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Constructing Spaces Residency: Barbara Barnes

We commissioned four poets to each spend a day inside our immersive exhibition Constructing Spaces, a reconstruction of Scottish poet WS Graham's Cornish cottage. Barbara Barnes blogs here about her experience - read 'Resident', the poem she created in the space. We'll be sharing work from the other poets over the next week.

Meanwhile surely there must be something to say…. between us two whoever we are

Being invited to do a residency can be like being invited to someone’s house, only to find upon arrival a note saying they’ve popped out to the shops, will be back soon, just make yourself at home.

The WS Graham residency at the National Poetry Library seemed much like this, though without the note. And this wasn’t really Graham’s cottage but a mini reconstruction of it, which meant spending time in what was much like a set.  As a performer, I was immediately attracted to the idea.  Acting often feels like a legitimate excuse to snoop around inside someone else’s life, to participate in a pretend conversation as if it were actually happening.

The circumstances are however somewhat pressurised with the expectation that from the experience you will produce hard evidence of your visit in the form of a poem. It feels a bit like a cold-water plunge into the unknown– terrifying but irresistible.    

Image Credit: 
Image by Harpreet Kalsi
This is how I ended up all alone in a wooden cottage on the 4th floor of Southbank Centre on a February afternoon, wondering what to do. I’d wandered around a bit, acutely aware of the sound of my footsteps on the wooden floor. From the speaker in the corner came a soundscape of seagulls, waves, snatches of conversations, a typewriter clacking, someone else‘s footsteps. Through a black curtain there was another small room with paper and crayons and an invitation to record your impressions.  Back in the main room I stared out at the permanently projected Cornwallian seascape. I considered sitting on the pillowless bed, but opted for the chair at Graham’s rustic wooden desk. I admit to feeling pretty strange with a low level panic humming in me.  What was I supposed to do here, how would I get the conversation going? It became terribly obvious that Mr. Graham was not going to turn up. 

So I just started to read his poems. And that’s when everything became different, of course it did. Through his poems, Graham talked about waiting, allowing silence, about the white space and listening for each word to place on it.  And he wrote about the changeability of words as they touch the page.  I imagine he wrote in pace with his breath because reading his poems, I was aware of my own breath deepening, connecting with a world anchored beneath my anxiety. Gradually but certainly I knew what to do next. I started to write down what I was hearing, both outside and inside my head from moment to moment. This paying close attention seemed to magically lift the curse of the expected end result. Beside me there was a quote from Graham: ‘I say this silence, or better construct this space.’ We had begun to have a conversation. The chance to write in such  generous company felt like a rare privilege.

WS Graham was there, sharing his space. The afternoon became evening, and then it was time for me to gather my things and go home.

Residencies in partnership with graduates of the Poetry School’s MA in Writing Poetry. 
Constructing Spaces runs until Sunday 31 March.

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