How I Write… Gallery poems in Southampton

During my May visit to Southampton, my writing residency mentor Matt West, with his clear-sightedness, suggested an idea for this project blog that hadn’t occurred to me but which made perfect sense. He suggested I write an explanation of the process I’m using to make the poems that are the writing outcomes of my residency.

I’ve spent time arriving at the process I’m using to make these poems. It’s become ingrained, having already structured a set of poems (Art Talk Notes) which I began two years ago. I hope that laying out my method might, as Matt mused it would, offer a helpful way in to the poems for readers/listeners.

The series I’m writing for John Hansard Gallery is provisionally called Gallery Notes. The reason ‘notes’ is in the title of this and my earlier series, is because my first step for each poem is to choose an event at the gallery and write notes during it. When I’m making the notes I mostly write continuously, allowing whatever I’m thinking about – whether it’s things people are saying, or things occurring by association in my head ­– to stream onto the page, at the speed I can write at. My objective while doing this is to not worry about the appropriateness or relevance of what I write down. I try to get material down on paper, and there’s a hope that I can use my embodied presence – a thinking body in the space – to make myself into a recorder, one that acknowledges its subjectiveness, of the event. So this stage of writing can be a splurge. It usually is. I will edit these notes at the next part of the process.

Here’s an example of one of the pages of initial notes, shown exactly as I took them during Sampler Week at the Gallery in February 2018:

Next, I type the notes up. I use the text contained on one written notebook page as the basis for one stanza in the resultant poem. This might seem arbitrary, but actually, I notice that there is a sense in which the page of a notebook works for me like a frame of an image: I squeeze thoughts within its boundaries. But when breaks happen because the limitations of page size means a subject runs over to the next, I find it formally enjoyable to play with how much I break or distort the original sense around those breaks – a bit like when you have add one bit of clay to another, and the new whole retains a sense of possible fracture around the join.

Here’s the previously shown page of notes as it appears in the final poem version:

Generally, as here, the stanzas shorten down from the amount of text available on that initial notebook page. I smooth down the wilder of my associations and leaps as I go, threading a line of thought through the original text that’s now more concerned with how I might examine the underlying interest/pertinence in what I was getting down. At this stage I think about the overall scope of the Gallery Notes poems I’m writing for John Hansard Gallery and I find it exciting how the text can shift and shudder into place during these edits, joining up to make a sense that I wasn’t conscious of when I was doing the initial flow of note-taking.

Finally, I title the individual poems with the name of the origin occasion, its location and date, so that the final poem signals back to the place and time from which it was taken.

 

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Poole filmpoems and Southampton plans advance

I got back late last night from my 2nd residency visit to the South coast, this time fitting in a visit to Poole for a film poem course over the weekend before more time in Southampton with the John Hansard Gallery folk.

The film poem course was put on by ArtfulScribe, who are organising my residency, and was tied in to a film poem competition that’s part of Light Up Poole. It was taught by the patient and encouraging duo of Helen Dewberry and Chaucer Cameron. They share a joint practice as film poets and brought many examples of the genre to inspire us before giving us time to work on our own projects. I felt I had a double head on to think with as I’m conscious that I’ll be leading workshops and events as part of my residency and was happy to learn from their deft way of reading the dynamics of a group and making sure everyone was heard and looked after. It was a pretty diverse group! I met some interesting poets from further across the region and I hope I will have the chance to spend more time with them. Poole itself won me over with its piratey charm – so many olde world dockside pubs that I felt I was in a film set from something swashbuckling. Recommended.

This visit to Southampton was characterised by a closening of relationships with the John Hansard team. I’m blown away by their trust and the access that they’re generously giving me to the workings of their organisation at a very busy time. We had some interesting discussions about organisational voice in relation to my voice as a writer in residence – I think we’re all getting used to the unusual dynamic of having an ear in the room whose job is to document in some way. We laughed at parallels with sensationalist journalism or fly-on-the-wall documentaries, but I have a clear sense this is a very different remit and I’m looking forward to getting on with more writing so that we can all see how this time might be captured in it in some broad, outward-looking way. It’s possible to overthink things, so I think ploughing on is the way forward, then reviewing how it’s turning out.

The project I pitched is called Art Talk Notes, but since the circumstances I’ve found to write-in so far have been more in the administrative context, in the lead-up to other events, I wonder if I’ll change the name for this iteration of it. Art Notes might be a more accurate title – I noticed Woodrow, the John Hansard Gallery Director using that, and he might be instinctively one step ahead of me there. Or maybe Gallery notes? I’ll be thinking about it.

I’ve also been getting on with meeting partners I’ll be working with to deliver events and the aformentioned workshops. Stair/Slide/Space are a collective who are delivering something called a Conversation Station during a pop-up week at the Gallery’s new building in February, and we’re planning to team-up for the first public sharing of work from my residency, so there was a meeting with them and the John Hansard Gallery team. I also caught up with Asten Holmes-Elliott. They work with Breakout Youth, an LGBT youth organisation in the city, and we’re hoping to run a writing workshop together around identity and concealment during the Gerhard Richter exhibition that the Gallery is opening in May.

I’m going to be learning a lot from these generous people over the coming months. It’s great to feel the plans firming up.

Here’s the film I made in the film poem workshop:

 

 

It uses a similar format to previous Art Talk Notes films I’ve made – footage of audience coming and going at a Gallery accompanied by loosely connected text – but as I was on a course, I let myself play more with the fiddly possibilities of editing. Not sure how this sits in relation to the overall project, but it was fun to do and has made me feel even keener to keep a film element to what I’m doing in Southampton having learned some new tricks.

Start in Southampton

with Markus Bergström’s Guildhall Pavillion. A John Hansard Gallery commission for Summer in the Square (2017)

Starting from about now, I have a temporary alias as ArtfulScribe‘s Writer-In-Residence at John Hansard Gallery in Southampton. There are many reasons why I’m excited to have swung my trajectory in line with this orbiting opportunity (I’m thinking of spacecraft landing on comets here for some reason). Here are a few of them:

I now have the prospect of having a decent chunk of writing time built into my year. This flexibly organisable residency involves me spending up to a month in Southampton split across the year, so can be scheduled around an existing full-time job.

From my initial meetings with the team administering the opportunity I know it’s going to be a genuinely developmental ‘professional development’. I’ve already felt significantly and usefully nudged by my conversations with the Matt West, who runs ArtfulScribe and who has an obvious grasp of ways to engage disparate audiences. I’m looking forward to spending time with poet and academic Sarah Hayden and her colleagues in the English Department at the University of Southampton; the chance to share work in an academic forum as well as a public one means I will be learning on at least two fronts.

This may be a silly reason, but I’m enjoying reopening a connection with the area where I spent my first year after leaving school, as a choral scholar in the Winchester Cathedral Choir. It was enjoyably trippy heading up the road to Evensong at the Cathedral after my interview last year, and trying to connect the person I’ve become in the intervening 20 years with resurfacing memories of those early adult days will be an interesting puzzle.

It’s a chance to tie together my dominant activities – being a poet and working in a visual arts organisation – that in the past have felt like they might be in tension, but increasingly feed content to each other through projects that benefit from a strong dual understanding of writing and art practice. The programme at John Hansard Gallery during the time I am writing there includes a juicy exhibition of work by Gerhard Richter which I’m looking especially forward to thinking and looking along with.

The residency comes with John Hansard’s and ArtfulScribe’s great networks and offers the chance to develop the filmpoem part of my practice. I was successful in pitching an iteration of my Art Talk Notes series for the residency, and have been keen to make more films to accompany these poems from art talks since showing some prototypes early in 2017 at Market Gallery in Glasgow. It will be great to have time, resources and impetus to put that project more fully together in this residency’s context.

 

In terms of challenges, I think I will be pushed into responding to new contexts with my writing, and I hope I will be open enough to learn from encounters I (and the things I write) will have with lots of different people. And it will be quite epic leaping up and down the country but mainly, I think, energising. The chance to experience an art gallery from the other side of the artist/organisation relationship is also already proving interesting and pleasurable. The team at JHG are excited about their move to a new building – the context for the residency – and are being generous about sharing access to their work at a pivotal time so that I can share some of that experience with them, and in turn with others.

Here’s the first bit of writing I’ve done in situ. A couple of blocks of text from my December 2017 visit. More soon.

 

 

Half an hour of writing at John Hansard Gallery

(that turned into 7 minutes because I got distracted with whether my camera was filming the shot I wanted)

Highfield Campus, University of Southampton, Tuesday 19 December 2017.

 

The time now is 97% I am writing in the old meeting room at John Hansard Gallery

surrounded by articles related to the transition programme

a space that has been preparing for some time to become another space

hoods in front of me and on the wall a planner chart

a gant chart beginning going gone but not yet in the writing time

I have been here all day thinking about with the team

warmly in the cold the move to new studio and the programme I think

will be a complex good and I am adjacent playing, enjoying the role

 

So far, this has been an experiment, in life and ten years

in the planning, so that’s a public public good and a cousin

in Bransgore to stay with and his dogs and news family

The new gathering around the John Hansard Gallery linking

to them to Matt, to Sarah by sconeference call in Ireland

in the CMCW in Mettricks in parks and sculpted parkland

before a move, we all make the movements for it

piling papers in the corners under chirpy named sheets

and there are memories of art works and not yet in the walls

the latex Bergvall balloon, the customised counted on days