Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Print Club London

Icebergs in waiting

I've heard some exciting rumblings about happenings at Print Club London and decided it was time to take a look. Any excuse for a trip back to Shacklewell Lane, where I once kept my own press. This part of the east end boasts a remarkably cheap hamam, very convenient for getting rid of stubborn ink stains, not to mention Mangal II, the excellent diner frequented by Gilbert & George, which is just up the road.

Print Club London is dedicated to screenprints. I wanted to experiment with this notoriously quick'n'easy process to see whether it would be suitable for printing the 700 icebergs needed for How To Say 'I Love You' In Greenlandic, since it's unlikely that any relief print will give me the colour saturation or subtlety I am aiming for.

I had a great day in the studios. Compared to letterpress, screenprinting is such a doddle. But it's also more flexible, and less brutally mechanical than I expected - I enjoyed playing around with half-tones and adding to sketches at the transfer stage. The glossy, immediate results seeped through the screen like a dream - no need to crank iron levers or worry about platen pressure. I am a convert, and it is exciting to have discovered a means of realising several small books that I've had on the back-burner for years, because they seemed follies as letterpress projects.

Fred Higginson, Master of Ceremonies, with squeegee

But I won't be printing the icebergs at London Print Club, after all. The devil in me has also been considering using pochoir, but hand-colouring 700 prints would have been madness if the effects could have been achieved equally well with a squeegee. Hand-colouring 700 prints may be madness, anyway, by most people's standards. However, I know now that it's the only way I will be able to evoke the watery, volatile nature of the Arctic skies. It's time I found myself an intern!

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Thursday, 23 December 2010

On the Road to Doverodde

The Doverodde Coast

I'll be at the Doverodde Book Arts Festival in North Jutland from 2nd to 5th June 2011, where I'll be launching How to say 'I love you' in Greenlandic, and displaying earlier publications. The festival promises to be a great way to start the summer, with an exhibition of books on the theme of 'Air', a book cafe, music and workshops. More details nearer the time... Meanwhile, there's a nice series of shots of last year's festival over at the Centre for Fine Print Research Book Arts site.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

The Old Stile Press ... the next ten years

In January I visited Frances and Nicolas McDowall in the beautiful Wye Valley in Wales. And I was unable to leave - for the snow fell deeper and deeper around the house. But as the electricity petered out, and supplies of gin depleted, I was not short of reading-matter. I hunched by the fire, carefully cradling enormous hand-printed folios of works by John Donne, Dylan Thomas and many other writers. The purpose of my visit was to catalogue the prodigious output of the MacDowalls’ Old Stile Press during the last ten years.

The press was founded in 1979, and an earlier bibliography, The Old Stile Press in the Twentieth Century (compiled by Dorothy Harrop), covers publications up to the millennium. Since then the press has continued to issue titles prodigiously: the artist Rigby Graham notes that publications have grown ‘larger and more lavish’ with the passing years. The latest instalment, The Old Stile Press … the next ten years, surveys this recent work. It includes the stunning edition of Arthur Waley’s Chinese Poems with wood block prints by the wonderful Ralph Kiggell; the libretto of Benjamin Britten’s Christmas Sequence with woodcuts by Angela Lemaire, and The Abstract Garden, a ground-breaking collaboration between printer Nicolas McDowall, poet Philip Gross, and wood engraver Peter Reddick.

Frances and Nicolas McDowall are adamant that art is inseparable from life. These books arise from conversations with friends and shared enthusiasms. The wide variety of works collected together in this bibliography demonstrate what can be achieved when books are approached with passion and perhaps, on occasion, slight folly - qualities which are rarely glimpsed within the limits of commercially-driven corporations. Once my fingers had recovered from frostbite, I wrote a brief introduction to the work of the press, which is presented here alongside Nicolas' revelations about each book's genesis, and Frances' feature on the state of book collecting.

Above is the wonderful painting of the Old Stile Press demesne by Clive Hicks-Jenkins which graces the cover. The edition is limited to 1000 copies, and the first 250 come with a jeu d’esprit printed at the press, ‘Welcome to Spring’ by Gavin Douglas (c. 1510) illustrated with a border decoration by Eric Gill. The Old Stile Press … the next ten years is priced at £45 and is available (plus £4 p&p in UK) from the Old Stile Press.

Here’s to the next ten years!

Friday, 12 November 2010

Lochinver Library Swoop

Norman MacCaig was an avowed 'two-fag' poet. I wonder whether The Itinerant Poetry Librarian would have let him smoke even one while browsing her collections. One of the Bye Bye-Laws of the Itinerant Poetry Library states, with characteristic precision, 'No person shall smoke or strike a light in any part of the library set apart for the use of the public without the permission of the library officer, and except in any part thereof which is for the time being used as a smoking den or in which, when it is being used for an educational, cultural or other event under Section 20 of the Act, the Library Authority allows smoking.'

Such are the curious legalities that have been preoccupying the Librarian since 2006, when the Itinerant Poetry Library began 'travelling the world with a library of "lost & forgotten" poetry, installing the library and librarian and archiving the sound, poems and poetry of the cities, peoples and countries we meet'. No wonder the Librarian's back is a little stooped, or that her brow displays more lines than Milton's Paradise Lost.

Last Friday found the Library sharing the premises of the Highland Mobile Library Service, itself somewhat itinerant, but temporarily parked opposite the SPAR on Lochinver's main street. It was raining. As if taking a fashion cue from the gung-ho shooting parties in less metropolitan parts of Assynt, the Librarian's grey pin-stripe suit provided camouflage against the damp tarmac of the parking lot.

The rain-streaked doors slid open silently at my approach with institutional rectitude. I found myself signing up to the Library Bye Bye-Laws, without having read them, and then committing several infringements while perusing the day's display of books on the theme of 'Poetry In Languages That Trip Off The Tongue.' Did I dare to confess to not speaking Hungarian? I did not. Volumes of Modern Russian Poetry lay alongside Ancient Greek Love Poems. The Librarian looked a little flushed, having just delivered an impromptu educational session based on the latter to three young visitors.

While the books laid out to trip the tongues of Lochinver were relatively conventional in format, I was intrigued to read in the Bye Bye-Laws that the Library defines 'book' as 'any and every book, poem, journal, pamphlet, music score, manuscript, picture, print, poet, photograph, engraving, etching, deed, map, chart, plan, cheese sandwich, gramophone record, cassette, compact disc, mini disc, web page, pre-recorded tape, floozies, film and any other article of like nature.' What did the Librarian have in her suitcase?

The Library website details in full the complex and worthy aims behind its existence, the essence of which is 'the idea of poetry as a unique form of human communication, and thus a unique form of knowledge; and the idea of the public library as both recycling-knowledge space and civic space – concepts which we believe can also be used as models for sustainable growth in order to oust ourselves from the current cul de sac that is consumer-led, maximum profit-centred culture.' Hear, hear!

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Norman MacCaig Centenary in Assynt

'And so you and me, David, can sit down and eat a bite, and breathe a bit longer, and take a dram from my bottle. Then we’ll strike for Aucharn…'

...Or Assynt, for the Norman MacCaig Centenary celebrations. Aliens landing in the small coastal town of Lochinver could be forgiven for thinking that Norman MacCaig was Scotland's greatest fisherman, for his fishing exploits have received almost as much media coverage as his poetry this week.

There are many poets in town for the celebrations, and poems by schoolchildren are tacked up in every shop window. Last night we celebrated Remembrance Day with 'Poetry, Peace and a Pint' in The Caberfeidh. Such warmth emanated from the twenty poets and artists around the pub table that it seemed we might indeed 'reconstitute the world' as Adrienne Rich writes in 'The Dream of a Common Language'. Rich's poem was read by a local artist who told how she had scratched the verse on the door of a Dumbarton police cell with her zip while locked up overnight following a peaceful protest against Trident. Other readings including a hearty dose of Edward Thomas, a fragment from Kenneth White's long poem 'Labrador', and Mandy Haggith's beautiful rendition of a poem by Iyad Hayatleh, a Palestinian poet born in a Syrian refugee camp who is now living in Glasgow.

The programme of centenary events, organised by Top Left Corner, culminates tonight with a ceilidh at which Liz Lochead and other poets will be reading. (Norman MacCaig was fond of a ceilidh, and best among the MacCaig Trivia I have gleaned this week is the fact that his favourite tune was The Jig of Slurs.) I'll be presenting a new poem about the Arctic, which feels fitting in this landscape which is so redolent of Greenland. I've been told that Assynt and Greenland were both part of the vast land mass 'Laurentia' which was situated over the south pole in the Cambrian Period, before moving north. Thus the Highlands only met the rest of the British Isles during the great plate tectonic collision of the Caledonian Orogeny around 500 million years ago, and have more geological affinities with the Arctic. Perhaps this explains, not only the environmental synchronicities, but also why I have found several people here who have, they say casually, 'just returned from Greenland', including remarkable photographer Iain Roy.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Raven and The Gull: A Cautionary Tale

Listen. Do you know why the raven is so black, so black, so dull and black in colour? It is all on account of its obstinacy.

It happened in the days when all the birds were arranging their colours and the pattern in their coats. And the raven and the gull happened to meet midway between land and sea, and they agreed to paint each other.

The raven began, and painted the other white, with nice black blotches showing between. The gull thought that very fine indeed, and began to do the same by the raven, painting it a coat exactly like its own.

But then the raven fell into a rage, and declared that the pattern was frightfully ugly, and the gull, offended at all the fuss, simply splashed it black all over.

And now you see why the raven is black.


While reading Lucretius De rerum natura to research my writing on Emma Stibbon, I came across an uncanny echo of this tale in his discourse on colour.

'Since there is no natural connection between particular colours and particular shapes, atoms (if they were not colourless) might equally well be of any colour irrespective of their form. Why then are not their compounds tinted with every shade of colour irrespective of their kind? We should expect on this hypothesis that ravens in flight would often emit a snowy sheen from snowy wings; and that some swans would be black, being composed of black atoms, or would display some other uniform or variegated colour.'

Friday, 27 August 2010

The Way to a Murderer's Mind is Through his Stomach

The first copies of Dinner and a Rose are bound for Dundee, to take part in Poetry Beyond Text: Vision, Text, Cognition, an AHRC-funded project to investigate how readers respond to visual aspects of poetry.

Many of the book artist Sarah Bodman’s works conduct dialogues with existing publications. The Flowers in Hotel Rooms series, for example, documents tributes to the books she has read while travelling. So when Sarah was commissioned by Poetry Beyond Text to create an artist’s book, she decided to work with The Talented Mr Ripley and other novels in the ‘Ripley Quartet’ by Patricia Highsmith. Sarah is intrigued by the culinary theme Highsmith employs to chart Ripley’s greed for the good life: ‘his relish – both for killing and the fine food he would have if he could afford it’. Ripley’s character is defined by the food and drink he consumes, from devil-may-care martinis in Mongibello to penitential hot milk in Rome.

The first of many pages in an early listing of Ripley's meals by Sarah Bodman

Sarah asked me to provide poems for the book, and inspired by Poetry Beyond Text’s interest in experiment, we decided to recreate Highsmith’s menus in a live performance. Sarah prepared a delicious, if macabre, dinner, for twelve guests, with a thirteenth place set for the absent Tom Ripley. Every food mentioned by Highsmith was served, from cold chicken in aspic to sole veronique, and every drink mixed (even Dubonnet!). The dinner lasted over twelve hours. The conversations around the dinner table had unexpected synchronicities with the Ripley novels, including the perils of impersonation, the ambiguity of beauty, death by water and passport forgery. All the night’s conversations were recorded and I used the transcriptions as collage material, creating a series of eighteen poems. Sarah photographed Ripley’s setting for each course; these images and the poems partner each other in the finished work.

Collage proved to be a good choice for writing about food and crime. In its visual form, collage has been associated with food and drink since the Cubists’ still lifes on cafe tabac tables, which are in turn reminiscent of earlier, and more sinister, vanitas paintings.
Marjorie Perloff, in a lively survey of collage and poetry for the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, quotes a caustic review of the Cantos by W.B. Yeats. Yeats claimed that Ezra Pound had ‘not got all the wine into the bowl’. In other words, Pound’s collage technique led to poems as incoherent as the ramblings of an old soak. Perloff writes that ‘collage has been the most important mode for representing a “reality” no longer quite believed in and therefore all the more challenging’.

Above left, ‘Still Life with Checked Tablecloth’ by Juan Gris. On the right, a still life from Dinner and a Rose by Sarah Bodman.

Dinner and a Rose is published in a signed limited edition of 20 copies, priced £100.

Sarah and I are delighted with the project’s success and plan to make the ‘novel dinner’ an annual event. Next year’s book will be The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Accordions and Blue Guitars at The Poetry School

Writers interested in alternative routes to publication are invited to book a place on the workshop I'm teaching at The Poetry School in January.

'Poems in Three Dimensions' is an introduction to book arts for poets. The session will introduce book arts by looking at collaborations between writers and artists in interwar Paris and contemporary American experiments with the book format. We'll investigate the many forms Wallace Stevens' work has taken, including Ode to the Colossal Sun by Dutch artist Helga Kos and David Hockney's The Blue Guitar. During the session writers will also be guided in constructing a unique book of their own, to explore how illustration, typography, and even the book's architecture can underwrite their message.

The Poetry School is notorious for selling out its schedule overnight, and no wonder – this year’s programme offers some fabulous workshops! Luckily, I’ve just bagged a place on Chris McCabe's whistlestop tour of the Black Mountain poets starting with Charles Olson's essay on 'Projective Verse' in February.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

How to say ‘I love you’ in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet

puttaarpoq - to leap from one ice floe to another, to dance

Upernavik Museum is the most northern museum in the world, a lonely building on a rocky island in Arctic Greenland. Last winter I was appointed writer-in-residence there, and - as it seemed incongrouous to be writing in English, a language not spoken by my Inuit neighbours - I began to take lessons in Kalaallisut. I wanted to understand the whispers of the hunters as they waited every morning for seals by breathing holes in the fast-ice, and to be able to respond to the shrieks of the children who tumbled past my door in bright snowsuits and mittens trimmed with polar bear fur.
Kalaallisut is infamous for its many words for different kinds of snow. It expresses the intricate Arctic ecosystem more thoroughly than the writings of any climate scientist. I discovered that the Arctic landscape is always present in the vocabulary. The word puttaarpoq, for example, can mean both ‘to dance’, and ‘to leap from one ice floe to another when trying to cross the sea’. Kalaallisut possesses a smaller alphabet than English, only twelve letters which are densely woven into compound words. Rarely shorter than three syllables, the words express concepts which English tiptoes around with a phrase. I was delighted to find signifiers for 'I am leaning on one elbow' (ikusimmiarpoq) and 'I reel with the delirious joy of being alive' (nuannarpoq). English seems finicky and prim in contrast: little words swimming indecisively this way and that way like minnows trapped in a shallow stream. Each Kalaallisut word is sturdy as a whale: a contradictory water-bound mammal that relies on the ocean depths for sustenance but comes to the surface to breathe. When I read that UNESCO had placed Kalaallisut on its list of endangered world languages, I decided to produce a tribute to its beauty.
How to say ‘I love you’ in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet is an introduction the evocative vocabulary of the far north. From the romantic ‘I love you’ to the pragmatic ‘Make me a hot drink from the old coffee grounds’, a word has been chosen to represent each of the twelve letters of the Kalaallisut language. The thirteenth print in the portfolio, ‘The Last Letter’, is a eulogy for the language.
How to say ‘I love you’ in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet will be hand-printed next spring in an edition of 42 copies. The print portfolio will be housed in a designer binding created by Natasha Herman, of the Red Bone Bindery, Ottawa. To be added to the mailing list for further information on the project and an invitation to the book launch, please email

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Found Poem No. 9: As Thow Art


Found by Dick Morgan
in St Eadburgha's Church, Broadway, Hereford and Worcester,
and kindly contributed by him.

St Eadburgha was the great granddaughter of King Alfred the Great.
Eadburgha achieved sainthood quite effortlessly: as a child
she was offered the choice of jewels or a Bible.
She chose the Bible and dedicated her life to the service of God.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Poet: 0 Wood Engraver: 3

I can't play tennis. I know nothing about football. And even board games are a challenge ... But since competition is in the air, I thought I'd contribute the evidence of being totally trounced at Scrabble by the American wood engraver Abigail Rorer. Not only can Abbie spot a triple word score in seconds - she's also good at maths.

Monday, 5 July 2010

More Other Mother!

If today's literary periodicals were to take on flesh and attend a cocktail party, McSweeney's would be the guest who turned up late, having just performed a gig, still wearing stage costume, drunk and a little sweaty but unabashed. It would offend the host, tell hilarious anecdotes, stick canapés in its pockets and abscond with someone else's partner. The older journals, wearing uniformly crumpled suits, would turn from their intellectual sparring over warm chardonnay to eye the departing maverick enviously.

In the decade since its inception McSweeney's quarterly has proved that an experimental literary journal can be an uproarious success and has raised the benchmark for publishing design. As it approaches its 30th issue, Tate Publishing has released a celebratory volume: Art of McSweeney's. That this volume about an illustrated literary journal (and its associated publishing ventures) is published by Tate is yet another indication that the art of the book is moving from the library into the art gallery.

I've travelled around Britain with Art of McSweeney's in my suitcase for the last three weeks, and can testify that it is very heavy indeed. The cumbersome nature of books is one of the few sensible reasons given for using e-readers, but Dave Eggers, the novelist and McSweeney's founder, rejects 'rumblings about the dire future of the book'. He reasons that a work of fiction takes three or more years to write, and so it is only fair to spend a little time on the production of the book itself, indeed to produce a real book. In the case of McSweeney's publications, this volume included, every minute and every milligram is worthwhile.

Eggers boasts that 'McSweeney's is a small company dedicated to these physical books that purportedly have no future'. In order to 'keep people mindful of the pleasures of the book-as-object' inspiration is drawn from fine book designs of the past. The McSweeney's look is a modernist collage of styles: 1890s boys' school stories; pulp fiction covers of the 1970s; letterpress circus posters; and cigar boxes. Yet their graphic excitement is far from being blinkered by nostalgia; it extends to such everyday objects as rubber bands, hotel bibles and plain-text emails (an early four-page email manifesto from Eggers mooting a 'journal [...]not a "zine"' is reproduced here).

The journal's name arose from 'The Real Timothy McSweeney', an eccentric who believed himself related to Eggers' mother, and from whom 'long, tortured and increasingly incomprehensible letters' fell onto on the family doormat thoughout Eggers' childhood. The letters offered the young Eggers 'the possibility of a long-obscured and very dark secret.'

There has not yet been an issue of McSweeney's bound in a doormat, but almost every other process has been conscripted in an infectious playfulness with the book form. After the typographic austerity of the earliest cover designs, McSweeney's began to explore colour printing and parodies of traditional binding structures. The production process is fetishized and the designer's secret tricks laid bare: 'Foil Stamp … $0.22/French Flaps … $0.29/Die Cut (Special Shape) … $0.36'. It's no surprise that authors such as David Byrne testify that 'it was the design that lured me into the McSweeney's world.'

Before long, art began to take over the journal, with a whole issue devoted to visual themes (including a feature on the poet Robert Lowell's marginal doodles). The innovative short fiction that was McSweeney's trademark met its match in irreverent illustration. The young editors' enthusiastic folly is reminiscent of the Victorian boys' school stories they so admire: a whiff of derring-do hovers over anecdotes of book-launches in Manhattan dim sum restaurants; and that most mundane of publishing duties, a trip to the printer, becomes an adventure to Iceland in a snow storm. (McSweeney's used Oddi Printing in Iceland, before the dollar "did a tremendous belly flop". While the editors are effusive in praise of Oddi, the latter's director,Bjössi Vídisson says, more cautiously, "McSweeney Issue 7 is without doubt the most memorable book I have printed. This is the issue with the rubber band, the loose booklets, and the wraparound hardcover piece.")

For the present volume, the McSweeney's team have restrained themselves from punching holes in the millboard covers, binding it in fake fur, or inserting cds with songs composed in their honour by rock stars. Limited to merely making every page spread a delight, they have risen to the challenge. But they have been allowed one little joke: since much of this book's interior deals with cover designs, the fiction element of the journal is introduced onto the cover, a dust-wrapper which unfolds to form a poster on which short stories perform typographic acrobatics. The book is well illustrated with artwork and page spreads from the journal; captions promise curiosities such as an 'Excerpt of a short story written and designed in the style of a comic book without pictures' or 'A short story by Adrienne Miller that invites the reader to cut its pages along the dotted lines to reveal new narratives'. For the mathematically-inclined, a pie chart summarizes the contents of each issue according to the categories 'Fiction', 'Art' and the mysterious 'Other'. Needless to say, there's an awful lot of 'Other'.

Monday, 31 May 2010

The Gourmet Mr Ripley

Tom made a batch of martinis, and arranged the glasses and a plate of canapes on a tray in the living-room. When he heard the door-knocker, he went to the door and swung it open.

This weekend the book artist Sarah Bodman served up a macabre feast at her Bristol home: a seven-hour dinner party composed of every meal that 'The Talented Mr Ripley' consumes in between more nefarious activities in the novels written by Patricia Highsmith. The meal initiates a collaboration between Sarah and I on Dinner and a Rose, a book commissioned by Poetry Beyond Text.

Tom slid one leg over a stool and faced the door challengingly, yet with a flagrant casualness.
'Gin and tonic, please,' he said to the barman.

The night began with gin and tonics, the drink Ripley orders in the Manhattan bar Raoul's where he meets Herbert Greenleaf - a billionaire whose son he will later murder in the small Italian village of Mongibello, before embezzling his fortune. A whole cold chicken in aspic lay on the table alongside a bowl of celeri remoulade. Guests sipped tentatively at a lobster bisque, and those who had read the novels may well have wondered what devious plots were simmering on the stove in the next room.

Perhaps canelloni to begin with, creamy sauce over delicate pasta, and a good valpolicella to sip while he dreamed about his future and planned where he went from here ...

We enjoyed a bottle of Margaux with lamb chops and one guest nobly managed a sip of Dubonnet. Then beef consomme, followed by calves' liver and artichokes. Costoletta di vitello, much as it must have tasted from a small Mongibello cafe. Sole veronique. Cold roast beef. Crab sandwiches. Steak with ragout and whiskies.

Tom regretted very much that the main dish was ... a fabulously expensive item on the Italian market.

Sated, we approached the final course: chocolate mousse, strawberries soaked in liqueurs and shortbread galettes, accompanied by champagne and coffees, as fine as if prepared by Mme Annette, the housekeeper at Ripley's French estate, Belle Ombre. With a Bach harpsichord solo playing in the next room, I half-expected to hear the music abruptly stop and see Ripley wander in to mix a last martini.

By midnight we felt much as Ripley had done, sitting in a deckchair on a cruise ship bound for Europe at the start of his adventures, 'fortified morally by the luxurious surroundings and inwardly by the abundance of well-prepared food'. In advance of the publication, Sarah has put together this film of the event.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Word and Warp

My father's wedding gift to my mother was a wooden floor loom, not unlike the Great Bed of Ware in its dimensions. The gift calls to mind another patient wife, Penelope, who in her husband's absence was instructed by her son Telemachus to "Go within the house and busy yourself with your daily duties, your loom, your distaff, and the ordering of your servants; for speech is man's matter."

I spent my childhood playing between wooden treadles, helping to thread heddles and wind wool around shuttle cones. It's no co-incidence that one of my mother's favourite poems is Yeats' romantic fabrication:

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet...

Now, each time I hear my mother talk about her process – keeping the tension of each line consistent, the need for restraint in the use of colour – I'm reminded of the old but apt comparison of weaving and writing.

So I was intrigued to find that almost everyone I met in the Netherlands last week was discussing Irma Boom, the great Dutch book designer, whose work Weaving as Metaphor, a book about the weaver and artist Sheila Hicks, won the Leipzig Book Fair’s prestigious designation of the “most beautiful book in the world.”

Boom's trademark tonal austerity is always enlivened by radical play on book structure: perforated slipcases, dovetailed fore-edges, distressed deckles. The design for Weaving as Metaphor is surprising yet inviting. A brick of a book, its pure white boards are subtley textured by a blind-embossed fabric motif, and the paper at the head is rough as a snipped selvedge. Inside, justified lines of type run bravely to the extreme edges of the page, as in well-woven cloth.

Sheila Hicks' work is very different to my mother's. Hicks approaches fabric like an existential argument; my mother was formerly a landscape painter, and weaving allows her to explore colour and line in the abstract. While a horizontal weft may suggest a landscape, it is one built up like geological strata, rather than rolling hills freely expressed with brushstrokes. Of course, the boustrophedon work of the shuttle also suggests the accumulation of lines of text, sewing a narrative in time rather than space, like an epic poem.

But the poetry in my mother's work is quietly spoken; two recent projects began in graveyards. The first draws on the landscape seen from the church in the hamlet of Milbourne, Northumberland, where my grandfather is buried: sheep fields bordered by cow-parsely and hawthorn, green spring grass tempered by dark yews. The last cloth to come off the loom was more equivocal, rust red and yellow, inspired by shepherds' gravestones at a small ruined chapel that we discovered last summer near Hermitage Castle in the Scottish Borders. I admire her bravery in evoking through wool alone these carved letter forms, eroded by weather and lichen, unravelling the stories on the stones.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Sardines sur la Tyne

I always like to encourage the positive representation of sardines in public life, so I was delighted to find them honoured, albeit canned, on The Blacksmith's Needle, a contemporary sculpture opposite the Baltic on Newcastle's Quayside. The Blacksmith's Needle is a large cone of forged steel, with a maritime bell hanging within (the bell was rung - probably for the last time - when the work was inaugurated in 1997 by the percussionist Evelyn Glennie).

The Needle is divided into six sections, intended to represent the six senses, each designed by a different blacksmith from the British Artist Blacksmiths' Association. Sardines, it goes without saying, satisfy all five human senses. But when Stephen Lunn, from The Forge at Red Row in Northumberland, pulled the short straw for the elusive sixth sense, he admitted, “It was hard work to represent the sixth sense in ironwork.” He finally decided on “beach stones and pebbles, because just as they are worn down by the sea, I wear down metal into the shape I want it to be.”

"Mermaids on toast?"

Monday, 10 May 2010

Not the last post ...

... but the one hundredth. In the last 100 posts I've encountered empty museums in the Arctic, tried to find the shape of time, faked Nevelsons in West London and snoozed in the Lit & Phil Library. What next?

I'm celebrating my centennial post with the news that the British Library have requested permission to add the blog to their digital archive of UK websites that are 'considered to be of long term research value'. In case one gets big-headed about such an honour, the curator adds that some of the sites selected may be considered 'trivial' and 'basic', but are nevertheless chosen for being representative of particular interests in society. There's no grand plan behind this blog and I'm sure it doesn't represent any broader interests than my own very peculiar ones. But I've always liked talking to myself ...

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Messing about with words

Regular visitors to this blog will have noticed a sharp decline in posts since I returned from Upernavik. It's time to make my excuses.

If only I could plead that I'd been languishing in the American Bar at The Savoy! I've just been ploughing through a phenomenal amount of work. Not just the heavy labour of re-reading Highsmith's Ripley novels. Not just rearranging stray commas in my sestinas or talking about climate change here and there. There are other, covert projects afoot, of which more anon. But yesterday evening I allowed myself out to go to a poetry reading at Greenwich Yacht Club organised by Fiona Moore. Even if I hadn't been under house arrest for the last month I'd have enjoyed the apocalyptic post-election sunset over the river. The glass building sat like an eyrie above the boatyard with Swallows & Amazons pennants draped from its rafters. It was like sitting inside Ian Hamilton Finlay's head. Bits of boat clinked and water lapped, providing an obliging soundscape for writing that ranged from Conradian meditations on the river to ballads echoing Ratty's view that "There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."

Those of you who found the Arctic posts of interest are invited to come and see me perform new poems at Sketch Gallery in Conduit Street, London, on 22nd May (2-4pm). Then I'm setting off by bus to the Netherlands, to paint Amsterdam a typewriter-ribbon shade of red with the artist Lynne Avadenka, who will be visiting from Detroit (if the volcano behaves itself), and to talk books with binder and writer Anik See and friends at the Meermanno Museum (Museum of the Book) in The Hague. Sometimes work is not so bad ...

Meanwhile, even death doesn't stop some people blogging conscientiously. The Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge has had the wonderful idea of putting Scott's Antarctic journals online, so that day by day you can follow his perilous journey to the pole.

Monday, 3 May 2010

The Bow Wow Shop

You can read my essay on poetry and the Arctic environment - 'No More Words for Snow'- in the latest issue of the online poetry journal, The Bow Wow Shop.

In Greenland the dogs say "Vaa Vaa Vaa" not "Bow Wow", but the journal is determined not to alienate its British canine readership by changing its name. Next up, I'll be writing a short feature for Huskies Today.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Last Suppers

Alain Delon as Tom Ripley in Purple Noon (1960).

Sarah Bodman, senior research fellow at the Centre for Fine Print Research in Bristol, has invited me to collaborate on a book for the project Poetry Beyond Text: Vision, Text and Cognition, which is commissioning new work as part of an exploration into how readers respond to visual aspects of poetry.

Sarah has long been an aficionado of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley quartet, which takes 'the talented Mr Ripley' from being a small time fraudster in New York to millionaire murderer in the beauty spots of Europe. Sarah is intrigued by the meals Ripley consumes, which are documented in detail by Highsmith as a sign of his growing sophistication. Ripley's victims stand in the ways of his appetite for the good life, epitomised by chicken in aspic, celeri remoulade and sole veronique.

My texts, variations on Highsmith's work, will accompany Sarah's photos in a limited edition artist's book. Meanwhile, we will generate some new responses to the novel by 'curating' a dinner party at which all the meals and liqueurs mentioned in the book will be served.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Spring is Everywhere

As I walked on Hampstead Heath this evening, listening to church bells pealing across London, I tried to understand the character of this temperate zone. Here joy comes, not from surviving a struggle, but from delight in subtler aspects of experience. The weather is patient. You can walk on the land. You can't walk on the water. The rivers aren't covered with icy skins. But the people are. Even so, every conversation can be understood, and this obligatory eavesdropping is a form of torture.

Although England has had a harsh winter, spring has arrived. The earth is bursting with baroque decoration. Haphazard living things distract the eye: people; trees; birdsong. Branches scribble confusing syllabics over the skyline. Blackthorn blossom and glistening horse chestnut buds blackmail the viewer into admiration. It is disgustingly beautiful, impossibly transient. Having seen the desperate state of the environment in the Arctic, it's clear to me that we have little time left to enjoy this balmy and benevolent climate.

I'm haunted by my experiences after leaving Upernavik Museum. I travelled down the coast to Ilulissat, where I'd arranged to stay with a hunter, Ole, and his family, in order to gain a better understanding of their way of life. Ole has built a turf hut where the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier calves into the sea (above). Here I heard stories of the effects of climate change that were more gruesome than any Inuit legend. Sermeq Kujalleq has been appointed a UNESCO world heritage site, but it seems futile to draw boundaries around beauty spots, which no pollutant respects.

Climate change is causing great economic hardship among the people in Greenland. As the ice diminishes, small communities are trapped without food or clothing. Hunters must shoot and eat their dogs as they cannot afford to feed either the dogs or themselves. The dogs that survive grow dangerous with cabin fever. Women are advised not to breast-feed their children, as the toxins in the sea pass from any fish or seal that they consume into their milk.

In the evenings I sat by the fire and drank tea brewed from heathery twigs collected from the hillsides in the summer, tea that smelt of mint and thyme. We talked about what the ice might do tomorrow, and joked at each other's expense, and exchanged new words in our different languages. Yet beneath the redoubtable Greenlandic sense of humour there was no evading the tragedy of this situation, the slow implosion of a culture. Ole told deprecating stories, which emphasised how his life differed from that of his ancestors. One of his most persistent complaints was the loss of freedom: the freedom to follow a traditional way of life, to earn a decent livelihood. This freedom, or 'liberty' as it is called in Article 3 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has been insidiously eaten into as a consequence of European lifestyles. Our culpability, and our responsibility for change, has not gone unnoticed. One night, Ole threw his hands up and said to me: 'You must tell the people they must plant trees, and then the ice will not melt, and then there will be fish and seals and polar bears as before and we can live as we only know how to do.' I felt impossibly overwhelmed. As if I could reverse all the deeply engrained habits of humanity ... or even overcome my own giddy greed for the subtle delights of spring.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Left behind

A clause in my contract reads 'Visual artists must leave a work behind in the Museum but writers are not required to do so.'

It's liberating to be excused from producing any work during this residency. However, it seems strange that I should be exempted on account of working with language, when Greenlandic has proved such a rich resource to me. (As well as poems suggested by its rich vocabulary, an 'ABD' artist's book is now in the works and a word-a-day short story is being aired on Facebook.)

So I decided that I would break my contract. Following those who believe that we should leave nothing behind but our footsteps, I'm leaving a linguistic trace. I have excised a word from my own language, which I will never be able to use again. I aired it for the last time to an iceberg this morning, and the iceberg shone impassively on, with the glorious contempt for all languages common to its kind.

Fearing the iceberg was not the best custodian, I slipped a small manifestation of my loss between the pages of the old Greenlandic Dictionary in the Museum. I suspect it will remain unread for years. Many Greenlandic words (particularly those associated with Christianity and modern life) are loan words from Danish, and so it is a language that is used to welcoming newcomers.

And what word did I chose? Well, of course, I can't say. It's a small word upon which the future depends. As it's already been done to death by one poet, I don't think I'll suffer by its absence - although I may have to learn to bite my tongue.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Susan Richardson: Creatures of the Intertidal Zone

The Welsh poet Susan Richardson is the latest to be featured in London/Nuuk, a blog which charts creative responses to the Polar regions.
Richardson has travelled through almost every country with Arctic territories, which puts me to shame for my sedentary days in a log cabin. You can read her evocative descriptions of the landscapes and a wonderful poem sequence about the early medieval traveller Gudrid the Rare here.