Early response to Zoe’s initial email

Just in case you’ve arrived at this post without context, it’s an excerpt from a continuing dialogue I’m having with visual artist Zoe Fothergill in the run up to a performance-lecture we’re doing in 2013 as part of Jennie Temple’s Project!!WAKAKA! Scroll back through this blog for earlier posts.


Sent: Monday, 5 November 2012, 17:35

Subject: Re: Green for go – whizzing away off the blocks

Here’s a few thoughts in response to your dossier to keep things flowing, à la our best efforts.

So, the lists of contrained/constraint-writing, in terms of a conversation about structure and content (I’m going to keep wanting to say ‘form and content’ so you’ll have to catch me if I go off piste) is a useful place to start i think. It certainly got quite a strong reaction from me, as much of it seemed to be the geekery that used its formal/structural qualities as a way of avoiding content in any helpful way.

I was interested that Lawrence Levine in his introduction to his palindromic novel ‘Dr. Awkward & Olson In Olso’ said of an earlier effort ‘[…] I suddently realized the futility of proceeding along that line of palindromania. I could go on forever and would always end up with vritually nothing. A formless monster of dismaying length, a rodent in a squirrel cage, going nowhere very rapidly and very tediously, and ending up exactly where he started!’, exactly where he started, in a literal sense of course because of a palindrome’s nature, but probably not in terms of meaning, which I think is harder to chart the course of than these obsessive rules (and perhaps that’s the attraction?).

Levine goes on to say that when he started work on the novel (Dr. Awkward…) he ‘wanted to be a purist. Use only common English words was the dictum: no variable spellings, no oddments, no obscure names of places of peoples, no obsolete words, no foreign phrases or Latinisms masquerading as good English. But of course this was all quite impossible.’

I found the generous segments of the novel’s text completely unreadable. The bits of text were unable to solve the problem of working forward and backwards with equal success and relevance at their twin-appearances in the novel. It was obvious when you read through whether a section was really for this half of the novel or the other. For example do you think that Levine came up with, ‘Eye enos, sor cad, na, Hades sap. Olson in Oslo’ before realising that it handily reversed into ‘Olson in Olso passed a hand across one eye.’? No, me neither.

I am much more interested in where the structure/form is in balance with content in an equally matched game of chess. In that situation, the ideal as far as I think, both aspects are pushed into areas that stretch their previous bounds. One thing I like about the palindrome experiment is that is forces the writer to discover new words. I don’t like the fact that it is used so stringently that it admits no chance to mean.

Levine might counter my argument by saying, as he does in the same introduction, that in his text ‘the eccentric soon becomes the commonplace, and the reader, to his pleasant confoundment, accepts the strangeness as the norm. Or so one hopes.’

I am willing to go along with that. It may be true for some readers of certain tastes and I wonder if there’s an element of perceptual shift that can happen with an artist’s/author’s/composer’s language.  I wonder if the single-minded pursuit of a strangely new way of composing in sound/text/image eventually convinces as a new language which reveals its rules to its intimates. I’ve had experiences that would suggest this is possible. I always found Messaien’s music impenetrable, for example. He used various semi-mystical procedures to structure his compositions and turned more and more to his best attempts at accurate transcriptions of birdsong to provide the melodic layers of his dense style. I went to see a performance of his 5-hour long opera St Francis of Assisi (call me reckless!) and actually, after after an uncomfortable half an hour something clicked and it made real aesthetic sense.

I heard about an experiment that was done where people were given glasses to wear that flipped everything upside down. Because they were forced to wear the glasses the brain after a while compensated by turning the image back up the right way round. I believe in its ability to overcome obstacles and make sense of data.

I know I’ve gone on at some length here, but let me mention a couple of examples of my own writing that show where I am with this question of form and content. Sorry, structure and content, i keep doing that! Maybe we can unpick the specific differences of the meaning of the word ‘form’ in poetry as opposed to visual art….anyway…

This is a poem I wrote a couple of years ago. I was trying hard to follow a rule in which there were units of three syllables (amphimacer feet if we’re being technical) whose sounds were closely echoed in the lines on either side of it, but with a shift forward or backward in the line.


Inverse Relations

The ball of blue string had begun to unravel

loose triads it spun through a savage arena

where one who would have an idea of culture

Comes after a clear gap. No wonder there wasn’t

an ear claps got up for applauses.


Some lately in Norway have said’s said in boardrooms

what might be just hearsay: life’s eerie live, God have

a mercy or call my bluff Mary, as easy

to blame her as fairies or kelpie, unwavering

many who claim for my bairnie.


And those rotes got noticed and therefore were practiced

Gott noticed and therefore were practiced and those rotes

And therefore were practiced and got those rotes noted

Were practised and those rites rotated and therefore

Those notes got notated and therefore


Religion’s not just why recorded performance

endures, ‘Lies!’ according, before my short script, to

Elijah’s. Yet years I’ve accreted, absorbent

through summers which each dropped off dewy recourses

To think that most numbers still injure. most numbers. still.


So you can maybe see that happening. Looking at the first verse, ‘blue string had’ is echoed by ‘loose triads’ before that grouping drops off the left of the line. Also follow the sound echo of ‘unravel’, ‘a savage’, ‘would have an’, ‘comes after’.

I felt really constrained, too constrained, by this patterning and it was only a rare moment in this poem that I felt meaning got the upper hand. A useful exercise though.

Now look if you still have energy(!) at this poem from very recently in which I apply a rule much more loosely, or in fact, it’s just a looser rule. The two verses of ‘in relation to’ follow some of the same rules as a palindrome, but rather than reverse the letters of words individually, I just work backwards through the same vocabulary, picking out my meaning (much more successfully I think) as I go.


    i    in relation to


Your sofa is flammable, sorry, I mean inflammable,

my tone is pertinent, or it’s rather impertinent.

You light here to ask my opinion I don’t know

if I should give it to you I give it to you it’s the same

discoloured, coloured, no difference to the two of us

as divided into posits our indivisibility deposits off limits,


limits indivisibility poses our opposites at, divisions in two

into us the indifferent, discoloured, coloured all the same

it’s for you to give in to me should you give in to me

if I don’t know my opinion? I ask you here too lightly.

It’s impertinent, or is my tone pertinent rather?

I mean, sorry, you’re inflammable. Your sofa also is flammable.


Yes, in the second verse I’m being pushed to say things I wouldn’t have come up with had I sat down afresh, but my meaning is pushing back just as hard and compromises are won between what the form requires and what the meaning can accommodate.

I actually think I like Lawrence Levine’s language in explaining his palindrome much more than the palindrome itself. The language is quite fun enough with its squirrels in rodent cages etc. I wonder how much of his writing style has been influenced by his adventures in vocabulary, and might that not be the real fruit of his exercise?


Enough from me!

Iain x

p.s. things that I do find interesting in that list you sent were ‘aleatory’ writing (where the reader supplies a random input) – not sure if that’s a universally accepted definition, but I like it. Also, ‘mandated vocabulary’ where a writer has to incorporate given words in amongst their own. That’s something I realise I’ve used as a process and have found useful.



Tonight I heard in concert something which I have waited more than 10 years to hear live: Japanese Gagaku music. At university I wrote a dissertation on this completely rare form of traditional Japanese music that has the longest continued performance tradition of any music in the world. It is traceable, with the same repertoire, easily back to 6th Century AD. We know that the same pieces were being played then because the music has been carefully and rigourously notated.

This music is so rare and special that UNESCO has awarded it Intangible Cultural Heritage status – i.e. ‘DON’T CHANGE IT FFS!’ status. It did nearly die out at the end of the 19th century, but then various groups were shored up to safeguard it, including the Imperial Household Orchestra from the Emperor’s Palace in Tokyo, who I heard tonight. They don’t get out much, of Japan that is, so it was a real coup for the Edinburgh International Festival to get them booked for, as far as I can tell, their first ever Scottish date since they started occasional tours in the 1950s.

The music is slow, yet with a sense of inevitability as one sound follows another. And it is, to my ears, completely hypnotising. We think that the music has slowed down dramatically over the centuries. This might be one surprising effect of it being written down and fixed, rather than passed on in a purely oral way.

Here’s a really bad picture from my camera phone that probably only proves I was there. I WAS THERE! It was quite a fancy set-up as you’ll probably see. That big thing on the left-hand side turned out to be a drum! They had dancers too for the second half.

When I wrote my dissertation, I chose as the theme to look at the way Western composers had started to write pieces of music in the Western Classical tradition which drew on this Gagaku, either in writing for the instruments/ensembles or by trying to mimic them with Western instrumentation. If you’re interested, check out Messiaen’s piece Sept Haikai for orchestra, which includes a movement called Gagaku.

There’s so much I could say (I wrote a dissertation on it, so natch) but that’s a wee taster for youse. Oh, and this is an ear-taster from the old tube of youse.