Poetic attempts to map the world

Judy Kendall, Poet and translator

Visual artist, poet, renga circle master, editor and online mapper of the world Alec Finlay has been extending his reach to the Peak District, where, with the willing help of about twenty walking and writing poets, including such mistresses and masters of poetic, haiku and ambulatory forms as Linda France, John Sewell, Geraldine Monk and Martin Lucas, he has mapped several skylines, bridges, gorges, caves and even tombstones in this beautiful area.

This project, probably the largest work of public art in the UK, is funded by Derbyshire Arts. Named after the grit and limestone hills it explores and celebrates, White Peak / Dark Peak consists of a series of renga (which can be loosely described as connected haiku) composed by poets walking singly or in pairs in the peak district during the weekends of the full moon of the rainy summer of 2009. The number of participants changed as the weeks went on, more poets asking to join, and several pleading for further areas to ‘map’. Clearly poetry and mapmaking make good walking companions. Perhaps the element of danger also appealed, for, whether the moon attracted the rain or not, at least two of these weekends were marked by ferocious downpours and a life-threatening thunderstorm that now features in more than one of the completed renga.

In Japan, renga are composed by a group of writers, different people offering new verses that move at a tangent, associatively, to what has come before. The White Peak / Dark Peak poems stray from this tradition in that a number of them are solely authored. However, others come nearer to the renga spirit, as evident in the many credits of lines or verses to collaborating poets, or in the string of poets’ names that append certain poems. When only one poet has been involved there is always the element of nature, the weather, the rare flower, unnamed bird or serendipitous occurrence that offers its own form of collaboration or interference. An oddly sinister discussion that breaks out between locals in plague village Eyam café regarding the need to isolate swine flu victims just happens to occur at the precise moment that a White Peak / Dark Peak poet, myself, is sitting at an adjourning table, fresh from a just completed walk, busy ordering renga verses that evoke Eyam’s seventeenth century experience of plague isolation. Needless to say, the swine flu conversation becomes the first verse of that sequence.

As the renga come flooding in, Finlay, cosily situated in a tiny peak district cottage, and later back in his studio in Newcastle, works the texts up into shapes that are now displayed visually online as the ridges, cliffs or skylines about which they were written. Commensurate with his belief in the importance of unspoilt natural areas, Finlay’s physical intervention in the landscape, through which his army of poets so busily march, wander, drip and write, is minimal. Of course the project has encouraged several poets to explore the peak district and the process of writing in open air, or rain as the case may be, but it does not encourage destruction of that landscape. Destruction of the poem or poet is more the order of the day. To complete my Chee Dale renga I am obliged to take two trips, the first being so wet that my paper notes stick together, ink running the words into illegibility, the second trip providing further meteorological interference as lightning strikes just over my head when I am far into the dangerously rainy, tree-lined, flooded gorge. Both myself and my driver for the day, Rebecca Hall, part administrator of and part contributor to the renga, are seriously disturbed.

However, the project leaves little other impact on the environment. For most, the poems will be downloaded from the computer in text and audio. There is no attempt, deliberately, to replicate the natural scene by means of photographs. The outline of the sky or ridge line is traced by the text of the poems. The physical mark on the landscape is hardly visible. Viewers can take themselves to selected sites in the peak district, but they will have to search out the trademark wooden Finlay ‘letterboxes’ that look like and could perhaps be used as birdboxes. In these, a finlay rubber stamp circle poem and ink pad lie beneath a large barcode that the more sophisticated mobile phone users can scan and so view and hear the renga related to that particular area in the beginning of an ambitious and far-reaching yet modestly attired poetic attempt to map the world.

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