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Concrete Poetry in rural France

There’s nothing quite as satisfying as a chance encounter and I had the good fortune on my recent travels to unearth a hat-trick of relevant projects for The Literary Platform in the unlikely location of rural France. Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche is tucked away in the rolling countryside of France’s beautiful Limousin region. The dramatic ‘cité historique’ is the town’s main tourist draw and on arrival we park up right next to its ancient walls. Strolling inside the cité my book radar picks up the word ‘livres’ on the door of a building. On closer inspection I see it’s the Centre des Livres d’Artistes – even better I think and herd the entire family towards its doors to investigate.

The representative at the door is trying to wrap things up for the day but kindly explains that the Centre acts as a bookshop, a workshop centre and an exhibition space.  There is an exhibition on upstairs – ‘poésies, concrète, visuelle’ – closing in 20 minutes. So we rush upstairs and are treated to a gem of an exhibition about the Concrete Poetry movement.

The international movement of Concrete Poetry is described as ‘works where the typographical arrangement of words is as important in conveying the intended effect as the conventional elements of the poem, i.e. the words, the rhythm, the rhyme and so on’ – the words themselves form a picture. The 1950’s pioneers were the De Campo brothers Haroldo and Augusto (who published Teoria da poesia concreta in 1965), and the CDLA exhibition also carries works of Ian Hamilton Finlay (founder of Wild Hawthorn Press, publisher of the Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. periodicals), the French poet Pierre Garnier, Robert Lax, Liliane Lijn, Paul de Vree, Bob Cobbing and Dom Sylvester Houédard to name a few. In an epoch where the world’s publishing industries look to how literature might be played out on new digital platforms, it’s fascinating to see how these poets, typographers and designers from the 1950s onwards were creating these visual feasts using letters, words and poetry – the very page acting as platform.

The years 1965 to 1970 are prolific years for Concrete Poetry when the movement is at its peak. A 1966 issue of Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. designed by artist Bridget Riley is displayed and the exhibition also features Ian Hamilton Finlay’s ‘optical poems’ and John Furnival’s typographical delights – with his playful imagery of the Eiffel Tower, the Tower of Pisa and The Fall of the Tower Babel.

We have to rush through ‘poésies, concrète, visuelle’ and could have spent many more hours there – but as we’re leaving I get talking to Emmanuelle Waeckerlé from the Centre. In Franglais we discuss the Centre and its wonderful location – she tells me more about its growing collection of artists’ books, its exhibition space dedicated exclusively to artists’ books and its worthy community projects. I persist in my rusty French before realising that Emmanuelle’s English is perfectly fluent, explained by the fact that she has just arrived from the UK where she has lived and worked for over 20 years. We talk about photography, design, bookbinding and education.

It transpires that Emmanuelle is one of the founders of bookRoom, a research cluster, based and funded by The University College for the Creative Arts at Farnham where she teaches. bookRoom was formed in 2004, led by Anna Fox and Emmanuelle Waeckerlé from the University’s photography department, and the cluster takes as its theme ‘the way in which the book, the magazine page and other printed or digital works have provided a vehicle for the dissemination of photographic, graphic and text based works, posing a number of key issues about design, structure and editorial control.’

The research focuses on books made by artists, designers and photographers, ‘evolving in parallel to more conventional publishing such as monographs and illustrated books – an autonomous art form with its own particular means of production and distribution’ (including the internet), where the artists involved are often designers, writers and publishers of their own works. The Literary Platform will certainly be featuring more about the centre soon and is currently reading through their archived projects with interest.

Emmanuelle tells me more about her own work too – her interdisciplinary practice revolves around sound language and the body. Using performance, video, the printed page and digital media, she investigates language and connecting issues of place and identity. She ‘enjoys walking the tight rope separating truth from fiction, virtuality and reality’. You can find out more about her work here.

Back in London I realise that the ICA held a Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. exhibition in autumn 2009 and that the England & Co Gallery held a John Furnival exhibition the same year. It always bewilders me how exhibitions on your doorstep are somehow much easier to miss. I console myself by buying the last set of Ian Hamilton Finlay limited edition ‘Monostitch for a seat…’  cards from the ICA shop.  A silver lining.

My Concrete Poetry journey continues and I’m now on the hunt of an affordable Issue 18 of Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. – my search continues. It reminds me that if you ever see a door with the word ‘books’ on it, in whatever language that might be, it is always the right thing to find out exactly what is going on behind it.

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