‘Offshore: artists explore the sea’: an Interview with John Wedgwood Clarke

Posted on 09.02.2017

John Wedgwood Clarke is a celebrated poet and teacher of creative writing at Hull University. Alongside sound artist Rob Mackay he has a commission on the way for ‘Offshore’ which opens April 1st, so we asked John a few questions about his work.

ID: As a poet, where do you find your most regular source of inspiration comes from?

JWC: My work tends to come about in two ways distinct ways. There’s the work that begins at the desk through reflection and reading and there’s the work I go out to find through exploring places and reading them using as many interpretive frames as possible. By which I mean archaeologically, scientifically, historically, aesthetically etc. For me, the landscape is silent until we start reading it, until we start measuring our words up against to make it, or speaking and reading our way into place through a subtle dance between word and thing. The relationship between the word and the place is a slippery one, but I keep going at it until I find a shape of words that has something of the strangeness and richness of the place I’m working in. That said, sometimes it’s good to walk in silence and just feel the place through your body. But to give you a straight answer, my sources are usually watery, and with more than an pinch of salt in them

ID: You collaborate with people who use different mediums, how did that start and has it affected your approach to your own medium?

JWC: I love collaborating with other people. I love to be surprised. There’s always so much to learn, and I love the privilege of accelerated induction into a subject or way of making that collaboration brings. I can sit with an expert and just listen for the bits that spark, for those things that I sense will bring what I’m doing alive. In that sense, it’s like listening and editing: you’re totally focused on someone else. You’re not responsible for the primary work, but for listening to your own reactions and making connections. I highly recommend this way of working — it’s kind of a holiday from your own preoccupations.

 Sometimes it can just be about finding someone to play with. Someone prepared to mess about until something catches, until some rhythm enters the work and you know you’re on track. Rob, who I’ve worked with before, has a tendency to perform the landscape he’s recording — he’ll listen to a stream or wave and try to get it in his mouth. In unguarded moments (moments that all collaborations need) he’ll babble it to himself as a way of understanding the thing he’s recording. I love that, and it makes me laugh. But it also reminds me of something fundamental. We want to take the world into ourselves in all its strangeness. Children do this all the time as they play. It’s about wanting to become something other through acts of vocalisation. And this reminds me that poetry can grow out of that desire to perform a place or emotion, to try to become it, and in failing to become it, find a compensatory shape of meaning in a form of language that embodies that desire.

 I’ve always enjoyed drawing and I’ve carried the sustained looking and sensing that drawing demands into my work. I like the idea of being out in a place and making the equivalent of sketches with words, of making marks in response to moment by moment changes in the landscape and myself. I like the energy it brings. There’s often a freshness about this work (if I can decipher it!), and if I’ve spent a day walking around a particular place I’ll often find that when I go through my notes there’s a particular preoccupation or image or idea that keeps coming up. When this happens I know I’m on to something that I think I can trust. If I keep asking a question and the world keeps giving me similar answers, then I take that pattern as my guide, as my structuring principle. Or I make it a starting point for some concentrated interrogation.

So collaboration is about surprise, play and finding something between art forms and between people, rather than simply looking to your own resources and habitual dialogues, or monologues

ID: What can we expect from your upcoming commission for Offshore?

JWC: I don’t know. I’ve a couple of persistent themes that keep raising their heads out of the mud. Worms are really important to me at the moment, so there may be some references to them and their extraordinary sex lives. Without them, there would be no mud in the Humber, and I think of the Humber as a mud paradise. It’s so fertile. For me it’s the liminal zone between the land and sea. It’s wild in tiny ways. So expect some small things, but also the big stuff: cargo ships, people, lighthouses, bridges. In fact, bridges, lighthouses, ferries and connecting lines (footsteps, paths, squiggle tracks of worms) are providing an important organising principle for the poem, and I’ll be making a link I think between human mechanisms of exchange and connection, and chemical connectors that allow aquatic organisms to find each other in the ocean. It’s the damage that ocean acidification can do to these chemical pathways that really worries marine biologists: change the PH of the ocean and you effectively render many organisms chemically blind. In an estuary where visibility is next to zero this could have devastating effects.

 The finished piece is likely to be subtle in terms of the sounds we’ve been gathering. Yes, there are loud places like Spurn on a stormy day, or the ferry terminal when they release the water from the dock, but much of the time the sounds are intimate and liminal: a muddy wavelet breaking over shiny new mud makes a very silky, silvery, barely audible sound. So it’ll be a piece of contrasts, I think, moving between the subtle and the monumental. I’ll also include references to a couple of objects that operate for me like lighthouses for my imagination: an Inuit kayak in the Hull’s Maritime Museum, and the Roos Boat in the Hull and East Riding Museum. Flotation will certainly be there, as well as some poems by key Hull writers: Hull is a city afloat on mud, water and poetry!

Follow John on twitter: @jwedgwoodclarke

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