a poem, a painter and an electric fan

We  were in one of the small galleries off the main space at Bank Street.  Stephen set up his musical paraphernalia in the corner.  Mark swirled plastic pots of runny-looking paint, leaned his canvas against the wall and sat cross legged before it.  I set myself up with table and chair, took out my pen and notepad, my Adam Zagajewski for luck.

Stephen used Blue Tac to hold microphones in place, one on my paper, one on Mark’s canvas.  These little round things are very sensitive, picking up the sound of my sleeve as it followed my arm.  And then someone said, shall we just start, so we did.

I think it was Mark that made the first sound, his brushstrokes captured by the mike and amplified across the room.  But there was no colour on his brush, and this is reflected in the nothing that I wrote about in my first line: “the door opens to the scratch of nothing, the wet blank of rain …”

The canvas soon took on colour, and its autumnal palette began to drive the writing: “ochre scents of hop catching and conkers.”  Okay, I don’t actually know when you might pick hops, but free writing does not claim accuracy as one of its strengths.

The autumnal theme runs through much of my scribbling.  I gave the page the title June 11th, just because it makes me feel like I’ve made a start when making a start seems scary.  However, it looks a bit silly on a page full of ramblings about autumn.  When I turned the page, I gave it a new title, “October 11th”!

“Under a bronze sky …”  The bronze sky is a recurring phrase that obviously comes out of the painting.  I was thinking of a child beneath a tree in autumn.  The phrase turns up over and over, losing the child that was playing conkers and waiting for a school bus at one point: a dead end, as it turns out.  But the bronze sky makes it into the finished poem: “… I sleepwalk, waiting for the sky to bronze, fall in.”

There were many repetitions in the writing, a recurrent boot lace being an extension of the conker, “the pale scrape,” a more successful phrase that moves from the pale scrape of September, to “the pale scrape of summer …” as the colour palette changed, quite dramatically, away from deep reds and bronze, to bright lilac and yellow, the earlier tones, almost imperceptible.

The texture of the painting came through in places, as does the sound of Stephen’s experimental instrumentation: “Lines watered with silk, scratch the strings, the slow stroke of a bow … dabbing, daubing … plucking triplets, dissonant until lilacs bloom”

Here is a passage where some of the thoughts running around try to come together:

The pale scrape of September has not reached this place

Ochre heat spits at my back, and a wasp glances my ear …”

The wasp is thanks to a portable fan Stephen was using against a mike at one point.  It was a lawnmower on another page.

This was a far less frightening experience than I had imagined.  I wrote whatever came to mind (towards the end I’ve written, “It’s possible I’ve lost my concentration”), and the free writing is a good reflection of the event, its process, the way the canvas altered so completely, the way sounds lodged in my subconscious and came out as belonging to something other than their source.  The finished poem is built out of snippets from across the 15 pages of writing, and so the relationship between the poem and the painting (it’s harder to talk about its relationship with the sound without the sound, but it does have one) is complicated by the fact that they don’t necessarily look like one another as finished products, in tone, colour etc, although there is very clearly a rib across the canvas: “… and the self/ retreats, hides behind the marbled white//of a rib …”

I think, though, if I want to get anything out of this residency, it is to find a way to write about art, in response to art, that is complicated, that is not description or narrative driven, that is not something I thought I could do, or an interpretation with a clear pathway, but where the writing’s relationship to its art source is both direct and meandering.  I think that’s what happened.

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