Revisiting Emily Dickinson for Summerhall, Halloween 2016

main-info-poster

I was cautious at first when I was asked to revisit my Emily Dickinson Subject Index performance for a Halloween themed night. After my last round of reading her poems, and in some ways echoing a possible physical presence of her, I was asked to take part in a Dead Poets Slam as Emily Dickinson. I said no to that. I didn’t want my service to her work to slip into campy take-offs.

But on looking into it, The Golden Hour’s Bone Digger event was a different case. Although there were definitely going to be some campy elements to this Halloween night, each participant’s piece was being given the space to find its own tone, and the curation by Ryan van Winkle was generous, but pretty focused. The first part of the night was a pretty meaty set of poetry installations involving a clutch of poets I very much admire (Nicky Melville, Colin Herd, Tessa Berring & Katherine Sowerby), which then was going to segue into a gig and wild stuff later on. 6pm to 1am; room for different energies!
So anyway, I said yes, but I’ve been pretty busy until now, the night before, with other writing and work. Today was the first day it clicked for me that I was really looking forward to this chance to reinhabit Emily Dickinson’s poems. There was a moment, when I was in the space by myself, when I worked out that there was a new train of feeling and thought going to come out of this particular installation situation, compared to the previous presentations of this piece in 2013 and 2014. On the last occasion, in an exposed cage environment in a Berlin subway I picked up some strength at dealing with hostile elements within a public performance environment, learning to filter out what wasn’t useful to the performance and to find a personal space within a public space, if you see what I mean.

But today, in the new setting of a tightly torqued ironwork spiral staircase, where I could really only move up or down in front of a dropped curtain of paper, I started to have a new feeling, about how Emily Dickinson might have been trying to escape from a physical entrapment through language. And there was something about being effecively squeezed in the tube of space, that made the words seem like a genuine dimensional adjunct that I might pop into. Am now, consequently, *ridiculously* excited about the experience I’m going to have in only a few hours time, between 6–8pm on Sunday 30 October, 2016. I think I will be really pressed up against the language, and I hope those moving around the staircase might get a shiver, and a sense of that themselves.

poster-with-me
(Also, I hear Chris Scott, my photographer chum is going to be working the event, so am hoping there might be some great images to share afterwards.)

 

 

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Catherine Street / Modern Edinburgh Film School / Iain Morrison

ab2051c6-5035-4242-b3ca-e265e7598c52Street675

I’m making a contribution to an evening at the CCA in Glasgow, in the form of a lecture/talk/poetry-reading (it’s a bit of all of those) on Tuesday 26th May, 2015 at 6.30pm. The page on CCA’s website outlining the event is here.

It’s a hard one to paraphrase as part of the idea of the event is to open up to wider discussion and thinking around a project called Ripples on the Pond, which is showcasing women’s work in the Glasgow city collection, with particular attention to possible connections to be made between works on paper and moving image work. My involvement comes through an invitation from Alex Hetherington under the name of Modern Edinburgh Film School, an unapparent space/body which he curates. Catherine Street is one of the moving image artists featured in the Ripples on the Pond programme and the evening centres on her work, including a presentation from Catherine herself and the chance to experience some of her film and audio work. I’m taking as my role for the evening, the presentation of some thinking about how poetry and work in text can mirror some of the same processes that Catherine talks about her work being interested in: mainly the idea of multiple presentations of the self through layered recordings and live elements. I’m looking at the idea of variant readings and how they feature in editorial and performance work. Unsurprisingly to those of you who know my interests, Emily Dickinson will feature!

There’s more information on the whole Ripples on the Pond project here.

And here’s the Modern Edinburgh Film School tumblr here.

And not least, Catherine Street’s website here.

This is one of the more open briefs I’ve had for a while and I’m really enjoying the chance to open up my thinking in the space created by this linking into other practices and artforms. Come and see what transpires if you can.

 

HOAX #5

I’ve been accepted into the reproducing embrace of the latest publication from the HOAX team. It’s their issue number 5, although they’ve made such a stir in my world that it feels like their co-edited Glasgow/London free-sheet and online publishing have been in my consciousness for longer than that must mean they have been.

I find myself saying to people that HOAX’s publishing ranges between poetry and art-writing, and I find it exciting that those two halves of my recreational text intake are brought together in one place, with the prevalent and different modes of address and strategies of play from poets and artists coming into contact and subtly informing each other. The HOAX manifesto explains why this is the case, with an effectively genre-blind editing approach.

My poem takes off, in a free-floating and typographic way, Emily Dickinson’s poem which starts ‘Two Butterflies went out at Noon – ‘ and which ends rather differently after that, depending on whether you’re reading it in the Thomas H. Johnson or Ralph W. Franklin editions.

If any of you are in London on on Monday 30 March 2015, come along to the launch at Studio 1.1, where free copies will be available, while performances and fun take place. Details of the launch are on facebook here. It’s from 6–9pm and I’ll be there for the occurrence.

HOAX #5 cover

Reflections on reading Emily Dickinson in Berlin

 

Moritz Malsch photo of Iain Morrison doing Emily Dickinson at SOUNDOUT! festival Berlin 2014

Thanks to Moritz Malsch for this photograph

 

So I’ve been back from Berlin for just over a week now. Putting down a few reflections here about performing Subject Index for the SOUNDOUT! Festival that are sitting somewhere between fresh and processed experience. More on my Berlin experience generally will follow probably on other posts – so many conversations, readings and sideshows!

Here firstly I’ll say I feel like I had one of the most intense weeks of living yet. Hot on the heels of 35th birthday and in the wake of a relationship changing course I knew that going into the contested cultural ground of Berlin to read all of Emily Dickinson’s 1775 poems in public at the SOUNDOUT! festival, was going to keep the heart stirring and held prised open. I wanted that. It felt a fought-for moment to go inward with Emily as my Virgil-like guide.

The Dantean underworld reference is perhaps appropriate as the location the festival organisers had found for my reading was in the U-Bahn, underground train station Mehringdamm. Travellers and citizens would come across me, voice first, as they descended the steps of the North entrance into the tube and walked along a longish tiled passageway to a caged area I was semi-concealed in.

I arrived at the venue straight from my flight; Tom Bresemann, one of the directors of the festival, showed me the space. We swaggered up to it beers in hand Berlin-style, and I knew I could work with it. It was different as a starting point from the Interview Room 11 space I had read in last year at Forest Centre Plus in being blatantly jail-like, rather than the inverse of that, with listeners approaching a position of power in the old job centre: but in terms of separation of audience and performance spaces, good audibility and acoustic, and a sterile, uncomfortable environment, Emily Dickinson would be perfectly ‘homeless at home’ – as she formulates in the poem numbered 1573 in Johnson’s edition.

However, things weren’t to unfold simply. The station staff hadn’t heard about the performance installation and refused entry when we arrived to start the readings. From that point, I set out on a peripatetic few days of fashioning makeshift installation spaces while Tom B continued to negotiate getting me into the U-Bahn.

There was an advantage in this false start. Each day was different and as I set up, I was acutely aware that there was no designated place for me. That was interesting to think about on it’s own, that I was trying to insert an action into spaces that resisted it more or less. I unfurled my large paper poem-map and stuck it onto a new wall, ready to see how people would react as I read variously in a green-room, on a busy street, in a domestic passageway. Moving the frame each time therefore, I could see the effects of the shift on the work. With each suggestion for location, I was matching the ambitions and expectations of the festival organisers to my own ultimate boundaries for the performance as I found them through the attempts to make each variation successful: learning what was and what wasn’t the place of and for the work.

Of course it was hard gearing up for something, and then not knowing if I could proceed in the way I had envisaged, but it was also a necessary risk, perhaps a very un-Dickinsonian one, to put myself boldly into these different situations to see how I would adapt the idea.

I thought a lot about whether the majority of passing people were hearing the English words as only foreign sound, and if so, what that limited experience would effect on their imaginations. At times, people broke through the ‘fourth wall’ and addressed me directly, so that I had to think about whether I could break my own spell and speak to them. Initially, I always did, as it seemed rude not to in context, and indeed on the fourth day I had no choice but to reply when, finally in the station, a train manager tried to throw me out of the space (luckily I had papers by then!). But despite the lectures from American street poets in how to force people to listen, despite the enquiries in German for train information and the couples requesting selfies with Emily Dickinson, by the fifth and final day I was feeling pretty uninterruptable, on the ‘home’ strait, and I was comfortable with that. I got the performance back, finding again where it was that I wanted to pitch it and learning how I could work harder to create that space with less of  the safety net than I had had back in old Schottland.

On that last day, reading the delicious selections of Johnson’s undated poems at the end of his ordering, as the trains bass-speaker-throbbed below and blew breaths of warm stale air up the tunnel which flapped all the plastic sheets of my barred installation, I had rare moments of being alone (or thinking I was) with the work and felt the literature performance was at its truest.

OK, I can’t resist ending with a poem by Emily Dickinson. This one shocked me in its frankness and openness to violent intervention through revolution. Was great to have the experience of being the earth for her imagination particularly when the poems were, as I hoped, unexpected. This is 1082 in the Johnson edition:

 

Revolution is the Pod
Systems rattle from
When the Winds of Will are stirred
Excellent is Bloom

But except its Russet Base
Every Summer be
The Entomber of itself,
So of Liberty —

Left inactive on the Stalk
All its Purple fled
Revolution shakes it for
Test if it be dead.

Emily Dickinson texts

Picked up two important books for performing Subject Index at the Berlin SOUNDOUT! Festival next week, today.

1) a very beautifully produced volume of selected Emily Dickinson poems in German translation from the Carl Hanser Verlag

and

2) a new copy of the Thomas H. Johnson edition, ready for me to break into it with 5 days of live reading.

Emily and Reverse copy

I wanted to start with a fresh copy, to give me the feeling of first walking on fresh snow again as I begin to read, and although I won’t be reading from the German, I thought it might be handy to have up my dress-sleeve for any conversations with German speakers about Emily D which arise.

Actually, I think Colin Herd and I might attempt some bilingual presentation of Emily D at our night at the Das Gift bar on Wednesday, as he’s a German speaker. More details to come on that.

SOUNDOUT! in Berlin. Longlisted for Emily Dickinson

I’m really delighted that SOUNDOUT! (a live literature festival based in Berlin) have long-listed my ‘Subject Index’ performance for their May festival. This is the piece where I read all of Emily Dickinson’s poems over several days, in quasi-isolation, while making a mind-map of their apparent connections to each other and to her life. I presented it at Forest Centre+ last year, and am now hoping to develop it further in Berlin in May.

I’ve made it onto this long-list, out of 106 entries from 33 countries. I wait to find out if I actually get selected for inclusion, but I’m hopeful. The recognition is a confidence boost either way! And proof that Emily Dickinson’s work carries a charge even into non English-speaking countries. Not that that proof was needed – to me she’s clearly in the roots of much contemporary culture.

Read a little bit about SOUNDOUT! here: http://lettretage.de/Lettretagebuch/category/soundout/  (in German, but should autotranslate)

 

schriftzug_SOUNDOUT_2

 

 

Bees, Basho, Blossom, Brogdale.

As interlude to the Emily Dickinson discussion, a nicely crafted project of artist/poet Alec Finlay’s. Alec asked a variety of poets to translate Basho’s famous haiku about a bee reluctantly leaving a peony flower, and then hung his gathered translations in blossoming trees in Kent. There are some great responses to the mission, and I felt I’d had a whizz-bang masterclass in the possibilities and strategies of translation after I’d read the resulting collection through.

Here’s Luke Allan’s photo of my humble (bumble?) contribution.

Iain Morrison's Basho translation for Alec Finlay

And lastly, Emily Dickinson does still get a look in! Ken Cockburn has fashioned one of his translations in fine tribute to her.

Subject Index Day 4: Putting the brakes on Emily Dickinson

I’m going to write up Day 4 of Subject Index in parts.

This final day wound round the houses a little in my ordering of the poems as, knowing I wasn’t going to be able to read all of the remaining poems, I tried to navigate a suitable closing path for the 4-day process of Subject Index. The first part of the day saw me reading for 5 hours, on my own or with Mirja present filming and listening. This took me from Johnson edition number 751 to 972 – slow-goingly, satisfyingly, slightly despairing of not having made it further than the year 1864 of Dickinson’s life.

I stopped for a quick breather and a sandwich across the road at my flat and came back for an evening session which 10 visitors turned up to at various times (I love you energy-giving audients!), and I attempted to execute a reading of the last dated poems in Johnson’s edition. I picked up at poem 1509, having leapt forward sixteen years of Emily’s life to 1881. This was frustrating, as I could sense a big change in the form of what I was reading, and I’d hoped to chart the changes incrementally all the way through her writing life. It was not to be, however, and not just because of the chunk I skipped over in the book, but also because at this end of her writing career, the poems simply aren’t coming as thick and fast, so you don’t get the same illusion of poems appearing at the rate of living. You can’t settle into them either, they’re mostly very short, and because I was mapping them too, I was up and down every thirty seconds to record a number on the board. I read in this way from 1509 through to number 1648, dated 1886, the year of her death.

Then! I realised I still had another half an hour left. I’d misjudged the timings because there were so many short poems in this section. I was frankly unsure what to do with my last half an hour in Emily’s clothes. Well, like in some of her celebrated poetry, the consciousness continued past death and I tentatively read on through 1649, 1650 and 1651 in the ‘undated poems’ section. This was enough to convince me, given what felt like a sudden thickening intensity of the poems’ thought-weave, to go back to where I had left off, at 973, where I remembered that same satisfying feeling, and to read from there onwards until closing time came at Argyle House.

I hoped that it would be enjoyable for those still listening to hear some longer, more wrung poems at the end of the vigil. A relief for me too to be in the middle of her writing life again, strategic decisions past and the course set in that last half hour.  I got as far as poem 1017.

In the next posts I’ll talk a bit more about the poems I read on the last day and what I found. For now, here’s an image of the map I made in its finished (for now) state. I think it looks pleasingly geographical! I had a conversation with Stevie from ForestCentre+ in the pub after about how the map might be given a digital afterlife, allowing people to click through to poems from their position on the map, so I’ll keep you posted if I pull that off at any point.

Emily Dickinson world map of her poems

Subject Index: Day 3 (and a bit of overspill!)

I’m not normally someone who has time for the easy contention that Emily Dickinson was obsessed by death, but I have to say I was feeling a little swamped by all the death/dead/dying poems in this particular stretch. There was a real sense of the walls closing in.

I read from 561 to 750, and perhaps the strongest sense I had was of ED trying to make sense of her (to what extent self-chosen?) isolation.

Poem 640 felt very key. It was long for her, 12 stanzas. In a series of skewed reasonings, she outlines what is almost a manifesto for living alone, without a loved one. It’s reminiscent of Donne’s metaphyisical conceits, it recalls courtly love sonnets too in its cool restraint. The ending points up a self-cannibalising attitude which frightened me in its resolve to subsist on: ‘that white sustenance – Despair –’.

Hard on its heels in the Johnson edition, poem 642 extends the theme by imagining a way of  isolating herself from emotionally unsustainable interactions even further by divorcing oneself from oneself – an idea which crops up in several of the poems in this period, often to striking repetitious effect. This poem has one of those striking first lines that can send you back and forth from the index of first lines in frenzies of glutting: ‘Me from Myself – to banish – ‘.

So Day 3 was an intense day. Also there were lots of bodily images of arteries, sinew and blood, like in the poem on Autumn, 656. Things got pretty dark.

Sometimes Emily’s voice surprises you in its directness. In 614 I found myself meeting her unexpected full stare in the lines, ‘Many Things – are fruitless – / ‘Tis a Baffling Earth –’

The day’s readings were also heightened by the literally chill wind blowing through the Forest Centre Plus space, with its door propped open in the hope of visitors. It was the first time I had read to a completely empty foyer at times: a very different experience of aloneness. The plastic sheets veiling my interview booth were flapping around in a veritable gale, so the visitors on the other side would have been seeing a series of new angles on my physical presence as the sheets flapped up to reveal them.

I may have looked white and ghostly but fighting the persistent death in this stretch were poems presenting a relentless resurfacing of life. There was a gaspingly visceral one about nearly drowning three times, 598. And in 646, she very strikingly seems nearly to talk herself out of solitude, in what feels like a keenly felt struggle between the temptation to allow herself ‘bliss’ and the opposing sense that it’s ‘beyond her limit to conceive’. I love the last wistful lines, floating with their sense of unrealised social or romantic possibility ‘ What Plenty – it would be – / Had all my Life but been Mistake / Just rectified – in Thee’.

Just Wow.

There are some interesting poems concerning events contemporary to her life. We remember in 596 that she is living through the American Civil War. The poet as chronicler is not an aspect of Emily Dickinson that’s very present in the popular imagination.

I have a tranche of new words learned too: thill, thew, attar and dimities. Thank you Emily Dickinson Lexicon. I got more confident too in words that she uses in a certain way which had confused me before: ‘pod’ I gather means ‘bud’, but weirdly, in a secondary definition, also means ‘grave’ or ‘sepulcher’ which might explain a fondness ED has for using it.

And dotted about this section there were some stellar Emily Dickinson famous favourites which gave succour to me when I got to them. The ones you know well appear like footholds in a reading of this sort, helping you out just when your head’s starting to swim with the vertigo of the experience.  Poem 569,  ‘I reckon – when I count at all – / First – Poets –Then the Sun –’ and poem 585 about the steam train, had this effect. I had a new awareness now in the context of reading through all the poems that this steam train one resonates with others showing her keen interest in science. Poem 630 is one of these, expounding on electricity. The poem compares electricity’s presence in thunder storms and it’s tamed use in telegraph wires. So Emily can present surprises in the breadth and erudition of her reference.

I’m going to end this post by sharing the poem I stopped at, Johnson number 750 because it seemed to offer a shaft of hope out of the death fog. It feels much more balanced, calmer, than the self-denying conviction in the likes of the un-nerving 640 I mentioned earlier in the post. If you trust Johnson’s chronology, 750 was written the year after 640, so I’m hoping that things might be a bit less beclouded in the next stage of readings. Enjoy it’s assured linking of the natural processes observed in the growth of plants to an imputed unconscious development of the human.

Growth of Man — like Growth of Nature —
Gravitates within —
Atmosphere, and Sun endorse it —
But it stir — alone —

Each — its difficult Ideal
Must achieve — Itself —
Through the solitary prowess
Of a Silent Life —

Effort — is the sole condition —
Patience of Itself —
Patience of opposing forces —
And intact Belief —

Looking on — is the Department
Of its Audience —
But Transaction — is assisted
By no Countenance —

Zoe Fothergill’s response to Subject Index

Really cool text response today from Zoe Fothergill, my artist pal and sometime collaborator. Was really excited to hear what she made of the Emily Dickinson readings and loved that she responded so creatively. She’s let me post the whole of her notes here. One of the things I love about her perception of Subject Index is how visual she is, picking up lots of the environment and context of the piece, as well as the parts of the Dickinson text which struck her.

More notes from me about Day 3 will follow, but now over to Zoe:

 

Emily Dickinson and Iain Morrison

‘like a thief that fled gasping from the house’

spider is male?

formal bureaucratic context
brutal boundary
and yet love the listening slats

‘it would have starved a gnat’

vastness of the undertaking
someone there to hear a poem falling

‘still little girl’

proximity shifts
yet all safely
behind the barrier

‘falling timbers flying’

‘many things are fruitless’

lace cuff
ruffle of skirt
jump down from desk
numerical noting

‘a fork in being’s road’

spermatozoa wall paper
streaking dirty fingermarks

an upturned screw sitting on the counter

‘and sinew from within’

skirt skirts paper’s edge

from a height
‘tucks of dainty interspersion’

Interview Room 12
sky blue board
white text
on cream door

12
paper white
text black
bold
sticky fixer fixed behind
wire gridded safety glass

‘then a softness suffused the story’

rubber door stop
on blue herring bone flecked carpet
a nodding head for emphasis
behind waving branches
sun dappled
through window

‘the mighty merchant sneered’

expanded polly pockets veiling

2 smoke detectors
1 on my side
1 on the other side

‘just his sigh accented had been legible to me’

indistinct graffiti on silver metal frame

‘how hospitable the face’
in an inhospitable place

‘forever is composed of nows’

TIME POEM TO REVISIT

ken arrives iain stands up

duck egg colour on cover
orange highlighter arrow

from a distance
lit room
dark room
pairs

‘and decks to seat the skies’

beard lace collar and …