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.


Map Day 1 IM


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!






Link to Interview with Helen Cole – Director of In Between Time Festival

The team at In Between Time in Bristol are gearing up for the next of their roughly biannual festivals of all that is good, true and beautiful in performance and live art. Also a lot that is nasty, devious and downright seductive. 

Anyway, the festival offers one of my favourite frontierland experiences and I thought I’d share this interview with director Helen Cole to give you a taste of what wicked things this way come. IBT’s in February this year.

The canon: what happens to new classical music compared to what happens to new poetry

I’m wondering tonight,  comparing what happens to new classical music compositions (which I used to write a lot of) and new poems (which I currently write more of) after their creation.

I was reading in the cd notes for a recording of Benjamin Britten’s Piano Concerto that when it was written, even though people thought it was a bit showy and lacking in substance (I paraphrase) it was still a ‘welcome addition to the repertoire of 20th century piano concertos by British composers’.

Has anyone ever said anything similar about poems, that I can remember? Nothing springs totally to mind. Maybe the closest is someone saying something like ‘The Four Quartets was a welcome extended post-war statement by one of our major poets’. But that’s not quite the same thing. It’s close, but it doesn’t quite convey the sense of the utility of the artwork in terms of providing something that will ‘do’ to keep the tradition and its machinery going. I got the sense that the Britten concerto was seen as a not particularly successful bit of cooking that nonetheless filled the gap for now. Young pianists still had something contemporary to make their name with etc.

I think if the comparison between people talking about Eliot and people talking about Britten didn’t ring quite true, it’s partly to do with the differing circumstances that surround a new work in either form. With classical music, I think it’s more common perhaps for a performance to be lined up before the work is written. With poetry, there isn’t necessarily ANY performer ever involved, just the hope that there might be some readers engaged in a bit of one-on-one reception.

Is publication comparable to performance, I wonder? That’s another question.

I wonder if I’m too complacent about my poetry finding readers because I have some sort of assumption from my musical background that things that are written find an outlet? And are useful, for that matter?

What would things be like if there were figures whose profession it was to publicly read new poetry, in performances, or theatres or something? I think it’d be different to the scenario of poets just reading their work out, for example. Me, I quite like the idea of putting on a reading of other people’s poems that I thought made a nice programme, in the way that a concert programmer might with music.

As I write this, I know that there are some near examples of what I’m talking about, like I think there was a Bloodaxe tour a few years back which had a couple of actors performing contemporary poems. I like that idea. Maybe Live Literature in general is doing this a bit. The show I did as half of The Glamourous about women Beat Generation poets did this, but it also did a lot of other things simultaneously. I’m not thinking of poetry as theatre or performance poetry.

One thing I suspect is that the ratio of new classical music composed to new classical music performed is MORE EQUAL than the ratio of new poetry written to new poetry read/published.  Many reasons of course, if this is even true. Classical music’s ‘canon’ seems to be put together differently  to poetry’s ‘canon’.

This is a really unresolved thought. I want to start thinking about anthologies and whether they’re somehow implicated. I mean, they must be. They are. Will go off and ponder.

Very Small Kitchen. I AM NOT A POET

The title for this blog post isn’t as nonsensical as it seems. Or rather, it kind of is in a delightful whimsy of naming as it’s what David Berridge, poet and avant-gardist based in London, calls his wordpress blog. The blog covers, as he says,  ‘Connections of language, writing, reading and art practice, inside and outside the VerySmallKitchen.’. That’s better than what I’ve come up with, isn’t it? This isn’t a competition, though, luckily for me, although some poets out there seem to be treating poetics as social warfare. Good luck to them etc. …cans of worms… where was I?

Oh yes, David Berridge. Look at the beautiful haikuey thing on his blog’s About section: ‘Let’s ban gravity/ Let’s ban the moon and/ Read all our spam’. That’s the kind of genteel aspirational anarchic spirit I enjoy.

I’m talking about David Berridge because he organised a season called I AM NOT A POET last Edinburgh Festival-time (Aug 2011) with Mirja Koponen at the sadly missed Total Kunst Gallery in the Forest centre. My friend Colin Herd was doing a durational performance in the gallery over 3 days which he invited a different poet into each day for a short reading. I was very grateful to be one of the poets alongside Jow Walton and Samantha Walton, in what was really my first public solo-reading venture of my own poetry straight-up. It was ok, my reading*, but one of the nice and unlooked-for bonuses was that David Berridge invited me to contribute, along with all the other artists involved in the season, a double-sided page of A4 to what he calls an ‘assembling’ publication – basically a sort of loose leaf folio with a title page at the front in pink (fortuitously enough for my blog :-)).

People submitted wonderful and diverse things. My contribution was a playful landscape of columns of text in which I was experimenting with mainly one-word lines with obvious rhymes. It was an early part of something I’ve developed further since (c.f. the three silly pillars reference in my earlier blog entry for those paying close attention!). I thought I’d share the publication link here as I loved and love being part of such a cool venture which felt like a welcome opportunity for a bit of spontaneous and carefree experiment. It’s a free download on issuu:

Colin Herd’s page, by the way, describes what he was doing for his installation, so if you read that, you’ll have an idea of the scene for my reading and for the sort of event I AM NOT A POET was. Which is to say, it’s own thing!

the first page of my poem in the assembling

*I admit, I did find it quite embarrassing that I’d chosen to start my reading by reading one of my fave poems by Colin –  in context with Colin having just intro-ed me, it seemed kind of strange and impudent! Colin said ‘nice one Iain, well done, liked the poem’ at the end, or some such nonplussed retort. It’s weird what you do in life that you think is a good idea. I guess you eventually hope you convince people you’re not a freak. I spend a lot of time back-pedalling away from social death when I first meet people, I’ve noticed….