Home > Mutating the Signature > Entente Cordiale: an ekphrastic exchange (Part 2)

Entente Cordiale: an ekphrastic exchange (Part 2)

February 9, 2009

Link to Part 1.

Process notes

Anna Dickie writes:
Our entire collaboration took place by e-mail; we’ve never spoken face-to-face or by phone. Early on, by way of background, we had the idea to write introductory biographies/impressions of each other. These we’ve included at the end.

I selected two images, one of a place and one of a thing, for Lucy to respond to. And as Lucy writes often about the countryside, I chose a city shot for the place, as I wanted to see her take on something urban.

I like to use a Lensbaby lens for cityscape, as it provides interesting distortions of buildings and people, so my “place” image was a duo-toned shot of the Playfair steps in Edinburgh, a long set of well-worn steps that lead up to the Old Town.

Playfair steps in Edinburgh

The “thing” choice was a black-and-white shot of an old goatskin wine sack hanging from a post on a farm high up in the levadas of Madeira. (Country people there still use goatskins to store wine.)

goatskin photo

Lucy was more generous than me in choosing images for me to respond to, sending me five images: a moving carousel, a French country house and grounds, a stack of old terracotta floor tiles, a war memorial, and a bride and groom walking in a beauty spot to have photographs taken.

(Click image to view at larger size.)

I was immediately drawn to the country house shot — black and white and beautifully framed by a sinister ivy-covered gate — and the colour image of the wedding couple.

I then thought of Wendell Berry’s poem, “Country of a Marriage,” which I think is a rather smug, comfortable, male view of a marriage. And that got me wondering if I could subvert Lucy’s two photographs into a single image that had the feel of a French film still, and then write a poem in the voice of a bride that had something of the mood of the photograph. I tackled the images first, but try as I might I couldn’t get the couple at the angle I wanted on the path, until I had the idea of flipping the whole country house shot horizontally using Photoshop. This worked really well, as it put the gate pillar on the left opening up the scene, and when the couple were added in it put the bride on the groom’s right, making her seem the more powerful figure who was doing all the talking while he took on a rather hangdog expression.

After that I applied some dodging and burning to the image, to bring out the light on the trees and then applied some digital “film grain” to make the shot more atmospheric.

With the poem I borrowed some of the word choices from the original to create a completely new poem about a woman whose thoughts about being with this man, in this place only crystallise on the day of their marriage.

I’ll leave it for Lucy to say what she thought about the result.

Lucy Kempton writes:
I read Anna’s poem first, and was intrigued by how she seemed to have woven the narrative possibilities of the two photos together. Then I looked at the picture in the attachment and was astonished — it gave me a shiver like seeing a ghost! The figures sat disturbingly in the scene, but at the same time seemed to belong there. Yet I had never envisaged combining the two images in such a way. I was struck too by how the spike in the gate seemed to be about to impale the woman, like pinning a butterfly.

Then I read the Wendell Berry poem, which I didn’t know. I also thought it had a somewhat self-satisfied tone, an assumption of knowing what the woman concerned thought and felt, of the unarguable universality of his own perception, though of course my reading of it was by then coloured by Anna’s poem! But I was very taken with the “he-said-she-said” character of her response, the piquant counterpoint of the woman’s terser, diverging point of view, the sadness of the voice, and the atmosphere of place it captures, the “broody woods” and “fickle orchards.”

While I think Anna’s poem and the composite image she made can each stand alone and without reference to the Wendell Barry poem, the synthesis of the three elements makes for something more. I’m delighted with how she saw the potential in the two images together, then drew on a further outside source to make such a clever, moving piece.

My second choice was Lucy’s image from Normandy of some old terracotta floor tiles left stacked outside in some scrubby grass. I worked with this to create a text overlay on the image, a short poem in the form of sequential questions, rather in the style of the nursery rhyme ‘The house that Jack built’.

However, though pleased with what I produced, we eventually felt that both of our the secondary pieces, the “Floor Tiles” and the “Playfair Steps,” made the overall submission unwieldy, so we concentrated our efforts on the major poem and picture combinations, and decided to submit the others, both in text/image overlay form, to Postal Poetry.

Having already received Anna’s photos for me to work with, I noted she had selected one image of a place and one of a thing, so I tried to follow suit. I tended to favour black and white in my choices, though not exclusively, perhaps rather influenced by knowing that Anna has a fondness for it. Unable to narrow down to just two, I sent two “places” and three “things.”  Among these were the black and white photo of a chateau in the countryside hereabouts, which, with its heavy flaking iron gates, shady drive and general shabbiness has always epitomised for me a kind of melancholy hostility and otherness (the owner has, I learned later, something of a reputation for misanthropy and reclusiveneness).

Then I added the odd, quickly taken shot of the bride and groom in formal wedding dress, whom I’d seen being photographed in an area of quite lonely, empty coastal marshland, a place which seemed a strange, slightly surreal choice for this. I had kept the picture, feeling it had some potential I couldn’t quite identify, and threw it in at the last minute for Anna as a kind of wild card. I’m glad I did.

I’m glad that we just sent each other the images with little by way of explanation. We didn’t agree to do this, it was just how things worked out, but it meant that we were free to interpret the images any way we pleased.

I also think it’s interesting that despite trying to coax each other towards other ideas/images our strongest pieces came out of the subjects that are closest to our hearts — and maybe that is a useful lesson to learn, that you can challenge yourself with new things, but ultimately you will always come back to what truly moves/interests you.

Anna sent me the photographs of the Madeiran goatskin, an extraordinary object the like of which I hadn’t seen before, and the mysterious one of the Playfair steps in her beloved Edinburgh with a shadowy figure at the top. I printed the photographs so that I could keep them around for a time and look at them frequently, and mull over the ideas and associations they suggested. The prevalent things in my mind about goatskins were the biblical reference to not putting new wine in them, together with a curiosity as to how they were made watertight enough to hold wine at all, and, by assonance, the word “goatsong,” the translation of the Greek word tragoidia — tragedy, the origin of which remains opaque. I did a little research, and eventually a combination of ideas surrounding landscape, tragedy, wine and the life, death and final fate of a goat produced the final poem.

Unable to settle, I also attempted a more formal version in two Sicilian octaves; I thought Sicily seemed quite appropriate for the subject even though the goatskin was from Madeira! I sent them both to Anna, who chose the first version, which I was generally happier with too.

After she had read it, Anna, who knows I enjoy making double or multi-exposure collages, tentatively suggested a wine stain might add something to the goatskin image to go with the poem. She was a little apologetic about leading me, but I was cheerfully open to the suggestion, and set about sloshing some ropey old cooking Chianti onto various light coloured surfaces (no oenophile sensibilities were hurt in the making of this picture). I made the collage using Picasa’s multi-exposure collage function, then tweaked the levels somewhat, still in Picasa. However, it was still rather faint and had lost detail, so Anna, who always knows how much more can be got out of an image without ever compromising its integrity, further improved it using curves in Photoshop. She even made a funky little grid of the wine stain and the Chianti bottle photos I sent her later.

Chianti bottle photos
(Click image to view at larger size.)

The intriguingly named Playfair Steps sent me off on a trail of research on Edinburgh, which triggered some associated memories. The short poem arising from that, like Anna’s roof tiles, we removed from the final cut, and, in text-on-picture form, submitted elsewhere, as mentioned.

I was walking down from a long levada walk towards a welcome drink when I spotted this poor old goatskin hanging from one of the posts they use to support the grape vines that surround every homestead on the island. This particular homestead was almost in ruins and a passion flower had crept in and taken over the post and most of the surrounding area. I knew right away it would make a great black and white shot, particularly due to the texture in the cracked skin and the worn string. Our driver for the day picked up a new goatskin full of wine to deliver to relatives, and it was much less appealing, as it looked and felt like a large stuffed intestine.

I was touched and amazed by the rigour of Lucy’s research, and the number of ideas that my image evoked. I also liked how she tapped into the timelessness and the history of the object, which was what struck me when I saw it. And when I saw the finished pieces I was forcibly struck by just how well she’d captured the life, death and spirit of the goat.

I also liked the lovely circularity of her idea of the goatskin going back to the mountains.

I did feel guilty about suggesting the wine stain, as I wasn’t sure if it was acceptable for me to suggest a further mutation of Lucy’s initial mutation. Perhaps I suggested it because I was happily cutting up her pictures, but I think it was these words: “the final emptying; a small kind of tragedy” in the last stanza of her piece that made me feel it would be both poignant and shocking to see something in colour, suggesting both the goat’s blood and the wine, applied to the black and white image of the sack.

Drafting — how we both work

I prefer to start most writing with pen and paper. Keyboard and screen always, initially, present too many barriers: mediocre keyboard skills, a tendency to be distracted by things like e-mails and internet, guilt about being glued to a screen too long. On the whole, I simply find pen and paper more sympathetic, a safe, unjudgemental place to simply scribble and scrub out whatever comes to mind. I also like pen and paper from a sensory point of view; I have cheap, usually spiral notebooks of different sizes and carry them about, on my knee on the sofa, on the breakfast table, the kitchen counters, in bags and pockets, along with fineliner pens. I gather there are those who develop similar intimate, companionable relations with their laptops, but I can’t.

However, there comes a point when the sheer volume of dog-eared, palimpsestuous drafts becomes unmanageable:

palimsestuous drafts
(Click image to view at larger size.)

(Just kidding! This is a multi-exposure collage, a product imitating a process, but it gives an impression.)

And then it’s time to sift them all out,

drafts on a table
(Click image to view at larger size.)

attempt something approaching what I want to achieve, get it onto the computer, and then tinker around some more: punctuation, line breaks, word changes… One has to stop somewhere.

It occurs to me that with more and more writing taking place exclusively on electronic media, the process becomes increasingly fugitive and invisible, so attempts like this to record it necessarily become artificial re-creations after the fact. We have become aware in this collaboration that a blow-by-blow, unedited record of the process is neither desirable nor really possible. Probably this doesn’t matter. I see it as a little like turning over a piece of weaving to see the reverse side, with its knots and ends and rough bits; you see something of the finished process, not in linear form in the order it was achieved, but dotted about over the surface you don’t normally see.

In addition, on this project, we submitted everything we wrote to one another for editing and suggestions. I have enjoyed this process, including — perhaps most of all — the parts which we ended up leaving out.

I too usually start with a paper draft, however I’m not so organised as to have spiral notebooks or favourite pens. No, my approach is more a case of grabbing the gas bill envelope and some scuzzy pencil from the kitchen drawer to scribble down a line or phrase that’s popped into my head as I haul clothes from the washing machine or peel the spuds.

However, for this project I seemed to go straight for the computer, perhaps because I was re-reading the Wendell poem online, or perhaps because working online made me feel a little more connected to the images, the project and to Lucy.

I must admit to really enjoying working with Lucy’s images, as I felt much more detached than when I edit my own photographs, where I’m already burdened with knowing where the shot was taken, or the mood I was in on the day, or the idea I was trying to convey.

I have also enjoyed our e-mail contact. We both blog, but this project has made it quite obvious just what a presentation of self a blog is. Correspondence, even by e-mail, is much more 3-D.

We probably should have fleshed out more ground rules before we started, but from my standpoint the serendipity of this project has only added to the process.

It’s been fun working with Lucy, and I just hope that shows in our results.

Although our ideas for photos and poem responses came quite easily, it seemed to take a while for us to tune in to each other on how to go about presenting the process, so we digressed and produced quite a lot of tangential stuff not featured here, which was fun anyway. We gossiped, even though we were only communicating by e-mail, which used up time, but, again, was enjoyable. We like each other and each other’s work, which meant perhaps we were reluctant to criticise, chivvy, make alternative suggestions, or weed out anything the other produced, though we did do this eventually, and perhaps makes us slip into mutual admiration mode when talking about one another, which is sincere but I hope not too off-putting.

It’s difficult knowing when to stop adding and adjusting, more so than when working alone, because of the compulsion to keep responding.

The other problem is practical and technical, unwanted mutation arising from using different softwares, copying and pasting etc, giving rise to a ragtag array of different fonts and lost line breaks, which needed continual, time-consuming tinkering with. Should have used a Google document…

Our biographies of each other

Lucy on Anna

Anna recently noted that being lately detoxed from an aromatase inhibitor drug, used in the treatment of breast cancer, provided welcome relief from years of low spirits and insomnia following treatment for Stage 3 breast cancer. I was somewhat surprised.

This was the woman I first encountered when I read Peeling Onions, the narrative series she wrote in haiku, which related her personal experience of cancer with strength, dignity and honesty; the woman who produces beautiful, distinctive, bold photos that win prizes and a chapbook of poems that people buy; who participates in poetry readings and workshops and exhibitions; who badgers me to get my photo-editing skills up to scratch and sends me the wherewithal to do it; who undertakes what I would consider to be extreme gardening projects (she once offered to come and stay with me in exchange for cutting all our hedges and teaching me how to use Photoshop properly — I nearly took her up on it but didn’t want to be shown up); who travels to interesting places, supports other cancer sufferers, has a husband, a son, a dog, who finds and shares wonderful videos on YouTube (the Phil Collins gorilla was a memorable one)… I could go on.

So, if she’s been doing all that in a state of depressed sleep deprivation, what’s she going to be doing now she’s feeling better?

I soon found out.

“Do you want to send each other some photos and write about them for qarrtsiluni?” she asked.


Two minutes later the photos arrived.

Several days later, after much poring and indecision, I sent her some of mine.

Two minutes later…

Anna on Lucy
I’m not sure how long I’ve been dipping into Lucy’s blog to read and enjoy her photo essays on life in the French countryside and much else besides.

But I keep returning because Lucy has the rare gift of managing to look at the world afresh each day, enjoying all the small and intimate pleasures it has to offer — like seeing a friend’s new baby thrive, and a water lily bud break, and then combining these two images into one shot of a lovely little waterbaby.

Even when things get difficult and challenging, like recently when Tom, Lucy’s partner, was in hospital, she still manages to record the facts in an open, gentle and genuine way — and this is a real tonic in a world where people seem overly ready to bemoan their lot.

Lucy’s openness to life can be clearly seen and enjoyed in her recent exploration of the ancient poetic form of the ghazal; and some of her pieces have been published in The Ghazal Page, the online journal devoted to that subject.

And I know I’m not alone in liking her work; many others enjoy it too, especially the Handbook for Explorers, a cycle of 50 sonnets by Joe Hyam, matched beautifully with Lucy’s highly interpretive images.

So when the qarrtsiluni submission call for “Mutating the Signature” dropped into my inbox, I immediately thought of Lucy and wondered if she would be willing to work with me.

  1. February 9, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    Really enjoyed reading this.

  2. February 10, 2009 at 6:30 am

    Having just engaged in a similar exercise, I am fascinated by the the way mutual inspiration works here. It is clear that without each other’s input, the poems and images which Anna and Lucy produced separately but prompted by each other, could not have taken the shape they did. The progress notes show how modern technolgy speeds up the process and allows people who have never met off the screen to interact quickly and effectively. Almost a new art form! And elegantly developed here.

  3. February 10, 2009 at 8:49 am

    What a rich, enjoyable and inspiring experience it was to read these two parts of your submission, Lucy and Anna. I loved the finished poems and images, finding them deep, multi-layered and subtle. it all became much deeper, more subtle and the layers multiplied, however, on reading your process notes. The time spent, your generosity and carefulness in sharing the process of your work together, stagger me. It feels like an amazing gift and a wonderful demonstration of what this precise medium – the blog/ezine type of publication, combining varying degrees of formality and informality with very high editing standards; the fact that you had both been reading/viewing and appreciating each other’s work over some time, so had a feel for where your cooperation might go; your subsequent submission of other material generated by this same joint project to another online publication: it’s all so rich and satisfying. Thank you!

  4. February 10, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    Thanks so much to those who took the trouble to read these notes. Reading through them a month or so later, they did seem rather long-winded and digressive; at the time we were just enjoying ourselves and found it hard to stop!
    Thanks to Anna, too, of course, for being such a creative and positive collaborator.

  5. February 10, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    Yes as Lucy says thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read these notes, including those who’ve e-mailed me privately to say that they’ve enjoyed them.

    As Lucy said we were enjoying ourselves and to use her phrase we thought it would be good to show “the reverse side of the tapestry” with all the knots and bits and bobs.

  6. February 11, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    wow – very impressed! Also liked the Chianti bottle photos a lot!

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