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