Not all printed words need to be flat, as you’ll have seen if you read my post on paper poetry snowballs. Here poet and artist Simon Leake talks us through his creative process.
Words are as much a part of my landscape as the things to which I apply them. It seems only natural to include them in any image of the world I create. A quick tour of a museum’s antiquities department, or folk art for that matter, shows us the symbiotic relationship of image and word. Having a background in fine art it’s hard for me to draw a distinction between text and image: they are both forms of communication that can be deployed when and as necessary: pictures arranged in sequence can become text; text can be written anywhere; poetry can distil experience.
When I was an undergraduate art student I had the following epiphany:
in the swirl of air
from a passing bus
may not be beautiful
but for the fact
and therefore is
(from Compañero—or how to speak with those incognito)
I stopped looking for a definitive truth in things for things themselves were rewriting this truth every second: the world tells its own story, a story without end. We can only mirror it, edit it, frame it.
The work of Ian Hamilton Finlay, in particular his garden called Little Sparta, and the early graffiti of Jean-Michel Basquiat were two early influences on me. They may seem to be from extreme ends of the artistic spectrum but they both engaged directly with the environment in which they found themselves. Finlay by shaping his garden around the poems it suggested and Basquiat by spray painting his acerbic comments onto the free canvas offered by the city that provoked them. They are both entering into a form of dialogue that is as old as the cave paintings in Lascaux.
Say what you have to say by whatever means necessary
I use whatever means necessary to get out what it is I have to say. Once, in a fit of panic, I painted a self-portrait to fix the thing that was causing me distress. The image I produced was a soundless yawn; a gasping for breath. For an exhibition in London that had a fraught and intellectually tangled development, I took the text from all the correspondence, re-edited it and presented it as the wall text at the entrance.
I hoped it would forewarn the audience of what was to come and be a statement in its own right on such introductions. I thought that if I couldn’t make sense of the cacophony I could at least mirror it.
I regularly read out my poetry at local open-mic nights. Coming up with something new to say every week can be a great way to challenge yourself. You can give your thoughts an airing in a fairly safe environment before deciding which would be better left unsaid and which are worthy of elaboration in printed form.
Last year I was invited by the artist Marina Moreno, with whom I had previously collaborated, to make a small work, no larger than 9cm across, and capable of fitting into a plastic sphere as part of a vending machine project. The vending machine was installed as part of the Kunst Altonale Hamburg with each sphere containing a unique work of art. I had written a poem about a Russian poet named Kaliayev, which I included in my last pamphlet, The Long View. He was nicknamed ‘Poet’ by his friends and is infamous for the assassination of Grand Duke Sergei in 1905.
It was a volatile time in Russia and artists, as elsewhere, were in the front line. There was a reality to their lives that I think doesn’t exist these days; their aesthetic choices were closely tied to their ideological beliefs. Today contemporary art seems to have taken a more ironic stance, questioning and poking fun at the world but at a safe financial remove.
There is an extraordinary photograph of Kaliayev taken shortly after the assassination. I found his look strikingly unapologetic yet human. I decided to inter my poem and his image in a box as a memorial. I drew separate parts of his face on the sides of the box as a sign that we end with disparate fragments of history and lose the full picture. The date and time on the box are those of his execution.
Despite, or because of, the ease of reproduction contemporary media offers, I still like my work to have some form of objective presence. If I’m not turning my words into art, I usually resort to pamphlets for their versatility and simplicity, they are also fairly cheap!
We are used to the idea of text being throwaway (newspapers, flyers, facebook, twitter). With the pamphlet you at least give the text some space or a frame for it to live within and hope that the person reading it will give it a bit more time for this fact, however, the printed word is still something of a fragile medium today.
Maybe in the future the only way to get someone’s attention may be to resort to the ancient technique of handwriting, because it is direct, personal and undeniably human. In Soviet Russia dissident writers such as Sergei Dovlatov did just this using a method called ‘samizdat’. In a world of 24hr news/entertainment the least you can do is prick somebody’s conscience, for a moment, and hope the little sting is memorable!
About the author
Simon Leake is an active participant in the Bristol poetry scene. He has published several pamphlets of poetry and exhibited work in Sheffield, Bristol, London and Hamburg. From 2005 to 2006 he edited and published Deficit: a journal for poetry, prose and art with a political edge. In 2010 he gave a lecture on the influence of Japanese culture on 20th Century American poets at Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution. He has been published in Aesthetica, the Bristol Evening Post Seven Magazine, Various Artists, Carillon, The Cannon’s Mouth, Neon Highway and The Delinquent.
Simon’s pamphlet The Long View can be found on Amazon. Further poems, pictures and a publications list can be found at his website, www.simonleake.wordpress.com.