Longbarrow Press. A confluence of creatives.
From time to time I post pieces related to the work of Longbarrow Press, be it events or interviews. The work of the Press and those associated with it is a constant source of fascination for me because of the way in which the collaborations are more than a sum of their parts.
Earlier this year I went to interview poet Mark Goodwin on his collection Steps. While I was there I was lucky enough to also be able to interview artist and frequent Longbarrow Press contributor, Paul Evans. However, I soon realized something very interesting was beginning to emerge from the different interviews, which was the similarity in the way a poet and an artist saw their work; in particular issues about space and the space available and dictating what was going on in the work. There was also the sense that neither Mark nor Paul considered their work finished and that it was more to do with process.
That is when I decided to set Mark, Paul and Brian Lewis (who runs Longbarrow Press) off talking and wait to see what happened.
Mark: I wrote a poem, ‘Idea of Ground-Split at Alport Castles’, about one of Paul’s paintings. The subject of Paul’s painting is the great landslip of Alport Castles in the Peak District. I saw this painting at two different stages in its making, and that experience got into the poem. So, that poem is very much directly about process and processes: the processes of painting and writing and deep geology. All very much focused on the ongoing-ness of stuff … ‘stuff’ being material as well as ideas … and of course the processes of mountain building and erosion are never finished …
There’s another poem called ‘Stanage Volumes‘. This poem, about how Paul’s drawing & painting engages with Stanage Edge in the Peak District, is actually also a writing collaboration between Paul and me – it shows a process of my interviewing Paul and listening to the poetry he speaks, about how he paints in this particular landscape … and then mixing that with my own poetry… and in this poem my poetry generally takes on the form of simply listing textures and actions, so that in a sense I get as close as I can to painting, whilst the painter speaks… it’s the process of conversation, of swapping roles but also the swap of materials… and then that is related closely to the process of gritstone formation, the erosion of mountains and then the re-making of stone through re-forming those eroded mountains, the swap of one place and one time with another… and the process goes on as a few hundred millions years later some creative human sees the re-formed stone… this relates back to the scratching of a pencil on paper, the movement of Paul’s hand re-forming the stone as shapes on paper, the process of solid stone being seen by the eye, imagined and then re-made as drawn, and finally painted shapes… Paul and I are climbers, so that dance-like movement over stone feeds the process too. And yet again, the process of re-configuring was carried on through my audio recording of Paul scratching paper with graphite, and then mixing that with my reading the poem out loud, so you can hear, through sound-waves, the process of moving that makes shapes and pattern on paper … the friction, the texture, and the layering: That pencil scratching and the rough feel of gritstone, and the feel of sound-waves too… they are all connected and in constant flow…
Paul: That scratching sound – or feel – is very important; you’re using the onomatopoeic materiality of words to create something, in another form, that’s primarily visual in its nature but with a textural quality. There was something deeply textural to the words you chose for those poems. When we were talking about Alport Castles, I think there was also a consideration of slippage – in the form of a landslip – which required a slip in the language and a disjuncture.
You’re both climbers. Paul was talking earlier about the fissures in your work.
Paul: Again that’s about materiality, about words being handled like objects, like a climber handles stone.
Mark: With Paul talking about my words like that it’s just made me think of something I’d not thought about before. I love the architecture of rock. That holdable-ness and the rugosity. Rugosity, there’s a word I love, and which I’m sure many climbers also love… the word often appears in rock-climbing guide books to describe a particular kind of rippled or bubbled rock feature… the kind that invites the hands and the fingertips…
…anyway, Paul’s just made me realise something: If you look at the visual architecture of some of my poems, they have a certain rugosity about them, particulary my ‘gappy’ poems, there are places you can get your fingertips into, that you can grip, or push a toe into… I’ve not thought of that before…and there you are, the process is ongoing… Paul has just this moment helped me yet again transform my poetry … it’s always changing, and always able to be changed…particularly if you know the work as material, as substance that can be handled, and re-handled…
Paul: It’s like the clotted ‘handling’ of paint in a Turner painting.
There’s a lot of texture to your painting.
Paul: Texture is very important in my kind of painting – ‘painterly painting’ – but texture in climbing, the texture of the rock, affects friction and that’s another thing you find in the slippages in, or between, the words in your poetry … friction between the slippages.
Mark: And gravity as well. Friction is in opposition to something that’s trying to pull something away from something else.
Paul: Of course gravity is there in the paintings as well; the action of gravity on dripped paint, or when you pour something on the surface of a canvas. Often I’ll be working in a vertical as well as in a horizontal plane. Gravity affects how the liquid responds to those two planes. Pollock worked on the ground, for example, and used gravity in that way; but I will work on the ground and also vertically on an easel. It’s those two orientations of the canvas in relation to the fluid medium – and gravity – that you’re playing with. I also rotate the canvas as I paint so it has gravity coming at it from different directions.
Brian: Something that struck me around the time that Mark and Paul were working on the first ‘Seven Wonders’ collaborations in 2010 is the way they’re both drawn to certain landscapes – typically Peak District and Cornish landscapes – and their practices within those landscapes as climbers and artists. In their work, whether it’s a painting or a poem, there’s a constant shifting of perspective where something will be turning on its side, and a constant reexamining of objects, ideas and experiences from different angles: horizontal and vertical planes working with and against each other. This is something we find in Steps, where we see lines of text arranged vertically as well as horizontally, which starts to express ideas about visual planes.
Paul: That’s what you might call an ‘embodied’ response to the book; you have to turn the book around. It’s a much less passive read.
Brian: It stops being a conventionally linear experience. You become conscious that this is a book, a physical object that you have to turn around; something that would be far more difficult to do if it was on a screen.
Mark: And of course with the screen you’ve got the obstacle of the screen, the layer, the membrane between you, whereas you’re able to touch the book directly.
Brian: I find that physicality, that tactility in Paul’s works. Yesterday I visited his studio and was reminded how physical his application of paint is.
Paul: We had an open studio event at Yorkshire Artspace a little while ago and I actually saw another artist stroking one of my paintings!
When both of you work together how does this collaboration work?
Mark: The first collaboration was an interview. I decided I wanted to interview Paul because he’s constantly coming out with poetry, just like that lovely expression he came out with earlier, to do with ‘clotted’. To say he doesn’t write poetry … well he speaks it often, that ‘clotted’ thing about Turner was glorious. Anyway, I just interviewed him and transcribed his interview, but with hardly any editing with regards to taking out words, just a tiny bit of compression, and the tiniest bit of addition. Then I laid the words out as a narrow stream, largely because it was about climbing in Chee Dale which is a narrow gorge with the river Wye flowing through it, and basically I turned it into a long thin poem…which is essentially Paul’s words, but remoulded and reconfigured into a new rhythmical shape… a poem shape…
I really enjoyed that, and that’s where our ongoing collaboration started…
Paul: It wasn’t just about climbing, there was a lot about the river in the poem as well. The fact that the river, which used to have the power of the glacial melt-waters that had shaped the valley, had become a limp flow…and there was a something about getting older in it as well…
What was being interviewed by Mark like? Did you suddenly discover things you hadn’t thought about before?
Paul: My talent for poetry; which I’m dubious about to be honest! It was a very useful way of thinking because it brought me out of myself in a really good way. It was like being given permission to use words instead of expressing myself through paint…permission to express myself in a way I wasn’t used to expressing myself…using words as objects; more physically. I had read Mark’s poetry before, so I may have been thinking intuitively about things in that way at the time anyway.
When you put the paint on the canvas you are doing it in different strokes and different ways, which is similar to creating poetry and as you say it’s not a dead thing, because that’s where you’ve been and it’s got movement in it.
Paul: You create structure in a painting and resonances that occur across the surface.
Paul: Yes, you’ve got to have rhythm. Rhythm’s really important. But it’s how you create rhythm without it becoming a cliche; that’s the hardest thing. You see this in Monet, who’s an absolute genius at it, because if you look at the surface of a Monet painting, there’s paint moving in lots of different directions and being applied in lots of different ways with a brush, knife or finger, but nothing ever becomes repetitive to the eye. That’s the trick.
Mark, what do you see, as a poet, when you look at Paul’s paintings?
Mark: Well I think poets generally would see the type of symbolism that’s going on in there. A lot of painter’s work is laden with that and Paul’s is no exception. It’s particularly laden towards land, gravity, texture, all the things we’ve been talking about in the symbolic sense. There is also potential for narrative as well.
But for the type of poet I am, particularly with regards to texture, being, activity and sensuality, that we’ve talked about, for me Paul’s work is not only laden with that, but actually is texture and activity itself. His feeling pleased that someone wants to stroke his ‘furry’ paintings, even though that risks damaging the work. It’s very much about that… about play…
Even if I didn’t know Paul was a climber and had been on those gritstone surfaces, I am absolutely sure those paintings would inspire that same kind of feeling in me which is about moving in that landscape, being in it, feeling it, touching it, smelling it, and being altered by it. It’s all that.
Which is exactly what you do in your poems.
Mark: It’s my version of practice in paint.
Brian: Your work has something that is so much more than linear, even though you might be describing linear movements. We might think of walking as linear, for example. But the way that you build up that experience in the way that Paul builds the sense of a landscape is a very layered thing in both the way it’s constructed and the way you relate to that experience.
Mark: Yes, that Stanage Edge one, when I recorded the sound of Paul sketching as the backing to the poem, that was playing with layers. And the sound of drawing and its relationship to writing, because essentially drawing and writing are putting marks on paper, so the correspondence there is direct…but direct between layers…
Brian: It comes back to this idea of mark making (if you’ll excuse the pun).
Mark: Paul and I have been talking about working more together on climbing, with regards to phenomenology, texture and all these things in practice. Particularly now Paul has mentioned he can climb on my poems and use the friction between the gaps…that he can climb on marks made on a page…
Brian: That’s interesting, the idea of friction in the sense of something happening between two things and giving you purchase. Rather than the polished, frictionless surfaces of much contemporary poetry, which I can’t get any purchase on, and which seem designed to be admired from a distance.
Both Mark and Paul’s work is very immersive. I can understand why you found someone stroking your paintings, Paul, because I would want to go up to one of your paintings and touch it or try to climb it.
Paul: Painting is an immensely haptic thing. It’s a product of the eyes, the brain and the hand.
I would have thought it was the same with poetry.
Mark: It is, but perhaps the haptic is more easily hidden, or avoided and not seen, more easily not touched, because of the way people do or don’t read, the ways others train us to read, or the ways we train ourselves. Some people are really surprised that essentially writing is just marks on a page. Often readers don’t think about there being a texture there, even ink on paper offers touchable texture. That’s what you’re engaging with, even if it’s just the eye seeing that texture, or perhaps feeling it through bounced photons… or imagining the feel of it.. and it’s easy to forget that, whereas with painting, particularly with layered and rippled work like Paul’s, it is of course absolutely textural, it invites the fingers directly. There’s a danger for poetry readers, and I suppose writers, in not reading, or not trying hard to read with every available bodily sense, and a danger in reading only a seen surface, and in some cases developing a preference to only see a shiny gloss, and perhaps in the end see only one’s own reflection in it. Which is more comfortable than rubbing your fingers across the surface to detect what is there, or what might be there, find what might graze you, or even be revolting…if you follow and try to read closely, through touch, smell and even taste, the tracks of some creature, you have to be prepared to be uncomfortable… perhaps even frightened…
Brian: And all the gloss and reflection will do is confirm whatever sense of self you may have brought to that piece without challenging it.
Mark: It’s also much easier to imaginatively put a gloss over a poem’s words, whereas you have to apply a coat of varnish over the roughness of a painting. I might be wrong, because powers of imagination, healthy or otherwise can be so strong, but it’s probably more of a feat of delusion and denial to gloss over the more apparently touchable painting. Whereas with writing, through certain ways of viewing and critiquing, invalidating, or self-validation…it’s possibly easier to manipulate imaginations so as to gloss over certain writings, and ways of writing. It’s easy to use a layer made by ill imagination so as to dispense with the writing’s textures. And that can be in ways that are either intentionally positive or negative. Sometimes people can completely miss the point with certain pieces of poetry, gloss it by saying great and lovely things about it; but there is no need for such things to be listened to, certainly no ‘need’ for such when it comes to meeting the poetry directly. You really need to feel what the poem is saying through your own imagination, unhindered, unglossed. I think it’s harder to hide, or hide from a painting, or at least that actual painting in front of you…if you read about the painting, perhaps what a critic says about it, then I guess the whole delusional gloss thing is probably just as powerful…
What about interpretation of painting, Paul. What’s your view on this?
Paul: I think this goes back to what we were discussing earlier about painting being a participatory art form, interpretation is part of the participatory mode of the viewer; at least potentially. It’s an interesting one, because interpretation is often seen as something that should be reserved for the career of the critic. Art critics have made a career out of interpreting – criticising – various forms of paintings and given them ‘context’. We nearly lost texture in the 1980s, when we were moving towards post-painterly abstraction.
What validates interpretation? If you’ve been taught to interpret something in a certain way and that is how it should be done, there’s no longer a freedom to think outside the book.
Mark: I suppose that could even apply to being in front of a highly physically textured painting. Because imagination is that powerful … it is possible through imagination to deny one’s senses…and it is easy for imagination to become sick, become disconnected from the body…
Paul: Some artists are very clear about the meaning of their work. I used to share a studio with an artist who was very clear about the symbolism of his paintings and we had quite a few arguments about it!
Mark: I think it’s valid for an artist to say ‘For me, this is an intention’, but if you start insisting that your own intention is going to be, and should be projected out there into the world, to be carried on untransformed through all the possible worlds people are always making up, then that is simply absurd. For me participation is the essential part of poetry. The poem does not happen until it is being read by someone. The reader may not be so creative or may be highly creative. I am happy for ‘not so creative’ readers to create from it and very happy for ‘highly creative’ readers to recreate my poems totally. What I’m very unhappy about are readers who, unfortunately, and most unfortunately for them, can only experience a creative work that fits prescribed templates, and if they encounter a work that goes beyond the borders of their templates, often imposed on them by others, they are left with only being able to interpret the work as invalid. I feel that this is properly sad, even tragic…such a narrowing of creative reading only serves to actually invalidate the reader’s own imagination. The potential for the creative freedom of being able to pick up another artist’s work and being able to become an artist in the moment by re-reading it and re-remaking it…it is a huge shame many don’t get permission do that…
Paul: The value of freedom is very interesting. I often wonder what’s happening to it in some ways.
Brian: I think both practitioners and audiences are drawn to some measure of freedom at the level of interpretation: to take what is there and rework it for themselves. I think back to when I was 12 years old and beginning to listen to contemporary music. The idea of fixed meaning, with something as trivial as a song lyric, struck me as odd. I always felt that the song had the capacity to be one thing or another. I think what we have to take from poetry is probably much more elusive and difficult to find than that. Of course, the meaning of that encounter will change from one day to another. The value of it will also change from one day to another. It is not a passive experience.
Mark: At each reading perhaps we should actively declare: the author is dead, long live the author…the ‘death of the author’ means the birth of the reader…
Paul: Or the birth of a relationship?