Illustrated talk for University of Kent symposium
on Artists’ Books and the Medical Humanities, on 21 April 2016
I had been so looking forward to this wonderful symposium devised, designed and immaculately planned by Stella Bolaki, and to seeing the exhibition of Martha Hall’s and other book artists’ work – which is still on until 14 August (Prescriptions Beaney House of Art & Knowledge, 21 April-14 August 2016). Then I went down with a virus the day before the symposium and lost my voice overnight. Stella very kindly delivered my talk for me and showed the images that went with the words. Here is a potted version of my talk. See some of the images at https://selfportraitwithoutbreasts.wordpress.com/2016/05/26/illustrated-talk-for-university-of-kent-symposium-on-artists-books-and-the-medical-humanities-on-21st-april-2016/
As well as being a writer, I have worked as a fine bookbinder, a bookseller, an editor and a Creative Writing teacher. Throughout my life, making books has provided me with metaphorical and physical structures within which to reconstruct versions of my self, and body.
I am Book. A bold statement, but a pragmatic one. To a great extent we are all Book. We have our narratives, we talk of turning the page, or of starting a new chapter in our lives. We shelter, disguise or hide ourselves between covers. But I think I’ve always been particularly absorbed in the idea of books, of Bookness, and today I’m going to talk about why that is so, and perhaps my sense of Bookness might suggest things about artistic identity in general.
My father was a papermaker for his entire working life. As children, my brothers and I spent our Saturday afternoons at Dartford Paper Mill, where my father was then Manager. Our lives were full of paper samples and offcuts. I wrote on them, folded them into pamphlets and made childish books out of them from my earliest years. And I was an obsessive reader. It all began with the illustrated Golden Treasury of Poetry I was given for my 6th birthday. It’s still one of my most precious belongings. I feel a primal thrill when I open it. Most of the time, growing up, I had my nose in a book.
I went on to read English Literature at Cambridge, gathering along the way a passion for print and fine books, and after university I decided to become a book maker and book doctor – I trained as a Fine Bookbinder and loved working with fine papers, cloths, marbled papers, leather, vellum, gold leaf. But after nearly wrecking my eyesight with close work (gold tooling) I was obliged to change professional direction. I went to work for Tim Waterstone in the early 1980s when his bookshops were taking London by storm. In time I moved across from the art book department at the High Street Kensington store to working with Waterstones Publishing Division, first as a researcher, then as an editor. Later I was an editor for ten years with the French publisher Gallimard Jeunesse and their English language partner Moonlight Publishing.
I can see now that up to this point I was wanting more and more to inhabit Bookness – to read, to make and bind, to edit and publish and sell – but had not yet dared to jump into the very stuff of my identity, or identities – the writing itself. And, through the writing, to uncover the reasons for my Bookness in the first place.
So I see these stages of my life, up to my early 40s, as serial constructions, deconstructions and reconstructions of different versions of myself in the world, in efforts to find out what I was and where I belonged. I was creating and exploring a kind of library showing different aspects of my identity, or indeed different identities.
Since then, the past twenty years have represented a deeper and infinitely more satisfying deconstruction and reconstruction of my self, my selves, through writing and making Books that I inhabit from the inside, outwards.
I had always written, but the pressure to ‘come out’ as a writer built up through the 1990s and beyond. The latter part of this period then coincided with another pressure in my life, that of facing head-on my high risk of contracting the genetic breast cancer in my mother’s family. The result of this confluence was my first full collection of poetry, Excisions, which has at its core the autobiographical cycle Self-portrait without Breasts.
(Here I would have read a few of these poems, alongside showing some of Laura Stevens’ photographs which were taken in two shoots, the first a few weeks before, and the second some 18 months after, my risk-reducing double mastectomy.)
Self-portrait without Breasts
Tangled hair, charcoal-socket eyes,
mouth slack after one more long night
restless on my back. This body’s fenscape,
manscaped, hills removed – the meaty joins
still livid, tight shut mouths
where distant territories were stitched
in touch. Blood seeps in deltas over ribs,
yellow and purple track to the waist.
You’re even more beautiful now, you say
and I believe, for though I never was, I am
explorer, seeker – I’ve travelled
and I have an ear for truth.
When you cast me, I held my breath
as the plaster set. You kept your focus,
capturing the contours of my breasts.
Remember that awkward fold by the clavicle,
air trapped between layers, remember
my fear – that flesh could not be cast
to look like flesh. But now, when I touch
the rough white woven skin, I want to quit
my body, let the twin chalk rind
contain my breath, while I recall a lover’s kiss,
the heat of milk-tight flesh, my newborn
trying to focus as I held him.
How will I remember this?
Numb flesh stapled over ribs,
my breath snagged within.
Making the Self-portrait poems provided me not only with a way of working through and revisioning my experience of this trauma and its many repercussions, but also with a way of reconstructing my changed body into a body of work – and, metaphorically and literally, into a Book. Excisions has proved to be a key book in my development as a writer and in my personal growth – a milestone on my artistic journey. At the level of line and stanza, as well as at the level of physical object, I used poetic form to bring new order to my altered identity and to my sense of belonging both in terms of family history and artistic inheritance.
I later put together that very solo experience of writing the Self-portrait without Breasts poems with Laura Stevens’ before and after photos (in book/pamphlet form, as Breastless).
Since then I have returned several times to the Bookish concept of collaboration – through a site-specific theatre piece called Vacant Possession co-written with Sara Clifford in summer 2015, through a multimedia project Take Me With You: the museum of friendship, remembrance and loss, with the film-maker Tim Andrews, which was launched at BSMS in February 2016, through Springlines, a project with the painter Mary Anne Aytoun-Ellis in which we are exploring hidden and mysterious bodies of water across the South of England – and through a three-way collaboration to make CELL, involving my own long poem in twelve parts, Michaela Ridgway’s drawings and Katy Mawhood’s design.
This last project, CELL, had been many years in gestation before being published in its unusual ‘almost-pamphlet’ state in 2015, and in some respects it is – of all the books I have made – the one that most closely represents, in its themes and emotional content and in its form, my own earliest sense of identity.
The poem is a retelling of the story of Christine Carpenter, a girl of fourteen who was enclosed in an anchorite cell in 1329. She requested release after more than a thousand days of living in the cell, and did come out, only to be forcibly re-enclosed when the Bishop heard of her release.
I myself was sexually abused, and emotionally ‘locked away’ as a young child. I underwent many years of isolation, silence, shame and suffering before finding my way out of the cell and into healing.
(I would then have read out parts of an interview about CELL with Kay Syrad for the most recent edition of The Frogmore Papers.)
Kay Syrad in dialogue with Clare Best about CELL (Frogmore Press, 2015)
‘KS: Getting ready to read CELL, I found myself acting rather ritualistically: I cleared the table, placed the pamphlet parallel to the edge of it, carefully removed the wrapper, studied the cover and the printed burgundy paper sleeve, eased off the sleeve and finally held the pamphlet in my two hands. Standing up throughout, I read the poem until I came to the point where, following the diagram, I was to unfold the pages in a way that creates a paper ‘cell’. There could be no rush.
I think this is the closest I have come to genuinely embodied poetry: knowing there is a potential space within the form, waiting for it, creating it, reading the poetry within that confined space, unfolding the structure to a flat sheet and then refolding it into its pamphlet form – these experiences seem to me quite as emotionally significant as reading the poem. Would you agree?
CB: With CELL, I wanted the reader’s experience of content and physical form to be especially closely bound.
To write the poem, I’d researched what happens to the body and mind in situations of extreme privation such as enclosure in a basic cell over this kind of period. I wanted to emphasise the changes Christine would have lived through by achieving a physical form for the work which is several different things at once (pamphlet, paper sculpture, flat printed sheet) and which suggests alternations between different states.
The object’s form is designed to mirror the unfolding drama described in the poetry and the drawings. Early sections of the poem can be read by turning the pages, so far so relatively normal. Then the reader discovers the ‘cell’. Next they must open the entire sheet – making the ‘cell’ vanish and freeing its imagined prisoner – in order to find and read the last section of the poem. Finally, refolding the sheet into a pamphlet is like re-enclosing Christine or even burying her. Throughout, the reader is in some way complicit in the events of the poem simply by carrying out the act of reading.
KS: Your crystal clear, unflinching poem lives and breathes not only the pain of its subject, Christine Carpenter, but her heart-breaking effort to justify her pain – and in this way the poem speaks to every woman who knows the cultural and mortal price of imagined or projected ‘sin’. Clare, what precipitated the writing of CELL?
CB: I’d started thinking about the themes in CELL when I spent some intense weeks working with male life prisoners, witnessing the damage that separation and isolation can do to a person. And I know a lot, personally, about the damage inflicted on the self by shame. Finding and retelling Christine’s story presented an opportunity to write in a focused way about the double prison of isolation and shame.
CELL evolved slowly over a number of years when I was working on other poems and sequences and also on a prose memoir which explores relationships between daughter and father, daughter and mother. Christine’s mother plays an important role in CELL, although we never hear her voice. There are also male figures in the poem – the priest/father figure whom Christine watches through her cell window, the real or remembered or imagined Lucifer/rapist, and the Bishop. The mother’s absence, together with the ambiguous overlapping presences of these males, points to some essential but unspoken truth about Christine’s vulnerability. Today we would probably say that she was acting out a traumatic past. I am interested in how the ‘choice’ of extreme deprivation (still) can be framed as religious cleansing.
But in some ways I wrote CELL blind and it wasn’t until the poem was almost complete that I realised fully what it was about.
KS: The pen and charcoal drawings by Michaela Ridgway (who is herself a poet) also embody a claustrophobic intensity in the way they refuse to stay within their borders, at once hiding and exposing a female body that is tender and fierce, layered, smudged (almost erased), dark or clear. Can you tell us how this extremely effective collaboration began and how it developed into what we see here?
CB: I was finishing the umpteenth draft of CELL and beginning to think about how to send it out into the world, when I saw Michaela’s powerful and enigmatic drawings of female nudes which she was posting on Facebook. We met and talked at length. Michaela completely ‘got’ the poem and the layers of it, plus she agreed with my aim of wanting poem and art to work independently and together – this was no illustration task.
We talked about how we wanted words and images to complement each other, moods and feelings to bounce around between them. From this point, our work was to whittle down the choice of drawings, discover how to sit the images within or across the confines of rectangular spaces, and figure out where to place them in relation to the poetry in order to imply both incarceration and breakout, confinement and rebellion. We also wanted some significant blank space – with only a single folding sheet this was challenging, but we managed it!
At the same time that Michaela and I were thinking about all this, we were consulting the designer Katy Mawhood, whom I had commissioned. Katy had excellent ideas for placing Michaela’s art and my words in the context of the particular pamphlet form we had decided on. For instance, Katy’s suggestion for the lettering on the cover, where the C of CELL appears like a cap over the neck of a headless female figure, was daring. Michaela loved it and so did I. In fact, that C and the entire cover design encapsulate the power of word and image working in close harness.’
To finish, I’d say that for me and for my evolving identities, the idea of Bookness carries sacramental meaning.
Books, in all their forms and in all their manifestations in my life, have been my saving and my making, my containment and my freedom, my focus, my work and my relaxation.
I made my first books with my father’s discarded paper. Later – in training to be a bookbinder – I was preparing to rescue, restore and protect my own damaged and vulnerable yet resilient substance, my own Bookness. I was drawn to bookselling and publishing because they kept me in close contact with my life blood. But writing and imagining my own Books into being has been and is for me the most faithful and true expression of my identity/ies.
I like to think of my bookbinding skills, tools and materials as interchangeable with elements of my life and creativity. I start with flat sheets, I fold and sew and cut them into books, press them in presses, cover them, decorate them, leave them under weights. Like the surgeon or the tailor – as a writer, artist and maker of books, I keep my knives sharp, my eyes clear, my needles and tape measure close to me.
As a child I reached for what was closest and I made of the materials what I could, what I had to. I have continued to do this and I will do it all my life.
Pare the leather, thin the skin
where it must stretch and crease.
Then paste: the tanned flesh darkens,
wet and chill, fingers working
over spine and cords, into joints,
mitreing corners neat and flat.
Bandage the book in paper, let it
settle under weights, day after day
until the leather’s dry and tight.
When the time is right for finishing,
black the room, clamp the book
spine up in the beech-wood press,
the lamp pointing where to begin.
Hot brass letters and a vigilant hand –
an accurate blind impression.
Paint in glair with a fine brush,
lay on gold leaf, with level breath.
Tilt the light, shadows will reveal
the place to press the tool again.
Now, strike the gold – feel the title
word by word, bright in the grain.
Clare Best is a poet and writer with particular interests in writing body and landscape. Her poems are widely published in magazines including The Rialto, The London Magazine, Magma, Resurgence, Agenda and The Warwick Review. A chapbook, Treasure Ground (HappenStance 2009), resulted from her residency at Woodlands Organic Farm on the Lincolnshire fens. Breastless – poems from the sequence Self-portrait without Breasts with photographs by Laura Stevens – came out with Pighog in 2011, and Clare’s first full collection, Excisions (Waterloo Press 2011) was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Award. She teaches Creative Writing for Brighton University and the Open University, and lives in Lewes, Sussex.
Kay Syrad’s website: www.kaysyrad.co.uk