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Constructing Spaces Residency: Elaine Baker

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. Elaine Baker blogs here about her experience. We'll be sharing work from the other poets over the coming weeks.

It was restful to hide in the replica of WS Graham’s cottage. Tucked away in there, it would have been easy to forget that I was actually sitting in the wider arms of the National Poetry Library, London, just a few hundred yards from streams of red buses and black cabs criss-crossing the Thames.

The physical space was simplicity itself: bare wooden boards; a fireplace; two simple wooden bookshelves above the bedhead. And a few quiet paces away, a generous wooden writing desk, ready with a typewriter and blank sheets of paper. In fact, the only major difference between this and my own writing space at home was the sea (replicated by a cool blue undulating projection just beyond the wooden window frame) and the particular book titles on the shelf, taken from Graham’s own personal library. (Like him, I sleep and write in the same room.)

I took off my boots and made myself at home.

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Photo of handwritten manuscript ‘Letter’, from the Constructing Spaces exhibition
I spent an hour or two in silence, reading snippets of everything I could touch and see, delving into Graham’s own books, reading his drafts on the walls, the things others had said about his life and work. What persistently rose to the surface of things for me was his creative process, evidenced here by repetitive lines in handwritten inky script.

I felt nudged by Graham to experiment in this residency, taking some risks in my own poetry. I decided to adopt one of Graham’s writing techniques: on a big sheet of blank paper, like a canvas, he would write “words, just words, as they occurred to him or as they related … and out of these words he made his base, his poem.” For my “base” I used a ‘word grab’ from the early part of Graham’s poem, ‘the nightfishing’ (I found a copy of this on his writing desk). As I read, I rapidly selected words that attracted me from the poem, without much deliberation, and copied them onto blank sheets of paper in a non-linear way, scattering them over the whitespace.

I then immediately started drafting a poem, with these sheets and their words spread out on the bed in front of me. I had no idea where I was going; I just fed myself the language and allowed it to drive the writing forwards. I sought to make my lines roughly the same length as Graham’s in ‘the nightfishing’, with a loose pentameter, but that was just a rough guiding principle. I took this first draft home with me. I then spent time over the next couple of weeks editing and the end result of this process is my poem ‘Search Party’.

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The other tack I took was to steal a few single lines from the cottage environment. I wanted to break these apart and remake them. This resulted in my poem ‘Truth Tapes’ (constructed around single line from the novel ‘By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’, which I took down from Graham’s bookshelf and started to read).

I think the poems demonstrate how being immersed in another poet’s language and practice can open up new creative spaces in us.

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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