March 10, 2012 § 2 Comments
One of the most interesting of contemporary practices, I think, is the collaboration between poets and other artists – and the different approaches taken, both to the subject and to other artists’ ways of working. I am currently working on a project with artist Mark Dunn and have been struck by the effect that the process has had: on each of us as artists, on both of us as a collective unit, on the sources and subject of the work and on the development of the work itself.
The source of the project is The Observer’s Book of Birds, one of the popular (in our view, iconic) series of pocket-sized guidebooks published from the 1930s to the 1980s. The book has a number of significances as both object and subject:
– with its combination of idiosyncratic description, archaic-sounding classifications (‘haunt’, ‘notes’ etc), Latin and (sometimes outmoded) common names, and illustrations (taken themselves from ‘Lord Lilford’s work’ Coloured Figures of the Birds of the British Islands (1885 – 97)), it is interesting in itself as an artefact;
– as a way into a different time and space (when Goldfinches were kept in cages and Kites were seen only in Wales, but when Thrushes (Throstles) were commonplace and the Yellowhammer’s song – a little bit of bread and no cheese – was well-known);
– as a way into another time and space: our own roaming childhoods, where we learned that stealing eggs from nests was cruel and beautiful, and from which the long jagged shadow of a crow-gibbet still stretches.
Given this textual / visual / evocative richness, the book provoked a wealth of initial responses – but also any number of questions. How would we work? Would one of us lead? Would we each keep our processes separate? Could we develop a dialectic method? Which birds? Which media? What would the product look like?
Well, so far at least, the process has been extremely productive – and instructive. We have worked together in discussion, exploring and developing ideas; and gone away into our own times and spaces, each with our book of birds (the same and not the same). I’ve peered out of my windows, watching rain and sun moving off the hills; remembered Cormorants on the pier at Whitby, the green sounds of a garden forty years ago; listened to the Jackdaws tapping on the roof, the Starlings echoing everything from the baby two doors up to white noise; imagined blasted heaths haunted by Ravens; heard (on YouTube or in the inner ear of memory) the cradle songs of Wood Pigeons and Cuckoos, the alien electronica of the Bittern. When we’ve come back together, though inevitably we are usually working on different species, we bring our ideas / drafts / sketches / processes – and the whole thing moves on.
The format of The Observer’s Books, so far, has also given us a structure to work with, or around. There is a picture, a narrative introduction, and a short list describing habitat (‘haunt’), eggs, nest etc. The textual arrangement suggested immediately two poems – one formal, one free-form – and two registers. The image – well, here’s a draft for the Bittern.
Family ARDEIDAE. Herons.
BITTERN Length 30 in.
Botaurus stellaris Resident
Mahon mourned your loss in a long winter,
your bones in a ditch sad traces of a life
lived singing and striding the starlit boglands;
and now, my dad’s Observer’s Book of Birds
cracked open on the desk, I look at an old picture,
hear your strange call like the deep of the earth.