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.