Friday 22 March 2013

Transformations: Poetry from Art at Tate Modern, Pino Pascali's Trap

When Pino Pascali exhibited Trap at gallery L'Attico in Rome in 1968 he had himself photographed standing inside it for the catalogue. He also included photos of his pet chimpanzee and of himself costumed in raffia like a tribesman. Trap, which evokes rope traps used to hunt animals in the jungle, is made of the braided steel wool found in Brillo pads. He also exhibited Ponte, a ropelike bridge such as would be hung between tree canopies. Pascali was one of the Arte Povera group who made sculptures from cheap household materials but he died at the age of 33 from a motocycle accident, which somehow made this man-sized trap more poignant.

We sat around it
and read two poems which have entrapment both in their theme and forms: 'The Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford' by James Fenton and 'Net' by Robin Robertson. Both are in free verse but written for the eye so that the shape suggests traps or nets. I've always loved Fenton's Pitt-Rivers Museum poem but it was enlightening to read it in the context of Trap and to hear the group's comments.

he form, despite being free, is structured so that after meandering through an inventory of curiosities in the museum cases, such as "a mask of Saagga, the Devil Doctor" and "earth from the grave of a man / Killed by a tiger and a woman who died / In childbirth", it lures the reader towards the finale of the lonely child wandering into the forbidden woods of his father's estate "MEN-TRAPS AND SPRING-GUNS ARE SET ON THESE PREMISES.' / For his father had protected his good estate." Each stanza begins with a one or two-word line like a door or lid to each room or cabinet of 9 more, longer, lines, containers of 'primitive' artefacts collected in empire times. The visitor to the museum thus enters both history and the forbidden woods of his or her psyche.

Robin Robertson's 'Net' has a narrower focus. A woman loosens her white silk scarf in a restaurant and her companion is drawn back "to another ocean, / another ravishing. // That moment, / at twilight, / when a cloud / of starlings / slip-drags...". The poem, with its very short lines, drifts down the page in billows of indented skeins, until "I found myself / caught, / felt myself / being pulled in." We see a double image of the ensnaring woman and the cloud of starlings "spilling the net of itself".

The task was to write a poem loosely responding to Pascali's Trap, which includes a domestic element and something of the wild, and also to consider how the form of the poem might evoke the theme.

The remainder of the session was spent in feedback workshops. For this we divided into small groups of threes or fours so that each poet would receive a short burst of intensive feedback on one poem in progress. Next week will be our last, in the Lichtenstein exhibition, with the explosions of the 'War and Romance' room, and will culminate in a celebration readaround for everyone to share a poem from the course, to perform it and bring in copies for us all. My next Tate Modern course will be in the autumn.


Friday 15 March 2013

Transformations: Poetry from Art at Tate Modern, Marc Camille Chaimowicz

Still from Orphée by Jean Cocteau

For our second session in A Bigger Splash we worked with Marc Camille Chaimowicz's homage to Jean Cocteau. This non-literal reconstruction of Cocteau's bedroom features a crumpled bed, a two-way staircase, a mirror, a rocking-horse and wallpaper designed by Chaimowicz. There is no attempt at historical accuracy, though the artist did research the Cocteau museum at Menton. The installation resembles a version rather than a translation of Cocteau's imagination, though the group noted that the colour scheme was more Chaimowicz than Cocteau, pastels rather than black and white Gothic fairytale.

Still from La Belle et la Bête by Jean Cocteau
When I was doing my BA sculpture degree my thesis in complementary studies was on Cocteau's films as poetry, so this session was full of transformations for me: film as poetry, installation as poetry, film and poetry as art. We started by finding one object in the room to speed-write about. Then I handed out lines from the screenplays of La Belle et la Bête and Orphée, lines such as "Look at yourself in a mirror all your life, and you'll see death at work, like bees in a hive of glass" from a passage-through-the-mercury-mirror scene in Orphée, and "I am the door to your room" and "it is night in my world, but it is morning in yours" from La Belle et la Bête. These magical films served as guides to our work, as I'd asked everyone to watch clips from them on You Tube as homework the previous week and some even bought DVDs of the whole films

Armed with one line from each film (selected from my handouts) and a random line from Cocteau's very surreal poems, which they picked from a French chocolate box I handed around, the task was to write a poem responding to Chaimowicz's installation, and to incorporate these three lines somewhere in the poem. I gave licence to be as free as they wished in their interpretations of the art, in the same spirit as Chaimowicz, who did not worry about being slavishly literal in his rendering of Cocteau's fantasy bedroom. I advised them to focus on one object, make their theme Cocteau if they wished, or simply write about a room of their own. In fact the poems that addressed Cocteau directly worked well, as did the more personal responses. Quite a few used their random Cocteau poem-lines as their last lines and that seemed to supply a surprise element.

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Transformations: Poetry from Art at Tate Modern: Ibrahim El-Salahi

Our second session of Transformations: Poetry from Art was in the Poetry and Dream galleries, working with the Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi's painting Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I.  I'd been looking forward to this, despite having a heavy cold and feeling distinctly unwell last night, the sheer pleasure of looking at this painting carried me through. The title alone sets the imagination going. 

Instead of our usual initial speed-writing I asked everyone to slow-write, to really concentrate and look. What could they see in the shadows, the lights? They should make a careful note of this but spend a few minutes just looking and listening, because it's the sounds of childhood dreams.  When they sat back down in our circle I asked each person to pair up with their neighbour and exchange impressions then make a note of their neighbour's observations. Some saw horses, fish, a whale, skeletons! Then we discussed some background: how El-Salahi had painted this on returning to his homeland after studying at the Slade. We studied three poems which attempt to capture the nature of childhood.

Kim Moore's 'Give Me A Childhood', published in the inaugural issue of POEM magazine, is a magical search for what it is to have a child's imagination and live as owls do "on silent wings. I will wear my heart / as a face." The owl-soul and the journey by car are as shadowy and haunting as El-Salahi's painting. We also read Mark Strand's 'Where are the waters of childhood?' which also embarks on a magical journey. Through a series of imperatives a life is unreeled back to a time before birth: "Now you invent the boat of your flesh and set it upon the waters /... Now you look down. The waters of childhood are there." Our last 'childhood' poem was 'The Small Boy and the Mouse' by DH Maitreyabandhu, which won the 2009 Keats-Shelley prize for its evocation of the power of a child's imagination.

To write a poem everyone had to include an observation by their neighbour about the painting, as well as something from their own notes and write a poem on the childhood theme. They could use the imperative form as Mark Strand had, or make a journey, or involve an animal, and listen to the sounds of childhood as well as its sights.

Homework was to get acquainted with Jean Cocteau's films Beauty and the Beast and Orpheus for next week's sesssion in Marc Camille Chaimowicz's Jean Cocteau room in A Bigger Splash. There are snips from both on You Tube.