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Rods, Lines and Digital Media: Looking for Connection

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In July last year Brian Lewis and I visited Flamborough Head in order to record a podcast of readings from my poetry collection, West North East (Longbarrow Press, 2013). This was part of an ongoing project to record performances within the landscapes the poems are set. In the previous March we’d recorded a podcast just after a snowfall in Hillsborough. We’re currently planning another in the part of East Leeds where I grew up. Hillsborough, Leeds and Flamborough are three main settings for poems in West North East. The idea is to craft an audio presentation of the poems that adds atmosphere and authenticity to the performance. We want to capture the feel and energy of the settings, and we want to respond to it, spontaneously, when introducing or reflecting on the poems. We hope to create podcasts that connect our audience to the backdrop and context of the poems.
The Flamborough podcast took place in the middle of last year’s heat-wave. The plan was to travel to Bempton Cliffs and walk to Flamborough, following the route of a poem called ‘The Power-line’. Along the way we would stop, read, reflect and record. When we arrived at Bempton, Brian found himself mesmerised by the cliffs, and the hundreds of seabirds performing their slow ballets above nesting sites. He’d had the foresight to bring his digital film recorder, and so he was able gather some footage from the observation posts. He told me how hard it was to keep the camera steady as wind blew in off the sea. There was never any plan to make a film, and it was only recently that Brian decided to experiment with his footage to create a visual backdrop for a performance of the ‘Power-line’.
Someone asked me, recently, what I thought the film ‘added’ to the poem, and whether I thought it might distract from the words. It’s a fair question, and I do have sympathy with the ‘purist’ position. The words of a poem are its heart. I’m suspicious of approaches that operate under the assumption that the poetry ‘pill’ needs to be sugared with high production media gloss. Poetry is no ‘pill’. It’s a happening in itself. But Brian and I agree that if we are going to embrace new media as a direction towards new audiences, or as a means of framing the poetry in fresh or illuminating ways, then we must embrace experiment. We both believe that visual and audio presentations recorded in the setting of the material is richer and less predictable than the sterile feel studios often bestow.
‘The Power-line’ has a symbolic dimension running beneath the literal narrative. Reference is made to dreams and the human nervous system. There are images of a kite, of fishermen angling from a cliff tops, and there is a power-line carrying electricity. All represent conductivity, and with the idea of conductivity comes the threat of over-load. The idea of over-load has obsessed me for a number of years, not least because I’ve suffered the over-load of panic attack syndrome. It also occurs to me that the poetic line is another medium of conductivity – another power-line, and one function of poetry is that of the divining or the lightning rod. I love Rimbaud’s image of the weathercock in the thundershower. In the film and podcast, it is the words that have to deliver this symbolism. But just as we finished our recording in a field just outside Thornwick Camp, a mist blew in from the sea. It felt like eucalyptus in my lungs as I read the final stanza of the poem. When we stopped recording, Brian and I stood and watched it blow across the grass towards a caravan park inland. If that summer heat-wave was a stuffy room, someone had just opened a window. This is the connection Brian is chasing with the camera and the audio recorder.
Matthew Clegg


Posted by author: Matthew Clegg
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11 thoughts on “Rods, Lines and Digital Media: Looking for Connection

  • I enjoyed that. There’s just enough to provide some atmosphere without detracting from the poem, including having the film in b+w as opposed to colour. I also noticed that Brian didn’t attempt to illustrate the poem literally and that’s very helpful to me as I’m struggling at the moment with attempting to ‘illustrate’ a poem I wrote.

  • Thanks Catherine, I’ll pass that on to Brian. Yes, I think it’s important to angle light on the material, without explaining or reducing it. It’s easy to be too ‘busy’ with visual images, and the signal of the poem is so often scrambled.

  • Matt, that is fascinating. Have you read Tim Ingold’s book, Lines: a brief history where he sees lines of writing, walking and other forms of line-making all being part of human activity, so it was interesting to see the image of power lines as well. As far as poets working with other art forms/artists, I don’t have a problem. The poem is always there if you want to read it on its own, I reckon that cross-arts collaboration is always enriching for all, the artists, and the viewers/readers/listeners.

  • I didn’t think the film disturbed my listening experience in any way – in fact, I could reflect on the poetic lines of the Poem whilst following the soaring lines of the gulls. The film sans colour was a well balanced Partner.

  • Matt, I loved the way the film and words work together and jar at different points. I can see why Brian was captivated by the birds. Their free wheeling is so liberating. In some strange way, the film made me concentrate on the words more intensely than if I was reading the poem. I like your voice and I mean that in the literal and poetic sense.

    • Thanks Sandra. Finding the voice (and idiom) of the poem was a slow process. It was a student who grew up on the east coast who gave me ‘myxi’ – the abbreviation of myxomatosis used in those parts. Marrying idiom and rhyme scheme was pretty arduous; and the tension between the flatness of the idiom and the melodrama of the events was hard to try and balance.

  • I have been thinking about the traditional representation of the arts where books were printed, poems were written or read live, art was recorded on a single media, and photos were printed on a sheet of paper. The internet brought new representations and a global audience, and I wonder if there is an old vs new debate forming as to which is best, in the same way as film is compared with digital photography. I believe the mixing of media such as yours adds to the experience, and if people can’t appreciate a new way method of art representation then they can still have the traditional form. In my photo practice this year I am moving away from the final presentation of my work being one dimensional prints and two dimensional internet/blog sharing, to prints firstly modified (by digital collage although could be a mix of cut outs) presented as a slide show with a song and soundscape written and performed by myself as the aural background.

    • Yes, I think what you say is true. And of course, it’s perfectly viable to operate on a conventional and a ‘new’ basis, at the same time. But perhaps you feel – like I do – that the new format is offering you an opportunity for growth and re-evaluation that is invaluable. I will always be in love with the poem in the printed object of a book, but at the same time, I think it would be myopic to close down all other avenues of framing my work (or shaping it).
      Could you post a link to any of your work, if it’s online? It sounds interesting.

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