Last year in the regular Poetry in Unusual Places post I reported on the beautiful calligraphy of Susie Leiper at the Whych Elm Project in the Royal Botanical Garndens Edinburgh. Susie has used lines from several contemporary poems and combined them with the sensuous wood of the whych elm. I hope you’ll agree that the result is very beautiful. Below Susie speaks a little about the process.
When the woodcarver Roger Hall suggested I use the offcuts of the wych elm tree to paint poetry on, I wasn’t sure. How could I fully integrate words and wood? Carving does that, but could painting?
My solution was to treat the lines of the wood grain as my writing guidelines, to let those haphazardly spaced sweeps and whorls determine the size and shape of my letterforms. And I wanted very plain letterforms, that would sing with the sheen of the bronze paint.
Also, the words themselves needed to speak to the particular piece of wood – each piece was different, some were in pairs. I read a lot of nature poetry and gather lines in a folder. Sometimes I just have to wait for the right place for those lines. For example, one of the most beautiful pieces of wych elm, with a rough untreated bole, lay waiting for some months until I came across these lines from Kathleen Raine’s Northumbrian Sequence:
For pressing at the tree’s deep root,
Still underground, unformed, is world.
The subterranean, primeval allusions of these lines seemed just right for that piece of elm.
There could be no preplanning other than a quick pencil sketch – I just had to trust my hand that the words would fit when painted. I had to think all the time as I painted: Is this line going to fit? Do I need to reduce some letters to squeeze up. This is thrilling, but meant I had to concentrate all the time on the words. And as the process is so slow, I relished the words as I go along. Writing like this becomes a kind of meditation.
If any readers have examples of poetry in unusual places you would like me to cover then please drop a comment in the comments box or to firstname.lastname@example.org.