Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Ending the year in Binsey

Today a walk in watery sunlight to St Fridewide's well in Binsey. The well, known for its healing powers, has been glorified. Someone has hung ribbons from the surrounding yew trees with strings of white plastic doves, miniature glass panels with holy images, and spruce cones. It looks a bit like Cornelia Parker's Shed. Since 'treacle' originally referred to an antidote against venom (from Greek theriake), the well surely sparked the Dormouse's improbable story in Alice in Wonderland:

'Once upon a time there were three little sisters,' the Dormouse began in a great hurry; 'and their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well—'

'What did they live on?' said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.

'They lived on treacle,' said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.

'They couldn't have done that, you know,' Alice gently remarked; 'they'd have been ill.'

'So they were,' said the Dormouse; 'very ill.'

Alice tried to fancy to herself what such an extraordinary ways of living would be like, but it puzzled her too much, so she went on: 'But why did they live at the bottom of a well?'

....The Dormouse again took a minute or two to think about it, and then said, 'It was a treacle-well.'

'There's no such thing!' Alice was beginning very angrily, but the Hatter and the March Hare went 'Sh! sh!' and the Dormouse sulkily remarked, 'If you can't be civil, you'd better finish the story for yourself.'

'No, please go on!' Alice said very humbly; 'I won't interrupt again. I dare say there may be one.'

'One, indeed!' said the Dormouse indignantly.

Frideswide was an Anglo-Saxon princess, betrothed to the Mercian King Algar. She fled from him and he, pursuing, was struck blind. In her compassion she prayed for the restoration of his vision, curing him with water from the Binsey well. Frideswide dedicated the well to St Margaret of Antioch, who was also a model of chastity.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Ellipsis and Cakes

Ornan Rotem is a designer. He's responsible for the fabulous cahiers series run in conjuction with the American University in Paris. We met a few months ago for tea in Amato's - the best patisserie on Old Compton Street. Magical things happen there.

'Nancy!' he declared, wolfing Amato's airy chocolate mousse, 'I am going to start a poetry series and you will be its editor.'

The series has taken shape during long phone conversations while Ornan was at the printers easing other books off the press. Issued in sets of three, the slim, colourful volumes will offer contemporary translation, fiction, poetry, aphorisms... 'The books will be like the dots in an ellipsis,' Ornan remarked, deciding on the name - 'three dots, a beginning continued ... so small that it is nearly an ... omission.'

A few weeks later we met in the cafe at Foyle's on the Charing Cross Road. I sampled the more-ish vegan walnut and orange loaf. Looking over designs, we decided on a sewn structure rather than a common glue binding. The silky bible paper will have an oriental fold, so that each page is two sheets thick. The type is Ornan's beloved Dante. The slim books will be delicate but the general feel is far from light - the aim is to suggest something precious, worthy of care and consideration.

The writers have been selected for the first set of the series. The forthcoming list includes the aphorisms of the Hebrew writer Rachel Shihor, flash fiction sharp as a knife from Frances Gapper and wonderful poems by Ruth Valentine.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Bookmarks: Infiltrating the Library System

Yesterday I travelled to Purley to interview my old colleague from the antiquarian booktrade, Peter T. Scott, about his bookmark collection. Peter has collected bookmarks for over forty years, obeying the shop injunction to remove ephemera from incoming volumes. He has found army badges, a plethora of bus tickets, and even a rasher of bacon between the pages! While conducting the interview I found myself gazing down the barrel of a Vickers machine gun in Peter's den; bookmarks are not his only passion.

Book Marks: Infiltrating the Library System, is an ongoing, annual international distribution of bookmarks made by book artists, curated by the Centre for Fine Print Research at the University of the West of England. The aim is to get more people to appreciate work in the format of the artist's book.

The bookmarks in past series have been made from a variety of media: old library cards, recycled embroidery, papers, photography, digital print, screenprint, laser-cutting, photocopied, folded, cut and sewn. The bookmarks are collated into sets and sent to participating galleries, bookstores and libraries for free distribution.

My contribution will feature quotes from the interview, which will be available as a podcast for the duration of the project. Below, a taster from Peter's collection.

Christmas Dinner at Kensington

This lunchtime I was trying to maintain a sense of decorum while wearing a pink tissue paper crown, scoffing my first Christmas dinner of the season in the canteen of the RCA. Five stars for the roast potatoes, but none for the Christmas pudding - its suspiciously gelatinous sauce tasted more of lighter fluid than Courvoisier.

The dinner was offered by a group of Communication Art & Design students, who had asked me to give a talk on Book Arts. I took along a swag bag of samples as usual - I'm always interested to see which book will raise most interest for a group. In this case it was Roni Gross' beautiful Hallowe'en keepsake, with its multiple fold-out pages and scattered typography.

It was a good change to see some of the current show, too, including the uncanny work of the illustrator Zoe Taylor.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Sleep With Me

Sleep with me, a new cd single by the singer-songwriter Caroline Trettine, is now available. Each copy of this limited impression comes in a beautiful hand-made case, which I designed and printed earlier this year.

Copies are available from the singer.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

The Type Museum

This week I have been running the Monotype keyboard and caster at The Type Museum, one of the world’s largest collections of material relating to the design and manufacture of type.

It’s been a while since I cast type in a studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and back behind the familiar pistons and wedges of the machine, all shuttling furiously backwards and forwards, I marveled at the complexity of the minds which designed the machine. It is a feat of engineering genius to forge the tiny yet precise metal characters from a bubbling pot of molten lead, tin and antimony.

I also had a chance to advise the designers behind the next Harry Potter movie, who are hoping to replicate a wizard's printing press. This offers possibilities for inventions worthy of William Heath Robinson which will spurt paper in uncontrollable reels and make deafening clanking sounds and emit mysterious clouds of smoke. In fact, not much different from what my caster was up to.

Friday, 7 November 2008

A Magpie Eye

Remember to come to the launch of A Magpie Eye (with all of us reading poems) on 11th November in The Lamb.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008


AM BRUNO, the collective which instigated my work with Paula Naughton, are exhibiting books this month at the Manchester Artists' Book Fair and the Liverpool Artists' Book Fair.

After Light is still on the press, and will be released in early December.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Ann Muir: 'Ebru by the sheet'

Ann Muir was a skilled craftswoman whose marbled papers gained her an international reputation. Ann, who died last month, worked for many years from her studio at St Algar’s Yard, in Frome, Somerset.

Ann's skill in reproducing historical designs and patterns was remarkable. In cases of sympathetic repair work or rebinding, Ann was able to receive a scrap of old paper through the post and return it with two or more full sheets in the same style and colourways, often within a couple of weeks.

As Ann's reputation grew, opportunities for a more imaginative use of her talent flourished; she was increasingly commissioned by fine press printers to design paper for specific titles, each one reflecting a book's theme.

Graham Moss of Incline Press, who spoke about Ann’s work at her funeral at St Michael's, Mere, Wiltshire, on July 30th, described her papers as being ‘ebru by the sheet’ - illustrative, rather than purely decorative, material. 'Ebru is the epitome of marbling skill, pictures created on the surface of water with colours that you can't read until the image is transferred to paper, most usually of ornate and fantastical flowers. Ann expanded these ideas; flowers yes, along with ladybirds, snails and spiders with fantastic webs, even hedgehogs, trees, and amazing red and gold fish in underwater scenes. And as well as the expected size, she made miniature marvels of all these, drawn on the surface of water in an ice cube tray, on the table at home as fit for an evening's entertainment after a day at work.'

In Harvesting Colour: The Year in a Marbler’s Workshop, (Incline Press, 2000), Ann designed patterns to represent the months of the year. These were accompanied by her entertaining tales from St Algar’s Yard. Graham Moss recalled that Ann's 'mastery of tradition allowed her to go beyond the usual constraints, only possible because of her total control of that tradition.'

The bindings on many recent editions of fine press books will be a testament to Ann’s life and work. One satisfied customer, Edward Suzuki, wrote to Ann: "Are you a descendent of William Morris? You have the God's hands. Stunning design, fabulous colour, beautiful colour combination, eternal beauty, very sublime, beyond my poor English. Your joyous creation of beauty is forever."

An appreciation of Ann’s life and work by Barry McKay will appear in the next issue of Parenthesis, the Journal of the Fine Press Book Association

With many thanks to Graham Moss for allowing us to publish extracts from his eulogy, and to Book Patrol where this was originally posted.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Koopman Collection

I've just discovered the Koopman Collection in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (The Netherlands National Library). A digital record of the collection has been launched, allowing the long distance reader to see the books online. Amongst current debate about how best to display valuable manuscripts and printed material online (let alone whether one should do so at all) this site is an exemplary lesson in How To Do It.

There's a poignant story behind the collection. Louis Koopman and Anny Antoine met in The Hague in the 1930s; a shared interest in French literature brought them closer together, and before long they fell in love. Both were collectors of first editions and fine illustrated books. Tragically, Anny was killed in a street accident before their wedding. For the remainder of his long life Louis assembled an impressive collection of artists' books in her memory.

The collection holds artists' books from 1890 to the present day: seminal works by Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay (including Prose du Transiberian), Picasso's illustrations to Les Chants des Morts and Matisse's Apollinaire, and contemporary masters of fine printing such as Francois da Ros and Michael Caine.

There are oddities - such as the manuscript of Le Bracelet by Colette, Meccano ou l'analyse matricielle du langage by Raymond Queneau, illustrated with relief prints of Meccano by Enrico Baj, and even a collection of erotic poems by the ingenius Raymond Radiguet - Jean Cocteau's lover, who died of a surfeit of oysters. The sensational (and anonymous) work Le Livre Blanc by Cocteau can also be found in the collection.

I'm particularly intigued by Valéry's Cahiers. This is one of the few works in the collection which is both written and illustrated by the same person. After a spiritual crisis, Valéry stopped writing poetry. Instead he began to keep a private journal, and over the course of fifty years, he filled 261 copybooks - approximately 30,000 pages. His first notebook was called Ship's Journal, a title which suggests the spiritual voyage on which he was about to embark.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Found Poem No. 3

My friend Natasha Herman, bookbinder and lyricist, found this poem in Amsterdam.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Blackstock Road

I've never really got into hardwear shops, the smell of steel wool sets my teeth on edge. However when I need to get keys cut, or find a power tool, or maybe even a plant pot, 13 amp fuse or a mousetrap, I go to:

Down the hill and just beyond the T-Bird Bar lies one of the most sweetly named streets in London. This street always gives me pause for thought. Is it named after a local debutante called Vivian Comma? Is it longhand for 'Vivian, Close'? Why is Vivian Close? Could it be a warning - or an enticement - or both?

The elegant capitals of the local stationary store are also a lure. I have a fondness for establishments with serendipitous names, such as 'Reeves and Pain' (surely Wreaths and Pain?) the Funeral Directors in Oxford. But 'Fish and Cook' is appealing because the proprietors' names seem well-matched to each other - if not to the world of lead pencils and scotch tape.

As for the real cooks, you will find them at the Happening Bagel Bakery, round the corner, past the 'TAKE COURAGE' beer sign hanging on the pub, but that's another story...

Saturday, 6 September 2008

English Miss in Regent's Park

Ian Hamilton Finlay would have enjoyed the roses in Regent's Park this weekend

Thursday, 21 August 2008

A Magpie Eye

A Magpie Eye is a new anthology edited by Mimi Khalvati, which includes my poems Fireworks and Consequences. I also designed the cover artwork, reflecting a suggestion Mimi made while talking about collage, that a poet needs to have 'a magpie eye' to carry off the most glittering phrases.

The publication will be launched with a reading at The Lamb in London this November.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Nancy is on holiday

('The Wanderer Destroyed' by John Bewick from Tales for Youth, London, J. Crowder for E. Newbery, 1794)

Saturday, 26 July 2008

The Cycle by Neil Bousfield

Neil Bousfield is the only artist I know to produce a wood engraving of a Job Centre. This image expresses the tension between two brothers competing for little benefit, and both the subject and the artist's medium are handled with great delicacy.

The print is one of two hundred in Neil's 'novel in wood engravings', The Cycle, which he showed me recently. The narrative of The Cycle refers to a pattern of social exclusion repeated through the generations in a family who escape their difficult reality through crime and alcoholism.

The Society of Wood Engravers have sponsored Neil through recent printmaking projects. Nonetheless, with the epic project of this book before him, Neil took a very economical attitude to the job, and disciplined himself to produce one engraving every day. The integrity of art and politics calls to mind the book works of Frans Masereel. Neil is now planning a print series which will portray different aspects of the city of London. I can't wait to see it.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Beatrix Potter Drawings at Sotheby's

A maudlin Sotheby’s sale in London yesterday offered not so much as a hiccup of interest in the inscribed Yeats or Auden volumes but there was some unexpected entertainment for those who managed to stick it out to the very end. The last lots included ‘The Rabbit’s Christmas Party’, a series of three recently discovered watercolour drawings by Beatrix Potter. Aside from the usual crowd of holidaying Americans and bored London dealers, some might have been surprised to see at the very back of the room a young girl with golden hair, not unlike Potter’s ‘Lucy’, but dressed in an aquamarine hoodie and lime green wellington boots instead of a smock and kerchief.

The first watercolour in the series, which shows rabbits arriving at a party in a formation that has been compared to Renoir’s Les Parapluies, had a high estimate of £60,000. Despite using her paddle more like a Regency fan to hide behind than a tool to bat down other bidders, the unknown girl saw out several other parties and beat the price up to £100,000 before deciding to withdraw. Bidding in the room was fierce for the second image ‘Dancing to a Piper’ which details debauchery almost unparalleled in any published Potter text, which I dare not reproduce here for fear of offending the internet watchdog.

No doubt many assumed that ‘Lucy’ was miffed, but she entered the fray again with the third print in the series, ‘The Departure’(which featured on the catalogue cover, above). Astutely allowing several dealers in the room to reach the limits of their pockets, she waited until the lot seemed sure to go to a persistent telephone buyer before bidding £101,000 to a general gasp of surprise. With great tenacity and courage, she continued up to £200,000. The pauses to touch base with reality (and a party of relatives) between bids grew longer and the auctioneer Tessa Milne appealed for patience. Finally, the telephone bidder realised he was no match for his opponent: she secured the drawing at a hammer price of £240,000 (£200,000 more than Potter drawings tend to fetch - and said to be the most expensive illustration ever bought at auction) and received an ovation from the room.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

'But No Pips': Lemonade 1834

For light summer reading, I've fallen back on Mrs Beeton. I highly recommend her recipe for lemonade, although I haven't yet followed her charming injunction to add a little sherry. (For the benefit of the modern reader, 1 lb= 450g and 1 quart = 2 pints).

Ingredients: The rind of 2 lemons, the juice of 3 large or 4 small ones, 1 lb of loaf sugar, 1 quart of boiling water.

Mode: Rub some of the sugar, in lumps, on 2 of the lemons until they have imbibed all the oil from them, and put it with the remainder of the sugar into a jug; add the lemon-juice (but no pips), and pour over the whole a quart of boiling water. When the sugar is dissolved, strain the lemonade through a fine sieve or piece of muslin, and, when cool, it will be ready for use. The lemonade will be much improved by having the white of an egg beaten up in it; a little sherry mixed with it, also, makes this beverage much nicer.

Above, a young lemon spotted at Chelsea Physic Garden

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Work in Progress

For the last few weeks I've been collaborating with the artist Paula Naughton. Paula is a photographer who I first met when we were both working at The Center for Book Arts in New York in the early noughties. Our first collaboration was on t-shirts sourced from the garment wholesalers around the Center and printed with wood type. The current project is taking shape around a series of photographs of a derelict country house in Ireland.

My words should illuminate Paula's images, so rather than reiterating what she shows I'm trying to shift my focus sideways to avoid repetition. A collaboration is a little bit like dancing: instead of copying the other person's movements you should listen to the shared music. It helps to have a long-standing knowledge of the person you are working with.

Paula’s strength is an impetuous, sharp intelligence which she combines (unusually) with both a lyrical imagination and practicality. Like many photographers, she’s an illusionist, playing with light. She knows that the appearance of a scene conceals many stories. Her world-view is curious and evocative, suggestible to memory and changes over time.

The sense of loss in Paula’s work is a problem to me - I can only express personal reactions to an emptiness which is usually left for the reader to interpret. Yet I don’t want to clutter this cathedral silence with my cracked voice.

Objects: stained mattresses; bedsprings laced with leaves; old mirrors; a nest of twigs in a chimney. I drafted some prose poems about these artifacts but even the vaguest stories seemed presumptive. I wanted to write not about the domestic scene but my awareness of the images as photographs. I began to look at the sense of stillness in the rooms, the way light intruded on otherwise abandoned rooms and introduced a sense of time passing. Light has always been a metaphor for spiritual awakening. Paula's photographs suggest the arrested moment of discovery, which made me consider how a scientist would have captured such a scene – the masses of related objects, the speed of light, the complexity of fixing time in quantum theory. In the stillness ideas lurked. Einstein believed that equations waited to appear to the right person, like writing in steam on a mirror.

Once Paula suggested slides as a format, my ideas for a scientific text were given greater scope. I imagined photos and words imprisoned between glass like cells under a microscope, ready to be subjected to the viewer's eye. I like the miniature intensity of slides, and the use of a light projection also references the original act of photography. Alongside my own text, equations will offer finite equivalents to the light rays interrupting the abandoned rooms: the Angle of Minimum Deviation of Light, the de Broglie Equation, Newton’s Rings and Young’s Slits.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

When Joshua Reynolds met Marie Claire

Joshua Reynolds, Fifteen Discourses on Art delivered at the Royal Academy, Discourse II. J.M. Dent, London, 1906

Marie Claire, 'Fashion with Heart' Issue, June 2008

Sunday, 22 June 2008

manifesto: The rain in Brick Lane falls

Frank Elliott and I began by commiserating about losing the pub - even though it’s the best pub near Brick Lane and we’ve both been coming here for years. The telly in the corner is tuned to horse racing from Leicester - the last race has cancelled because of rain. We've come here on a miserable bank holiday in order to talk about wikipedia. Frank is a book artist whose latest project is a scholarly approach to filling the voids in online information about artists' books.

We talk about the destruction of 1950s warehouse buildings and flats, not listed but more beautiful than tourist attractions; of invisible counties such as Rutland, which we wouldn’t know how to find on a map; of the divisions between North and South in Britain, and how the border between countries is decided. All these conversations about borderlands and virtual spaces nudge our theme. How do you define an artists’ book? What is it? What is not it?

Frank's work is influenced by polemics and ideals- one of his best bookworks is 'manifesto', photographs of equations chalked on a blackboard after Beuys, charting a changing attitude to his own own art. He is compiling a canon of artists’ books – intended for the contentious information site wikipedia. What do you think of the canon? he asks me. I have to admit I've learnt to be distrustful of anything preceded by a definite article. But, says Frank, the reason you get a canon is that someone believes passionately in something, so they record it or they save it. Lots is lost, but not these things… surely it’s better that people should have some reference material, rather than no information at all?

wikipedia is open to all participants and it is constantly changing. I imagine the lines of text appearing and disappearing like people in a rush hour cityscape, speeded up on TV. It’s democratic, Frank says. Hooray, I think. And anyone can edit your text. Suddenly I see myself less as an honourable worker for global truth, and more as the careful hoarder of my own words. But, Frank says, people can only change it until it’s locked. Some things are so controversial they get locked. Like Bill Gates. I can’t see artists’ books becoming as controversial as Bill Gates but... you never know, there might be a major incident about the position of the apostrophe. In fact, a few weeks later at the Tate symposium entitled The Liquid Page, Emily Artinian gave a demonstration of the page on wikipedia devoted to the artist's book, describing the page a a portal for debate about the form – before dramatically erasing the whole entry, replaing it with the words ‘But what is a book, really?’

Most of the major artists of the twentieth century have made an artist’s book and in some movements, such as Futurism and Fluxus, the book is arguably the most important media. Yet the form is still undervalued in the art world. Frank saw Yves Klein’s newspaper Journal de Dimanche on ebay for only £900, by now the colour of the smoke-tanned prints on the pub walls. Klein’s newspaper, featuring Saut dans le vide (A Leap Into Space), is perhaps a fitting metaphor for the virtual scholar. Klein captioned his leap: ‘To paint space, I owe it to myself to go there, to that very space… without illusions or tricks, not with a plane or a parachute or a rocket ship: [the painter of space] must go there by his own means, with an independent individual force, in a word, he must be capable of levitation.' Klein’s picture is a photomontage – and the original tarpaulin that caught him as he fell has disappeared from the image. wikipedia likewise lacks a visible safety net, and as an academic activity it has to be approached with a wry smile and a sense of irony. This doesn't mean the space shouldn't be used - doubt and judgement are valuable assets in research.

As we step out into the rain and say goodbye I ask Frank whether he’s profiled on wikipedia. But he has spent so long framing himself as an underground artist, that even when you google him he doesn’t show up. He used devious devices to preserve his anonymity, and spelt his name a different way on each publication to shift the focus of catalogue records. ‘I can’t imagine who would write the entry on me.’

Friday, 6 June 2008

Lino Woman

... carving the lino block for the image of a sleeping woman, commissioned for the cover of the new cd 'Sleep with me' by Caroline Trettine

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Topolski Typography

Feliks Topolski's Memoir of the Century lurks under the railway arches near Waterloo. It's a space to kill time between journeys, and a meditation on time - described by the artist as 'freewheeling imaginings... detached from an explanatory habit of mind.' The 600 foot long canvas labyrinth leads the wanderer through an ill-lit record of events of the twentieth century, which seems all the more harrowing on account of the increasing decrepitude of the display, left unfinished by an artist whose style always resisted completion.

It is a place to tread cautiously - the tall murals seemed inclined to keel over. One panel of images bleeds into the next in rough, unresolved brush strokes - Hitler's Germany, Franco's Spain and Mussolini's Italy combine with the London of Dockers and Bohemians. Topolski also used collage and print, and played with the idea of music and moving elements in the installation. Part of the power of the experience is the apparent 'artlessness' of it all: I feel as if I'm a voyeur watching the arguments of oblivious couples through windows lit at night, or seeing right into the mechanics of the artist's mind. The very absence of self-consciousness, an honesty of purpose, makes the historical events depicted feel like part of the present.

Walking past a few days ago I noticed that the museum has closed and the old signage is being replaced with a stylish glazed design. The new entrance, still hidden behind corrugated railings, is evidence of a major conservation programme and rebranding. The original typography was designed by the artist and constructed by Alistair Flint. The ascenders and curves interlocked like the bolts and cogs of a vast futurist machine; there was also something space-age about those convex moon-white spheres. The new sans serif will make the museum look more in keeping with the stylish bars around it, but gestures fashionably towards the past with a chunky grotesque reminiscent of wood type used on political posters. I hope the user-friendly conversion will likewise respect the dark and foreboding atmosphere of the work itself.

Work in Progress

I'm seeing in June at Alembic Press in Oxfordshire, creating new work in the barn studio. This includes the first in a new series of prints composed of text and illustration from 'unwritten stories'. I am using an Arab press to print an arrangement of three-colour polymer plates to which will be added hand-set type.

The rain has not stopped falling since I arrived and I work to its incessant whisper and the trickle of the drains. This is complemented by some Aboriginal music I discovered on the cd player which suggests I am somewhere much more temperate. My particular favourite is the musician and storyteller Mark Atkins:

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Painted Spoken Spoken Live

The digitised version of Painted Spoken is now available on the Poetry Library website. It includes readings of The Batik Block and Cowrie Hunters which I recorded in February while recovering from an overdose of pink champagne.

Listen to the poems here

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Chicago and Wisconsin Book Arts

In Wisconsin I visited the fabulous book arts collections in the Memorial Library of Madison-Wisconsin, the Kohler Art Library and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. All these three institutions have astounding resources for research. Wisconsin, with its connections with Walter Hamady, proprietor of the Perishable Press (who taught at Madison) has a long tradition of firing the imaginations of book artists. I saw wonderful work by artists Pati Scobey and Tracy Honn, as well as catching up on new publications by Janus Press and Mare Blocker.

Pati Scobey’s book, Evening Susurrus,inspired by the Chinese whirlwind example, Wuzhai xiongji fa (‘Divination of Fortune and Calamity’) in the British Library. Whirlwind bindings, with their stacked leaves within the scroll format, were a midway point between the scroll and the development of more practical forms of bookbinding in China. Although they were predominently used for reference works, very few whirlwind bindings survive. An edition of two copies only, I decided to bring one home with me for our shelves.

In Michigan I caught up with Lynne Avadenka, whose new work, Six Poems, publishes translations of Dan Pagis’ work. I also encountered the work of Diane Fine for the first time (below).

Back in New York I met Roni Gross, printer and designer, and heard about the progress of the Vandercookbook, a project incorporating work by artists from all over the States in celebration of the Vandercook Press’ centenary.

Found Poem No. 2

Friday, 21 March 2008

Ed Ruscha at the Gagosian and Art Institute of Chicago

Ed Ruscha's latest paintings were on show at the Gagosian in King's Cross. Andrew and I went along to take a look.

Two weeks later, seemingly on a mission to chase Ed's work around the globe, I saw his retrospective in the Art Institute of Chicago. It was a great show - nearly all his books were there, hanging on wires from the wall, the pages fanning and grey with repeated fingering. A school group was pouring over them, moving from one publication to the next, completely unable to tear themselves away to move on to the rooms of photography or painting. They reveled in the laconic weirdness of the work:

Boy 1: Is there a story?
Boy 2: [Whispers in ear]
Boy 1: Seriously? … In that book-thingy?
Boy 3: [Mumbles] …salad and vinegar…. [Mumbles]
Boy 2: Oil! …Poured all over her body!
Boy 1: Seriously? That’s a little creepy.
Boy 2: Then he kissed her hand.
Boy 1: There's one with cakes too.
Boy 3: Okay, let’s go sit on the bench.
Boy 2: There was a bench?

Monday, 10 March 2008

Philip Larkin: Toad Prince

Philip Larkin loathed performing his work. Introducing one rare recording caught on tape, he announces that it will be both his first and his last. The poet so admired the inexhaustible improvisation skills of the jazz greats whose vinyl output he reviewed for many years (collected in All That Jazz, 1970) - it’s ironic that he resolutely refused to record his own work. Paul Farley, in last week’s broadcast on Radio 4, explained that Larkin lacked as much confidence in his voice as in his looks. Having abandoned his Yorkshire accent for RP early on, when reading he also had to make a great effort to swallow his stutter, which appears in extant recording as a ‘bush-man’s-like click’.

These rare, nervy, formal readings are now supplemented by recently discovered material, recorded in a garage by Larkin with the help of a pal on a reel-to-reel machine. John Weeks, Larkin's drinking companion, also happened to be a skilled sound engineer. It is compelling to hear Larkin reading with the truth and feeling that comes to the relaxed performer. ‘Toad’ is full of mordant pathos, the slightly querulous note of self-righteousness. The recordings could easily justify the praise Larkin once lavished on Pee Wee Russell ('How Am I To Know?', 1966): ‘His timing is perfect, his phrasing oratorical without being melodramatic, his tonal distortions involuntary, and all conceived in that vein of unique, hard-hitting lyricism the Commodore crew made their own.’

Like Larkin, I used to be uneasy with the sound of my own voice. Last week I visited the South Bank Centre to record some poems published in Painted, Spoken for the Poetry Library. Dean ushered me into the Violet Room. For Sigmund Freud, violets, semantically akin to the French ‘violer’, were heavily suggestive danger and intrusion. I suspect The South Bank Centre did not factor this association in when naming the venue to soothe performers' nerves. Things have moved on since the time of the reel-to-reel machine. Freedie the sound engineer was able to cut and splice my readings to erase all the tongue twisters and slips not to mention the noise from trains which shook the room as they rolled over Embankment Bridge. Freddie expressed reservations about this enhanced performance. She felt that the original reading, with its moments of human imperfection rather than air-brushed glamour, had more jive, more soul.

'The Batik Block' and 'Cowrie Hunters' can be seen in Painted Spoken Number 16 and will be available to download from the Poetry Library at www.poetrylibrary.org.uk