The similarities and differences in the ways in which text and textile respond to damage and repair have been an ongoing exploration for me over the past few years. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to write at some length about this for a recent issue of Axon Journal and, in particular, to talk about the work of artists and poets who have inspired my practice. The article can be found here https://www.axonjournal.com.au/issues/11-2/visible-stitches-towards-aesthetics-repair
More recently, a small commission from editor Russell Bennetts to make some work for the great, but now lamented, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, inspired my creation of a new series of visual poems as part of my DEFASURES series. I coined the word ‘defasures’ for a process of defacing, erasing and suturing, stitching directly into the pages of certain texts. One of these texts is the diagnostic handbook DSM-5. In an accompanying essay, I explain, ” I chose to work with the diagnostic manual known as the DSM-5, which is relied on for diagnosing mental health disorders in the USA but is also a key text in diagnostic work worldwide. The DSM-5 tends to provoke powerful responses. It is often celebrated for its attempt to apply a consistent language and framework to mental illnesses, but it is also criticised for its ‘medicalisation’ of certain states and its refusal of others, and it has been accused of perpetuating a number of biases and inequalities. Nevertheless, it remains hugely authoritative. My interest as a poet is in how texts like this seem to claim a universal authority, as if transcending the material circumstances of the book itself. And specifically, in the case of DSM-5, I am interested in its application of medical language (and of course the professional and institutional interests and inequalities embedded in that language) to some of the most profoundly mysterious and disturbing of human states; states of suffering and alienation and insight, and often source of both creative and destructive impulses. My project seeks to highlight the fabric of this book by ‘defasing’ the surface of selected pages and so opening apertures into other ways of reading and making meanings from it. Through its use of stitches, patches and holes, my project problematises and poses questions about medical models of healing, ‘repair’ and the recovery of some supposed state of pristine and individualised mental health.” The rest of the essay and the visual poems themselves can be viewed here: https://queenmobs.com/2022/03/34920/
The DEFASURES project has, in turn, inspired the poetics of a new text-based project to form a hybrid book made of text and textile. More of that to follow…
It was exciting to launch Enclosures in November just before the holiday season got into full swing (the Santa hat in the picture is to celebrate Osmosis Press’s Secret Santa scheme for people on low/no income. This scheme runs just for a few more days until the end of December 2021). https://osmosispress.com/secret-santa/
The launch was a wonderful celebration shared with both real life and online audiences. The venue was the spectacular Senate House building in London, which holds many fond memories for me from the days when I was a student at King’s College London, and so I am very grateful to Osmosis Press and to Royal Holloway Poetics Research Centre for organising this venue.
One of the highlights of the evening was a live poem-weave by E. P. Jenkins. E.P’s wonderful woven poems are a crucial part of Enclosures and so it was a particular treat to see her making a weave and to experience the wonderful, textured piece she created:
Poem-weave created by E.P. Jenkins for launch of Enclosures, 22nd November 2021.
Because the sense of Touch features so strongly in Enclosures, I was keen to engage the tactile sense of the audience as much as possible. The millefleur (thousand flower) background of late medieval/early Renaissance European tapestries is crucial to the poems and so I decided to bring them to the launch in some way. In the weeks leading up to the launch, I cut out a thousand flowers from textured, recycled and handmade papers. Members of the live audience were each given a crimson jute pouch containing a handful of these flowers. At the interval, I invited the audience to create a new enclosure within the performance space by scattering their flowers within a circle. This enclosure was dismantled (or opened) at the end of the event as people either took them home or I reclaimed them for use in another project (no waste). Sadly, the online audience could not participate physically in this activity, however I tried to create some of the millefleur texture sonically by weaving a chorus of flowers around each section of the poem.
I am so grateful to the audience (online and in the venue) for giving Enclosures such a warm reception. It was a magical evening. Thank you to everyone who has supported this pamphlet by coming to the launch, by generously purchasing a copy or even just by graciously sharing on social media and saying some kind words. Special thanks to those of you who have contacted me personally about Enclosures. Your words means so much.
Reading at the event wearing a garland of millefleurs. Photograph by Petra Kamula, 2021.
One of the many excitements around the publication of Enclosures, by the brilliant team at Osmosis Press, is that I had given up the idea of finding a publisher for it. It was too short and too demanding, in terms of its design requirements, for most small presses and too wacky for the larger ones. There were one or two presses who might have taken it on – presses for whom I have the highest regard – but I had other projects in the pipeline I hoped to work on with them. I made the decision to go DIY and to make by hand a small number of copies just for friends, but never had the time to realise this project. And then, in early 2021, Osmosis Press came into being with its aim to muddy boundaries and resist mapping onto existing expectations. I wrote to its editors (Briony Hughes, Editor in Chief and Saskia McCracken, Editor, now joined by additional advisors) describing my project as ‘problematic’ (listing several different problems) and suggesting that it might not be right for them at all! I was so sure they were going to say no, I wanted to make it easy for them to confirm my own expectations that it was unpublishable. Much to my surprise and delight, Osmosis took it on – and have realised it so beautifully it surpasses anything I could have imagined. They have resolved the central design problem of text enclosed in text so effectively that all its reviewers so far have commented on the tactility and tension of the design. They tackled the issue of length by asking me to write a critical introduction, and by commissioning poet E P Jenkins to write a critical/creative response. They staged the poem’s concerns with weaving and writing, enclosure and escape, using some of my own initial sketches and doodles. The result is a book-object that achieves my vision of a mesh of textual and material poetics. More information, pictures and order details can be found on the Osmosis Press website here: https://osmosispress.com/enclosures-susie-campbell/
Enclosures came out of my obsession with the series of late medieval tapestries, known as La Dame à la licorne, held at the Musée de Cluny, Paris, France.
I have written in some detail about Enclosures in the critical introduction, and also for a forthcoming essay (details tba) on text and textile which explores how these ‘tapestries and prose poems, exploiting their kinship, start to generate more complex and open-ended meanings between them’. So here I just want to add a few more details about my process, and also about the generous response Enclosures has received so far.
My first experience of the tapestries was when they were still housed deep within the medieval manor house, the Hôtel de Cluny, which is partially constructed over third century Gallo-Roman baths. I was fascinated with this house and the visible palimpsest of its history. My first poetic engagement with the house and the tapestries was a poem ‘On the earth and under the earth’, first published in Shearsman magazine 113 & 114 (Winter 2017-18). The poem follows ghosts through the house, finds them ‘stitched down in millefleur tapestries’ and weaving carpets for ‘sharp licorne hooves’, the colours of the tapestries spilling onto the floor in ‘gouts of light, scarlet and royal blue’. This poem leaves the tapestries to focus on the plurality and challenge of the house’s history and architecture: ‘If not double, incompatible in its parts. / Or if single, a grace-note, a handful of salt thrown – haphazard – over one shoulder.’
But the tapestries called me back again and again, with their complicated messages of sensuality and purity, enclosed spaces and escape routes. A new, modern gallery was built to house the tapestries, bringing them out of the dark labyrinth in which they were formerly kept, but recreating a dim, spiral path through which to approach them as though the medieval corridors had escaped their architectural confines to reappear within the contemporary space. I spent hours in front of the tapestries, sketching and scribbling and contemplating – and ducking around the noisy parties of tourists and school children which sometimes filled the galleries. Some of the scribbles have made their way into the final book: concepts and poetics knitting themselves up and unravelling again across the pages of my notebook. An additional sketch is here, showing my play with ideas of inside and outside:
Early sketch made whilst studying the tapestries.
And so from this obsession the idea for Enclosures was born. It took many months to realise as a draft and many more months to find its publisher. But it is finally here and I hope you become as happily entangled with it as I have been.
Responses to Enclosures
I was thrilled when I discovered that Osmosis Press had commissioned E P Jenkins to make a critical/creative response to Enclosures which would be incorporated into the book. I was aware of E P’s beautiful work with poetry, threads and weaving and so this was a real honour. Much to my delight, part of E P’s response took the form of weavings which she created in response to Enclosures, the loom itself forming an important component of the final images. E P’s work which is ‘steeped in a long tradition of textile art’ adds an important new layer to Enclosures, enriching its plurality and resistance to closure. Here is one of E P’s beautiful images:
It has also been an honour to read the first critical responses to Enclosures by poets whose work I love and admire. The full text of these can be found on the Osmosis website (see link above) and will appear on bookmarks designed to complement the pamphlet. The following are small snippets from these readings that filled me with joy. ‘I found myself running my fingers along the floral borders of each text’ says Mary Jean Chan, suggesting that Enclosures is a pamphlet that ‘demands to be read, touched and heard’. Suzannah E. Evans comments that the poems are ‘deeply tactile’ and raise questions about ‘how a text might thread a history of weaving in words’ as well as ‘how a tapestry might be read as a text’. Caroline Harris highlights how the ‘lush but spare shuttle of words takes us from the ‘millefleur’ border of wildflower names, through the central panel of each sense-themed poem, out again into the surround: back and forth, inner to outer.’ And E P Jenkins herself comments that ‘it is a work that continually moves through, cuts, and ties together the language and tradition of textile craft.’ These poets have done me the great honour of these generous readings but they have also set me a challenge: how to bring some of the haptic qualities of Enclosures into live performance, including performance live-streamed across the internet. Watch this space!
The exciting and innovative Poem Atlas, founded by Astra Papachristodoulou, is a platform which celebrates all forms of visual poetry, and in particular, object and sculptural poetry. Poem Atlas has curated a number of online exhibitions as well as events in RL. Text-Isles, a group exhibition at the Art Park Gallery in Rhodes, Greece (17th-24th September 2021), is the first Poem Atlas event I have had the privilege of being personally involved with, but I have been an admirer of Astra and Poem Atlas since its inception in 2019. This exhibition showcases the work of poets and artists who share an interest in exploring materiality in the context of text and textiles. Text-Isles includes some really stunning pieces but I am too interested in all the pieces, and the way they speak to each other, to pick out any individually. However, I highly recommend the beautiful exhibition catalogue which also serves as an anthology of work. I suggest a visit to the Poem Atlas website to find out more about the exhibition and get hold of a copy of the catalogue (if there are any left!) https://www.poematlas.com
My own contribution is a piece called Persephone, which is described in the catalogue as follows: a ‘vintage pink dress torn and partly repaired with visible stitches – ‘flesh-coloured’ only to a white gaze – accompanied by two white fabric sheets with poetry. Text responds to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Applied by hand with letterpress stamps’.
I won’t write about this piece in detail here as I go into some detail about it in my short essay, also included in the catalogue (‘Make and Mend: how do text and textiles respond to damage and restoration?’) and I have developed these ideas into a forthcoming, extended essay ‘Visible stitches: towards an aesthetics of repair’ (publication details to follow). However, one of the most creatively fruitful aspects of the whole positive experience was the process of learning more about the way text and textile respond to each other. Astra has generously included some photographs of my process in the catalogue (and indeed two of the preliminary studies are included in the exhibition itself)but I thought I would use this blog to share some additional photographs of my experimentation and process, in case anyone is interested in this further level of detail.
With thanks and credits to Astra Papachristodoulou for all photographs.
More experiments with letter stamps and ink pad. Photograph: Astra Papachristodoulou, 2021
It was an honour to participate in the celebration of forthcoming anthology Seen As Read at the Open Ealing arts centre this August 2021. Seen as Read is an anthology of visual, asemic photo poetry, edited by S J Fowler as part of his Poem Brut project. It has been beautifully produced and published by Kingston University Press. On 14th August, some of the contributors gathered together to celebrate the forthcoming publication of this book.
I am excited to have a few pieces of my own work in this anthology, alongside the work of poets and artists I greatly admire. But it was a challenge to know how to represent my piece ‘water: hold/dissolve’ in performance. The piece explores the creation of poetry in an unstable medium, in this case the shifting sand of the river bank near my home. I couldn’t bring the river to Ealing. Or could I?
The video shows how I solved this problem, with thanks to the participation of the audience at Open Ealing studios.
With thanks to all the friends and strangers who have shown an interest in Tenter, here is a link to the Guillemot Press website where you will find three short videos of me reading from the book, and a beautiful film of artist Rose Ferraby at work, demonstrating how she made some of the illustrations. There is also a link to a conversation between myself and Rose about the making of ‘Tenter’.
I am always absolutely fascinated by the processes of artists and writers and so, if you are anything like me, I hope you enjoy this! The artist who has illustrated ‘Tenter’ so beautifully, Rose Ferraby, and I had hoped to include a conversation between us as part of a real-life launch of ‘Tenter’. We found that we had so much to say to each other about our processes and the way the work comes together in the final publication, we thought this might enhance readers experience of the book. For me, ‘Tenter’ has come together as a weave of words, illustrations and publisher’s design in a way that expands and develops the potential meanings of the book. I use the word ‘weave’, rather than ‘union’, because I think these elements speak to each other and weave around each other, sometimes coming together and sometimes suggesting new avenues for exploration.
Of course, the current lockdown has meant that we could not invite you to listen to a real-life conversation however we can invite you to this written version instead. You can find out more about the writing of ‘Tenter’ and about Rose’s processes in this virtual conversation between us. You will also see some images of Rose’s work in progress. Of course, if this whets your appetite, you will also find a link to take you to the Guillemot Press ‘shop’ if you would like to buy a copy (with my gratitude if you do) or you can simply use the following link:
Before it got light this morning, I was celebrating Beltane and May Day with some fire. Literally, it may only have been a candle, but figuratively, it was the fire of excitement and hope – not just for Tenter but for all the new beginnings, change and healing that are so badly needed right now, for us and for the planet.
I am delighted to announce that today sees the launch of Tenter, illustrated by wonderful, award-winning artist Rose Ferraby and published by innovative and visionary publishers Guillemot Press. Over the coming days I will be publishing links to more information about Tenter on here, including videos of readings, conversations and some background information about how the book came to be written and published. But I don’t want to spoil the pleasure of discovery for those of you who might be interested in exploring the book for yourself and making your own meanings, and so for now I am going to say how apt it seems to be launching this book on May 1st. Long associated with new life, hope and the fire of inspiration, as well as with a revolutionary spirit, the first of May feels like the perfect day for Tenter to arrive in the world. Here is the link to the Guillemot site where you can find out more about the book (and order it if that is something you would like to do).
I return to you A chapbook of poems by Susie Campbell, with photography by Susie Campbell and Alban Low
You could be forgiven for thinking the title of this blog post refers to my long absence from this site, but in fact I am excited to announce that it is the title of my new chapbook published by Sampson Low with photographs by Alban Low and myself(ISBN 978-1-912960-21-7). See above.
I spent last Christmas Day in the workhouse. Because I was fortunate enough not to be born in Victorian England, this was by choice and not necessity. The workhouse in question was the Guildford ‘Spike’, now opened to visitors as a heritage centre. The ‘Spike’, named after the spike used by the inmates to pick oakum, was the ‘Casuals’ ward’ for ‘vagrants’ added in 1905 to the Guildford Union Workhouse, built in 1838. This was a special opportunity to visit the ‘Spike’ on Christmas Day to see what it would have been like to spend Christmas as an inmate. It was a fascinating and remarkable opportunity that made a significant impact on me and the other visitors.
I remember not too many years ago watching a TV version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and feeling my usual sense of 21st century complacency at the horrors of poverty, homelessness and workhouse labour described by Dickens. And yet in recent years I have felt not a remote horror but an all too present sense of familiarity and recognition, as all of our towns, cities and countryside have experienced a massive growth in homelessness and desperate poverty. It would have been hard to credit, only a few years ago, that my visit to the Guildford Spike would be accompanied by a discussion of whether workhouses – or a version of them – should be brought back. But so it was. These social evils, along with the political manipulations, prejudices and scapegoating we foolishly thought were long vanquished, have indeed returned to us. The majority of us felt that re-opening workhouses was not an appropriate solution but the very fact that we could discuss at all was sobering.
The aspect of the Guildford Spike that most resonated with me was its focus on the itinerant poor, also known as vagrants or wandering casual labourers. Much of the fear and mistrust created by the presence of these itinerants is mirrored in some of the negative media coverage today of refugees and immigration. Fear and suspicion of the outsider has ancient roots. All too often the outsider is seen as the enemy or a threat to be warded off with charms and magic marks. However, sometimes the outsider is seen as providing a potential blessing, an angel or a god in disguise to be wooed by a similar set of charms and magic signs. Marks and signs can also be an important way of demarcating boundaries, ownership and identifying members of the clan or community. However they might also have a more secret use, as I discovered.
The highlight of my visit to the Guildford Spike was the information I learned about the use of chalk marks made by itinerant labourers or wandering vagrants to communicate with each other in a secret code. There were chalk marks for danger, for fierce dogs, for good luck and for where food might be in generous supply. These marks would be left on a wall, or a door, or beneath a hedge for the next traveller to find. Not dissimilar to this secret code of chalk marks is what has become known as ‘thieves’ code’, which housethieves are reputed to use to identify and target certain houses (however many of these supposed ‘thieves’ marks’ have been subsequently claimed by utilities companies as communications about phone lines, gas and electricity supplies, a different kind of thievery altogether!) Scratched lines and markings have been discovered on the door lintels, chimneys and windows of old houses, barns and caves, ‘apotropaic’ marks or ‘witches’ marks’ to ward off demons and curses. Indeed, the more I investigated the use of chalk markings, the more it seemed I was surrounded by a world of marks, signs and symbols.
From this obsession was born first a performance, creating a set of chalk marks which I found particularly resonant, then an interest in taking these marks out into the street: allowing them to mingle with, and hide amongst, the multitude of everyday signs, marks and symbols with which we are surrounded. Finally, the poems arrived in this chapbook, an appropriate form for a series of poems that started out as an interest in itinerants, such as the itinerant pedlars or chapmen who were the original purveyors of these little books. The poems comprise words, marks and photographs that explore our relationship with, and responsibility for, a world of marks – including the marks of our written language – and how technology has in some ways detached us from our marks and in other ways, returned them to us through new forms and media.