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Poetry From Art, Poetry With Art

April 29, 2013
Photo by Pascale Petit of the Tate Modern group working from Ebrahim El-Salahi's 'Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams'. Used with permission

Photo by Pascale Petit of the Tate Modern group working from Ebrahim El-Salahi’s ‘Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams’. Used with permission

One of the reasons I was excited to take part in the Pistols and Pollinators Project was that I work a lot from Art and I saw this as an opportunity to work with an artist. I’ve been really fortunate in being paired with Hermione Allsopp, as we both had exactly the same reaction to the project brief – we wanted to produce something together that was specific to the site of the installation. There are lots of other valid ways to interpret the brief – so it’s lucky that we had a similar attitude.

Over the last few years, as well as reacting to Art in exhibitions and from the web, I’ve attended Pascale Petit’s workshops at Tate Modern. These are extraordinary courses which allow participants to see exhibits after hours in the gallery and to take part in games and exercises Pascale has devised to encourage writing. One of the important skills in writing from Art is to take the piece or a part of it as a jumping off point – the poems that work well access something in the writer’s experience that is triggered by the art. So the finished poem isn’t a description of the art, and doesn’t necessarily represent the ideas the artist intended to convey in their piece.

Poets can agonise over when they should use “after” and when they shouldn’t. When are the images, ideas or structure provided by the artist so integral to the poem that they should be attributed in this way? For me, typical librarian-come-academic, it’s important to cite, but it’s also important not to mislead a reader of a poem. So it’s absolutely vital that my poem ‘Mappa’ (Tate Online Anthology 2012should be “after Alighiero Boetti” because so much of the imagery comes from his work and my experience viewing it for the first time. On the other hand, my poem ‘The Kiss’ (Envoi 160, November 2011, p. 34) contains nothing of Rodin’s artwork, but came out of a workshop exercise in which Pascale asked us to write about an important first kiss. 

Unsurprisingly, I see writing from Art as a kind of marginalia – the artist has created their work and the poet is responding to it, in much the same way that we respond to text in its margins … and then some of the marginalia grows into its own piece of writing, always owing something to its originating text. It’s a conversation in which the artist makes the opening statement and, unless the poem becomes very well-known, they may never be aware of the poet’s response.

In working with Hermione, the conversation is much more fluid and responsive. In the case of the particular piece on which we are working, sometimes one of us is “speaking” and sometimes the other, and we are listening and responding to each other, growing an artwork together. Right now, the work consists of structures in Hermione’s studio and drafts of text on my MacBook. The result will be a shared idea, poetry with Art, not poetry after it.

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Image: Tate Poetry group working from art. Photo by Pascale Petit, used with permission.

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