Thursday, 11 October 2012


This summer and autumn I've been working on a commission for the Irwell Sculpture Trail that runs from Salford Quays to Bacup, through Bury and Rossendale, 33 miles long and over 70 works of sculpture. My work After is installed in Radcliffe, near the Metrolink Tram Station, on a footpath that leads to the Manchester, Bury and Bolton Canal, and on a bridge support along the canal towpath. There are three stone plaques each with an inscribed verse set into stone walls. The preparation of the stone and the lettering was carried out by Rossendale stonemason Ken Howe.
     This is a work that has been at the planning stage for a long time. After, also now known as The Scattered Poem is a 28 verse holocaust poem that was first published in 2000. It is a particularly abstract poem, composed using a text generation programme that was run many times to produce a vast text and the results edited down to a tiny fraction of the output. I wanted to set up a staged composition procedure that would include actions beyond my control. Of course I still needed to be responsible for the finished work and to make it my own by means of editing and refining the result. Mulling over the possibilities of the process, it gradually became clear to me that my ambition for this work just could not be fully realised on paper. It was a turning point for sure. What I now aim to do is to get verses and clusters of verses installed as far as possible from each other, so that the viewer sees only a fragment of the work. If you wanted to see more you'd have to travel, which would always put the work you'd already seen at a distance. In order to get this work established and located in different places I needed to have an example to show. To get it made I need to rely on describing the project and on photographs.
     So I've been working with Tony Trehy, director of the Irwell Sculpture Trail, and the stonemason Ken Howe, to find suitable sites and get three of the inscribed verses installed in Radcliffe. It's an interesting aspect of this kind of project that you need to collaborate to get it made and to make it visible. We still have quite a way to go. I'm hoping that we will have QR codes before too long, to add additional information. The stones are located on the Sculpture trail very near Brass Art's Falls the Shadow and Lawrence Weiner's Water Made It Wet.
     The title After comes from Theodor Adorno: 'Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch' (To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric) from Prismen: Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft (1963). After was published in my book Devolution, Great Barrington, MA: The Figures, 2000, and in Poetry Review, 93, 3 (2003): 32-35. There is a related piece called 'Not Reading After' in Covers, Cambridge, UK: Salt, 2007, which is transcribed from a performance at Camden People's Theatre, curated by Chris Goode and also published in the journal Shearsman.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012


High on the Downs: A Festschrift for Harry Guestedited by Tony Lopez and published by Shearsman books on Harry Guest's 80th birthday, was launched in Exeter at the Central Library on Monday 8th October, 7-9pm. The contributors are: Joan Bakewell, Michael Bakewell, Humphrey Burton, Jack Chalkley, Owen Davis, Peter Dent, William I Elliott, Peter Finch, Chris Finn, John Flower, John Ford, Peter France, John Greening, John Hall, Christopher Hampton, David Hare, Lee Harwood, Jeremy Hilton, Andrew Houwen, Peter Jay, Peter Josyph, philip kuhn, Ann Leaney, Tony Lopez, Rupert M Loydell, John Mingay, Bob Nash, William Oxley, Alasdair Paterson, Michael Power, Tim Rice, Anthony Rudolf, Lawrence Sail, Deniele Serafini, Martin Sorrell, Peter Southgate, Anne Stevenson, and Chris Ward.
     Harry Guest, born in Penarth in 1932, has had a long and distinguished career as a poet, translator and teacher. He began to be published in the 1960s and Arrangements (1968), was his first book with Anvil Press Poetry, the specialist poetry publishing house run by Peter Jay. He has published twelve collections of poetry and his collected poems A Puzzling Harvest (2002). He worked as a teacher at Felsted School and at Lancing College before taking up a lectureship at Yokohama National University in Japan. He returned to England in 1972 and was Head of French at Exeter School until his retirement in 1991. Apart from his many collections of poetry, he is well-known as a translator from the French, German and Japanese, and his published translations include Post-War Japanese Poetry (with Lynn Guest and Kajima Shozo, 1972), and Victor Hugo: The Distance, The Shadows (1981). He has also published three novels: Days (1978), Lost Pictures (1991), Time After Time (2005). His non fiction writing includes The Artist on the Artist (2000) and a Traveller's Literary Companion to Japan (1994).
     At the launch party there were short readings by the following contributors: Peter Dent, John Hall, Lee Harwood, Jeremy Hilton, Peter Jay, Ann Leaney, Alasdair Paterson, Lawrence Sail, Martin Sorrell, myself and Harry Guest. The title High on the Downs is from Harry Guest's Sixth Elegy; the book cover is based on the painting Harry Guest contemplating the visit to Montepulciano by Exeter artist Bob Nash.

We have lived elsewhere. How otherwise explain
the shock of recognition at the gap in the hedge,
that day high on the downs when the sun led you
to a place you knew though it was your first visit.
Harry Guest, 'The Sixth Elegy'


I've been involved in a whole series of quite different festivals this year, all of them worth doing and each having their own focus.
 I read at the Runnymede Festival London (8th-17th March), on a bill with Carol Watts, at the Centre for Creative Collaboration, Acton Street, London. This was organised by Robert Hampson and is a project growing out of his work with colleagues involved in the Poetic Practice MA at Royal Holloway University London. Some of the literary events take place in Runnymede and some in central London.
     Sounds New Festival at Canterbury in Kent is a music festival in the town that has a thread of poetry events. It is particularly strong on new music with premiere performances at all kinds of venues. I saw a performance of Common Objects by the Rhodri Davies Ensemble including some collaborative work with poets Patricia Debney and Nancy Gaffield. This was not the sort of event you come across in East Devon. I saw a terrific high energy percussion group called Powerplant, like nothing else I've seen. We saw a talk on British Poetry since 1950 by Michael Schmidt. Actually this was about a report produced for the Royal Society of Literature about contemporary poetry and the line was that it was a narrow report. My reading with Stephen Collis entitled Found Text was on the Campus of the University of Kent at Canterbury, 9th May, well attended and a very good audience. I was booked by Professor David Herd and had a great time in Canterbury. I went to see St Martin's, the oldest functioning church in the country but it was locked and I couldn't get inside. The graveyard was worth the walk.
     In June I was at the Hay Poetry Jamboree, which turned out to be nothing to do with the big Hay Literature Festival going on at the same time in a field just on the edge of town. The Poetry Jamboree, known as the Jam, was two and a bit days of solid readings with JP Ward, Andrea Brady, Jeremy Hilton, Waterloo Press readers, Caroline Goodwin, Harry Gilonis, Laurie Duggan, Philip Terry, Andrew Duncan, Harriet Tarlo, Peter Larkin, Nerys Williams, Anthony Mellors, Sophie Robinson, Jeff Hilson, Ulli Freer and me and others. I absolutely loved it, saw all the readings, and felt that I'd got a very particular and well curated view of what is happening in poetry. Many of us were put up in a couple of Crickhowell houses and had communal meals good company there later in the evenings when each day's programme was finished. The town of Hay is very attractive on a sunny day, it's great to visit the poetry bookshop that Alan Halsey used to run years ago, now run with equal flair and a great stock. I wished I'd had more time to spend with my old friend the poet and artist Allen Fisher who also attended the whole programme. Allen is co-patron of the Jam with USA's best known poetry critic Marjorie Perloff. These events were organised by John Goodby and Lyndon and Penny Davies and the readings took place in a nearly tumble down Methodist chapel very central in Hay. What an amazing concentrated fix of the real thing: a wonderful lineup and run on a shoestring with barely seedcorn funding from Literature Wales.
    It seemed that I was working for the b-side Multimedia Arts Festival right through the spring and summer but the Weymouth events were launched on 29th July and went on till 12 August. I've put some photos up in a previous post of my work Weymouth Sands that was shown on the Esplanade through the Olympic period. It was good to visit Weymouth for research and get to know the town a little, quite similar in many ways to Exmouth where I live. 31st July I did an artist's talk in the Sea View Restaurant upstairs at the Pier Bandstand on the Esplanade; it was that building, and the idea of the vanished pier that was the focus for my work in Weymouth.
     The Edinburgh International Book Festival was different in kind from the other Festivals. I travelled with Sara and stayed in Edinburgh for a few days and we went to see what we could of the Edinburgh Festivals, all going on at the same time, it seemed taking over the whole city. I read with Alan Gillis and Fiona Sampson on the 23rd August, a very good event, I hadn't seen Alan Gillis read before, whereas I've seen Fiona Sampson at a couple of other events; we did a launch together at the London Review Bookshop in 2007. The director of Edinburgh International Book Festival is Nick Barley. They really know how to look after their authors. I did an interview with Jennifer Williams for the Scottish Poetry Library. Whilst we were in Edinburgh we went to see a couple of exhibitions and the Julliard Dance company of New York and some rather tired and dreary comedy by Sean Hughes on the fringe. The dance performance by the Julliard Dance company was one of the best things I've ever seen on the stage. Three pieces in the programme, all of them very different and all stunning. It was very good to visit Edinburgh and to see our friends Randall Stevenson and Sarah Carpenter.
     We also went on a bus trip to Ian Hamilton Finlay's garden Little Sparta, that I last visited in the early 1980s. We saw a Finlay exhibition at the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh and then went from there in a minibus direct to Little Sparta. I don't think you could get there otherwise unless you hired a car, it's only a dozen miles or so to the south of Edinburgh, in the Pentland Hills, but you wouldn't get a bus to anywhere nearby. The garden is a converted hillside croft and has been developed to about three times the size it was when I was last there. It is a wonder of Scottish culture, one of the most ambitious artworks in Britain, a garden of poetry and philosophy. The works are mostly inscriptions located in devised garden settings, and the garden uses native plants to great effect. The various areas of the garden have very different characters, some opening out into lochans, moorland and hillside, others quite separately developed, with their own atmosphere: the Roman Garden, the Allotment, the Temple Pool Garden, the Woodland Garden, the Wild Garden, the Lochan Eck Garden, the English Parkland. Inscriptions and sculptures are everywhere, there are lots of works I hadn't seen before. The Little Sparta Trust website has lots of excellent photos gives a good sense of the garden. These two images of Ian Hamilton Finlay works (Man: A Passerby and 1942) were taken on that visit in July 2012 and are published here with the permission of the Estate of Ian Hamilton Finlay.