Invective Against Swans
Formerly the launch (and some thoughts on the olfactory properties of books)

A successful event at the Poetry Café always involves a little sweat. In this instance, raised partly through the preparation that went into Thursday’s combined private view, launch and performance, but also induced by the sheer number of people we tried to squeeze through the door and into the intimate space. Through the clever use of a very long cable, we managed to broadcast the reading (accompanied by a soundscape, created by my old pal Douglas Benford: http://www.myspace.com/sicutdb, which meshed sampled urban noises with various children’s toys) from basement performance space to café level above.

Not only has Formerly been launched, but also Hercules Editions, which has gone from being a discussion Vici and I have conducted over many months, to being a proper press – its physical manifestation in one little book. So I guess that makes us publishers (yes, with only one publication to date, but you have to begin somewhere). And I can’t help wondering what my father would have made of our little book, if he was still with us. There is a family story that he produced his first publication (a colour magazine, no less) on a hand-press when he was just 14 years old. He became a newspaper journalist after he graduated from college (there was a stint at The New York Times, where he rather inconceivably used to review ballet); he started publishing books when he was still in his twenties, and continued to do so throughout the whole of his life.

The library of my childhood home was a kind of sacred space, separated from the rest of the house by a glass-covered porch, so it felt somehow removed from the everyday business of eating and sleeping and playing. It had a particular smell: fusty, leathery, which I can still sniff out in certain antiquarian bookshops (particularly ones where the stock doesn’t shift quickly). My father used to smell books, and so I’ve inherited the habit from him. I get off on the whiff of decay from a yellowing Penguin paperback, its orange cover rusty with age, but my father was particularly partial to a fine Moroccan binding (which has a delicate aroma – sweet, like an unlit cigar).

Readers of Invective will remember that I began the year by launching Desire Paths, hand-set by Hein Elferink in the Netherlands in an edition of 10, with woodcuts by Linda Karshan, separately editioned by Mette Ulstrup for Neils Borch Jensen in Copenhagen. The woodcuts are on delicate rice paper that fold in between the sections of my poem like pressed leaves, the sheets folding neatly into a hand-made, linen-covered box. It is too big to sit on a shelf, it is not designed to be read (although I hope the poem has enough integrity to match the materials of its making) so much as admired. My father would have loved it.

Whereas our chapbook (our ‘Herculean’ production) is printed by Risograph on recycled paper. Risograph is the process used by schools to produce high-volume, inexpensive textbooks – if you open our book and stick your nose in, you get the scent of a 70s classroom (it almost feels as if the ink could rub off on your fingers). Vici calls it ‘cheap and dirty’, but that’s really what our book is about – the damp, forgotten corners of London. The form should always match the content, that’s what I tell my students, and so the slightly rubbed-away quality imposed by the Risograph (the words fading into the grain of the paper) echoes the disappearing places we are attempting to record.

My father would have liked our book as well, because he would have recognised it as a statement of intent. I am his daughter, who has inherited this weird obsession with the materiality of books (possibly why I don’t as yet have a Kindle), but I also understand, as he did, that the book is a commercial object which reflects its time. He published grand volumes in his day, but also modest paperbacks. I’d like to think our little book falls somewhere in the middle ground – it is produced simply, not too expensively, so it is democratic, an object of this recession-age, but still signed and numbered. And it smells good too.


Formerly can be ordered here: http://herculeseditions.wordpress.com/

Hello to Berlin

Most cities worth visiting need to be experienced more than once, over time, in different seasons, staying in different quarters. It is essential to have a decent map, to walk as much as possible, to see how different neighbourhoods join up so that you get a feel of the city’s arteries. It’s important to have an itinerary, to know what you want to see, famous landmarks and museums; but it is equally important to wander, to adopt the flâneur’s stance, to rely on local knowledge.

Nowhere more so than in Berlin, a city which seems in constant flux; in places, like an enormous construction site, still only 20 years new since unification. We had visited once before, in the dead of winter, in the midst of a snowstorm, and although our second trip was also in winter, the sun was out, and so were Berliners, sitting in cafés and on park benches. They’re a bit tougher than Londoners, their coats and boots are sturdier (and their dogs have more attitude).

Even with a map, we got lost. Frequently. But getting lost is a good thing in Berlin, because much of what is interesting is hidden; you have to be intrepid and seek things out. This is the city of pop-ups – pop-up galleries, pop-up restaurants – sometimes in temporary structures, or buildings ready for the bulldozer, so you have to be quick. The most vibrant art spaces are tucked away – down alleys, in courtyards, up several flights in office blocks, sharing stair space with lawyers and architects. Many of our finds were accidental, and more treasured for it.

We were in town as guests of Kit Schulte (http://www.kitschulte.com/) whose gallery is located in Schöneberg, in the south west of the city. Galleries have started to spring up here as rents in Mitte become too dear; there is enough of a critical mass to instigate a Schöneberg art walk on the last Saturday of every month. The Schöneberg gallery scene is still not as big as the one around Checkpoint Charlie (now rather loftily referred to as the Berlin Gallery District, complete with its own impossible-to-follow map) or the explosion around Mitte. But Schöneberg is the sort of place where galleries might thrive – a very typical Berlin mix of residential (young families with buggies), Turkish restaurants and gay hotels (the large and uncensored windows of the S & M shops are like Cathy de Monchaux installations). Kit’s gallery is located in her flat – so that the space is inviting, welcoming, part of everyday life (her dog Louie is often to be found in the gallery with his squeaky toy). The rooms are large and light, high-ceilinged, with their original Victorian cornice work.

The space is particularly well-suited to the minimal drawings of Linda Karshan and Koho Mori-Newton. Linda’s work occupied the larger room. One wall was given over to works from the recent sequence of woodcuts, the basis for our collaborative edition, Desire Paths. It was the first time I’d seen them displayed on the wall, like grids for an imagined streetscape, and it gave particular resonance to the reading of the poem at the private view.

Koho’s drawings were in a smaller room, giving them a concentrated intensity, like tornadoes. He had hung the side wall of windows with huge columns of grey silk, which looked like tarnished pewter from a distance. The two artists occupied their separate and distinct spaces, but carried on a meaningful dialogue across the parquet floors.

On the Saturday, we ventured into the Berlin Gallery District to visit the Niels Borch Jensen Gallery (http://www.berlin-kopenhagen.de/galerie.html) and Linda’s exhibition with Berlin-based artists Sara Sizer and Dolores Zinny & Juan Maidagan (a husband and wife team of sculptors). Here the show was collaborative and integrated, with the artists responding to each other through the way the exhibition was designed. The afternoon showing was described not as a private view but as an ‘afternoon gathering’ with live music (improvised jazz that filled the space and echoed into the other galleries in the building). Unlike private views in London, this was truly a family event (the kids were having fun in the stairwell, testing out the acoustics in the spectacular Art Deco building, creating their own musical accompaniment).

More space to other places we visited in future posts …

Desire paths

Staphorst is a place you can’t quite place. I was expecting it to be rural, and it is, in a way. We travelled on three trains to get there; from London to Brussels, Brussels to Schiphol. And from Schiphol, heading north, through Rotterdam, towards Meppel; the landscape eventually yielding to wide, flat fields separated by irrigation canals and lined by rigid rows of poplars, with the odd farmhouse or windmill suggesting habitation. But once we had alighted from the train, I was surprised by the amount of traffic. While some of the older women still cycle on ancient pushbikes in traditional dress, there are a lot of cars for such a small town, all heading in convoy to low-built strip malls along the main street. In that respect it reminded me of suburban New Jersey. But the long farmhouses with their painted shutters and thatched roofs brought me quickly back to Holland. None of the houses along the main road are particularly old; although they resemble seventeenth-century dwellings, most were built in the early part of the twentieth century, giving the town a feel of a restored village (again, I thought of America, somewhere like Williamsburg, although Staphorst is not a tourist recreation – this is how people live). The farmsteads grew up in a straight line along the bog; a farmer’s son would build his house behind his parent’s house, and his children behind him, so all the houses are regimented along the main road, facing the same way. There are cows and sheep in the yards, milk pails hanging along the wall, thatched sheds in the back. It is considered to be one of the most religious places in Holland. The town falls silent on Sundays.

It is an odd place then to find an exhibition of contemporary art. But just on the outskirts of town, Hein Elferink has built a gallery next to his house. On the Saturday we were there, light was streaming through the large horizontal glass roof, and we could see the brown forms of winter trees crowding the sky. We were gathered for the private view of works by Linda Karshan and Marian Breedveld; Linda’s drawings, as always, stark in the best possible way, like charts to nowhere, next to Marian’s bright swipes of colour. They worked surprising well together, matched in their sense of pattern and motion (Linda and Marian discovered they had a common background in dance which informed both their works).

It was also the launch of Desire Paths, the edition of Linda’s new woodcuts and my corresponding poem. It is a beautiful production; the sheets emerging from an earth-coloured box, Linda’s woodcuts on delicate tissue-thin Japanese paper, but dark, grained, serious. My poem like an inscription carved in stone or on a tomb. Amazing to think that although Linda was in Connecticut, I was in London and Hein was in Staphorst, the finished result of our project is completely, stunningly integrated. Our paths finally came together, making the title of the work more relevant.

But this is what Hein does. He shows us his presses, his cases of metal type: Fournier (which is the font chosen for our edition), Baskerville, Gill Sans, Bembo. Classic faces. The paper he uses is thick and smooth, a creamy off-white. His boxes are covered in linen, the bindings hand-stitched. This is slow, meticulous work. The book as artifact, as artwork.

So maybe not so odd then, to be in Staphorst. The town is famous for its ‘stipwork’, a traditional kind of button embroidery that decorates caps and skirts. It is a place where people make things with their hands, the way they’ve been making things for years. There is devotion and patience in this kind of making, just as there is devotion and patience in making books, and pictures, and poems …

Fine lines

 

On the lower-ground floor of the Redfern Gallery on Cork Street is a small display of twentieth-century woodblock prints by seminal British artists such as Gill and Ravilious. Monochrome figures and landscapes against the stark white walls. But my eye is drawn to the back wall, where two contemporary prints hang side by side: against a vibrant black ground (the black is almost shining), delicate white ladders appear as if they’ve been conjured from nowhere. But these are not ladders you might climb; they are unstable, unreliable, crooked.

I haven’t seen these prints “in the flesh” since the day Linda Karshan showed them to me in her studio. These two are from a set, five of which were reprinted in my last collection, Fetch, as a way of splitting the book into discreet sections. The title poem, a film-noir-style narrative about a woman who creates a “fetch” or doppelganger to seduce a former lover, was divided into five installments, interspersed throughout the book, each “chapter” introduced by one of Linda’s striking woodblocks. In the two which are hanging here, there are two ladders in each, twinned, but not identical, but as the series progresses, the ladders multiply, become dense, more difficult to negotiate or separate. As my unnamed narrator sends her fetch out to do her bidding, the coupling becomes a triangle. It felt right to accompany my strange poem of betrayal and disillusionment with these spiky, odd, imperfect images.

Thinking about the process of woodblock printing, the artist chisels into the block along the grain to create what will appear as white on the page; what remains uncut will take the ink, appear as black. Of course, when the block is inked and transferred onto paper, the image will appear in reverse, a mirror image; this also felt appropriate when thinking of the fetch, the familiar, the doppelganger, perhaps the “reverse” of the speaker.

Linda is about to embark on a new set of woodblocks, and I will be writing a new poem to accompany them. A mirroring of her process, perhaps? I think of Heaney’s famous analogy of “digging” for the crafting of the poem; what we poets do is a kind of cutting away until the line is shaped.

 

 

Time being

On the occasion of Linda Karshan’s retrospective at the Redfern, I wanted to post an essay I wrote about our collaborative project, Marks, which was published as a limited edition artist’s book by Pratt Contemporary Editions in 2007. Linda’s show features work from 1992 to 2010 and is on until 16th October.

http://www.prattcontemporaryart.co.uk/Linda%20Karshan/Karshan%20LOPF1.html

http://www.redfern-gallery.com/pages/artistinfo/16.html

23rd February 2005

A threat of snow. The sky’s light grey, strangely empty. Linda and I meet in the Oval late morning, each in our serious heavy-duty coats, go for a coffee near the station. We talk about real North American winters, the sort of cold that enters your bones, real snow. Not like here, where everything grinds to a halt with the first flakes. We talk about how artists and writers come together, sometimes easily, sometimes with difficulty, and decide we don’t want to plan anything. Nothing should be forced.

We drive south; through Brixton, Camberwell, Dulwich. The landscape changes from urban tower blocks and concrete, to 30s houses that dream of suburbs; that terrain which is so familiar to us of well-cared-for lawns and doormats that say welcome. Linda has mentioned before that she can identify with the childhood in my poems. America is about childhood for both of us now, since we have lived our whole adult lives somewhere else. I think of a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne:

The years, after all, have a kind of emptiness when we spend too many of them on a foreign shore. We defer the reality of life, in such cases, until a future moment when we shall again breathe our native air; but, by and by there are no future moments; or, if we do return, we find that the native air has lost its invigorating quality, and that life has shifted its reality to the spot where we have deemed ourselves only temporary residents. Thus, between two countries we have none at all, or only that little space of either in which we finally lay down our discontented bones.

My mother used to carry that quote inside her wallet, the paper brown and brittle, and so I knew it from very early on, before I had any inkling that one day I would be an expatriate, as Hawthorne was, as Linda is. I always wondered what it meant for my mother, who is 76 and has always lived in America. Could she somehow sense my future in it? She must have cut it out of an article published in ArtNews Annual in 1966, where it was in turn quoted by John Ashbery, writing on American painters in Paris. Later, driving home, Linda will tell me about her year at the Sorbonne, the excitement of Paris in the 60s, the time of the painters in Ashbery’s article, and how she knew it was the place for her, and I will remember that same feeling of arrival in the late eighties, when I first moved to London.

But that’s later. We park on a tree-lined residential street, Sunray Avenue (like Cornell’s Utopia Parkway) and I can’t guess where Linda is taking me. I follow her up the driveway of a family house with a bright pink corrugated metal garage door. It tilts open to reveal chairs, a mirror, a bicycle, a filing cabinet, stacks of boxes. It is a surprise, but later it makes sense to me, that you should have to pass through that space of memory and nostalgia, the contents of a family’s life, to get to Linda’s studio.

She takes me through another door, and we are in a small white corridor between the house and the back garden. We open another door and head up the garden path. Through the window, I can see into the kitchen of the house. Cluttered, with a big pine table. A woman is seated at the table, drinking her coffee, watching us. We walk past a trampoline, a child’s model fairy castle. There is snow lying on the tree branches, a light frost on the grass. At the end of the garden is a plain wooden building, with a small porch, like a Scandinavian hut. It looks at if it has travelled through the sky, landed here.

Linda opens the last door, Alice negotiating Wonderland, and we are in the studio. It’s like one of those spartan New England churches. Linda had mentioned the spiders, and how when she had arrived in the studio Monday morning, she found their webs matched one of her grids. And here are the webs, cross stitched into the beams. Linda had been wondering what she wanted me to see when I first walked in, and when she arrived in the studio Monday morning, she found what she wanted to show me was already there. And here are the pictures, the clean white of the paper against the studio wall, a halo of pinpricks around them, from other pictures that have occupied this space.

But I won’t talk about the pictures. What I write will talk about the pictures.

Linda pulls out other drawings from thick stacks in the corner, explains how one led to the next, which led to the next. Everything is chance. I tell her I’m reading Molloy. She has mentioned his sucking stones in her writing, and I’ve been trying to make sense of the reference. I get it now—the comfort of doing something you understand, you’ve done often. Something primitive, almost childlike. I pick up my copy, read her the line:

If you think of the forms and light of other days, it is without regret.

I already have an idea that this will be my beginning, as I look at the bright grey light that fills the studio. Everything is chance.

We spend the morning talking, looking at drawings, books. Feeling our way in. Thinking about progression. We drive to the Dulwich Picture Gallery to have lunch. There is snow on the lawn. We talk about Soane and how his buildings look like mausolea. Solid, irrefutable. Soane wanted to control space, the relationships of things inside a room. What Linda does is like the blueprint, a way of reading space. A map of the interior.

We go back to the studio, with Soane’s symmetry in our heads, read Donne’s ‘A Valediction forbidding mourning’ which ends with the line:

Thy firmnes makes my circle just,
And makes me end, where I begunne.

Then Linda starts to draw, and I watch her make the line down the centre of the paper, in her rubber gloves, like a surgeon halving the body with a scalpel. The precision of it. I know that this image will go into the poem, that moment of beginning, of entry. Here’s my beginning… Linda talks as she draws, she counts silently, she taps her foot. She tosses a drawing to the floor, it floats like a sail. She crosses the room, leaves her footprint on the paper as she passes. She takes up another paper, the same motions, the lines traced and retraced, she turns it over, finds the ghost of the drawing beneath, begins to trace the lines again. As I watch her, I am writing, just randomly, things I’m thinking, things she’s saying. The writing is coming out in short lines, almost following the motion of Linda’s hand. This feels right to me.

Before we go, Linda shows me a folder of work done by children who visited her Soane exhibition. They were asked to describe her drawings. One of them wrote:

There were spaces. They were made out of space.

We drive back north, through London in rush hour, but I am thinking of space, how difficult it is to leave the studio, return to the world of things. Linda makes this journey every day, from her home to the studio and back. A to B to A. The way we navigate our places, the way we move through space.

Something else one of the children wrote about Linda’s drawings:

The whole earth is like that.

Yes, it is.