Since February, I’ve been busy with a five projects in five places – one on the water, one on land, one in a box, one in envelopes and one under the eye and wing of my mentor Clare Pollard, as my year with the Jerwood / Arvon Mentoring Scheme comes to a close this June. It’s been difficult to document the projects from the middle of them so instead, here, from the vantage of June and a clear desk, here’s the view. I’ll spend the next few days (re)visiting each one. First up, aft.
one on the water
I have to thank Spike Island and Bristol Ferry for commissioning this poem for Matilda, the Bristol Ferry boat that chugs brightly across the Floating Harbour from Temple Meads to Hotwells, via the city centre, Spike Island, Arnolfini and SS Great Britain. It was a proper joy of a project and thanks to the patience of the crew and passengers, I took several trips to watch the city from the water, standing at the back window, feeling the engine’s rhythm in my feet. I composed much of the poem on site, on the boat, measuring my line to the cm width of the window.
I started to listen to the sea shanties of the Bristol sailor Stanley Slade, which were recorded by Peter Kennedy in 1950 and are now held in the British Library’s sound archive, and let the length of the halyard’s lines also instruct the breath and breadth of the poem that was then transferred directly, in Bristol Ferry yellow, to the windows of Matilda.
At first, I saw the couplets banding around the cabin as a two-level Plimsoll line, a measure of the rising waters (or a sinking boat), or as a twin rope, each a precaution against the severance of the other. Certainly on the page, the poem presents its shortening of breath much more clearly and you can read the full text here.
But on the boat, it wasn’t all visible at once. Walking the line to read the poem across the wide windows, rocking back a little to read the second line from where the first line landed you, and all the while reading as the boat pulls you across the water, makes something knotty of the reader.
As you read, the city interrupts, aligns your reader’s attention with the sudden sight of mooning stags, lads! lads! lads! on tour, traffic on the bridge, seagulls lifting in the wake of another ferry, the train, kayaks and paddles and sunburned backs, a tiny flotilla of crisp packets.
Somewhere else that is definitely also here is the harbour where Stanley Slade and sailors sang at the capstan and where teens twisted sisal on the ropewalk on what is now the car park behind MShed, and where the slave traders shook hands and purses on the harbour wall.
Almost immediately, these interruptions arrived right into the boat and started to actually intervene. The vinyl lettering was being rearranged, ever so slightly, after each journey. I was always looking for the arrival of a good rude word from out of the poem, but mostly single letters drifted to new locations. I started to imagine bits of the poem making its way across the city, stuck to the back of a suit. After a hen party, all the Ls disappeared.
My favourite, though: one slant O floated away from its moorings, accidentally recalling Ian Hamilton Finlay’s ‘pond’, from 1965.
In May, I read Aft at Watershed as an invited speaker at the Topographies conference at the University of Bristol in May. I was absolutely thrilled to read alongside Niall Campbell and particularly thankful to watch Tony Williams’ filmpoems with Alan Fentiman, especially Fentiman’s Pairs, which for me, without text or voice, queried the potential for filmpoetry in a moving double portrait of companionship. I thought a bit about the silence between lines, and about the pairing structures we feel necessary, and usefully that day, it helped me think about the silent public reading I had invited on board Matilda.
So, I read aft to timed bursts in front of the video of the poem in situ. I was a little worried about how it might work. While aft existed briefly out on the water, read privately by each passenger in public, here the dismantled poem was being read publicly on one dry spot of the steady ground. But the Topographies crowd and visitors to Spike Island OPEN were generous and adventurous and their feedback has encouraged me to try it out again, and I might yet sail aft across to other imagined harbours.