Literary Statement - Frances Presley

Literary Statement

The relationship between manifesto and poetry is often a dubious one, with rules frequently broken,and mine would be no different. I like manifestos that are implicit within the poem, as they probably come closer to a truth of poetics.· It’s something I refer to jokingly in the first stanza of my anti-manifesto of the 1990s,  ‘Statement’ (Linocut), which was written for an expert in ‘statements’, Johan de Wit:

And if I talk about poetic practice

I was introduced to the two line poem in 1968

and I sometimes think I have been trying to play

those two notes ever since like the six

pianos in Piano Circus            which means that

“we’re always looking forward”          she told

the interviewer who wanted adaptations of the classics

I have been described as a late modernist, and although I’m not sure I want to be referred to as ‘late’, it’s true that my poetics began with a reading of Ezra Pound.· I was influenced by the list of dos and don’ts; the emphasis on compression ; the concept of the image; and the desire to ‘make it new’. The image also permitted a movement away from the individual subject, the lyric ‘I’: the first person pronoun in this stanza is deceptively omnipresent.

I, that is ‘she’, have taken compression as far as I can, becoming elliptical and oval (elle), who can’t see the words when she means the woods.  It is a compressed line which, I hope, is simultaeneously many other compressed lines, of which I can barely hear the echo without special equipment.  Compression can result in closure, and I explore the threat of closure, obth in the form and the laguage of the poem.  It is expressed through cuts and cutting, razor and reduction, until expansion occurs.

I have been influenced by my research in surrealism, and by its techniques, such as automatic writing, secular litany and the exquisite corpse.  One method of altering the tension between compression and expansion, as well as providing an escape from individual set pieces, is that of collaboration, particularly the kind of active collaboration favoured by the surrealists, but within a feminist poetics.  From compression and reduction we arrive, however briefly, at conversation, intimacy and the open text.  I am grateful to all the poets I have collaborated with, especially Elaine Randell, Harriet Tarlo, Elizabeth James and Tilla Brading.

Visual art has always played an important role in my writing and research.  It was the subject of the title collection of my first collection, ‘The Sex of Art’, which included a tribute to Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party.  It also had an increasing effect on my writing practice, through collaboration with artists such as Irma Irsara; and, in terms of the visual potential of the page, though the influence of poets such as Kathleen Fraser and Susan Howe.  This is particularly true of my recent collabration with Tilla Brading, ‘Stone settings’, where the approximate, even random, geometry of the Neolithic stones affects the shape of the text.

Another dominant aspect of my work, orginally derived from Pound, but which has developed along its own trajectory, is the cross-cutting of styles and genres.  It is sometimes referred to as hybrid writing.  This has been important as a way of undercutting poetic form, which can become both hypnotic and self-deluding in its harmony.  David Annwn has described its effect as ‘calmly subverting senses of enclosure or walled hierarchy in language’.

I am interested in experimental prose, as part of my practice of hybrid writing and that which is not ‘Poetry’.  This is evident in the sequence ‘Somerset letters’, which explores landscape and rural communities.  It makes use of a feminist parataxis in which sentences stand side by side, awkwardly, as opposed to ‘écriture feminine’ in which the emphasis is on the fluid and the flowing:

‘Style of live water, but it doesn’t have to be flowing all the time.  It must be very old if the bedrock is exposed.  Is this the bedrock or just a human construction?  The red water flowing round my boots.  You can’t always follow the river’.  (Letter 6)

The identity of words constantly shifts and changes within the language and the landscape.  Like Harriet Tarlo I am interested in the ‘gaps’ in the landscape, our lives and language and the influence they have on our writing.  It’s a theme I return to in the eighth letter:

‘The wind sounds like the onrush of cars, losing her soft words…  Harriet relies on the words – the way they sound, the way we hear them or don’t hear them.  The gaps and the breaks’.

As Tarlo has written, the non-linguistic dimension has to be given space to appear on the page.  She has a concern for landscape as ‘the other’ – that which cannot be easily assimilated or fully understood.  I don’t intend to get into a lengthy discussion of the origins of language, but I share her respect for the non-linguistic, for the ‘figure’, to use Lyotard’s term, and the way in which landscape has a direct effect on the shape of the poem.

Frances Presley