An interview with Elizabeth James

Elizabeth James: There's an appealingly simple feeling about this project, but it consists of a combination of different elements: poetry, walking, locality, collaboration ... Is there one underlying intention or impulse that takes precedence?

Alec Finlay: A commission sets a ‘frame’ – in this case, to make an artist’s map of Thanet. I have always loved Which Way Brouwn? by the conceptual artist Stanley Brouwn, where he asks people the way to a place and they scribble little maps for him, A–B. For Isle Arcs, Circles & Ways I have used my own status as a stranger and invited twelve local people to be my guides. Their guides – which describe how to find letterboxes which contain my circle poems – are word maps. They haven’t written ‘blue plaque walks’; they direct us to different kinds of places, and, whether or not these have any obvious public importance, they become meaningful.

EJ: What exactly is letterboxing?

AF: Hobby-walking, collecting, with a bit of printing thrown in. The letterboxes are like bird boxes and they protect a rubber stamp and ink pad. ‘Letterboxers’ all over the world collect these, and orienteers use them to prove they have completed a course. To me letterboxing is about shared consciousness as it invites people to be writers and readers.

EJ: And when people arrive at one of your letterboxes, following a route 'mapped' in words, what they find is another text, but one with a visual form, a 'circle poem'. This part-exchange of visual and verbal genres seems to further disrupt our expectations?

AF: Yes, the journey is an exchange between the art of poetry and the act of walking, without either one of these being given priority. My poems are ‘rosebuds’: they may be beautiful or playful, but they are also simply an invitation to a journey. The guides are topographical descriptions, but, whether they are informative or chatty, they contain the texture of different people’s voices and the grain of their memories. The project may disrupt some peoples expectations of what a work of art should be, but any walk guided by a friend can have something magical about it.

In my public projects I use simple forms that are easily communicable and these often associate with communities of readers, whether local or international. This practice has evolved into a series of invitation projects that anyone can take part in, such as wind blown cloud, where I collect slides of clouds which become an archive of the sky; or renga linked verse which appeals with the world haiku community. Letterboxing has the same hobby or amateur status and it to is about the poetry of the world. There is a utopianism and internationalism involved in these open projects, but they also tend to stay at the level of the individual reader and writer – on a particular day, someone may be walking to a letterbox in Thanet, Punto Del Este or Connemara (there will be one hundred sites in the worldwide letterbox project once it is completed) and the circle symbolises the way these communities and individual journeys overlap.

EJ: So, while you have taken up the metaphorical character of the circle, which can be imagined in terms of a social world as both closed or infinitely expansive, you haven't discarded its universal character and invariant geometry, its ‘perfection’?

AF: Art allows us this variety of reflections and responses. One of the poems has become a motto for the project in my mind: a line, an arc in time – for isn’t that how memory is for all of us? Our lives are a narrative thread, but the line arcs in time until there are distances or horizons of emotion and experience we can no longer see back to. These we can only imagine. There are letterboxes that I may never see and I don’t imagine anyone will ever collect all one hundred, and yet the project connects us to this one world in which we live.
The circle is a perfect form and art can represent perfection, but we have to make our way through a real place where property laws and the routes that paths and roads follow do not allow us perfect circles.

EJ: It can be hard to just walk, to drift like a wind-blown cloud... The poem found at the culmination of a guided walk is both a new encounter, and a release from the task of wayfinding into meditation, free of direction; it can afford a view of that ‘horizon’ where, for the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, 'a personal life can be constituted in the heart of the transcendent event'. A pure trajectory is rare in reality. A walking guidebook I often use is full of instructions to ignore things: 'Ignore narrow track to left' etc. Of course the digressive byways become all the more alluring. Perhaps because all that ultimately lies straight ahead, at some yet-unknown point along the arc, is death: on this view life itself is a diversion, into time.

AF: Yes, I like that and it has the ring of truth. But life is also an active state – the only time we have – and I want to put the poems into a state of use; to give them a home, but also place them within the rules of a game, a hiding-and-seeking, to enrich and deepen the arc of time.

EJ: What are the origins of the circle poem?

AF: I happened upon the form. I found a beautiful phrase in Joan Retallack’s book of interviews with composer John Cage, turning toward living, which I composed into a circle poem. A “classical” circle poem has neither beginning nor end, and there are connections with our new models of consciousness and conceptions of space and time.
In the exhibition I am also including some other circular pieces, including 'wordrawings', which are a new series of circular poems made by handwriting pairs of words. For instance, at Droit House one pair is as an amusing slur on Turner's seascapes that I found in a nineteenth century review, describing them as 'soapsuds & whitewash'.

Alec Finlay interviewed by Elizabeth James
First published in an information leaflet published by Turner Contemporary to accompany the exhibition Soapsuds & Whitewash, Droit House, March 2005
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