming the media of the works into part of the walls themselves. And I like that very much, I’m very interested in it. The poems are themselves transformations of a ‘real-time’ original, too (which is, unlike the collages, displayed on the wall).
And indeed the space feels fantastic to be in. I must be secretly part Martian, because it just felt good to stand there surrounded by Baa.
The exhibition is produced by Alida Sayer, and is at the Marsden Woo Gallery, 17-18 Great Sutton Street, EC1, until July 31st.
The following night saw another space transformed, with the tube-train-like packing-out of the Poetry Café for the launch of another poetry/art collaboration. Definitely a room with everyone in it!
Tamar Yoseloff and Vici MacDonald have produced a collaboration with poems written in response to photographic images of the decay of the city: peeling signs, old walls, wall lettering and ghost signs, street signs with missing letters.
This is a very Baroque territory, of course; and of course our sibling site The London Column exists precisely to explore the continuous change, decay, renewal, continued existence, of the city.
This depository for great mistakes
stretches ahead of us, like mirrors
in mirrors. What a waste. The ass-end
The project is essentially a booklet – Formerly – produced in a neat little square format, with endpapers and cover flaps of wood, brick, corrugated metal, and an 80s-underground-looking peachy-orange Day-Glo title on the title page. The images are pixelated in the manner of bad old newsprint reproduction.
Of course, with their gaptoothed words and isolated phrases painted, plastered, and stuck to the fabric of the city, these pictures are tantalising to a writer. I found myself responding to their mysteries myself. (As Verlaine once said to Degas – who had just uttered that annoying sentence, ‘Hey, that would be a good idea for a poem!’ – ‘Poems aren’t made of ideas. They’re made of words’.)
Tamar Yoseloff’s sonnets pick up the words and riff on them, joyously (there’s that word again) suggesting past glories still alive, or else the life that goes on (however unjoyously) amid the general crumble. ‘Quicky Heel Bar’ plays on the double meanings of the words in its name. ‘Duk. of ……gton’ begins:
Gone, the days of ho fun duk,
the back of the truck fooling around,
white guy funk; goon squad drunks,
a ton of laughs. I nearly puked.
(I think it’s safe to say the narrator here is not Ms Yoseloff. I’ve been out with her.) A pub called ‘The Rose’ becomes the memory of a risqué dancer (and, given the ‘memory’s turning tricks’ line, maybe a prostitute) who sang,
…no regrets, but you could forget
what it was like when you could clench
the thorny branch between your teeth,
dance all night for the boys…
Life does go on – all around us, all the time. The shredded poster you photograph today will be a shiny new one tomorrow. Stoke Newington even has a new ghost sign – how creepy is that! It says, DYSON.
In the exhibition the photos are displayed as posters: portrait-format, with no pixelation, and each with a different colour-tint instead – and without the retro 80s Day-Glo, which makes such a feature in the booklet. They look great, lining the Poetry Café. But they’re not ‘posters of the book’. To me this says that this project isn’t really about the photographs; it’s about the images they contain, the malleability of those images, ephemerality. It’s an exercise in transformation, iteration, the conditional. The medium is the message – but which layer of the medium, which message? (For some reason I’m also reminded of a blog post I read yesterday about the layers of paint, the whole decoration history, of the bridge at Holborn Viaduct.)
As with the artworks in Baa, I found myself wanting to know – yes but what does this photograph actually look like? And as with Baa, maybe that isn’t the point. The pictures aren’t captioned with any information about the circumstances of their taking, for example. There is a map at the back with dots where the pictures were taken- a very nice touch – but the poems don’t seem to be rooted specifically in London or its neighbourhoods (cf repeated use of phrases like ‘ass-end’, ‘fat chance’, and ‘here’s the shit’); they read more like responses to image as image, city as city – and these things, like decay and renewal, are universal.
‘Limehouse Cut’, for example, is not about the canal, or Limehouse, or Bow or Poplar. The image is of a block of council flats (the Lansbury Estate?), and the poem is a little monologue, a story of love and rejection (which could easily have been sung by a girl on any housing estate – or indeed by the Lansbury’s residents to Tower Hamlets housing…):
…I splash my tears
over the ragged towpath of your estate
and wait for rain to wash the morning clear,
…and wait for pain to crack your concrete heart.
Formerly is on display (and for sale) at the Poetry Café, 22 Betterton Street, London WC2, until 14 July (at which point it will ‘formerly’ have been on display – oh the wit); perhaps we can all go and spraypaint over them on the day. Meanwhile, go, drink coffee, look and read! You can buy Formerly here.