Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Reading into the Light

photo taken from @seanhewitt on Twitter
Last Saturday at Ilkley Literature Festival  I had the rare pleasure of reading poems to an empty room. It wasn't completely empty. I had fellow poets/readers Helen Tookey and Seán Hewitt with me; and rows of pages from Tom Phillips' A Humument . But for the first few minutes of our set it was just us in the room.

I was reading a new poem about eight hundred of us walking across the bay, which was to be followed by single poems from Helen and Seán before we read an interleaved extension of them. It was an attempt to honour orally Phillips' idea behind 'A Humument': the making anew of an old text. We'd picked poems that evoked incantatory views of the natural world: a estuarine bay, a valley, a tree; so to begin the reading in the beautiful light, low ceilinged room of the Manor House in Ilkley was to open up a new dimension to the set. I felt was reading to the altered pages: each beautifully rendered artworks with either lyrical or funny statements remade from the novel 'A Human Document', in which words were connected to each other by carefully travelling veins of white space Phillips had drawn between the prose. The pages looked like maps or body scans, the unwanted text still visible under the coloured images.

We have not lost our homes to the sea    families to war     ...

The room received my voice, held it. The glass of the picture frames shone. The floorboards glowed.

    ...  We have chosen to feel this smallness  ...

Should I continue? Would anyone come? Did it matter if they didn't? If they did?

...  We have lost nothing
        but the certainty 
                of our mass diminishing into the expanse around us ...

Would someone walk into this space, drawn by the voice? Would it sound different if another body entered the space? I tried to imagine, as I was reading, the difference between a live voice reciting words to a recorded voice. The difference of intention, of meaning, of urgency. Somebody (in this case, me) was giving their time and body to recite words to the space, a lack of audience. Did it matter? How foolish was this? How committed?

... voices         washing out
in the rinse of silver       ...

Then someone, two people, looked in and walked through the threshold. And another and so the room changed, the resonance of the poems changed, our role as poets in the space changed.

Afterwards Helen talked of walking into a Sikh temple some years ago to a similar experience, a man reading from the scriptures with and without an audience, she talked of the sense of an observance of place, of space, of time, in this act of reading with or without an audience. The collision of time and place is marked by this strange presence, its communication to whomever, or to no-one but the speaker themselves. The incantation of voice, of words lose one meaning because the sequence has been lost, disrupted, turns the words into audible breath, to music rather than signifiers of anything other. Words that on Saturday, for a minute or two, were being spoken only to pages of a novel that had been rewritten, illustrated, transformed.

The meeting of this work and my voice both inflamed and deflated the words I spoke. I felt what I was doing was both as obsessive as the commitment Phillips has showed to this project (he calls it a lifetime's work in the intro) and as fleeting as the original work he had transformed. This ambiguity was probably heightened by the age and lightness of the building held from 1892 to that day.

Speech. Light, Text. Glass. Space. They all span into and out of those few minutes, so by the time we finished the extended poem, to an enlarged audience, the room seemed sharper, deeper and quieter some how, just as the new poem also hung in a fresh light. Perhaps we were also changed by the experience.


Jane Eagland said...


Wow about the experience and wow about this, your writing about it. A wonderful post, a poem in itself - that I feel I want to read and re-read.

Thank you

Gerry Snape said...

Love this post...have had Tom Philips work for a while and saw his exhibition in Birkenhead many years ago. Thankyou

Gerry Snape said...

Love this post...have had Tom Philips work for a while and saw his exhibition in Birkenhead many years ago. Thankyou

Sarah Hymas said...

thanks Gerry, as you read I was blown away by it - did you know you can get it all on an app too?!