POETIC MATTER: An Interview with Alison Gibb and Elaine Thomas

Poetic Matter is a collaborative practice-based project that exists to think through and to articulate the concerns that we face in our practices through an ongoing inter-disciplinary dialogue around the role of performance in the making and showing of work.

By working in collaboration, we are able to share research concerns and research questions from our individual practice areas such as dance making, visual arts, writing and performing poetry to approach a current problem. We often begin with questioning what performance is and what it could be in order to shape our investigation. The performance and the creation of the work co-exist as our collaborative practice, our method of creating practice from research and as our method of developing research methods from our practice.  Live performance is for us another mode of our practice. We don’t see it as a final event or as our final outcome. However, it is important for us to present our practice investigations in a performative way.  The performance is a way of bringing our questions into focus in the present and live moment of performance. Each performance work generates further research questions and outcomes in other forms of practice including drawings, diagrams, movement exploration and working with different forms of body and voice work.

In this article we reflect on how we treated practice as research in developing our recent multi-media performance work Making S P A C E S: a poetic response.[i]

Our primary sources for devising performed elements for this work were two books on forestry practice from which we borrowed concepts of planting, harvesting, clearing and sky-lining (a method of using ropes and pulleys to fell trees). These forestry concepts were used to generate movement material, texts, sound and film. The instructions for forest management from these books became elements that we could think about conceptually in order to create a performance space. For example, we used ‘harvesting’ as a concept to create the third part of our performance, where Alison projects diagrams of harvesting drawings on to Elaine, as she performs choreography created in response to harvesting. The soundtrack that accompanies this section of the piece is made up of the sounds of trees being felled and of sounds of harvesting machinery.

Q. How does the research project begin?

ET:   In Making S P A C E S: a poetic response, some of our starting questions were: What makes a performance? What does it mean to perform? How can the interaction of different elements, movement, spoken word, film, create a texture in live performance? Can concepts of forestry practice be realised spatially? However, we quickly departed from the initial questions to follow aesthetic lines of inquiry.

The way we respond to starting materials, such as the forestry books, text, images and diagrams, may take us in any direction but we do keep referring back to the original source in the movement, images and text that we make in response.  The research questions provide the context for the work we produce; they help gather the different elements together.

Methods of production for the work provide another mode of enquiry. For example, I edited the sound piece from sound samples of a sawmill and tree felling as well as a recording of my voice murmuring some sounds from Kerouac’s Sea. In the edit these sounds were stretched, repeated, and layered to create different densities and rhythm. This method of producing sound is echoed in the methods used for generating movement. I used diagrams from the forestry practice book to make a series of movements. Alison directly responded to these movement sequences by placing markers in tape on the floor that correspond and joined these markers to create a diagram of the shared spatial investigation. The taped diagram then became another stimulus for further movement and text. Similarly, the movement I generated as well as existing text from the forestry books are reflected and responded to by Alison in creating some of the poetic text, which is then again layered with movement and sound in the live performance. These methods of production are present in the live performance and shape how the work comes to exist. We are interested in how the method of making something can also be a questioning of how to work collaboratively and in how to treat the various elements that we bring to the process.

‘I crossed the body to mark the area’

AG: Our processes become the content and context for the performance. For this project we produced a lot of initial response elements to get our ideas going and to create methods of collaboration. For example, I began by responding to a series of tabulated information pages from one of the  forestry book through a process of scoring, annotation and drawing. The information in the tables explained forestry practice methods including suitable conditions for planting, water supplies, soil types and assigned processes for planting and maintaining forests. Once I had determined a set of annotations, I applied them to the tabulated pages to create new visual and verbal scores from the forestry information. I also gave Elaine a set of the pages and the system of annotations and had her score her own     responses. We went on to use the scores as textual resource materials for writing poems and texts, as visual aides and as reference material throughout our studio practice.

Another early response was to independently gather video, film and photographic images of trees and forests to share with each other at our second studio session. The outcomes from these visual investigations provided us with strategies to select and to edit our video footage into the three video work elements of the piece. Hence, our research response elements became the visual, verbal and choreography tools that we developed through our collaborative practice to perform the operations of our ‘live performance’.

‘—To look at it in an another way—one finds that aspects of—’

Q. What transitions does the research go through?

ET: The large question of ‘what is performance?’ and ‘what does it mean to perform?’ will be addressed through some imaginative engagement with the forestry drawings, for example. The diagrams give some markers for staging, and from my perspective, for movement material. Through this movement I am exploring new ways of addressing these questions but also allowing new things to come through. The text that Alison works on is also a conduit for this process. It gives me other possibilities for expanding and developing the movement and to think through something spatially.

‘To feel experience before an act of language’

AG:   Our research goes through many stages of transition. For example, by taking forestry practice and planting as a basis for developing conceptual frameworks and for gathering materials for performance, we were able to begin to explore spatial practices of ‘harvesting’ and ‘clearing’ and the method of ‘sky-lining’ as sites for thinking, making and performing       choreography. For example, Elaine created some choreography inspired by the ‘harvesting’ as a conceptual method to occupy and mark out space for performance through her movement. I responded to watching Elaine work by placing markers of tape on the floor to correspond with her contact with the ground. Once I had finished plotting a selection of her movements, I taped the marks together to create a diagrammatical documentation of our shared spatial investigation. Once drawn, the diagram remained throughout the performance, adding to the layers of visual and verbal elements that we present within the piece. Thus, to investigate ideas of performance and to make ready a space for performance through modes of   performance are integral to our enquiry into making and showing the work.

‘SPACING is an action of VISUAL APPREARANCE—overall’

Q. What were the research outcomes?

A&E:    We began with forestry practice and planting as a basis for performance. Some of the outcomes are the films, the score, and the performance. On reviewing our video footage, we decided that Alison would create a series of edited options for us to review as part of our ongoing studio sessions. During this period Elaine was making choreography in response to the Kerouac’s Sea poem, and, to do this, recorded herself reciting it at various speeds and volumes.  Alison also began writing a the poetry text based on the contents pages of the forestry    book pages, which we had both agreed held visual and verbal poetic possibilities for us.

Our studio practice model is to get as many individual poetic elements on the go as early as possible, so we can use our studio time to exchange, develop and to explore each element collaboratively.

Our shared interests are in the processes and the creative acts of making and performing work. As such, questions of making and processes as a method of enquiry are a recurring mode of our studio practice. For example, with this work, each time we met in the studio we would start by sharing any responses we had made independently since our last meeting as starting points for our session.

These sharings often triggered responses that led to the creation of new elements for performance. For example, I responded to Elaine’s Kerouac-poem-inspired choreography by writing ‘harvest.’ This poem is primarily written from texts found in the forestry books and is set within the template of the poetic form of Kerouac’s ‘Sea.’

Our collaborative approach is to produce work for performance through an extension of our experimental studio methods. As the piece developed, we decided that Elaine would perform her ‘harvesting’ movement in a spot-lit area and that I would project, via a handheld projector, images of the diagrams of tree felling and sky-lining on to her.  This film is made from the black and white photographic imagery found in the forestry books. The ‘harvesting’ poem doesn’t accompany the ‘harvesting’ choreography. Instead, we treat each performative element as materials or layers that we combine through finding new ways of working together. Unspoken understandings of how we might respond and what works in creating poetics also come into play.

Of A. planting of the whole subject’

Q. What do we mean by performance & how does performance constitute research?

A&E.    For us, performance is the site of investigation. The performance may hold other questions and investigations, most obviously in the form of manifestos and performed lecture texts. There are different modes of performance within each work. Each of these modes could exist singularly but in the instance of the particular performance are parts of the whole.

In recent years, the academic conference format has allowed us to show our work in a space where there is critical feedback but the expectation of the audience is not necessarily framed by theatrical expectations or might not allow us to question theatrical norms. In a conference space there is the expectation that things might exist across and between art forms, that we might present something that is in progress and that performance as research might be welcomed.

We step between reading, moving, speaking, visual images and film, staging, sitting and watching as a way of making a space.

‘TACTICS of the main agencies for INTER-SECTIONS’




‘op i n e s  a m p l i f y i n g’ [ii]

[i] Making S P A C E S: a poetic response is a multi-media poetic dance performance commissioned by Vital Signs for performance at the Vital Signs Festival, Sept 2019. For more information please visit http://www.vital-signs.org/

[ii] Poetry texts from SOIL HORIZONS written by Alison Gibb for ‘Making S p a c e s a. Poetic Response.’

Poetic Matter is a collaborative project between Alison Gibb and Elaine Thomas. Alison Gibb is a poet-artist and researcher. She recently completed her PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London. Elaine Thomas holds an MFA in Choreography. She is a senior lecture in dance at Roehampton University. Together they have presented work at a number of arts festivals and academic conferences. For further info visit, please https://www.alisongibb.com/collaboration

Derek Neale Blog Post

Many practice subjects have their more academic cousins. Creative Writing is no exception and is the obvious younger relative within its usual (but not exclusive) academic setting: English Studies. The first UK Creative Writing MAs were launched in the 1970s, the undergraduate single and joint honours programmes proliferating in the 1990s. The first UK PhD was completed in 1990, with the Jordanian novelist Fadia Faqir at UEA. This coincided with the first iterations of the question: what is Creative Writing research? There were alternately ambitious and wry observations from those present at the subject’s birth. Malcolm Bradbury co-leader of the first MA at UEA aimed for a psychological and literary theory of creativity, relating to an exploration of ‘the ways in which the instincts, the structures, the modal forms of imaginative expression can take on their purpose and pattern … as original humane discovery’ He also described writing as playing in the sandpit and said ‘it seemed somewhat strange for us to be announcing the Death of the Author in the classroom [in reference to Barthes], then going straight back home to be one’. In the US the history is longer and has links to philology (see Cowan, 2018 for a fuller history https://www.nawe.co.uk/DB/current-wip-edition/articles/the-rise-of-creative-writing.html ).

In our newcomer status in the UK we’ve gleaned much from other practice subjects, for instance the QAA benchmark statements for Dance, Drama and Performance and Art and Design informed and influenced the first Creative Writing QAA statement (2016) as much if not more than the English benchmark. The prequel to that inaugural QAA document was a joint teaching and research subject benchmark (2008) developed by the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE), which is Creative Writing’s subject association. This prequel was itself influenced by other practice subjects. Perhaps the impasse faced by all practice subjects is the impossibility of translating practice (process and output or artefact) into anything other than what it is. That is no less true for Creative Writing; the fact that the common currencies of our practice are words and narratives makes it no easier and makes practitioners no more willing or able to re-narrate their work. This is why at the end of my PhD, for instance, I felt that my critical commentary on the relationship between writing and remembering was just as much a fiction as the novel it accompanied; a different kind of fiction admittedly, but, of course, both kinds are fictions in a very positive sense, a sense that signals a route to a kind of truth.

NAWE has attempted to keep up with responses to the Creative Writing research/practice conundrum and in so doing has expanded on the three pages devoted to research in 2008’s prequel benchmark document. The more recent updated research benchmark (see https://www.nawe.co.uk/writing-in-education/writing-at-university/research.html ) asserts, perhaps in the way that younger cousins are prone to, the discipline’s research principles: the centrality of practice and the various forms practice research might take.

The updated research benchmark has learnt from English Literature and Language, but also from other disciplines. We’ve inherited perspectives that can be applied to practice, if often retrospectively. These include but are not confined to critical analysis, theoretical methodologies, literary history, ethnography, as well as formal, stylistic, narratological and linguistic approaches. These opportunities form chapters, books, articles and commentaries about process, but cannot supplant practice as the central research method in the discipline.

In a seminar recording from last year, a collaboration between OU’s Contemporary Cultures of Writing research group and NAWE, Robert Hampson talks through possible research outputs and assessment strategies. See http://www.open.ac.uk/arts/research/contemporary-cultures-of-writing/node/25 This offers evidence of how REF assessment of Creative Writing research has evolved and is evolving. Typical practice outputs include novels, short story and poetry collections, creative nonfiction, scripts and performance, but these forms are constantly being expanded upon. Disparate portfolios pose another problem. For instance, I’ve a small collection of commissioned short stories. They are diverse though connected by theme and motif – mothers and fathers, for instance, memory, time and madness. Here, as is often the case, the research questions didn’t precede the writing or the collecting of the stories. Research questions became apparent retrospectively. I find this is a useful attitude to adopt, one which relieves the unnatural fit between creative process and bureaucratic necessity. ‘Not knowing’ is more important in the writing process than any obedience to a preconceived research question.

What are the research questions that arise in that collection of six stories? I’ve mentioned the thematic connections but there are separate research questions. For instance, the stories ask how consciousness and human narratives can be imagined and represented, eliciting empathy. How can narrative elucidate being human? And, in relation to this, what part is played by various narratological elements – mimesis, diegesis, prolepsis, analepsis, paralypsis – and how does contextual literary knowledge inform, enhance or reference such narratives?

There can often be further complications in REF assessment inherent to the nature of the dissemination of literary outputs. For instance, some of the stories were published previously (though never submitted for previous REFs or RAEs); some of them are new stories. REF assessment should be focused on this new constellation as a coherent project rather than their prior individual appearance. The issue is also discussed in the audio in relation to the different publication lives that poems might enjoy.

The quest to establish what practice research means in Creative Writing continues to produce vibrant responses, ones in which practice is acknowledged as central but where research significance or what a previous blogger on this site has called researchfulness has been flushed out and illuminated, hopefully without forfeiting the writing’s tacit route to knowledge. Not only is the question – what is Creative Writing research? – still being asked, but it is now firmly coupled to the knowledge that playing in the sandpit is a big part of the answer.

[1] Bradbury, Malcolm. 1993. ‘‘Graceful Combinations.’’ In The Agony and the Ego: The Art and Strategy of Fiction Writing Explored, edited by Clare Boylan, 57-63. London: Penguin.

[1] Bradbury, M. (ed.) (1995) “Introduction”, in Class Work: The Best of Contemporary Short Fiction, London: Sceptre. p. viii