Emma Trott: Poetry by Design

The exhibition Poetry By Design, held in the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery (part of Leeds University Library Galleries) from 10th June – 23rd August 2019, told the story of the making, printing, and dissemination of visual and concrete poetry in the second half of the twentieth century. Curated by Professor Fiona Becket and Dr Emma Trott (both of the School of English and the Poetry Centre at Leeds), the exhibition was based originally on items in the Brotherton Library’s Special Collections and also drew significantly on the personal collections of Fiona Becket, Jon Glover and Kimberly Campanello.

Centred on practitioners working in the immediate pre-computer period, the exhibition showed both famous and lesser-known pieces from poets such as Ian Hamilton Finlay, Dom Sylvester Houédard, Edwin Morgan and Bob Cobbing, who developed the creative potential of technology such as typewriters and duplicators alongside more traditional design media. These materials – experimental, playful, avant-garde – were contextualised with two older pieces of visual poetry from the Brotherton’s Special Collections: a 2nd edition (1st printed) copy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, open on ‘The Mouse’s Tale’, and a 1635 edition of George Herbert’s ‘Easter Wings’. These pieces suggested to the audience that the technological exploration of the twentieth-century work produced on typewriters and letraset, while novel, is produced as part of centuries-old intersections of language and visual art and traditions of play with poetic form. The display’s narrative thus led the audience from these early examples, through the pre-computer era items which included Cobbing’s sound poems and John Furnival photographs, to examples of anthologies, conference proceedings, and critical context materials, to demonstrate something of the creative, collaborative, and cultural environments of this poetic practice. This was followed by a varied display of contemporary poem-objects, including several framed pieces from Tom Phillips’ The Humament and Kimberly Campanello’s MOTHERBABYHOME, a ‘report’ giving new voice to witness accounts of atrocities committed at St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Ireland. Other contemporary items included Vahni Capildeo’s ‘Pierre de Ronsard’s “Ode À Cassandre”: Erasure, Recall, Recolouration’ (on loan from the author), and items from Campanello’s private collection, including work by Alison Gibb, Derek Beaulieu, Sascha Aurora Akhtar and Sue Birchenough.

The exhibition was always intended to engage with current critical debates, as well as reaching the new audiences that the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery has access to. We ran a symposium on 18th July – Poetry By Design: A Reappraisal of Concrete and Visual Poetry – in which a fascinating programme of papers and readings demonstrated the richness of the field of visual and concrete poetry today. The day opened with critical-creative offerings from two practitioners. Barrie Tullett led his audience through an engaging and often amusing account of his project The Typographic Dante, a response to Dante’s Divine Comedy, sparking an interesting conversation about font and typeface. Iris Colomb showed from her film Spill, in which an interest in fluid materiality pushes at the limits of language. The next panel brought together three academics considering post-War experimental poetics: Bronac Ferran on Hansjörg Mayer’s futura, Fiona Becket on Bob Cobbing, and Natalie Ferris on Ana Hatherly. The post-panel discussion turned to pieces on display in the exhibition cases as the legacies of these important twentieth-century writers and artists were acknowledged and explored. After coffee, the conversation turned to another object on display, as Julie Morrissy and Florence Impens each presented thoughtful analysis of Campanello’s MOTHERBABYHOME, in the context of contemporary Irish poetry, performance, archives, and history. Campanello contributed to the rich sharing of knowledge that followed, in a rare and productive encounter of text, critic, and author. Before lunch, we returned to the exhibition’s origins as Fiona Becket spoke about the curatorial process and how the items were selected, arranged and presented.

The first panel of the afternoon brought together two papers considering concrete poetics from an environmental perspective. Alice Tarbuck discussed Chinese and Japanese poetry in the work of Thomas A. Clark and Cid Corman, with amusingly narrated examples of frogs. My paper, which followed, offered Simon Armitage’s Stanza Stones project as an example of an environmentally conscious, material poetics in which the audience’s physical movement is a way of reading both language and landscape. In the final academic panel of the day, Greg Thomas asked thoughtful questions about the ways Liliane Lijn’s Poem Machines make us reconsider the relationship between looking and reading. John Goodby showed a range of Anglo-Welsh-Quebecois artist/poet Peter Meilleur’s poem-objects while discussing his legacy in the context of British and international experimental poetry. Held in the exhibition room, the conversations these panels sparked often turned in the direction of the items on the walls and in the cabinets, making manifest our intentions to create dialogues between researchers and poets working across visual and concrete poetics from different geographical, temporal and literary perspectives. One discussion turned to Liliane Lijn’s poem-object recently developed for the University’s campus, and one delegate, having carefully noted down the text of this kinetic poem on a quick dash to see it during a coffee break, read it aloud to the group.

The evening session comprised readings by Sascha Aurora Akhtar, Vahni Capildeo, and Kimberly Campanello. In the larger, atmospheric setting of the Workshop Theatre, each poet demonstrated her particular creative brilliance in work that challenges essentialist distinctions between different forms of art. Akhtar read from her collaboration with John Alexander Arnold, Only Dying Sparkles, a collection of tarot cards that explore female experience, trauma, and varying states of mental health. Capildeo’s photographic images played with ideas about sound while projecting deeply intimate engagements with environments. Campanello rounded off the event with a moving performance of MOTHERBABYHOME, in which language, physical space, and bodily movement demonstrated experimental dimensions with form.

As Poetry By Design’s curators, Fiona Becket and I owe a debt of thanks to everyone involved, particularly Layla Bloom and the curatorial team at the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery; to Jon Glover, Kimberly Campanello, and Vahni Capildeo for lending items for the exhibition; all the poets and performers at the symposium; and all the audience members who attended the reading, took part in the discussions, left comments in the exhibition ‘guest book’, and who continued the dynamic conversation about the possibilities of poetic language in the pre-computer era and in the contemporary moment.