Lately, Stuff has been on my mind – reading, writing, life. We’ve just moved into our first home and have installed U. A. Fanthorpe’s ‘Atlas’ in a frame on the wall. It’s a great example of how the largest themes can emerge from ‘storing the WD40 and knowing when to use it’ [sic].
I now live just a short stroll from the cornucopia of Rajani Superstore, here in Bristol: everything from all imaginable spices, to every conceivable type of plastic bin, and a whole aisle of plastic flowers. Each time I visit, I get a little thrill at finding the right Stuff, ticking things off my list, discovering those Things I didn’t know I needed.
The place both fascinates and delights me, repels and appals me: the excess of it all! It’s dizzying, delicious, disgusting. Where does all this stuff come from? Who decides to produce this JML gadget, or that solar-panel ornament of meerkats?
Much is made of our ‘materialism’ and ‘consumer culture’ as solely negative: but we exist in a phenomenal universe, where the materials around us have potential to shape our existence and – in ecological terms – for us to shape the planet’s. For me, this has led to a reappraisal of materiality and its place within my writing and life. It doesn’t mean mindless consumerism, but nor should it mean an ascesis that prohibits sensuous enjoyment in the world. Perhaps it could mean cultivating an appreciation of those things we actually have, really want and/or really need? And when I say ‘we’, I mean humanity (not just this human) – and in this case, fellow poets.
The title of my upcoming course, ‘Thingly Power’ is borrowed from Jane Bennett’s book, one in a field of inquiry known as The New Materialism. In Vibrant Matter: Towards a Political Ecology of Things, she writes that while objects might not have ‘will or agency’ of their own in a human way, they can have ‘power or capacity’ in a nonhuman way. (Ever tried to cut down a tree with a butter knife? Well there you are.) Materials are ‘actants’, sites of action, which exist in human-nonhuman combinations (where ‘nonhuman’ means matter from across the technological / human-made and natural worlds).
I’m currently working on my MSc Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes (CWTP) Dissertation, investigating CWTP and writing for wellbeing in museum & gallery settings. The research has led me to think about the way we relate to objects: which of them is given an ‘upgrade’ to museum artefact; which become landfill? On my upcoming course, I’d like to start us off in these houses for ‘special stuff’, our museums and galleries (and online museums and galleries); to write in response to objects, or representations of them – and creatively explore their Thingly Power.
This summer, I ran some workshops for young people in Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, around Grayson Perry’s vast tapestries, ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’. These vivid works explore how class and class mobility affect our aesthetic taste, in everything from food to newspapers to cars. As poets and writers, we know the power of these specifics – but on this course, we’ll give objects’ power and capacity a more focused attention, playing with ways that form begets form. Another Perry show, ‘The Charms of Lincolnshire’, he described as a “poem in objects”. This term has always intrigued me: the way we place things in relation, just as we do with words as an ‘assemblage’, also has power.
My reading around Stuff has brought me to a number of examples of close-up examinations in poetry, from Pablo Neruda’s ‘Ode to Common Things’, an ecstatic hymn to scissors, keys, and the stuff we generally hide away in drawers, to Margaret Atwood’s ‘Three Desk Objects’, where she addresses the ‘cool machines’ of her lamp, typewriter and clock, interrogating their origins and the consequences of their production. Or Charles Simic’s ‘Fork’, which transforms the humble piece of cutlery into something monstrous and other.
And I am as influenced by popular science texts like Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik, where he celebrates the humanmade household materials of our everyday lives, from plastic to porcelain, exploring the beauty, personal potential and social significance of bringing material things into being, whether that’s chocolate or concrete. Likewise, anthropologist Daniel Miller’s The Comfort of Things examines a whole street’s relationship to its belongings.
One of my Lamas (teachers) cheerfully said that, ‘Most of life is just moving things from one place to another’. As I’m sat here watching bees on the lavender, extracting pollen – it certainly feels so. And as a practitioner of Vajrayana Buddhism, I’m interested too in how Buddhist ideas have permeated poetry, like William Carlos Williams’ famous red wheelbarrow, how our ideas of Stuff relate to spiritual practices and beliefs, and how these manifest in our writing.
Most of us could probably do with more space in our own homes, and less things. But might we visit them as a museum, or as researchers? Might we act as tour guides of our own lives? See the attractions of our own collections; consider the difference between cost and value? My hope is that this Studio will offer a place to really get stuck into the things we move around and the things which move us; to excavate our poetic relationship between our lives and all this endless Stuff.
Write poems exploring the radiant materiality of curious objects – on Caleb Parkin’s new online course, Thingly Power: (In)Animate Studio. Call 0207 582 1679 or book online.