Friday 14 August 2009

Bill Viola's video installations & The Zoo Father

Bill Viola is one of my favourite artists. I have a video by him called The Passing, and when I held Poetry School workshops in my house back in 1998, we all huddled around my small tv to watch it. The students had never seen anything like it before. The video was about his dying mother and even has her last breath, amplified. The first work of his I saw was 'Room for St John of the Cross'. It led me to read St John of the Cross's poems and the writings of St Theresa of Avila – two Spanish mystics.

This is a still from 'Five Angels for the New Millennium'. Another multi-video installation is called 'Ocean Without A Shore.' These remind me of a dream I had before I wrote my second collection The Zoo Father. I dreamt of returning to the base of Angel Falls, into a kind of church (Viola's 'The Messenger' was installed in Durham Cathedral). The spray of the immense falls resembled whirling bridal lace, but gradually I realised there was a gigantic face in the tumbling sprays – my father's. I hadn't seen him for thirty-five years and never expected to hear from him again, but a few days after this dream I received a letter summoning me to visit him in Paris. And that's how I started writing this collection, with the 'zoo' father both in Paris and in the Amazonian Lost World.

Room for St John of the Cross

This is 'The Messenger'. A naked man slowly floats towards the surface of a water wall. His face breaks through the wall and he lets out a long-held breath, takes a deep breath then floats back into the blue-black distance. This had particular resonance for me as my father was dying of emphysema, and could only breathe with the help of supplementary oxygen from an oxygen recycler machine. He found talking hard, yet I wanted him to tell me about his life. I am attempting to write an expanded fiction account of The Zoo Father story in my first novel.

Saturday 1 August 2009

Cover art of The Treekeeper's Tale

This is the cover image of my latest poetry collection The Treekeeper's Tale. I made the artwork while I was in the Sculpture School at the Royal College of Art in 1986. It was called 'Wound' then, but I've since renamed it 'Treekeeper'. It was one of the sculptures in my MA degree show. The studios were in the sheds behind the Natural History Museum in Kensington Gore, and a few of the birdskulls came from the skips, though most were found on beaches, woods, or bought. The monkey skull was stolen during the show. There was another student who we called the Bone King and he and I used to swap finds. The face is a lifecast, cast into fibreglass with white polyester resin filling. The relief was mainly white with green, rose and red tints.

I loved working in my studio, and the way artists can be in their own created worlds. I miss that about being a poet – now that I have an 'office' rather than my world made physical. But there are compensations, and ultimately metaphor can become a realer world to me than one made of stuff. A poem is a house and each stanza is a room. It has always been important for me to be able to make an alternative world I can live in. This world may be located faraway, so my poems are often situated in Venezuela, Nepal or Kazakhstan. Sometimes they are both here (where I live or have lived) and there, the two superimposed.

In The Treekeeper's Tale those giant coast redwood habitats might be in zoos, or in a glasshouse at Kew Gardens. Many of the poems in the book are about 2,000-year-old people, creatures, or excavated museum objects (horses in permafrost, ice-preserved mummies, a Galilean fishing boat), so this transporting of locales is also on a temporal plane, from the deep past. The redwood trees are 2,000 years old and 2,000 feet high. Someone's sculptures? Hermits lived in the lightning-struck ones. They lived inside the sculptures. It might be uncomfortable, damp, but the trunk could be a kind of exoskeleton, protecting the inhabitant.

What would it be like to be half human half tree? Perhaps that's what I was after in my sculpture. It was only a small piece (3' diameter). I was never satisfied with my artworks but it had a quietness, a listening-ness. When I lived with my mother as a teenager I taught myself to vanish into myself, to be there but not be there, for safety. So I have a fascination with altered states and how to travel faraway into yourself yet out of yourself. I wonder what other people see in this piece and in the object-poems?