Celebrated site-specific poet Holly Corfield Carr will be sharing her teaching with the Poetry School this Autumn on her online course Site-Seeing. We downed oars and drifted downstream with her to talk rivers, landmarks and writing place.
Hi Holly, we’re delighted you’ve agreed to talk to us, and very excited for your Site-Seeing online course! If we’re going to come along on this digital field trip with you, maybe you should tell us a bit about yourself?
I often introduce myself by saying I’m based in Bristol – but I’m never quite sure what this tells you as I’m not from Bristol and seeing as I’ve only lived in the city for four years I don’t (yet) call myself a Bristolian. And just to complicate things I now split my time between Bristol and Cambridge where I am working on a PhD researching site-specific poetry.
I guess I am saying I spend a lot of my time thinking about where, on any particular day, I call home and whether a poem might be something that can home us. In either sense of the word, either poem-as-portable-roof or poem-as-a-flock-of-homing-pigeons-lifting-off-from-the-roof. I am interested in how a poem might be both of those things at once.
Or, to put it another way, how a poem can belong to a certain place and perhaps maybe (possibly) be a place itself.
Can you say a bit more about what you’re working on in your PhD?
Sure! I’m researching site-specific writing practices in contemporary poetry. A big part of my work has been trying to find out what we – as writers, as poets – mean by that term ‘site-specific’. It’s increasingly being used to describe a very broad range of work. Everything from monumental inscription to the use of dialect to a poem that recalls the poet’s garden has been called ‘site-specific’. It’s a curious thing that we are so unspecific about the word specific. How, for instance, is site different from place? How does a poem respond to a site? Many of Lemn Sissay’s poems are permanently installed in public spaces – like Shipping Good (2015) – and he describes these works as ‘landmarks’. Sean Borodale uses the word ‘lyrigraphs’ to describe poems he has written from a particular location. Unlike Sissay’s ‘landmarks’ which are, say, cut into the pavement (literally marking the land), Borodale’s ‘lyrigraphs’ are printed on paper and in books and may be read at quite a considerable distance from the landscape they describe. Both might be called ‘site-specific’ – or maybe you disagree! I’m still trying to track this thing down so I’m excited to test and explore more ways to mark and make sites with our poets on the Site-Seeing field trip.
You say students “won’t need to travel far” to write their site-seeing work – what do you mean by that?
Well! As the term ‘site’ is up for negotiation so is the distance of travel! As part of the course, we will have a go at writing ‘on site’, seeing what it feels like to compose a poem according to the constraints or rhythms of a particular space. You don’t need to go to the Cairngorms for that. (You can and oh what rhythms!) But if you’re not planning a trip you can also pay attention to the sites of writing you already use. How about the bus home? How about your bed? The park at lunchtime? Your tiny flip-down desk on your long-haul flight? We will be thinking more about the personal landscapes of your writing life and whether that takes us up into the mountains or under the city on your commute, it’s the space you give your writing that matters.
You’ve created site-specific writing for projects on the River Frome, River Avon and Bristol Channel, what have you found so inspiring about these waterways?
Bristol is such a waterlogged place. It has the second highest tidal range in the world. In just a few hours the River Avon drains out leaving the New Cut looking like a great greenish ooze in order that the Floating Harbour might keep enough water in it to welcome the slave traders’ ships. That is the design of it although now the harbour hosts festivals and regattas. The ships are what the river was diverted for and those ships brought the money with which Bristol was built. When I try to write about Bristol I always end up back in the city’s rivers. And I live on the banks of the River Frome. Or rather I would do but just before it passes my front door the Frome gets packed away into a steel canal under the flyover and it disappears beneath the city, eventually squirting out of a tiny pipe in the harbour wall and it merges with the River Avon. The poems I have written for rivers are installed on site, one overlooking the mouth of the River Frome in the harbour and one carved as a signpost on the River Avon. You can read more about these projects on my blog.
How do you tend to find the sites of your poems? Do you tend to set out to write about a particular place you’ve just discovered, or are there locations you find your poems falling naturally into?
Now whether the place or the poem comes first is a difficult and helpful question and something I hope we can talk about more on the course. Writing poems for particular places might change the way we write, but finding places to write particular poems changes the way we move through the world. Most of the poems I write, like perhaps most of the poems we all write, are made of so many places, real, remembered and nowhere in particular. But I have come away from some remarkable places knowing that what I wrote next would be a response to that exact site.
One of these places was Goldney Grotto, a subterranean crystal cave built by a family of merchant venturers in the eighteenth-century. It’s now mostly closed to the public and located behind a block of University of Bristol student accommodation but when I first saw it I wanted to open it up, dig it up almost. I wanted everyone to see this strange, glittering wound in the middle of the city. It’s such a beautiful, awful place, decorated with shells and coral collected from West Africa and other stopping points for the family’s trading ships. I took groups of six people at a time into the grotto with me and performed what became Mine which was also published as a pamphlet. So the performance never leaves the grotto but the pamphlet never went in. In between the two is another place that is the place of the poem, I think.
How do you find homes for your site-specific work? Are you approached by organisations first, or do you send your work off to people who might be interested in it?
With Mine I knew I wanted to make the work and I sent a proposal to the Bristol Biennial. With most of my other site-specific work, I have been approached by organisations and I have been asked to write poems for sites as diverse as a museum window, a car park and a private dinner. As part of the course we will discuss how and why you might want to make site-specific work in response to significant places in your life and who to approach if you want to make this work public. We will also talk about how to engage with new or unfamiliar sites either as part of your own practice or for commission.
You’ve had work published on a passenger ferry, an eighteenth-century crystal grotto, a floating island, in total darkness, for a tour of stone in Hackney, Bristol Museum, in a car park, by the river, in libraries, former factories, public toilets, galleries and at dinner. Which of these was the most fun? And what would you like to see a poem printed on next?
I like the idea that my poems might be published on darkness! But, in all seriousness, I am interested in how a site-specific poem suddenly appears and then tries to stay put in the world. What’s the word for that appearance? I performed a poem in darkness for Beginning to See the Light at the Southbank Centre, commissioned by Jaybird Live Literature and the Poetry Society. My poem was written for (and during) the hours of midnight. I say ‘hours’ because I returned to the poem over several nights and, just like any other site, midnight was different with each visit. So I’ll just leave this question here: does a site need to be a place? Can it be an hour?
The most fun project has definitely been my poem for Matilda the passenger ferry. A hen party arrived on board and stole all the letter Ls! In fact I’ve just performed this poem for BBC Radio 3 at the Proms and I also talk a bit about site-specific poetry. You can listen online.
And where next? I’m looking. And I hope I might find somewhere on our Site-seeing field trip!
Holly Corfield Carr is a poet and writer based in Bristol and Cambridge, UK. She received an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors in 2012 and was the winner of the Frieze Writer’s Prize in 2015. Her writing is published in magazines, artists’ books and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She has recently received development and training as part of the Jerwood / Arvon Mentoring Scheme 2014/15 and has received additional support from Faber New Poets.