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The Poet’s Book: an interview with Lavinia Singer and Anna Robinson

We interviewed Anna Robinson and Lavinia Singer about their new Poetry School course, The Poet’s Book.

Hi Anna! Hi Lavinia! How are you? And what are you both up to?

Anna: I am well thanks! I teach writing to students at UEL, at Barking library and to prisoners by distance learning, so I have been working a lot lately, and in my spare time I have been making handmade books and am working on my third collection, Webber Street, which is set in my block of flats.

Lavinia: I am very excited to hear about the new collection, Anna! I work at Enitharmon Press, the publisher of Anna’s work, and so will be looking forward to reading it when it’s ready. Aside from that, the next issue of the magazine I co-edit, Oxford Poetry, is forthcoming, and since October I’ve started research for a practice-based PhD exploring the interrelation of poetry and visual art, focusing on W. S. Graham and the St. Ives artists.

Your upcoming course with us is called ‘The Poet’s Book?’ What does it involve?

Anna: Participants will work on a sequence using methods that visual artists tend to use – collecting things, observations and making notes. That book will also contain the poems – as well as notes and images and wind up as a hand made book – we will make the books in the final session.

Lavinia: Yes, the course is about recording a particular kind of creative process, and will lead to making a coherent, mixed media book-object unique to each poet.

There’s going to be an exhibition of students’ notebooks at the end – can you tell us a bit about that?

Anna: The 15 or so books will be displayed either at Waterloo Library or (if the council has their way and it is closed by then) at another venue in Lower Marsh.

Were you inspired by any particular artists’ notebooks? And do you keep notebooks yourselves?

Lavinia: I find artists’ notebooks fascinating, especially when they incorporate not only text and illustration, but also ephemera such as botanical specimens, locks of hair, souvenirs and general debris… There’s an intimacy, spying on the development of an idea, and the pleasure of mixed up textures. I love the mysterious workings of Leonardo Da Vinci, William Blake or Mervyn Peake’s marriage of word and image, the scrapbook feel of Hannah Höch or Gerhard Richter’s, or where artists like Cy Twombly and Nancy Spero’s finished work retains traces of process. As for my own habits, I felt so liberated when I allowed myself to actually use the beautiful notebooks I’d been hoarding over the years, scared of ruining them, and now keep many for different purposes and projects.

Anna: I have largely been inspired more by art student’s notebooks than any famous artists. It might be that the discipline is more part of the academic process for art than something most artists systematically do. It is something I did whilst working on my second collection Into the Woods because I got to a point of being lost and needed to de and re-construct my journey and I found using that kind of method useful. I made an artist’s book, as well, of that part of my journey. You could say the course is making an artist’s notebook and turning it into an artist’s book.

Lavinia, when you were our 10th digital poet-in-residence, you wrote a quite lovely blog post called ‘A Bibliophile’s Manifesto’: what is it about the physical book that makes it so special?

Lavinia: (Thank you for those nice words!) Something that wears its history on its skin, exposing how it has been made and able to soak up its new surroundings, becoming personal to its owner – I find that very special indeed. A physical book is also sensorially satisfying to hold in one’s hands – even more so when one’s made it oneself!

Anna: Books are spaces of special interest and until we experience story, as babies, from a totally digital source, the physical book will be how we relax reading. The physicality of reading – how the book feels and smells is part of how it feels to read it. The fact that the appearance of the text is imposed on the reader is another aspect of what makes it different.

And is there something, again, qualitatively different about a handmade book?

Anna: A handmade book would (like a handmade jumper) often be a present or a work of art you bought because you loved it and those things are what make them different.

Lavinia: Yes – the human connection is definitely key! And connoting a sense of effort expended which, in a society ever-increasingly championing ease and convenience, becomes rarer and thus even more meaningful.

Do you think that the visual, the aesthetic, is underappreciated in poetry? Perhaps because poets see the words themselves as ‘speaking for themselves’ without the need for pretty presentation.

Anna: I’m not convinced poets think that. Form, lineation, font choice – these are all at least partly visual considerations. I know tons of poets that value decent design in books, and all the more if their work is inside. It can be a huge anti-climax to be published in something that looks shabby. And of-course – visual choices are rarely about ‘pretty’.

Lavinia: It’s funny, the CAMPUS Debate of my residency was titled ‘Poetry Books – Do Looks Matter?’ and I had great difficulty hunting someone down who’d answer ‘No’ to that question! So, I agree with Anna; I think poets (perhaps even more than other writers) greatly appreciate the visual, being aware that so much poetry is still read ‘on the page’, and also having a heightened awareness of the word’s potential – which includes its visual effect.

Finally, would you recommend that all poets – all artists for that matter – carry around a notebook? Are there any tips you can give us on creating and using a ‘Poet’s Book’?

Anna:  No – I really don’t – this was about a particular project and possibly had as much to do with scrapbooking. I actually rarely use notebooks in the way poets and other writers tend to – i.e. for writing down lines that come to me whilst out and about. I tend to think if a line is that good, it’ll come back. But a notebook for a particular, longer, maybe more ambitious project, used for gathering impressions, jottings and technical notes as well, that is something I work with whenever it is appropriate.

Lavinia: Here I differ slightly to Anna – only because my memory is rubbish! For that instant capturing of an idea-wisp, and at the risk of sounding shamefully hypocritical, I use the ‘Notes’ app on my phone! (Mainly because, alas, I am guaranteed to have it with me). However nothing beats the subsequent jotting, squeezing, scribbling presentation of ideas on a page – the act of writing becoming self-propelling. What this course will also hopefully open poets’ eyes to is how rich the ‘Poet’s Book’ can be, consisting not only of paper and ink but stuffed with the materials and memories of a particular creative journey, to keep and enjoy forever.

Thank you both! Anna and Lavinia’s course, ‘The Poet’s Book’, is now open for booking. 

Artists use notebooks to both explore and record their creative journey. These books often become artefacts in their own right, incorporating mixed media, found objects, words and images. This process is something that poets can also benefit from. On this course you will collect materials to use in creating your own set of poems, producing a handmade book that contains your poem and its unique journey. There will be an exhibition of the books at the end of the course. 

Lavinia Singer works at Enitharmon Press and edits Oxford Poetry. She won the Newdigate Prize at Oxford University and was runner up for the Margaret Hewson Award for new writing talent during her Masters at Royal Holloway. She was The Poetry School's 10th Digital Poet-in-Residence. Anna Robinson is a poet, tutor and editor from London. Her second collection Into The Woods was published by Enitharmon Press in 2014 and her fist collection The Finders of London was published by Enitharmon in 2010.

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Image Credit: Rachel Lyra Hospodar