I visited Edinburgh University Main Library today, open to the public on Doors Open Day. I wanted to see again the mesostic poems, by myself, Alec Finlay and others, that were installed on the bay ends as part of the library refurbishment in 2009. Each is about a particular author whose work is in the collection; an earlier post gives more background.
The gallery asked Alec Finlay to make a new work for Callendar Park, and invited him to work with the gallery’s Youth Ambassadors (YAs), teenagers drawn from local secondary schools who are involved in different ways with the gallery’s programme. Alec asked me, along with other poets and artists, to work with the YAs over the summer to develop his ideas, centered on creating viewpoints within the park, and linking these to plants brought here by the Romans (the line of the Antonine Wall runs just to the north of Callendar House).
WALLFLOWERS | FLORES MURI – a series of plantings in Callendar Park marked by archaeological poles – was finalised and installed by Alec in spring 2014.
Sadly it was vandalised immediately and thoroughly.
Some flowers among the ruins is a new booklet published by Callendar Park, Falkirk. It invites the reader to walk in their imagination through the park, and to view the plantings that were once there, albeit briefly, rather like the Antonine Wall itself.
If you’d like a copy, send an SAE to Studio Alec Finlay, 53 Prince Regent Street, Edinburgh EH6 4AR. (It measures c.14x11cm, so you don’t need a large envelope.)
Alec and I had made a couple of preliminary visits in the spring, looking for views. As the gallery is showing Nature Over Again (After Poussin), his initial idea was to set up viewfinders to ‘frame’ certain landscapes in a painterly way; but given the woodland we found too few. What we did find were the golf-course with its flags, the Antonine Wall still casting its Roman shadow, and what we called the ‘declension tree’ (a red maple), whose trunk divided close to the ground.
Come summer the tall limes are flowering and abuzz with bees. Between showers I explore the grounds with the Youth Ambassadors, looking for sites that will work as viewpoints and a views; like a golf flag which draws you towards itself, then points you towards what comes next. Nine in all (like the golf-course); each marked by an flag-topped archaeological pole, and a plant first brought here by the Romans (some of which already grow here, others we’ll plant specially). We write about and sketch the views, compare one with another, contrast different views from the same viewpoint.
After researching our Roman flora, we write very short poems about them, playing with their features, their uses and the meaning of their Latin names. Then we plot a route through the grounds, from one pole to the next, realising they’ll be more visible in winter; the landscape now is like a series of discreet rooms. We finalise the pole locations by photographing them in situ, each with a poem-label for its matched flora. It’s a good way of seeing how the poles link up, and considering the work as a whole.
The last day is spent with photographer Robin Gillanders. At each location Robin takes three photos of each person in a t-shirt (happily there are nine of us, so no-one is left out) – head & torso, facing forwards; full length, ditto; full length, looking away at the view. And at each location Alec and I discuss the poems, already revised, revising some further on the spot (most interestingly the Whitmanesque ‘daffodil’).
Robin speaks about photographing other gardens –Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta, and Ermenonville where Rousseau is buried. Later, walking round Nature Over Again (After Poussin), Alec talks us through the images, and his personal memories of their creation; there’s some discussion of why the photos are ‘folded’.
I spent much of summer 2014 driving the motorways and country lanes of England and Wales with Luke Allan for there were our own there were the others, a project by Alec Finlay for the National Trust to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Luke & I visited 23 properties, all of which had some connection to the war – a family member who served and was perhaps killed; a house used as a hospital, grounds used as a training camp; gardens planted as memorials to the carnage. At each I led a silent memorial walk, bookended by a pair of poems from the past century on the theme of conflict. At most properties we set up a pair of lecterns, on which the poems were presented, and at some the lecterns were placed either end of a sandbag wall, reminiscent of the trenches. At a few we flew a red flag featuring a circular version of project’s title. That phrase is taken from Hamish Henderson’s Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica, about his experiences in the North African desert in the Second World War, but it seemed an apt way of memorialising all the victims of conflict, rather than just those ‘on our side’, as did the large-scale ceramic poppies installation at the Tower of London.
After the English and Welsh tours I was able to visit Belgium at the end of September to visit some of the First World War sites near Ypres: graveyards, battlefields, memorials. I also saw the excellent exhibition In Flanders Fields in the Lakenhalle in the centre of Ypres itself, which shows the war from the perspective of the four armies who were fighting there: Belgian, French, British and German. We stayed at Talbot House in Poperinge, a small town which, for most of the war was just far enough behind the front line for it to be fairly safe. Talbot House became a social club for off-duty soldiers, and retains many features of that time. There are some new ones as well, including this film which recreates an evening’s entertainment in ‘Pops’.
A book of the same title documents and reflects on the project. It includes poems and prose by myself about the walks and the poems, as well as the poem ‘Cloqueliclot’ about my experiences in Belgium. It also features fine photos by Luke and Hannah.
After the road-trips of 2010 and 2011, Alec Finlay and I wrote a long poem about our travels on The Road North. It’s now been published in book form by Shearsman as the road north: a journey through Scotland guided by Bashō’s oku-no-hosomichi, 15 May 2010–15 May 2011.
With thanks to Tony Frazer at Shearsman, and Tomohiko Ogawa for the cover photograph – it’s a postcard of Scotland which Alec sent to Tomohiko, who ‘matched’ it with a landscape in Japan.
You can buy the book via the Shearsman website.
You can download an audio version free of charge from iTunes – search for ‘The Road North (Alec Finlay & Ken Cockburn).
And you can still read the original blog, written while we were on the road.
In August 2010 Alec Finlay and I visited Lochaber as part of The Road North. Our destination was Outlandia, a newly-built mountain hut, or artists’ field-station, commissioned by London Fieldworks (Bruce Gilchrist and Jo Joelson), designed by Malcolm Fraser, built by Norman Clark. Located a short, steep walk up from Fort William’s Braveheart car-park, it looks across the glen to the western slopes of Ben Nevis. You can read the account of our visit back then here.
Four years on and we’re returning to take part in Remote Performances, a collaboration between London Fieldworks and Resonance104.4fm. Over the course of a week, a series of specially commissioned artist performances and programmes created with local residents were broadcast live from Outlandia.
Driving north we stop and test the waters of Loch Eilt, a fondly remembered station from 2010, and we’re staying with Bruce and Jo, and many of the participating artists, at Frisealach in Lochailort, the house of Malcolm Fraser and Helen Lucas, where we also stayed a couple of nights in 2010. On the track up to Outlandia, Alec picks and I eat an angel’s-wing mushroom, prompting a Proustian memory of our previous visit; eating them raw in the hut with oatcakes, and cooked for breakfast at Annie Brigg’s the next morning, with fresh eggs from her chickens.
Our contribution to Remote Performances is a reading of the long poem The Road North, which developed after and to some extent out of the blog we kept over the year we were travelling. In the hut we sit with our backs to the window at a table supporting a large sound-desk. There is no electricity supply to the hut, and Bruce tells me all the equipment is powered by a hydrogen generator, which runs off hydrogen drawn from the atmosphere.
When I look up I see tree-tops and rain patterning the high roof-window. After a introduction from Tam Dean Burn, we’re on… back in Outlandia, recalling B-roads and Passing Places, and speaking to people… here, there and everywhere. We read the whole poem apart from the two Epilogues, which we don’t quite have time for.
With thanks to Bruce and Jo for the invitation to take part, and to everyone who made Remote Performances possible.
Earlier this year I mentioned that I was taking part in the exhibition Wordsworth and Basho: Walking Poets at Dove Cottage, Grasmere. That exhibition is now up and running – it closes on 2 November – and this post is about three books connected with it.
While yet we may is my contribution to the exhibition. It exists as a boxed set of 68 cards, and as a book. “While yet we may is composed of 17 words from Basho’s Oku no hosomichi (best known in English as The Narrow Road to the Deep North, though I worked mainly from the English translation by Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu published as Back Roads to Far Towns) and 51 extracts from The Prelude, The Recluse and ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’ by William Wordsworth. The idea for While yet we may came from a ‘variable construction’ by the poet Gael Turnbull (1928–2004), which consisted of two sets of cards : one of 28 cards, each featuring a noun, the other of 112 cards, each featuring a qualifying phrase. As Turnbull explained, “any one of the one-hundred-and-twelve phrases may relate to any of the twenty-eight nouns”. Of a published version in which each phrase was paired with a noun he wrote, “this version is no less final than any other”. The same applies to the version of While yet we may printed here.”
Copies of While yet we may (book and cards) are available from the bookshop at Dove Cottage, at £8.00 and £25.00; alternatively, you can buy them online at Big Cartel.
Alec Finlay’s contribution to Walking Poets is the booklet a-ga : on mountains, which includes pieces composed for the road north.
The exhibition catalogue has now been published, a fine full-colour publication edited by Mike Collier, and featuring work by, among others, Autumn Richardson, Richard Skelton. Ayako Tani and Brian Thompson. You can buy a copy here for only £9.99. One of the photos I took on the walk up Easdale Tarn in January has made its way onto the front cover.
I was in the Lake District last week for a symposium on ‘Wordsworth and Basho: Walking Poets’. A group of us were there to meet and discuss what we might make for a forthcoming exhibition at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, home to the Wordsworths from 1799 to 1808, now a museum and home of the Wordsworth Trust.
Curator Jeff Cawton shared his enthusiasm for ‘The Prelude’ and its various manuscripts. Most are written in the hand either of Mary, the poet’s wife, or Dorothy, his sister, with amendments by William; apparently he found writing physically painful, so composed in his mind while out walking, dictating the results when he came home.
The pages above show a draft of Book 10, with William’s revisions on the left hand page:
… As a light
And pliant harebell, swinging in the breeze
On some grey rock, its birth-place, so had I
Wantoned, fast rooted on the ancient tower
Of my beloved country, wishing not
A happier fortune than to wither there
And now was from that pleasant station plucked
And tossed about in whirlwind. I rejoiced…
A group of us managed a walk in Easedale, up Sour Milk Gill (a fast-flowing stream) to Easedale Tarn (a placid lake). At the foot I read ‘Emma’s Dell’, one of the ‘Poems on the Naming of Places’ – right place, wrong season, as the poem is set on “an April morning, fresh and clear”, whereas we had damp January.
Though with all the recent rain, it was still true that
The Rivulet, delighting in its strength,
Ran with a young man’s speed…
In the grey afternoons and long nights of January, it’s good to be reminded of The Road North, the summer Alec Finlay and I followed the Japanese poets Basho and Sora along the hosomichi, the back roads, of Perthshire, Argyll, the Hebrides and elsewhere.
The big blog is still available, but we’ve also written a long poem about the journey. There are four extracts from it in the new edition of Northwords Now (no. 25) – ‘Glen Lyon’, ‘Loch Etive’, ‘Schiehallion’ and ‘Berneray’– available here; other sections are online at Alec’s blog; more will appear in the spring edition of Shearsman.
Inspired by Boswell & Johnson’s ‘Tour to the Hebrides’, Out of Books is an illustrated guide to my & Alec Finlay’s modern-day interpretation. Reading the text in landscapes our predecessors described, we’ll invite people to join them at readings & guided walks. To date we’ve been to Edinburgh and Auchinleck, where Boswell & Johnson began and ended their journeys: over the summer we’ll visit Nairn, Inverness, Drumnadrochit (Loch Ness), the Isles of Skye and Coll, and Inveraray.
We’re especially interested in the books they read, quote from and refer to as they travel, from the Greek and Latin classics to the now obscure works of 18th century divines.
The Out of Books blog is here. You can select a location on the map to read our online journal – as places are visited, new links will be added. Once we’ve completed the journal, we’ll develop the blog by writing ten thematic posts, to be published late 2013.
Last month I spent an overcast spring day at the National Fruit Collection, Brogdale Farm, near Faversham in Kent. It was supposed to be the height of the blossom season, but most of the trees were holding on to their winter bareness until the weather improved.
I was there to lead a couple of haiku walks – the idea was that we’d write poems about the abundant blossom, but what we actually wrote about was the late arrival of spring.
I was there with Luke Allan, who works as Alec Finlay’s studio manager. Luke was there to install and photograph poem-labels for a project of Alec’s called The Bee Bole, and here all the poems were variants on Basho’s famous haiku about a bee leaving a peony-flower.
You can see all the poems here.
Below is a sequence of haiku, featuring some of the names we came across (four trees and a beer).
an Early Bird
at the Sun Inn
has yet to crow
the Blue Prolific
is anything but
and one bee
in a fallow field