Poetry of Place: an interview with ourselves

Poetry of Place took place on 17th May at Enitharmon Press in Bloomsbury. The event brought three poets into conversation about how place and poetry intersects in their work. Fran and I had met for the first time in March, after answering a call put out by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership for two PhD students to run a poetry event. We had a couple of months to get to know each other, plan, meet the poets, and figure out how to bring our own research interests into dialogue, and with the poetry. A real challenge, not least because we’re from very different disciplines  – or so we thought!

Right! I’m studying for a PhD based in the English department at KCL, situated between Old English and Performance studies. My research looks at Sutton Hoo, a seventh century medieval burial ground, and Old English poetry. I’m interested in how poetry and place come together at this site to (re)create history. I’m very much picking up on medievalists Gillian Overing and Marijane Osborn’s ‘conviction – or fiction – of the past as being located through or as place’ (Overing and Osborn, 1989).

Whilst I’m at UCL working across the fields of Architectural History & Theory, and Music, looking at the work of  the architect and composer Iannis Xenakis.   

Something you spoke about when we first met was Xenakis’ idea of the ‘polytope’. Can you talk about that some more, Roo? As I think it was quite key to forming our questions and approach (or at least helped me to see how our research spoke to each other).

Sure, well the Polytopes are the main focus of my research.  They are a series of multimedia installations involving sound, light and movement, conceived by Xenakis between 1967 and 1978.  The word ‘polytope’ literally translates as ‘many places’ and in one TV interview he describes the polytopes as a ‘place of poetry’.  Xenakis was frustrated that a scientific understanding of space is limiting: the idea that if we are in one place, we cannot be in another at the same time.

So both of our research interests are very much concerned with place, and how place functions, or affects creative or lived experiences, which led us to apply to host the ‘Poetry of Place’ evening. The poets, Jane Duran, Sharon Morris, and Anna Robinson had already been chosen by Enitharmon, along with their collections American Sampler (2104), Gospel Oak (2013), and Into The Woods (2014) respectively. For me, I was already interested in Sharon Morris’s work with her many languages – ancient and new – mixing together, and how poetry creates place and vice versa is a key question I’m thinking through. What was it about the call or the poets themselves that made you want to host the event?

For me it was perhaps a bit more speculative.  I did not know any of the poets, and, in all honesty this is probably the first time I have read a poetry collection cover to cover since my English A-Level!! In fact something I drew from the whole process was the new experience of really reading poetry, if you know what I mean.

Absolutely! This has been my most sustained engagement with modern poetry at least. And our relative inexperience with modern poetry explains our approach – we decided it would be a good idea to meet with all the poets and get to know them a little, and ask some key questions to test the most potent ideas or provocations.

Into the Woods, by Anna Robinson. American Sampler, by Jane Duran. Gospel Oak, by Sharon Morris.
Into the Woods, by Anna Robinson. American Sampler, by Jane Duran. Gospel Oak, by Sharon Morris.

We also decided quite early on that our own research interest in ‘place’ could be set up in dialogue with the poetry readings through images and we invited all of the poets to also include their own images.  This was definitely one of the big successes of the event, we even curated a set of postcards for the event, shall we choose three images to show here?  How about the brown chair, the sampler and the oak? These were three key objects and places that formed the centre of our conversation with the poets.

The brown chair. Courtesy of Anna Robinson.
The brown chair. Courtesy of Anna Robinson.

The chair that features in Anna Robinson’s collection, the brown chair, a place to read from, return to, it turns out is a real chair that she owns and has in her living room. I’ve even perched on it!

The poems from the brown chair are about how the place you are reading from is sometimes more important than what you are reading. It chimes with an essay by Proust, written in 1905, when he describes the act of reading in childhood as really being more about the place you are in.  

“There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we believe we left without having lived them, those we spent with a favorite book.” (Proust, 1905)

Anna also had to jettison a lot of material for this collection, and only a third made the final cut and so there is a complex selection process at work. The image of the chair operates as a portal to enter into the other poems. It also creates a sense of a dramatic rhythm structure…

Or a musical structure?

Well, if its musical then I would probably describe it as the scoring of movements, for example as in a symphony.

I love the word ‘movement’ as applied in music. Movement as rhythm is key in Anna’s work, but also movement across place. Her poems roam between the Lower Marsh and the (part-imagined) Lambeth Woods in particular … but all kinds of other places too, real and imagined!

Her poems take in so many physical experiences, running through long grasses here, evoking the smells of the marsh market there. So much in Jane’s and Sharon’s collections is sensory too, objects and places trigger memories and associations. Particularly for Jane, her material objects had such delicate details, often hand-worked, of course the Sampler (which gives the collection American Sampler its title) but also the hand-made Tappan Chair.

The Dickerman sampler. Courtesy of Jane Duran.
The Dickerman sampler. Courtesy of Jane Duran.

Yes, something Jane Duran explores deeply in her poetry is the way that a physical place might be literally woven into our sense of self, and how the process of making something such as a sampler or traditional chair connects you with the places we inhabit, remember or imagine.  

The act of making in place opens up the possibility that your experience of being in that place changes…

And, by extension, memory and the experience of revisiting a place changes your relationship with it each time…

And with your own memories.

Tappan Chair © Adam Nudd-Homeyer. Chair made by Daniel Tappan or his sons Walter and Winthop, ca. 3rd-4th quarter of the 19th century, collection of the Heard family, Sandwich, NH, USA. Thanks to Jane Duran.
Tappan Chair
© Adam Nudd-Homeyer. Chair made by Daniel Tappan or his sons Walter and Winthop, ca. 3rd-4th quarter of the 19th century, collection of the Heard family, Sandwich, NH, USA. Thanks to Jane Duran.

Sharon’s ‘oak’ image was more complicated. In the run up to and within the framework of the evening we thought a lot about trees as things, as objects, and so rather unwittingly came face to face with the subject-object conundrum that is one of the themes of Gospel Oak. We realised that our choice of poems highlighted the problem of how the language we use to talk about non-human things, the very fact that ‘tree’ is a noun, leads us to forget about their very live existence.

Heart of the Oak © Sharon Morris.
Heart of the Oak © Sharon Morris.

Which puts into practice some of the ideas I’ve been thinking about recently from Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, which is such a key text for researchers of place (in my opinion!).

Oh, I don’t know that one… I’ll have to look it up.  In fact one of the most surprising things about this whole adventure was how much our independent research projects interconnected despite being located in C7th Britain and C20th France, and working in English and Architecture.  It’s a small triumph for interdisciplinarity!

A great affirmation to end on!

Here are some lovely images of our experience putting together Poetry of Place, and of the night itself.  We hope you enjoy and please do tell us your thoughts on poetry and places.

Fran Allfrey is a first year PhD candidate at King’s College London, exploring medieval texts and objects in contemporary cultural and creative practices, especially related to Sutton Hoo. Follow @francheskyia

Roo Bernatek is a second year doctoral researcher at The Bartlett School of Architecture, working across the fields of Architectural History & Theory, and Music.  Her PhD project focuses on the work of composer and architect Iannis Xenakis, specifically his interactive multimedia ‘Polytope’ installations (1967-78). She draws upon both her academic background in Art History and training as a classical musician to explore the relationship between creative and critical practices.

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