Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Pottery and claypipe

The third week of my winter residency at Scottish Sculpture Workshop and I've drafted all poems I intended to write. Today, I spent some time reflecting on the overall theme and narrative of the poems. I am thinking of The Music That Dances, the working title I have given them, as a series of poems inspired by the idea of a woman visiting her cousin in search of family stories. In a way, it is the story of one family leaving the land in search of a better life in the city whilst relatives stay behind and the growing gap between these two families in terms of the life they live and the way they relate to the land where they have their roots. Longing to fill in what is written between the lines of records of birth and death, the daughter of the family who left for the city visits her cousin and asks him to take her to the house where she was born. Here is one of the poems:

Pottery and Claypipe
Digging up the story
Buried beneath the stones
Unravelling layer by layer
Pottery and claypipes
Used by the men and women
Who played their fiddle at ceilidhs
Turned hay in the fields

The story builds up
As my trowel brushes away
Yet another sheet of soil

Like an archaeologist
Evidence I’m looking for
Evidence of stories passed
On to me by mother, grandmother
Evidence of lives lived
Of stories burning inside
Shared by neighbours around the fire

Pottery by claypipe, the story
Buried beneath the stones
Builds up, layer by layer

Copyright text, poem and image Petra Vergunst

Friday, 17 January 2014

The music of poetry

Most people consider poetry and music to be distinctly different art forms with the expressive qualities of poetry deriving from the narrative and meaning created by words whilst the expressive qualities of music arise from the emotions, atmospheres and drama expressed through sounds. Through words poets can express exactly what their work is about. Composers, on the other hand, lack this opportunity. These people would thus argue that poetry and music are distinctly different. I couldn’t agree less. In this blog I will present one counterargument by exploring the music inherent in poetry.

Working on Wind, Willow, Water revealed the proximity of poetry to music. When I wrote this poem I was not only looking for words that would describe the floodplain, I also wanted the poem to sound well, to be full of rhythm and tension. But even more music inherent in the poetry surfaced when even I recorded the poems. The heightened speech that I used to recite the poem emphasised pitch, rhythm, dynamics - and silences. Together this created the pattern of climax and relaxation similar to that what a composer is looking for in his or her music. The soundscape of the video poem Wind, Willow, Water thus not only consisted of the sounds created on a treble recorder, it also consisted of the music created by the poem.

In creating a poetic soundscape for Wind, Willow, Water I noticed that at times the actual meaning of words was less important than the sound and rhythm they elicited. The very title, for example, consists of three words that alliterate on the letter w to create an undulating and fluid experience. As these words are repeated, the meaning of these words gradually become less urgent than their sound and the imagery those sounds conjures up. Other poets have worked with onomatopoeia to create a similar effect. The poet Billy Letford (see video, copyright William Letford), for example, opens his poem There's Hunners O Burds On The Roofs with made-up words that, I imagine, resemble the sound of a flock of starlings on the roof of a building in a city. 

The landscape between poetry and music is a continuum on which the performance of poetry can be a musical affair that, at times, goes beyond the meaning at times. During my residency at SSW I want to explore the landscape between the two poles to find my own way to express the music inherent in poetry and, ultimately, to create a poetry performance that sings like music.

Copyright text Petra Vergunst

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Darkness and isolation

A new year and new challenges. The first two months of 2014 have brought the exciting opportunity of a residency at the Scottish Sculpture Workshop in Lumsden to develop a piece of performance poetry as part of their winter residency programme.

The theme of the winter residency programme, ‘Darkness and Isolation’ raises a lot of questions. What kind of isolation are we referring to? Isolation can be physical, environmental, social, political. Some kinds of isolation can be factual, many other kinds are more a feeling, an experience, a perception. Isolation is also a relative concept and we need to ask ourselves in relation to what we feel isolated. These questions are particularly important to me as my background is in rural development. Surely, living in remote rural communities can be isolated in a physical sense, but I question whether inhabitants necessarily feel isolated socially and culturally. The Land Reform legislation has even taken a step towards addressing issues of political and economic isolation by giving communities the opportunity to buy land hand and thereby take control over a communities’ destiny. Though many communities feel this may be too big a step, this legislation may effect their experience of political and economic isolation. At the same time, city living can be an isolated experience as many people hardly know their neighbours and the less well-off are marginalised. The poet Meg Bateman captures this particularly well in her poem Remoteness in which she describes where you can find remoteness nowadays: “in the towerblocks between motorways/where people are removed,/ edged out from power”.

As part of my project Said in Stone last summer, I wrote around twenty poems in which I tried to capture the experiences and stories related to stones of a variety of real and imagined people in Grampian. When I reflected on these poems it struck me that, in one way or another, most of the poems dealt with issues of – what I call – embeddedness, that is, the experience of belonging to a certain place, time and community. To me, embeddedness and isolation are head and tail of the same coin. Though equally contested, I feel that embeddedness may have more positive connotations than isolation. During my residency at SSW I will thus use the term isolation to respond to the theme ‘Darkness and Isolation’.

To add to the art forms that I can use in my community music work, and because I enjoy writing, I’ll work in the medium of performance poetry during the residency. When I wrote the poems for Said in Stone and for the video poem Wind, Willow, Water, the musicality of poetry stood out for me. In carving out my own approach to performance poetry I want to capitalise on this musicality and borrow ideas from performance art about ways in which perceived barriers between a performer and the audience can be broken down through the creative use of space and giving the audience a role in the performance. I will showcase my work during an informal performance on Friday 14 February at SSW.

Other posts about the residency at Scottish Sculpture Workshop are:
The music of poetry 
Pottery and claypipe
Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst