Rods, Lines and Digital Media: Looking for Connection

In July last year Brian Lewis and I visited Flamborough Head in order to record a podcast of readings from my poetry collection West North East. This was part of an ongoing project to record performances within the landscapes the poems are set. In the previous March we’d recorded a podcast just after a snowfall in Hillsborough. We’re currently planning another in the part of East Leeds where I grew up. Hillsborough, Leeds and Flamborough are three main settings for poems in West North East. The idea is to craft an audio presentation of the poems that adds atmosphere and authenticity to the performance. We want to capture the feel and energy of the settings, and we want to respond to it, spontaneously, when introducing or reflecting on the poems. We hope to create podcasts that connect our audience to the backdrop and context of the poems.

The Flamborough podcast took place in the middle of last year’s heatwave. The plan was to travel to Bempton Cliffs and walk to Flamborough, following the route of a poem called ‘The Power-line’. Along the way we would stop, read, reflect and record. When we arrived at Bempton, Brian found himself mesmerised by the cliffs, and the hundreds of seabirds performing their slow ballets above nesting sites. He’d had the foresight to bring his digital film recorder, and so he was able gather some footage from the observation posts. He told me how hard it was to keep the camera steady as wind blew in off the sea. There was never any plan to make a film, and it was only recently that Brian decided to experiment with his footage to create a visual backdrop for a performance of ‘The Power-line’.

Someone asked me, recently, what I thought the film ‘added’ to the poem, and whether I thought it might distract from the words. It’s a fair question, and I do have sympathy with the ‘purist’ position. The words of a poem are its heart. I’m suspicious of approaches that operate under the assumption that the poetry ‘pill’ needs to be sugared with high production media gloss. Poetry is no ‘pill’. It’s a happening in itself. But Brian and I agree that if we are going to embrace new media as a direction towards new audiences, or as a means of framing the poetry in fresh or illuminating ways, then we must embrace experiment. We both believe that visual and audio presentations recorded in the setting of the material is richer and less predictable than the sterile feel studios often bestow.

‘The Power-line’ has a symbolic dimension running beneath the literal narrative. Reference is made to dreams and the human nervous system. There are images of a kite, of fishermen angling from a cliff tops, and there is a power-line carrying electricity. All represent conductivity, and with the idea of conductivity comes the threat of over-load. The idea of over-load has obsessed me for a number of years, not least because I’ve suffered the over-load of panic attack syndrome. It also occurs to me that the poetic line is another medium of conductivity – another power-line, and one function of poetry is that of the divining or the lightning rod. I love Rimbaud’s image of the weathercock in the thundershower. In the film and podcast, it is the words that have to deliver this symbolism. But just as we finished our recording in a field just outside Thornwick Camp, a mist blew in from the sea. It felt like eucalyptus in my lungs as I read the final stanza of the poem. When we stopped recording, Brian and I stood and watched it blow across the grass towards a caravan park inland. If that summer heat-wave was a stuffy room, someone had just opened a window. This is the connection Brian is chasing with the camera and the audio recorder.

First published on the Open College of the Arts blog, 3 April 2014. The second West North East podcast (recorded on location at Flamborough Head over two days in July 2013) focuses on the poems ‘The Power-line’ and ‘Out Far and In Deep’: listen to the full podcast below.

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