Self-interviewed by Davy Polmadie
Davy Polmadie: Propagate?
Alec Finlay: Propagate – to publish
or transmit, as books do, or ideas; to
breed or multiply, as letters grow into
words; to extend to a greater area, as
the imagination can create a new map
of a landscape.
DP: And mesostic?
AF: ...is a name poem,much favoured
by the American composer-poet John
Cage, who wrote them as birthday gifts
for friends. Pick a name and then grow
your poem around it. The names make
stems and the chosen letters their
DP: Are they found poems then?
AF:No, grown poems, bred on an existing
DP: So the poems are like plants?
AF:Yes, the letters are like cells
and, if you nurture them with your
imagination, they bloom into meaning.
Syntax – the way that a poem reads –
is like photosynthesis; light is drawn
down through the name-stem and
meaning spreads outwards through
mark or shadow that some event in our
life has cast on our inner nature. As an
artist, I'm interested in the ways that this
kind of knowledge and philosophy
continue, all mixed up with contemporary
medicine – it represents a kind of Doctrine
of Signatures and that relates back to the
poetic form and its feeling for hidden
secrets. The project is a compound of
pharmacy and herbarium, like most
people's bathroom cabinets.
DP: So some of the poems are about
inner properties, whether these are
chemical compounds or more subtle
or inferred influences, but the mesostics
are also poems that have a system.
AF: Their rules are their signature, but
they are poems not plants and this is a
word garden. Language is like nature:
crossbred, evolving, influenced by habitat,
time, climate and use. I love to see a word
taken over from one use into another,
graft or bind, scion or root.
DP: Even though the poems are fixed
on trees, they don’t seem to belong to
a particular place, a clearing or view
over the park.
AF: No they don’t and I think this is where
the poems’ letterisme and petalisme are
crucial. Though it is good to 'plant' or fix
the poems and give them a place to belong,
when you read them in their particular
corner of the landscape you take in the
surroundings as a matter of course – the
poem doesn’t need to comment on this.
After all, you and the tree and the poem
are there. The curl of a piece of birch bark
As it has a clearly defined centre and
is neat, a mesostic tends towards the
classical. As it reads through words by
way of letters, a mesostic tends towards
DP: The poems read like secrets revealed.
AF: They are mostly slight, little
autobiographies; they are what I could
make out of the given letters.You can
do the same. I don’t think their beauty
is a resemblance to flowers or trees, but
the act of growth itself – a secret that
concerns us all. The single letters show
how words fall apart and come together,
as biological organisms split into individual
cells. They confront the fundamental shock
of our ability to ‘rewrite’ nature by
reconfiguring the genetic world.
DP: Because a name is a chain of letters,
an enchantment of chaos? The poems
may be only little events but they recognise
how close we have come to chaos.
AF: And they may be, or become, elegies
for plants that will no longer exist – I heard
on the radio that as droughts increase the
English landscape will lose many of its native
tree species.YSP will become the
Auvergne. These issues of growth and
extinction are the poems’ context.
DP: So the patterned poems are a
AF:Yes, such playful s of words helps
them rest in our minds as a rule. They are
made for memory and offer distinctive
outlines, reshaping the flowers and trees
in our consciousness. Linnaeus speaks
of the naming of plants as applying the
skills of arranging, giving station by
number, form, proportion and situation.
DP: Any useful tips for word-gardeners?
AF: Always begin with the most difficult
letter, the z of hazel – double letters are
difficult, the pp in apple – don’t forget the
little words, and, the, are, and is – choose
a plant you know.
DP: And one of your analogies is
people and plants – a traditional theme
AF: I was always drawn to the silver knots
of the beeches along the roads in the valley
where I grew up; the truth to reality in
how a tree grows, of how it takes its scars,
nicks,wounds into itself. Poisons that
leach and pollute are often invisible to the
eye, just as there are words that hurt us
far more than sticks or stones.
DP: The poems go beyond appearances?
AF: Though plants are pretty to us in
showy bs, their effect is intended
towards specific purposes; their beauty
is for the bee, even if our breeding makes
colours more vibrant. What interest me
are the uses and meanings that we make
for plants, especially those that are to do
with healing, whether it’s the extract of
yew that makes a cancer cure, or how
homeopathy ascribes an emotion or mood
to a flower essence – the blemishes and
spots on the skin of a crab apple make a
rhyme with its ability to heal shame, a
is not a unique event but it is a habit worth
putting into words.
DP: Because the poems are here in a
AF: And the project is an attempt to settle
a quarrel with the habit that some artists
have of constructing works of art that
parcel up the landscape into so much real
estate; this bit is metal and orange, this is
rough hewn stone. I never thought there
was anything to improve nature, except
perhaps that we should know and respect
INDOOR POEMS (PROPAGATOR)
in the greenhouse, Lower Park
MESOSTIC is a name poem.
BILBERRY is royal purple and it stains.
YELLOW IRIS is spring’s flag.
MARIGOLD grew orange in the bog by my house.
TORMENTIL is a yellow high on mountains.
LICHEN makes litmus.
DANDELION always seems to tell the same time.
SEA KALE decorates the wild garden Derek
Jarman made on the shingle at Dungeness.
THRIFT like a ‘granny hat’, a spog liquorice allsort,
it makes a pink blanket bleached by the sea.
HOP is beery.
SWEET PEA loved by poet Emily Dickinson.
CARDINAL that Emily gave to her sister Susan.
HONESTY pale in the winter, shaped like a penny.
GOLDEN ROD,more yellow than golden.
OAT SEED is milky inside.
WHEAT is fractally patterned for aliens.
CHICKWEED on the menu at our house in 1976.
MILKTHISTLE yields silymarin which heals the liver.
TANSY tastes bitter and fights fever.
ST JOHN'S WORT heals the black dog.
ROCK ROSE is a Bach Flower remedy treating
fear or terror.
ECHINACEA fights off all those colds.
ASPEN quivers in breezes.
WALNUT looks brainy.
OLIVE for peace in Palestine.
OUTDOOR POEMS (TREES)
found according to directions overleaf
OAK is a heartwood.
APPLE after lunch or before bed.
HAZEL makes wands and bows.
GINGKO ancient from Asia, one to help your
BEECH is the root of the word book.
ASH made sea sounds in our garden.
SYCAMORE have windmills that turn as they fall.
PINE is on the horizon.
ROWAN has leaves like fingers and is a ward for
witches at the door.
CHESTNUT old and obvious, yet memorable.
YEWs grow near pews.
GEAN is wild and cheery.
CRAB APPLE is our native apple.
HORNBEAM is a Bach flower remedy for those
too tired to face the day.
SLOE's plum for gin, sour is wersh in Scots.
HAWTHORN the spiky creamy May.
BIRCH peels away a sliver of silver paper.