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

 

 

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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 …

Note on Subject Index from Luke Allan

We’re halfway through my attempt to read all of Emily Dickinson’s poems at Forest Centre Plus. Tomorrow, Monday 29th April,  there’s just one open session from 12-2pm. Hope some of you can make it.

I got this generous response from Luke Allan via facebook after last Monday’s reading. Am hoping he doesn’t mind my sharing it here.  Thank you Mr Allan.

‘Deeply impressed by Iain Morrison’s Subject Index, for which he’s reading the complete poems of Emily Dickinson in what looks like a cross between an abandoned trainstation ticketing office and a wartime interrogation booth (and in a sense the text’s being used in both ways) but which I’m told is in fact a defunct Job Centre office. I highly recommend going along for a half an hour or an hour – or more – and just sitting and listening, and indeed watching: catching glimpses of his sleeve or mouth or eye through the window which has been almost completely covered with (I believe) those translucent plastic wallets people in offices use for holding important documents, which actually gives the overall effect of watching someone through the frosted glass of their bathroom window, but from very close up, as if on a ladder. (The bathroom being another suitable correlative for the space – the idea of expulsion, yes, but also the idea of privacy, isolation.) When I got there I found Lila Matsumoto kind of hunched forward on a chair just outside the booth, in her own world, and as I sat down next to her it felt like sitting down next to someone in a hospital waiting area in the dead of night. When she looked up and saw me she said, ‘you can go closer,’ and pointed at the little stool right by the window of the booth, and then said, ‘you should’. It was excitingly awkward to have Ian reading right next to my face but with him unable to recognise me. He had this map on the wall, with words like ‘town’ and ‘woods’ written on in black marker, and then lots of numbers dotted apparently haphazardly around them. When he’d finished the current poem, he stood up and moved over to the wall with the map, and added a number next to one of the words, linking the poem to a location in Dickinson’s life, making his own Morrisonian-Dickinsonian ‘subject index’. The whole thing’s made me realise that my fondness for brief, glimpsey work is balanced by this kind of excitement for the intensely protracted; and Ian’s performance does both things at once, letting the two timescales near and spark. Hope I manage to catch some more of it before it ends on Mon 6th. I think he said he’s up to poem 510 (of c. 1700), so there’s plenty Dickinson left in him.’

Subject Index: Day 2

So, Day 2 of Subject Index was yesterday, and I covered poems 342 to 560 in the Johnson Edition. Fewer poems than last week, but I think that was about the performance finding a slower pace, and partly that we hit some of Emily Dickinson’s longest poems in this section, her most productive year, 1862.

There were more poems that gave me pause, and I took the pause, to work out, or try to work out. Some of the poems threw me partly because of a word use which I didn’t know. I’ve been able to look at them in a different light, now at home, thanks to the excellent Emily Dickinson Lexicon which lists definitions from the dictionary she owned and gives a great indication of what she understood by the words she used. The word ‘cypherer’ from poem 545 is now way clearer to me, for example. Other poems I still haven’t figured more for reasons of my own thickness, like 528.  I wonder if it’ll open up to me at some later date but at the moment I’m not sure what ‘Mine’ is! Unless it’s the delirious charter she mentions, though then what’s that? Ah, the joys of reading poetry are here exemplified.

One of my visitors yesterday, Lila Matsumoto, pointed out that lots of the poems being read in the session seemed to speak to the particular set-up of Subject Index. Poems about veils and seclusion, seperateness I think. I took it as confirmation of my instincts in setting the encounter with Dickinson’s poetry in this way. It made me happy to hear the connections being voiced back to me. An example of the poems that I think sparked in the space is the incomparable 365, Dare you see a soul at the white heat, where the poet invites the reader to crouch within the door, presumably hers.

There were other poems that piqued particular interest in various ways. 426 was a surprise with Dickinson appearing to adopt a vernacular voice. 452, using the word negro, struck me after having been at Arika’s excellent events at Tramway in Glasgow last weekend; Freedom is a Constant Struggle was focused on black radical arts and the legacy of black American history was picked back through the centuries. Interesting to think of Dickinson’s life alongside those stories.

I’ve put a couple of pictures from Day 2 down below, thanks Mirja Koponen and Richard Taylor. You’ll see I’ve been experimenting with positioning myself in the space a bit, and my wonderful parents are in a picture too.

And the poem I’ve picked to share in full after Day 2, Johnson number 421, is another that links with the form of my presentation. I enjoyed reading it behind my opaque screen and feeling its perfect fit. Hope to see some of you next week on 29th April. It’s just the 12-2pm session remember.

 
A Charm invests a face
Imperfectly beheld —
The Lady dare not lift her Veil
For fear it be dispelled —

But peers beyond her mesh —
And wishes — and denies —
Lest Interview — annul a want
That Image — satisfies —

 

2nd day web-6

Richard's pic

Day One of Emily Dickinson readings: Subject Index

I’m at the end of day 1 of my Emily Dickinson readings project, reading all the poems in order as they appear in Thomas H. Johnson’s complete edition. Mirja Koponen, of ForestCentre+, has helped me to a title. I’d used an image of the book’s Subject Index and Mirja took these words on the poster to be the title of the piece. I’m glad she solved this for me. The back-up option was the Emily Dick-a-thon….

Reviewing today’s progress, I think I will get through all the poems if I speed up a little or put more hours in. I’ve got to poem 341. As one of my favourites, it felt like a satisfying, if dark, end to the day’s reading. At the pace I went today, another 20 hours should get me to poem 1755, and that’s doable (gulp!).

It took me a little while to get set up this morning, which had some happy moments in itself, such as Mirja giving me a leftover roll of paper from Colin Herd’s TotalKunst installation where she and I had first met.  On my mind, though, was the feeling that I didn’t know, until the door was open and people started to appear on the other side of the glass, exactly how I was going to handle their presence. In the first session, I felt acutely conscious when there was someone on the other side, and although I wasn’t looking at their faces, it threw my action into relief, so that I was thinking about things like whether the way I was holding the pen was pretentious more than I would have liked. It took my reading voice a while to settle too.

The poems are more or less chronological in the Johnson edition, as they are in the more recent Franklin edition,  and I was pleased to be spending time with Dickinson’s earlier poems that I’ve had a tendency to skip over in some sense to ‘get to the good stuff’. Actually, quite early on in the book are poems that I love. 76 was the first appearance of a real old favourite – which appeared in The Rattlebag, popular when I was at school – but I really liked number 26 when I got to it. I noticed that there was plenty of interest in the really early ones. In number 1, dated to the poet’s twentieth year, I was very struck by her line: ‘thou art a human solo, a being cold, and lone’, which seemed to hint at an early awareness of her proclivity for separation.

After an afternoon rest between the lunchtime and evening sessions, and some encouraging feedback from ForestCentre+’s Mirja and Ana, I felt more relaxed. One visitor sat for about fifteen minutes on the other side of the glass, which felt comforting by that point.

My fear that I’d be initially flummoxed by many of the poems and not really get what they were about, hasn’t turned out to be so founded. Actually, once my ear was in, I wasn’t feeling caught out by Dickinson’s slippery language use. The map of the poems is coming together in a way which I find interesting. In the context of reading the poems more or less chronologically, I was spotting the development of several lines of thought, which was very satisfying.

I also discovered some poems I’d never read before and loved, which was definitely a key objective for me. I’m interested to look beyond Dickinson favourites I know already to find other poems which really strike me with fresh first-readings. It’s a total delight that there’s so much still to discover in one of my favourite poets.

Here are some of the day’s pictures. Thank you to my photographer stars, Mirja Koponen, Emily Goodwin and Ana González Chouciño.

IMG_2428

Map Day 1 IM

IMG_2434

Mirja iain res2

Complete poems IM

To conclude, I thought it’d be good to share a poem from the day’s reading. I felt like number 119 might have some advice for the current Tory party!

 

Talk with prudence to a beggar

Of “Potosi” and the mines!

Reverently to the hungry

Of your viands and your wines!

 

Cautious, hint to any captive

You have passed enfranchised feet!

Anecdotes of air in dungeons

Have sometimes proved deadly sweet!

 

 

 

 

Iain Morrison, Emily Dickinson readings. The poster.

Emily Dickinson, Iain Morrison readings

 

click the image to see the detail at a readable size.

Starting to work in the Emily Dickinson space @Forest

…with thanks to Mirja Koponen for helping me out tonight.

Have just realised that Mirja looks spookily like Emily Dickinson in the picture below. Maybe I can make use of this fact!

mirja ed

dickinson booth

mirja looking ed

Forest performance planning, with help from Richard Taylor

 

Was over the road at Forest Centre Plus tonight, looking at spaces for my Emily Dickinson all-poems readings. My pal, the artist Richard Taylor was helping me check out a former consultation room, complete with security glass, which is looking very promising. The idea would be that the public – that’s you! – could come and listen to me reading the poems from the other side of the glass. Here’s Richard with some additional plastic in front of his face.

Emily space RT

I might look at partially concealing myself as well as being behind the glass, which is why we were messing around with masking. The thought of Emily Dickinson keeping herself sealed in her room, is somewhere behind this idea. There’s a famous story, and I wonder if it’s true, that when her doctor came to examine her in her last illness, she only let him peer around the door from the hallway. I’m intrigued by a possible valency linking the sealedness of Emily D and the locked away parts of this dormant building.

And talking of Richard Taylor, earlier in the day, I enjoyed seeing his art work in a three-person show with Dickie Webb and Claudia de la Peña at Newhaven Station, in Edinburgh. Here’s me loving his work Paint By Leaf. It’s on till Friday if y’all get the chance to catch it.

Iain paint by leaf Richard Taylor