Tuesday 26 June 2012

Poetry from Art at Tate Modern: Ewa Partum's Active Poetry

Choosing 10 words from the circle, photo by participant Anne Welsh

Chance plays a large part in Polish artist Ewa Partum's situational poetry installations. Her video installation at Tate Modern,
Active Poetry, is from the '70s, and was groundbreaking then. She scattered letters from Joyce's Ulysses and other seminal works in landscapes such as seashores and woods, and let the elements rearrange them into poems of a new random language. She was also a feminist and appeared naked in her own performances as a protest "until women are equal in art".

Active Poetry still from video by Ewa Partum

For the third session of my Image-Making: Shaping Poems course, we watched the grainy video of her scattering large letters to the wind, the floor in front of the video also covered with white letters. We each contributed ten favourite words to our own 'active poetry' pool and brought in our surreal definitions from the previous week in the Hirst exhibition, and displayed those separately. These included the lines:

"fire is an elixir giving immortality"
"a cigarette is something that stops your head exploding"
"a bone-saw is a prayer suspended in glass"
"scissors are sweet and heal wounds"
"an insect-o-cutor is sheer bliss"
"a skull is your enemy"
"a black sun is a terrible pool"
"an eye is a device to electrocute insects"
"a wing is a hypochondriac's larder"
"honey is a total eclipse of the sun"

We discussed 'collage' or 'mosaic' poems, where disparate phrases and images are clustered together in a non-linear way, but somehow have an underlying cohesive whole. I read out Yang Lian's poem 'The Winter Garden 1' from the anthology Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poets, which appears to be a collage of surreal images and contains lines like "the hurried night always wears brand new soles" and "the vole is an exhausted nurse    stealthily/slinking into the garden's wounds". Another fantastic example of a 'collage' poem is by Karen McCarthy Woolf who is in our group, 'The Weather in the Womb' (from Ten: New Poets from Spread the Word).

Everyone had to pick 10 words out of the circle, avoiding their own, and use one surreal definitions line as a lynch pin. They arranged their selections on the floor until the configuration started a short poem. They could of course insert other words to make grammatical sense, and add anything that came to mind. It was fascinating to see which words people had brought in, and how much they wanted to avoid their own, perhaps overused, 'pet' words.  Also interesting to see who rushed to have the widest choice and who waited until the pool had shrunk. I suggested they close their eyes and just grab them.

Anne Welsh's photo of her 10 words and surreal definition on the floor

After ten minutes of writing everyone read back their poems. It's a large group (twenty-three last night), and they have become adept at doing this fast and loud, against the gallery's bad accoustics.

They only had twenty minutes left of the one-and-a-half-hour session to form into small groups for friendly feedback on a poem they'd brought in from the term. Homework was to cut out a line from tonight's poem and place it in an environment – a garden, a wall, a shop, an office etc – and to return to it a few days later to see what happened to it and if that might add to the poem.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Poetry from Art at Tate Modern: Damien Hirst's Anatomy of an Angel

"Every angel is terrifying", Rilke wrote, when he started his Duino Elegies. Damien Hirst's angel is no exception, being a hybrid of a kitsch snow-white Carrara marble beauty and an anatomy-lesson mannequin where the skin is cut away to reveal the internal organs and the skull. We set up our chairs around her for the second week of my Poetry from Art course in the Damien Hirst exhibition.

But before attempting 'angel' poems we went on a lightning tour of a few key exhibits in the show, just us and the full glory of Mother and Child Divided (where I pointed out the furry snout of the calf foetus inside the dissected cow), and the shark in its tank of turquoise
formaldehyde. I steered the group away from the rotting cow's head and insect-o-cutored flies vitrine, since it wasn't looking its prettiest, past the pongy giant ashtray titled Crematorium, back to the end of the galleries, to the room adjacent to the angel. In many ways this room, containing both Black Sun and Black Sheep, is the antithesis of the angel-and-butterfly-mosaics display. Black Sun is a large circular black 'painting' made entirely of stuccoed flies in resin. I think it's one of Hirst's most inventive and evocative pieces, with its references to Beelzebub and black holes or anti-matter.

We read Selima Hill's poem 'See the Flies' and 'Sheep', both full of black humour, to see ways of writing responses that could be short, intense, oblique, personal, or funny. Our last vitrine was The Incomplete Truth, a perfectly preserved dove flying in  formaldehyde, seedpearls or air-bubbles glistening around its claws.

Here, I read out the Spanish/Argentinian poet Rafael Alberti's poem 'Dove', where everything is as reversed as Hirst's harbinger in its poisonous element, and the dove "to travel north she flew south.../ Believing the sea was sky, / That the night was dawn."

Back in the angel room we discussed Rafael Alberti's poems 'The Angel of Numbers' and 'The Good Angel', and recited the list of inspiring poem titles in his collection Sobre los Angeles (Concerning the Angels). Everyone particularly loved 'The Angel of Numbers' for its unexpected juxtaposition of maths with angels. We also read Selima Hill's funny 'Portrait of My Lover as an Angel' and the darker 'Love is Like a Terrifying Angel' from her fabulous collection Gloria: Selected Poems. This brought us back to Rilke, so I read out the first two stanzas of 'The Second Elegy' from The Duino Elegies to get us into writing mode.

They had just twenty minutes to write an angel, fly, dove or a cow poem, perhaps borrowing an approach from one of our examples. Our sessions only last one and a half hours so it's a bit of squeeze but we not only managed to hear everyone read back their excellent poems but also played a quick Hirstian instant surrealism game to close, a variation on the Surrealist Definitions game. I had collected 26 nouns (such as 'insect-o-cutor', 'pharmacy', 'fly') from the exhibition
and printed each one on a strip of paper. These were folded up in a chocolate box, and selected at random. We had to briefly define our noun then tear the definition away from it and hand the definition to the person on the left so they had a different definition for their original noun. It worked wonderfully, and I've asked everyone to bring in their surreal definitions in next week, to use in the Ewa Partum video session, when we will be working with lots of word scraps on paper as she does.

At the end of each session we go upstairs to the Members' Bar for free drinks, and as it was a balmy evening we sat out on the terrace overlooking the Millennium Bridge and St Paul's, listening to the terrifying screeches of two peregrine falcons on the Tate Modern roof.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Poetry from Art at Tate Modern: Damien Hirst's In and Out of Love

Last night was a memorable start to my summer course of Poetry from Art, in Damien Hirst's butterfly room In and Out of Love. The team at Tate Modern went to enormous lengths so that we could be there, as there was high maintenance going on in the rest of the show, including in A Thousand Years, the cow's head and hatching flies vitrine. We shouldn't really have been there but negotations went on (and on) and finally it was decided that we could enter our rooms, Pharmacy, as well as the butterflies, through a 'blue' back route, so the group got to see some secret corridors. We were then escorted directly into the butterfly room, which was so mesmerising that I had to coax everyone to come out the other side to our circle of chairs in Pharmacy.

Twenty-four of us sat assimilating the sensation of having giant tropical butterflies settling on us and tickling our arms. One owl butterfly escaped into Pharmacy with us but luckily he decided to land on me so I walked him back 'home' carefully through the translucent curtain strips.  We divided the group into two halves, so half went straight back in, with notebooks and pens, to free-write, while group B stayed for discussion, then we swapped over.

We talked about Hirst's installation, and discussed three butterfly/moth poems: 'Monarchs' by Sharon Olds, and 'In the Pharmacy' and 'Tapestry Moths' by Peter Redgrove. All three poems combine the image of a moth or butterfly with something unexpected. This course is titled Shaping Poems: Image-Making, so we explored the idea of shaping a poem with two images clashed together. Olds' poem merges the Monarch butterfly with a first sexual encounter and a man with hands "like butcher's hands". Redgrove literally has his moths on a tapestry, so that they fly off, taking details of the scene away on their wings, laying parts of the pictures they've eaten into their eggs. Fragments of the tapestry pictures even end up in bats who eat the moths. In 'In the Pharmacy', a moth "like a travelling label walks/ From bottle to marble bottle with floury wings/ Embracing each and tapping with fernleaf tongue" on pharmaceutical bottles in a chemist's and we thought there was a juxtaposition between the chemistry of medicines and the metamorphosis inside a chrysalis. This was particularly apt because we were surrounded by a wall to wall pharmacy.

I think it's hard to write about butterflies. I remember being told that they were a subject to avoid in poems. But butterflies have supersenses. Morphos (which I've seen flying in the wild in the Venezuelan Amazon), have ears at the base of their metallic blue wings. When they flap lazily in the tropical sunlight they look like lightning flashes, and it's thought that this may be a form of defence, since one of their predators is baby jaguars, who catch them in play, much as my cats catch butterflies for snacks. They flash their iridescent wings to dazzle their prey. Butterflies taste with their feet, and maybe when they were settling on us it was to taste their evening visitors. Some pupae squeak when disturbed, so there could be a world of butterfly language yet to be discovered. They see more colours than we do too.

Our session was shorter than usual because of the winding back route to the rooms so the group had even less time to write, only 10 minutes after the note-taking in situ, but already some butterfly poems are pupating. Next week we will be in another part of the Hirst exhibition. I ask that they come with fresh eyes, try to disregard the hype and criticism about this artist. The show is full of invention. For me, it's a dream, stuffed as it is with curiosities of natural history and echoes of Catholic iconography, which must come from Hirst's childhood Catholicism.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Serbian edition of The Zoo Father with illustrations: Belgrade Poetry Festival

This is the cover of the Serbian edition of The Zoo Father, published by Treci Trg and launched at the Belgrade International Festival of Poetry, May 30 – June 3, which Treci Trg also organised. I was astonished when my translator Milan Dobricic emailed me the images designed by Dragana Nikolic. She seems to have captured the spirit of my book and to have added something extra. There was an exhibition of the cover and the eleven illustrations during the four-day festival.

Apart from the chance to visit Belgrade, which I'd not seen before, this was also an opportunity for me to listen to the other guest poets, and make new discoveries, such as Vladimir Martinovski from Macedonia and Turkish poet Gokcenur C, both so fresh they made me want to write then and there, if the programme hadn't lasted until the early hours each night. Martinovski is not yet translated into English but he should be.

The Zoo Father, which was published in the UK by Seren in 2001, is currently out of stock but about to be reprinted and made available as an e-book. It has also been published in Mexico in a bilingual Spanish/English edition by the publisher El Tucan de Virginia in 2004.

 Illustration for 'The Strait-Jackets'

 'The Strait-Jackets' to read the poem in English click here

 Illustration for 'My Father's Voice'

 Illustration for 'King Vulture Father'

 'King Vulture Father'

 Illustration for 'Trophy'


 Illustration for 'My Octopus Mother'

Illustration for 'My Father's Clothes'