Haldon Ecopoetics Project

Skylines LAUNCH


Introduction & Talk by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett,
7 June, 2009.

(Reading by Mark Goodwin // Audio from Alice Oswald // Curator's Talk // Tour of the Primitive Hut)


Welcome to Skylines, an exhibition of "Ecopoetics" - poetry engaging with ecological issues - running from 6th to the 28th June, with a festival day on June 20th. The main themes guiding the curation of this exhibition are firstly, a concern for the contemporary - what does Ecopoetics mean today? Secondly, the use of new and digital technologies. Thirdly, an attention to languages and landscapes in a state of flux, anxiety, tension, mutation, or impermanence.

Mark Goodwin's Ish Coast Etched, from which he will be reading today, provides a fitting illustration of these themes. Audio recordings from his work are featured in the dvd compilation played as part of this exhibition, where versions of text are repeated with slight and surprising variations, alongside a background audio of the coast. Calculated slips of the tongue reveal language eliding over sound and sense, mirroring the physical mutation of coastal landscape over time, the erosion of material both geographical and linguistic; the ebb and flow of tides and language. Mark himself has said of these poems:

The first four poems are really just two poems, spoken in different ways. They are personal versions of land sea scapes, and versions of each other...Recorded in Cornwall...the sea that can be heard in the background is Porthleaven Sands near Helston...The first two poems, "Ancestor Cottage" and "Hollow Cottage", are improvisations recorded on location in March 2009. The third poem, "Hollow Ancestor", is an audio recording mix of the two previous poems. So, from two versions that engaged directly with a location through speaking in the moment, comes a later, contrived version...On the cd cover, the titles of the...poems have slipped... (so)...what is written doesn't quite match what was said. The photograph on the cd is duplicated as a transparency on the case and was taken at the ruined cottage... (featured)...in the poems, by Nikki Clayton. Brian Lewis of Longbarrow Press has designed the cd in such a way that two swirls of seaish and coastal patterns, one laid over the other, can be changed according to how the 'dial' of the cd is positioned. Ish Coast Etched is about tuning in and tuning out at the same time. It is also very much to do with order, re-ordering and chaos. It is mostly to do with the sheer delight of words and seaside.

- - A recording of Mark Goodwin's reading is available (complete with background traffic of passing horses' hooves & dog barking) - -

Curator's Talk

Skylines: cultivating an ethics of looking

The Skylines exhibition is an attempt to locate today’s writer and today’s landscape. This exhibition develops Jonathan Skinner’s interpretation of Ecopoetics as “exploring creative-critical edges between writing (with an emphasis on poetry) and ecology”, to approach an area of unsettled and unsettling exchange between genres, disciplines, landscapes, leading towards a critical space shared with Christopher Arigo's definition of Ecopoetics as “an ecotone between … ecology, poetry, and ethnopoetics”, a practice which creates an “‘edge effect,’ … where ecologies are in tension.”

Long traditions of pastoral and romantic poetries, preceding the modernist enquiries of the Black Mountain School, and the work of Robert Duncan and Charles Olson particularly, have established bodies of work linking the writer very closely to his or her environment, but when we come to take a meaningfully contemporary look at Ecopoetics, we quickly come to understand that the forms of landscape and page that these poets have been writing in and on have changed.

Ecopoetics today, and here in this exhibition, relates to urban and digital landscapes as well as to the natural world. This shift to the urban has been largely informed poetically by the Surrealists and Situationists, and their cultivation of the derrive, writing in relation to walking in and around cities. A number of works shown here address the liminal passings through and across of urban and rural, natural and artificial spaces, exposing the frequent mess and interference produced by one landscape crossing or collapsing into another, giving rise to a series of unstable positions and unsettling feelings as to how we, as artists and residents of this new terrain, are able to establish modes of being in, and responding to, such conditions.

Environmental issues such as climate change and natural disasters, that transcend country or political boundaries, impact upon the nature of connectivity, in politics, in technology, in poetry. Globalisation and the increasingly widespread use of the internet and other digital technologies in communications has significance for the contemporary poet, whose medium is now far more likely to be a series of packets of energy travelling at "non human" speeds along cables, connecting people, countries, technologies, within seconds, than a quill pen on parchment paper secreted in a secluded garret. How to address these new writing and working conditions in poetry is a challenge many of the works exhibited consider; how not to be isolated, when technology and environmental challenges insist on bringing us together; how not to feel isolated when the nature of these technologies and environmental challenges can appear at once impersonal and terrifying; how to resist the pastoral, since that host of golden daffodils was bulldozed long ago in favour of a high spec development continuing the process of urban renewal. How not to write from the perspective of a singular, lyrical “I”, when there is no authority, no sense that either our natural or constructed worlds are going to be ok, only anxiety and hope jostling together in spaces so full of white noise, that our capacity to listen becomes impaired, and this is the vital role of Ecopoetics I think, to re-attune awareness, re-focus attention, to cultivate an ethics of looking, of reading, of paying attention.

Let us return our attention now to the term "ecopoetics", which has become a somewhat controversial one, with many writers either keen to distance themselves from it altogether, or to carve out very clearly, their own critical and aesthetic responses and re-positionings to and around it - a process that is only to be expected when attempts at literary classification or canonization are made. Jane Sprague has argued:

I resist ecopoetics. And definitions of ecopoetics. I resist it as a neat category into which one might insert my own work, like some car slipping into its slot on the freeway.

For Sprague, ecopoetics as a term becomes a limitation, a pigeonholing of work that inevitably leads to the exclusion of others. But my own view here would fall more in line with Harriet Tarlo's, who has contributed generously to this exhibition, and whose work Particles appears here on the wooden panels. Harriet recently curated a valuable section called "Women and Ecopoetics" in the journal How2, in which she asserts:

I certainly see very little evidence of poets simply taking "ecopoetics" or any other term for granted...Where our contributors employ phrases such as "pastoral poetry", "nature poetry" and "landscape poetry", they are always qualified...I myself use the phrase "radical landscape poetry" about the work of poets who combine engagement with a particular rural or semi-rural area (usually, a less than sublime spot) with experimental poetics. I have identified a resistance in their work to the nexus of romanticism, sentimentality, nostalgia and the dualistic divide between rural and urban, cultivated and wild, natural and technological all of which characterise traditional pastoral.

Speaking of Harriet's curated section "Women and Ecopoetics" leads me to observe that of the 36 poets featured in the Skylines project, 22 are women. It would therefore perhaps be neglectful not to mention ecofeminism in this talk, allbeit that this is not a term I would necessarily apply to my own work. Frances Presley, whose collaborative work with Tilla Brading, Stone Settings, appears in the video section of this exhibition, puts it succinctly when she says: "Like most feminists I feel very uneasy about the identification of women with nature in some essentialist manner". Not that essentialism need be explicitly linked with ecofeminism, but as Tarlo warns, the link between women and nature that ecofeminism reclaims, is one that many feminists have spent years debunking. So here again we identify a critical tension when entering literary terrains of classification - I hope this exhibition creates a space for such tensions to be explored creatively, and look forward to the Forum on the 20th when they can receive closer attention.

I would like to suggest that while certain "open" forms of writing might seem particularly suited to ecopoetical enquiries (we think of Olson and Duncan's concepts of the "primacy of space" and the "opening of the field", visual poetics, and work where the space of the page, and the spaces within and between lines reflect the space of the landscape), that it is rather the inability of the page or line to ever fully reflect or contain landscape that gives rise to the most interesting formal challenges and experiment. The diversity of media and form employed in this exhibition - the sheer number of ways that poets have come at this question - enforces I think, the difficulty inherent in attempts to contain landscape, whether physically in geographical terrain, or formally across a page, canvas, or electrical cable. "Radical landscape" will no more pose stationary for its picture to be taken, than language will remain in a fixed position long enough to hold it down. Landscape and language refuse to sit still. As Anna Reckin posits in her poem Framing a landscape displayed in the corner of the room, to frame a landscape is to find: "edges within: /dots, lines, the sway of /a wire, upsurge /of a branch //rise & fall and faster /than breathing //-the way to do it /is punctuate /in passing, compose /trees sky /hedge track /in transit, //keep finding gateways, /keep moving.”

So having established the key themes of this exhibition; its engagement with the contemporary, with digital technologies, and with language and landscapes in states of flux and slippage, I turn now to specific exhibits to contextualise and hopefully increase their accessibility. I begin and will also end, with Simon Persighetti and Frances Crow’s Primitive Hut, a poster for which is displayed near the entrance. The hut has been formed by the bending together and binding of branches from existing trees in the forest. The artists have spoken of:

a Primitive Hut to be temporarily inhabited as a writing space for an allotted period during the Ecopoetics season. This Primitive Hut would collide the raw-mythical model with the urbane-artificial, providing an ambivalent habitat for reflection, discussion and text generation. Participants and visitors to the Ecopoetics project would be invited to visit and spend some time in this location and respond through discussion and writing to its imagery, situation and ambience...Finally we envision a version of primitive huts grafted out of the Haldon trees and forming a strange, leafy housing estate complete with postal codes, garden gnomes and other suburban accessories.

Simon will be leading a tour of the hut, departing from the gallery on foot, directly after this talk.

I've mentioned the role of visual poetics and open form writing, and clearly all the works exhibited here are concerned in some way with their visual presentation, but in Alice Oswald’s artist book version of Dart we can chart a real and concentrated effort to map words visually across the space of a book. The copy of Dart displayed here opens out into a concertina but can also be suspended from bamboo canes. A copy of the limited edition Weeds and Wild Flowers is also on display. Weeds and Wild Flowers combines the poems of Alice Oswald with the etchings of Jessica Greenman. Within its pages, everyday flora is animated, bringing us toward a landscape of botanical characters. This work invites an interesting dialogue with one of the video pieces, Floraspirae, by mIEKAL aND. Floraspirae presents a language of plants as arrived at through a series of digital processes. Flash animation is used to present both plants and language as living matter.

Continuing clockwise round the room we come to the video. Given the exhibition’s focus on digital technologies and new media, it is fitting that there be so many video and multimedia works on show - the compilation dvd features ten poets, with the media used incorporating a range of technologies and media including animation, audio, and video. A multimedia screening will take place on the Skylines festival day, Saturday June 20th, when there will be the opportunity for a q&a with many of the featured poets, and the digital studio Mediaalive, who compiled the work into a dvd and also constructed the project website www.mediaalive.co.uk/ecopoetics, will also be on site to speak in more depth about the opportunities that new technologies can offer artists.

As we move round the room again we come to two of my pieces, These Are Not Mapsand gold-go-go. These Are Not Mapsis presented here as a framed triptych but in actual fact these are images taken from a concertina book that was too fragile to display here. Each page of the concertina book is the length of my arm, so the folding out of the pages becomes a performance closely linked to my own body. A series of constraints as I was walking, to look only upwards, only down, or to close my eyes, resulted in a collection of written observations on my environment where my vectors of attention had been altered, and hence sharpened. I used a range of techniques with Photoshop to produce collaged pages containing natural materials such as feathers and leaves that become artificial through the process of scanning and manipulating them digitally. Observations made when walking, and when assembling the collages, in conjunction with a quotation from the digital poet N Katherine Hales, form the text for the piece. The quote from Hales reads: “As we rush to explore the new vistas that cyberspace has made available for colonization, let us also remember the fragility of a material world that cannot be replaced.” gold-go-go is a performance poem, written with both its spoken performance and its performance across the page in mind. The metre is closely linked to my own voice and breathing patterns, while exploring ideas of mapping and ways in which economic factors (particularly in light of the recent conflicts in Iraq) can impact on the environment. I’ll be performing this poem on the 20th as part of the Skylines festival.

Opposite Chris Cook’s large graphite on aluminium piece Us and Them to the right of this, on the table, is Dream Cabinet by Ann Fisher-Wirth. Ann is a former president of the Association for the Study of Literature & the Environment, and has contributed significantly to the ongoing reconfiguration of what Ecopoetics is and means today. Her text has been encapsulated in perspex, to continue themes of containment running through her work. Crossing from Sweden to Scotland to Haifa and the U.S in this piece, she claims: "to write of peace right now is to be a tourist". Themes of travel and walking are prevalent in this exhibition, and have been extended to the physical design of the space, with a series of wooden panels linked together that require walking both inside and around in order to be read. On the inside of the panels are Eddy Van Mourik's post it notes, from his installation piece Sgurr Nan Gillean; Mountain of Young Men, and on the exterior are Harriet Tarlo's Particles, which she will be performing and discussing at the poetry reading and forum on the 2oth.

To the left of the wooden panels leading up to the end wall we see Allen Fisher and Maggie O'Sullivan's work. I'm delighted to be featuring both Allen and Maggie's work, and to have the opportunity to hear them discuss and contextualise it themselves in person at the forum and readings on the 20th. On the end wall, Cara Benson's investigations into interference in digital landscapes sit next to Sean Bonney's cardboard collaged Dirty Bombs. These bombs, partly obscured by wooden panels, initially lurking undetected, function as a reminder of the dangers and responsibilities present in the ecopoetical enquiry - the political and ethical implications of the poet as witness, to an anxious period of environmental stress. Carol Watts' Zeta Landscape, positioned to the right of these Dirty Bombs, illustrates a tension between a responsibility to act formally within a poem, expanding and innovating its structures (she uses Calculus theory to determine verse structure) and a temptation to regress (?) or relax (?) into more conservative, pastoral forms of writing. She presents a farming environment in Wales, refusing to romanticize it, yet not rejecting the lyrical altogether. In her own words this is: "lyric nature poetry put under pressure".

On the right wall is Cynthia Hogue and Rebecca Ross's collaborative work "A quartet", from All That's Gone: Hurricane Katrina's Evacuees (Interview-poems and Images). This work employs interview material and documentary reportage in a bid to engage with a wider textual and media filtered world, in which ecological disasters often touch us only through a mass media bombardment and over-simplification; what Anne Waldman has termed “outrageous metaphor” ; deceptive and large-scale euphemism. Hogue and Ross present us with news material in a way we can respond to more personally. Harriet Tarlo has described Hogue's previous work (the five poems published in How2) as "painfully haunted by hope", and as "works of radical imagining." I would like all the exhibits here to be approached as works of "radical imagining", as invitations to respond politically, aesthetically, mentally, or emotionally to the challenges around us - in our environment, in our art, in Ecopoetics. You are invited now to accompany Simon Persighetti and Frances Crow on a tour of the Primitive Hut - clearly a work of radical imagining - - and it is my hope that you can apply to this work, as well as to the other ecopoetics pieces featured here, and the particular environments you yourselves inhabit, an increased attention, increased awareness, a cultivated ethics of looking, and of paying attention. Thank you.

The Skylines exhibition features work from: Dorothy Alexander, Ellen Baxt, Cara Benson, Sean Bonney, Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, Chris Cook, Allen Fisher, Ann Fisher-Wirth, Jessica Grim, Cynthia Hogue and Rebecca Ross, Mark Greenwood, Maggie O'Sullivan, Alice Oswald, Simon Persighetti and Frances Crow (LIMINAL), Anna Reckin, Harriet Tarlo, Eddy Van Mourik, Carol Watts.

VIDEO from (in running order): Sharon Morris, Rhys Trimble, Helen Pritchard, Evelyn Reilly, Scott Thurston, Mark Goodwin, mIEKAL aND, Mark Dickinson, Tilla Brading and Frances Presley, Blush!

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