Friday, January 20, 2017

Robert Sheppard: Talk for the Open Eye Gallery on Poetry and Photography December 2016

Talk for the Open Eye Gallery (scheduled for December but undelivered through illness!)

for Ideas Lab on Writing and Photography

14 December 2016


An ideas lab inviting writers and photographers to think collaboratively about their practice.
Robert Sheppard, Professor of Poetry and Poetics at Edge Hill University, was to have spoken about the possibilities and potential of collaboration between photography and poetry, and collaborating with Trev Eales (

Writer and photographer Chris Routledge (camera always at hand) probably did speak about the Jupiter Project – a collaboration between Chris and new generation poet, Rebecca Goss.

The event was organised by the wonderful Pauline Rowe, poet in residence,and I thank her for kickstarting this project!

Ekphrasis: I’ve always hated the word, because it seemed to mystify something that seemed to me second nature, because it seems to me to ennoble, with its Hellenic majesty, the act of doing something ignoble. There’s a whiff of euphemism about it. One of the widely used definitions of ekphrasis only heightens my disquiet; James Heffernan calls it ‘the verbal representation of a visual representation’. (Miller 2015: 11) This evokes the fear that it is unnecessary at best, parasitic at worst. There are great poems ‘about’ (or roundabout) images, but the best carry a transformative twist, such as Michael Davidson’s ‘The Landing of Rochambeau’, which turns out not be a verbal representation of an historical painting, but is the representation of a representation of a representation; it’s about a postage stamp featuring the painting; the postmark obscures significant details. (Messerli 1994: 681-3). Unless the act of forming involves such transformation it seems invalid as art.
Although I make use of photography – or rather, photographs – there are very few straight ekphrastic exercises in my poetry; the one recent example I carried out under the guise of a Czech fictional writer, Jitka Průchová, whose Poems Ekphrastic and Plastic re-write the imagery of the tragic photographer Bohumil Krčil and the surrealist photomontagist Jindřich Štyrský. My fictional poems are all about doing what I don’t let myself do under my own name.(See here here and here)
In simple terms, and ignoring differences of medium, my practice seems to have been blithely to take a lot of details from lots of photographs from both selected and random sources, and to use them in literary collages that are analogues for the photomontages these scraps might have made, in acts of what I call ‘creative linkage’ (when I’m writing about the kinds of accelerated collage one finds in the work of a poet like Allen Fisher, for example).  It’s not always easy (though it’s also not always impossible) to trace words back to image, but it will be an equivalent verbal fragment for a visual fragment, to parody the definition of ekphrasis itself. An example of ‘selection’ is ‘Shutters’, which I wrote for the dancer Jo Blowers, which used the ectoplasmic mist of early photographs, Lady Hawarden’s well-known images of her daughters in diaphanous interiors. The poems deform the perceived or remembered images. (See here) An example of ‘random’ – by which I mean less motivated, ‘found’ – is my long exploration of sexual politics, ‘Empty Diaries’, one poem for each year of the twentieth century, and which was a creative linkage using (amongst many other stretches of language) writings drawn from squinting at – literally, using them as flash cards – photographs of all kinds, from photojournalism to art photography, related to the appropriate year. (See 1956 here. and 1990 here) I remember Bill Brandt furnishing images of the 1930s, and Cindy Sherman (to whom one diary is dedicated) for the 1970s. This is an extensive project, but I have domesticated and tamed the method for an intermittent series of poems, ‘Burnt Journals’, that I make for people’s birthdays, usually poems knocked off in a bit of a hurry. It’s easier to demonstrate the method and the source: I make pragmatic and singular use of Tom Phillips’ wonderful year by year collection The Postcard Century. I use the postcard images – they are mostly photographic – in a montagist way to produce the short poems; images bleed, are read and then written as superimposed. Here’s

 Burnt Journal 1939

for Lee Harwood at 70

a not particularly disruptive collage:

The sergeant under the umbrella splashes Bovril
as he carries a cup to the private on duty.
It’s all part of the service of the services,
it seems, in this dream that you’re marched into.

The Cenotaph crouches under billowing silks
as a new red bus putters up Whitehall.
The colony of Belisha beacons flashes in harmony
lukewarm but welcome like a pie.

Everybody’s aunt assembles by the ambulances,
masks tested for when the city turns to mustard.
Their perforated snouts chorus submarine melodies,
rubbery inhalant hallelujahs! The last pleasure

boat is moored, the boathouse padlocked. Time
is serving time, commandeered for the duration.

In none of these cases would I want the images to be presented with the poems, even if there were any clear descriptive correlation left, which there is in this example. This makes me guilty of what Andrew D. Miller calls ‘suppressed ekphrasis’ (Miller 2015: 6) I don’t always feel the need to acknowledge the sources, although another recent sequence, ‘Out of the Way’ from Warrant Error (my book dealing with, as the title suggests, the war on terror, see here  - and here for poems), fully acknowledges its sources, and says it ‘owes to the photographers Marieke van der Velden, Rodribo Abd, Stepanie Sinclair, Newsha Tavakolian, featured in the exhibition Risk, at Fotografiemuseum, Amsterdam,’ which I saw and bought the catalogue to use. (Sheppard 2009: 119) But even here I pick and choose from more than one photograph. Here’s ‘Afghanistan’, a poem which has subsequently been re-articulated by the American calligrapher Thomas Ingmire, so it has a long collaborative life. (See here) Its grim details are the grim details of the photographs; the rest is my imagining.


Like a figure in a dream of perfect falling
Like something from somewhere like hell

You were the dark-eyed girl who crept out
Before the pink meat dawn to spy
The growling machines while the whole town
Still dreamt of exactly what she saw

Night vision green flecked with sparks
And clouds of vectoral vapour pouring across
Sun-baked gravel where a human head severe
And severed scarved in crackling plastic
Resurrected. She dived through coils of barbed wire

She ran her oily fingers along the sealed walls
Of the outsiders as though reading their secret script
Or leaving her own

Mesopotamia was written in 1985 and first published with images, the photocopymontages of Patrica Farrell, one of our many Ship of Fools collaborative publications (see above). The text used found images and my great uncle’s contact prints from the First World War that were too faint for Patricia to collage into her images, but other photographs were used (we shared some, but not all) for both image and text, but they possess a relative autonomy in the final product. The prose text, though, is extremely collaged:

One step backwards, and you’re gone, waking to a dream of dawn, over which wild cat’s eyes, carved into the arm of the chair, close her head. She turns away to reveal a veined neck, set between the cool brass. No, that was somebody trying to locate the morning – my chest covered with flies – a history of sensation on the streets. You’re here because that same courtyard, or so I fancied, was the studied flight of stairs until I can take only one sentence at a time. The peep show stilled at the word halting.

My daily practice of writing – it either gathers notes for poems or remain as exercises in keeping ‘writing fit’ – usually uses photographs, and to simplify, one source has been returned to regularly, the German artist, Hans-Peter Feldmann’s book Voyeur, a collection of all kinds of photographs, indeed, all the types I’ve habitually used elsewhere: from art photography to vernacular snapshots, from pornography to advertising. Like Tom Phillips’ book it saves me work but acts as an explanatory tool, and introduces minatory caution. The daily practice throws up the dangers of ekphrasis, even the repressed ekphrasis, the flash-card squinting, or the flick book approach to images, the long naïve gaze that either reads materials as reality or fantasy, that I favour: that is, the freezing in language of the decisive (or indecisive) moment, the danger of static description, often indicated by the use of persistent present tense, the focus exclusively ocular and suppressing the other (necessarily imagined) senses. The answer lies, for me, in my certainty that to be formed, an ekphrastic text might fragment, unform, deform, re-form, equivalent or non-equivalent verbal fragments and linkages and assemblages, but, to succeed, it must transform the given, or transcend its sources. Even if the photographs – photography itself – becomes invisible. Miller even talks of ‘anti-ekphrasis’. (Miller 2015: 6-7)
Miller also says that Heffernan states that there is a ‘representative friction between the ekphrasis and materials of the ekphrastic object’. (Miller 2015: 11) If so, I wish to make fire from that friction, to go much further – his model of the literary is more conventional than mine. ‘Ekphrasis … is dynamic and obstetric’ he comments, beginning well. But when he adds that ‘it typically delivers from the pregnant moment of visual art its embyronically narrative impulse, and thus makes explicit the story that visual art tells only by implication’, he may be descriptive of others’ practice, no doubt, but not mine, with creative linkage working against narrative if not narrativity; (Miller 2015: 11) But my poetics can only be indicative about this.
            I have collaborated a good deal – I have used the photographs Patricia and I took of North London to produce the Ship of Fools booklet, Looking North, and those taken by Pete Clarke of the buildings around Liverpool docks; some of my words appear in his prints (see here) – but I have never worked with a photographer per se. A friend of 42 years standing, Trev Eales is a well-known photographer specialising in images of performing musicians and his work may be found on his website. (Here) He has worked both freelance and as commissioned by various festivals and websites. He has exhibited and also won prizes for his work. We decided to collaborate and met in late November to discuss it.   

[What follows are my fascinating notes for progression. As ever, poetics is 'speculative', which means it is not projecting or predicting what will happen; it is enabling. In my case I follow almost none of what follows. Instead it turned out like THIS]

There needs to be an overarching structure. I suggested sets of three images accompanied (below it) by three texts. I was thinking of triptych form but Trev’s term ‘trios’ seems better because it suggests music (and could be a possible title). Short largish print (thinking of exhibition or webpage presentation). Trev pointed out that his work was largely landscape in shape despite being mainly portraits.   

Trev’s role in the project is (since the images already exist) to select, assemble and order the images (left to right we thought: the convention of English language reception would take hold as part of the total ‘textimage’). His principles of selection could include but not be limited to:

formal relations (e.g, all close ups, all left or right facing, or not; or the relationship of colour(s)),

thematic relations (eg. all male guitarists, or Alex Turner ageing) or

(hidden and unheard): musical relations (e.g. all acoustic blues players).

Or combinations of all of these, and contrasts within those or other categories (not necessarily consciously chosen: the selection could be an intuitive act!) We discussed crowd scenes and festival scenes, celebrated instantly recognisable faces (Keith Richard, St Vincent) as against lesser-known performers. It’s clear that the complexities of selection involve enough aesthetic and practical decision-making on Trev’s part to say that he is ‘making’ the work anew by arranging his trios.     
      ↔ □
There would exist a kind of lateral vibration between the three images of the trio.

Robert then writes three texts to go with each. Each would have a relationship with its corresponding image, and form a unit (not a descriptive or subsidiary relationship; more on this later). We discussed how long and (in spatial terms) each would be. I decided to revert to word counting procedures and we settled on texts of 36 words in 2 stanzas of 3 lines with 6 words per line.
The writings would strive to construct an ‘intermedial intimacy’ between text and image to form a compound ‘textimage’. (Miller 2016: 172) But of course, my assumption that the text would go beneath the image begs a question that might only be answered once we proceed.


There would also be a textual relationship (another lateral vibration) between the three poems. You’d read them left to right but there would still be a push and pull backwards, as with the images.

In total, each ‘textimage’ to adopt one of Andrew Miller’s terms, would amount to a big ‘textimage’ which would ‘operate’ (if that’s the right word) like this:  

      ↔ □
        ↔ ■
Outside of each ‘textimage’ and outside the big ‘textimage’ (as above) there would still be music, or the sense of musical performance, a silent partner to the ‘intermedial intimacy’ of the whole (Miller 2016: 172?) An ever-present complicating factor. The centre and absence of the entire project. Ideal reception conditions: absolute silence, anechoic chamber! Again, the spatial relations could be disrupted:, e.g, a triangular relationship might be necessary in exhibition spaces, and a landscape publication might not be practical. But the textimage would help me, for one, to conceptualise the project and stimulate the process.

We decided titles and/or references would be placed outside the text-image, in an index or catalogue.

Notes on text: They would not ‘describe’ the images. They have no need to, given they would be displayed with the images. Neither would they substitute for the music(s). How could they? To operate in an even more oblique fashion than before, but not to make the texts too complex, to be read by a ‘viewer’ rather than a reader. 

November 2016