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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Looking back at May 2018 visit to Southampton. ArtfulScribe Writer in Residency at John Hansard Gallery

After spending the last ten days in Southampton on my writing residency at John Hansard Gallery, I have a lot to look back on.

The Gerhard Richter exhibition provoked a lot of thought in me. In particular, an installation that caught my imagination more than I had anticipated when I read about it was 48 Portraits (1971–1991). It’s a subtly effective work that, although it uses the techniques of other Richter paintings, floats layers of potential relations between 48 individual portraits of notable men from the end of the 19th century/start of the 20th century in ways that insinuate lead a long way from the questions of image surface and relationship to subject that preoccupied me with other works in the exhibition. (I’m thinking of the Abstract Paintings Skin, Silicate and Grey made from images of surfaces of milk showing vibration patterns, and that I’m currently visually noting the similarities of to the top surfaces of clouds that I’m flying above on my way back to Edinburgh.) Maybe the deepening of engagement with 48 Portraits happened because I (and others I talked to) already had strong imaginative connections with some of the 48 men depicted, and no conscious connections at all with some of the others; it made for a bumpy and changing reading as I looked among the faces that gave or resisted my recognition.

I picked out the composers amongst the line-up first, familiar with some of the very same images that Richter had gleaned, from my own childhood readings of music encyclopedias – Anton Bruckner photographed with his seemingly taken aback expression has always mentally illustrated for me the stories about him being the more country cousin to the sophisticated Wagner, though now I wonder how much of that was in any sense true and how much snobbery. With their names displayed beneath each Richter-reproduced image, there were occasional shocks as you got close to read a name and realised this was the face of someone you knew about but hadn’t seen represented.

Paul Claudel, one of 48 men represented by Gerhard Richter in 48 Portraits (1971–1991). Image from John Hansard Gallery, May 2018.

Paul Claudel was one such for me – I knew about him from a mention in (one version of) Auden’s poem In Memory of W.B. Yeats. It was peculiar to see him looking so modern in his sciencey spectacles, having thought of him as already far back from the himself dated-seeming, mannered, young Auden. With all these men’s heads and gazes suspended indefinitely, you could daydream about the connections between them all and how their world shaped the time that followed.

I write about my thinking around this work in my poem-text written this visit. It’s turned out to be a long poem, and takes in my April visit (when the installation of the Richter exhibition had begun) and then the day before the exhibition opening, and the preview itself, ending with the writing drawn from the 48 Portraits. Incidentally, the portraits are also incredibly beautifully installed in the Barker-Mill gallery, a self-contained and well-proportioned space in the centre of John Hansard’s new set-up. The presentation really brings you close, into an audience with these faces. I can’t imagine a better way to see and think with this work. Please travel to see the show if you can before it closes on the 18 August.

Jane Birkin and Iain Morrison at the staff club, Highfield Campus, May 2018.

On my visit I was also able to have a much looked forward to lunch with writer and artist Jane Birkin, who works in the archives at Southampton University and whose presentation I had very much enjoyed at the Immediacy! Research Day I’d taken part in back in January. She had shown a very successful work there that used moving image footage of details of a still photograph and drew on the craft of carefully-neutral archival image descriptions to curate an encounter with the image in a faceted way.

There seemed a fruitful discussion to be had given the ways we both in our work started from the point of records/traces. The differences seemed fascinating to me, with Jane’s starting point being images collected and deposited by others and held in a structured system, and my note-taking and filming being more obviously subjective, yet still trying to keep a broad lens on the systems that supported what I was investigating: the public and slightly private life of John Hansard Gallery and its audiences.

Jane and I got onto a good track about the status of description within writing, and its categorisation, often, as an inferior tool to discuss, something that Jane I think challenges. I was interested in how observation (which I felt was a word to describe what I was doing during my residency) differed from description. I came to think of it as being something about intention. But then maybe Jane’s approach in her work is to observe the description? It’s all so interesting. I like the word ‘observation’ partly because it seems so mid-twentieth century with echoes of the faith in science that I associate with that space-race time. The Mass Observation project is also something thing I’m connecting in my head, the ongoing systematic recording of the similarities and different trajectories of human subjects in Britain over a long period of time. And this in turn brings me back to think about the Richter portraits, which feel a related way of taking a spread-out snapshot of a generation or two.

Jane also introduced me to the artist Walter van Rijn who is making an epic work for Hansard’s next show called Unconsumable Global Luxury Dispersion, which is working with the titles of every single work shown in the old John Hansard Gallery site. For a look at how he’s organising and shaping that enormous data-set, look at his instagram for the project here. I think there are going to be interesting connection between our projects to talk about over my remaining visits.

And finally, because it’s definitely part of the pleasure of the residency for a weathered Scot like myself, here’s a picture of my writing station on Sunday, in a beer garden in Winchester just up the road from Southampton. My body doesn’t know what to do with all this vitamin D!

Centre for Modern and Contemporary Writing – Research Day

I’m just heading back up to Scotland after an excellent residency day with the Centre for Modern and Contemporary Writing at Southampton Uni. One of the many great aspects of my ArtfulScribe residency with John Hansard Gallery is the academic network it opens up to me. Today there was a research day organised by Dr Sarah Hayden around the prompt of ‘Immediacy’, and I thoroughly enjoyed introducing my work and sharing ideas with the academics and practitioners (and the somewhere-in-betweeners) who make up the centre’s community. Woodrow Kernohan and Ronda Gowland-Pryde from the John Hansard Gallery team were also presenting. I’m getting a clear sense of how the gallery benefits from its immersal in the active audience of a large university.

Here’s a link to the programme and then the text of the introduction I gave to my work before showing an Art Talk Notes film poem from last year:

Final Immediacy poster updated A3 January 16th (btw I loved being put in a section called Encounters Immediate and Mediated – thanks Sarah!)

Talking Art Talk Notes

I’m taking the opportunity of this Immediacy day to introduce the project that I’m doing as ArtfulScribe Writer in Residence at John Hansard Gallery over the next 10 months or so. The title I gave for today, Talking Art Talk Notes, refers to the title of the project I pitched in my interview, Art Talk Notes, which is a poem series I started in 2015 from a growing desire to use the writing I was collecting, in the form of notes, from the many art talks I was attending. I had been working in a visual arts organisation in Edinburgh for 5 years and was increasingly keen to draw the strands of my experience in that world together with my practice as a poet.

Through thinking about somatic writing (writers like C.A. Conrad especially and Lee Ann Brown) I started to see the notes I was taking when I was in a talk as not just notes about a talk but a record of embodied experience and one that might be exploitable to form a record of not only my learning/thinking on a given occasion, but also – maybe because I was nosey in my note-taking – as a record of the wider community’s learning, it’s narratives and experience around the same events.

How I connected this project with today’s Research Day title is through the idea of immediacy as presence – as something being the thing that’s immediately in front of you, and which you are grappling with even before you have had the chance to formulate what it is. I conceive of that happening in the trajectory of planning an event, where time compresses between the planning and post-event reflection stages into the actual moments of liveness, and whatever is happening, whatever is contained within that conjunction of time and space is what the event contains, and always will have contained, to be made sense of (foregrounded, countered or erased) in recollection and dissection, after, as they say, the event.

I have started writing the Southampton series of poems sitting in on meetings and background planning chats, and these Art Talk Notes are already skewed, in a way, from the model of my earlier ones, because of being produced currently behind the scenes, in an organisation that’s between venues. There’s a shift therefore onto the sites where discussion is happening, albeit tied to the art content that’s being planned and shown off-site.

At the moment I’m considering whether Art Talk Notes will remain the right title for this Southampton sequence. I wonder what my sequence of texts is ultimately going to rest on, in the sense of being rested upon. It may end up being called Art Notes or Gallery Notes or even John Hansard Gallery Notes.

I’m finding that the strategy of using stream-of-consciousness writing as a tool of interrogation means I am able to move fairly easily with the writing, as a sort of ultrasound with myself as the equipment, into most contexts. But I’m intent on seeing how I can keep a focus for this Southampton project as I was able to do in the earlier series. I think that previous coherence was achieved thanks to the fact there were other unifying factors holding the sequence together for me – namely my own subjective voice, belonging as it did to the networks out of whom these events were flowering; and my ability to choose a discrete path within the notes I was taking as there were plenty of them, indeed there were likely to continue being plenty of them, and I didn’t have to include everything. I had the luxury that this was my life as I was living it at the time that I was writing off of and that I was almost inevitably going to keep living it in smooth grooves, or trajectories that would lead me from one connected place of self-exploratory writing to another. And I would shape and see a personal narrative of my own unfolding alongside the chain of events.

The time I will spend during the residency here will still be marked by the relationships I am making and sustaining with the people around me, including for the first time, the public. I imagine though that they will be less complex than those that arise in a more fully embedded life – as in the earlier sequence. Maybe I’ll be wrong though, and should expect drama!

I’m going to show a short filmpoem from the first sequence of Art Talk Notes to give you an idea of how the work looks. I’m starting to collect footage from Southampton already and am likely to be producing something similar for John Hansard Gallery. Thanks.

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

Sutra as poem again thoughts

Am just writing the notes section to my first published collection of poems, I’m a Pretty Circler, and having worked out with my editor Colin Waters which of the poems would benefit from notes, am now treading that line between explaining and overexplaining.

A happy diversion for the moment is that I was writing a note for my poem Birthday Sutra, which is one of two poems with Sutra in the title that’ll be in the collection. I knew that I’d gotten the title from Ginsberg (there are two Sutras in his complete works, Sunflower Sutra is the most famous I think) but I thought I’d just doublecheck again whether there was any sort of googleably recognised poetic form definition, and I found this from a school-essay-help website that I liked so much I thought I’d share it here:

‘Ginsberg titles the poem as a “Sutra,” a Buddhist form of literature in which a string of aphorisms compose a body of work. An aphorism is a kind of quick line – spoken or written – that uses wit or humor to state a deep seeded truth. Ginsberg’s poem is more complex than a simple Sutra, however, though by titling the poem as such he means to suggest that the message of the poem is really quite simple.’

Not sure about that last sentence with its heavy handed didacticism, but I find the the chaining of aphorisms idea helpful, and happily in tune with the loose forming of the two poem structures I gave the ‘sutra’ name to.

Then again, I also offer my own definition of a sutra poem halfway through my Sunny Sutra, the second sutra poem in my collection. So I’ll leave that here too:

‘Sutras: poems occasional, read at times which are propitiate
Sunny Sutra: the long poem about the sun in which I know how to say things and
think like a fire poet.’

…wondering now about the word ‘propitiate’ too, which I realise is officially a verb, but I use it here as an adjective. Maybe I liked the sound better than propitious, but I think there’s a ghost word that’s a real, although old-fashioned, adjective lurking behind my use of it somewhere. Maybe it’ll pop up in my consciousness now I’m thinking about it. The phrase ‘this initiate May’ is coming into my head, but that doesn’t seem to mean anything previously…

England mini-tour, Spring 2017

I’m doing a little self-described tour – definitely not grandiose – over the next few days. Would be good to see listeners, watchers, friends at the following three events. I’ll be reading from my Art Talk Notes poems, among other things (including a guest pop-up in Nottingham from Leiza McLeod!)

1) Nottingham

Reading at Five Leaves Bookshop on Wednesday 29 March, 7pm. Entry £3. With mon ami Colin Herd, as well as Vicky Sparrow. Thanks to Lila Matsumoto for organising this one.

2) Bristol

Back at my old haunt Arnolfini contributing to a reading series called Anathema for Moot, Hesterglock and Sad Presses. Friday 31 March, 6.30-9pm. Entry by donation. Co-readers are Redell Olsen, nick-e melville, Anne Laure Coxam, Sally-Shakti Willow & Joe Evans

3) Manchester

Not actually reading here, but attending the launch of this year’s Other Room anthology, which I’m in. Wednesday 5 April, 7.30pm. Free event. Seemed to me like a great excuse to catch up with friends there as well as hear readings fromErkembode, Juxtavoices and William Rowe.

 

p.s. This is all great and all, although I am sad to be missing CA Conrad and Sophie Robinson with home-girl Jane Goldman in Edinburgh. If you’re in Edinburgh, go to this! Embassy Gallery, 6pm, looks free.

video – Iain Morrison reading at The Other Room, Manchester

Got the video through from the reading I gave in July 2016 at a reading series I’ve long been an admirer of, The Other Room in Manchester.

I read a poem riffing on Star Trek, one that uses karaoke tracks from sad dance music, and Sunny Sutra, my beatnik poem for Orkney solstice times.

The night was a real pleasure for me, catching up with Manchester friends and poets. Kimberly Campanello and Geraldine Monk were on the line-up with me, two poets I’ve been interested in for a while, and I recommend checking out their readings too on The Other Room’s Channel.

Thanks for having me Manchester, and for the excellent documentation too.

Catherine Street / Modern Edinburgh Film School / Iain Morrison

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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.

 

Inclusion on James Cummins’ poetry blog Return to Default

I’ve been kindly included by poet James Cummins on his blog with my poem [Poetry for] A new ing.

 

The context for my poem was prompted by an invitation from the brilliantly-named Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal to submit for an issue they were planning in the wake of turbulent political times during the Scottish Indie Ref, and I wrote it based on accreted journal and notebook entries made during that time. It was written fast and enjoyably but if the journal went to print, my poem was unsuccessful in being selected. So I’m doubly happy that James picked it up for inclusion here alongside a select group of writers I’m delighted to be in the company of. I notice Sam Langer, who I met in Berlin last year, is on there, and Stephen Emmerson whose energies I have been enjoying from afar, and occasionally in person, over the last while too.

 

I look forward to reading who joins me on this international Cork-based platform, as James’ wide-interest and (as he’s hinted) Irish perspective lead to his selections.