Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Cutting up poems with Robert Frost

Breakthrough days come unexpectedly. They are struggled for, wished for - and sometimes hope seems out of sight before they arrive. Today was a breakthrough day for us, I am very pleased to report. At long last the poems for The Homeless Library have started to arrive.

We have been stocking up The Homeless Library for quite some time now. We've been granted some powerful interviews by the many people we have met. The books for the library are starting to find their shape too, somewhere between origami, sculpture, printing and assemblage.
A selection of artist books made at The Booth Centre, May 12th.

But a shape for the poems has been difficult. What we arrived at yesterday was also a kind of collage. It brought together contemporary people's day-to-day experience of homelessness with the experiences of similar people 100 years ago. We also took some lines from a famous poem about a journey. I want to go through the stages of this making, because it is important to show how and why we do what we do.

I arrived at The Booth Centre  and went around the room asking everyone for one line describing their journey to the Centre that morning. I had already cut up some lines taken from descriptions of 19th Century criminal courts dealing with what they called "vagabonds" and what we would these days call "homeless people." These 19th Century descriptions were harsh judgements and vicious punishments, whippings, imprisonment, deportation among them. I'd also cut up some lines by the poet Robert Frost from his famous poem Stopping by woods on a snowy evening. I wanted to have a familiar presence in there that many people might connect to, which dealt with being on the move, impermanent.

The poems for The Homeless Library need to have room to be quick and spontaneous (both for energy and because many of the writers have literacy issues) but also in dialogue with the wider history of homelessness. At the same time they need elegance, for contrast with the content.
'ups- downs in the midst of TERROR and WONDER.' Detail of artist book, The Booth Centre, May 2015. Text: original  line, intercut with quote from Pico Iyer.
People took their own lines, the pre-prepared cut ups, and organised them into verses of six lines. Because they contained their own (often deep-felt) words, with echoes of a wider history and of a literary tradition, the poems hits several targets at once. And an efficient poem is a good one. When they were rewritten into the handmade books people had also constructed in the session, they suddenly clicked. The breakthrough had come, all our buses had arrived at once.

I'm aware that much of the above might seem like a very small, irrelevant victory, especially in the light of the circumstances of many of the folks we meet right now. In fact, one homeless man I spoke to in the morning - before I got in through the door - had been to the hospital because his face had been so badly pounded by an attacker. His eyes were slitted with pain and bruising.

But these little words and pictures and books we are gathering are theirs and they are also real. And they fight what's possibly an even bigger brutality, that of writing people out of history.

Detail of artist book, made at The Booth Centre, May 2015

The arthur+martha project The Homeless Library is the first ever attempt to write a history of homelessness in Britain. It includes not only individual testimonies, but also poetry and art, giving it a shape like no other

Poems made in the 12 May workshop included cut-ups of Robert Frost, TS Eliot, Pico Iyer, Claude Levi-Strauss, Dietrich Bonhoeffer - all journey-related material, as suggested by Professor Emeritus Ellen Ryan in the Writing Down Our Years blog. The material describing 19th Century legal attitudes towards homelessness was drawn from the excellent website oldbaileyonline   

Look for more about The Homeless Library on this blogsite, or befriend us on FaceBook.

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