Thursday 19 June 2014

Poetry and Serious Play at Tate Modern: Bill Viola

For two sessions during my Poetry and Serious Play course at Tate Modern we're working with Bill Viola's video installation Tiny Deaths in the Poetry and Dream wing. This piece is exhibited on the occasion of the opening of his permanent commission Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) in St Paul's Cathedral. Here he's interviewed about that commission.

Tiny Deaths is scary. You go into a dark room, you can't see where you're walking, then gradually shadows emerge from three vast screens around you, then one suddenly approaches in a flash of light and explodes back into the dark. I worried that the group might have found this too uncomfortable, but it left them thoughtful and inspired. I brought in poems by Tomas Transtromer, such as 'Prelude', 'Secrets on the Way' and 'Allegro', also about crossing from one threshold to another, as the people seem to do in Tiny Deaths, and I think it helped.

Everyone picked three random lines from Transtromer's poems (from a hat) to incorporate in a poem responding to Viola's art. They could use these as quotes or change them to make them their own, or write a poem after Transtromer.

Next Monday I have asked them to bring the resulting poems to use in a secret exercise – I won't disclose what that will be until then, but all the senses will be used, as they are in the Tiny Deaths room, with its smell of burning charcoal. Then I'm going to share one of my own poems about crossing a threshold – 'What the Water Gave Me (VI)' which has Frida Kahlo in her bath but also at the moment of her death and cremation, and discuss how I wrote it avoiding a literal interpretation of the painting it's based on. We'll finish our Bill Viola fortnight with readings from the two sessions.

It was strange to move to Bill Viola after two weeks in the happy Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition. We had fun with those, played games and made the most of Matisse's summer colours and jazzy titles, which are poems in themselves. If you've visited the exhibition you'll know how crowded it is so imagine us having it to ourselves – for three weeks! We'll end the course there as well, so will return to the astounding creativity and jouissance from a disabled eighty-year-old artist!