THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

Introduction

From Shakespeare’s First Folio to live recordings of experimental theatre, from Charlotte Brontë’s love letters to Wendy Cope’s emails, our collections offer unique, fascinating and unexpected sources for your research. Discover more about our manuscript, printed, digital and audiovisual collections here. Follow us on Twitter: @BLEnglish_Drama. Read more

22 May 2019

Artists’ Books Now: Writing evening 13 May 2019

Gill Partington, host of last week’s sell out Artists’ Books Now: Writing evening, shares some of her thoughts on the event the works and the artist in this guest blog

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Artist Sam Winston describing an example of asemic writing from his recent work Reading Closed Books.

Making Your Mark, the British Library’s current exhibition, is all about writing, its long history and the many varied techniques, systems and conventions that have evolved around it.  The latest event in the ‘Artists Book Now’ series on the 13th May approached writing from a different angle, however. It was all about forms of work that stretch these systems and conventions in unusual ways, pushing writing to its limits and beyond. The four artists presenting their work showed us some varieties of writing that sometimes looked very unfamiliar indeed.

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Dia Batal uses a range of media to create Sculptures based on Arabic script.

Dia Batal’s work is as much sculpture as writing, rendering Arabic script physical and three dimensional in metalwork and other media. The letters may be ornate but the materials have a strength and presence, perhaps because the force and impact of writing are her primary concern, dealing in text that details harrowing stories of conflict and displacement. Sam Winston creates work that hovers on the boundaries of drawing and writing, in durational performances that often take place in the dark, gradually covering the page surface in an intricate, unreadable filigree of pencil lines. Stevie Ronnie turned writing into a series of incongruous, witty objects: an ‘audiobook’, for instance, comprising a rope woven from strips of text.  Wound around a metal winch, it unravels, translating text into metallic clinks. Joumana Medlej created delicate folded paper forms adorned with the Kufic script, an Arabic calligraphy not meant to be read, but which instead has a symbolic potency, an aura rather than a literal meaning. These were diagrams and cosmological charts as much as texts.

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Stevie Ronnie’s infectious enthusiasm as he describes how employs a range of objects in the creation of an artists’ book.

In their various ways, these were all forms of ‘asemic’ writing:  that which can’t be read. The work seemed to ask the question of how writing communicates in other ways, and whether it needs to communicate at all. Does writing need a reader? The other major theme that emerged from the evening was that of discipline, and where exactly writing belongs. Maria Fusco, Professor of Fine Art at Northumbria University talked about what happens when writing becomes an art practice rather than a literary one. She read from her new book, Nine QWERTY Bells: Fiction for Live Voice in which she puts art objects in strange kinds of dialogue with one another.

 

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Book artist and calligrapher Joumana Medlej opens her Book of Love.

The particular piece she chose focused on Ignacio Uriarte’s
The History of the Typewriter Recited by Michael Winslow a video artwork in which the sounds of vintage typewriters are recreated orally, with uncanny accuracy. Maria’s reading was all about tracing this complicated network of crossed wires between voice, writing and object. Her aim is not to write about art, but rather to write through it, she explained. She described writing moving backwards through the gallery space and ‘bumping into things’. This collision between writing and objects - and the conjunctions that result from it - seemed to be what the evening was all about. Writing, we learned, can be stranger than you think.

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Gill Partington in conversation Maria Fusco.  

03 May 2019

Off the Page, Chapter 2

by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. More details about Off the Page, with a full list of speakers, can be found here

As part of London’s Game Festival Fringe on Saturday 13th April, the British Library hosted Off the Page: Chapter 2, a sequel to the hugely popular original event exploring the increasingly porous boundaries between literature and games. The speakers came from a variety of backgrounds, reflecting the amorphous and interdisciplinary practices which continue to inform and push the medium(s) –including game designers, poets, writers and academics.

Emily Short’s fascinating discussion of metamorphic texts, focusing particularly on her interactive narratives based on Classical stories (Endure, a game about translating four lines of Homer and Galatea, a game based on the Pygmalion story ‘where how we treat somebody changes who they become') were challenging equally in terms of game design – questions of how to design systems that can engage people meaningfully with a feeling of interaction, and also in terms of literary theory questions – what status does the author/reader have in this dynamic? And what is the status of the text? Her comparison between these two areas was an incredibly fertile starting point for both: “Reading is very much a creative act, creating a relationship’, Sort said, ‘A process of constantly building a bridge between the present and the past. Games look at systems and structures, a great medium for inviting the reader and player into their work’.

Thryn Henderson’s exploration of the ‘video-game vignette’ struck a different note, and opened up another critical intersection between literature and game design. Henderson’s conception of the Vignette as a short experience without narrative context evoking a kind of mood is more akin to the experience of poetry, where the reader is asked to observe the often complex and contradictory responses that emerge from highly ambiguous stimulus. ‘Vignettes are difficult in ways that rules aren't’ Henderson said, ‘they take away specificity in a way’. They invite the participant to ‘play with a feeling’. Rather than being about protagonists, proxies, or witnesses, camera perspectives or bodies in space, the Vignette is about the immediacy of the space, the feeling or the narrative.

There is a tension in the Vignette between the highly personal – almost inscrutably idiosyncratic – world of feeling evoked and the form’s reluctance to engage in traditional modes of identification created by structures like character, plot and perspective. It is interesting, then, that short games are often strongly – if obliquely – autobiographical. Becky Lee, in her talk, described making what she affectionately terms ‘trashgames’, which are weird often single-mechanic experiences hosted on itch.io which she describes as ‘journal entries’. As autobiographical writings they are strange but also highly evocative of emotional landscapes, or playful day-dream like flights of fancy.  

This is not to say that the personal is restricted to these short, ‘poetic’ experiences though. Fragments of Him by Mata Haggis-Burridge aims for mimesis and narrative immersion within an autobiographical narrative space; drawing on photo research of real places; real period-specific objects and experiences with real people to draw out the subtleties and particularities of a personal and emotional process -- grief.

Often, though, the variety which is this area of practice’s strength – and the strength of the Off the Page event series -- presents challenges when trying to fit these textual objects into already well-established structures of funding, distribution, and study: are these objects games or literature? The answer (sometimes neither and sometimes both) is confusing for publishers, distributors and the academy. Emma Joy Reay’s talk on the intersection between children’s literature and video games, and her work towards her PhD at the University of Cambridge on the topic, elucidated some of these struggles. Her final invitation and assertion – that Childrens’ Literature departments had their arms open even when traditional English departments run scared – was an interesting and encouraging way to think about the event in general; as an invitation to praise, accept and celebrate ambiguity.

26 April 2019

The Book of Hours

a guest blog by Lucy English, spoken word poet and Reader in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. She has two collection published by Burning Eye Press. The most recent, The Book of Hours, is the poetry from the online poetry film project. The project was completed in 2018 and was shortlisted for the New Media Writing Prize in 2019. 

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Screenshot from is 'From This Train' by Kathryn Darnell

The Book of Hours is an online poetry film project which contains forty eight poetry films made in collaboration with 27 film-makers. Through the process of creation I have explored how to bring the immediacy and vibrancy of spoken word  into the delicate poetry film form, which is a growing but niche area of poetry. I have created a project which is experimental in its use of spoken word in poetry film, and also innovative in its approach to creating a themed collection of poetry films. 

Inspired by the medieval Books of Hours, I wanted to create a contemporary compendium of images and text which could evoke contemplation and thought. In our modern world we may that God constantly rewards or punishes our behaviour, but we still have a need for quiet moments, reflection and emotional awareness often associated with religiosity. Poetry continues to be a medium through which we can experience this, so the text in The Book of Hours is in poetic form, rather than prose, and because I am a spoken word poet most of this poetry is presented as voice-over rather than text on screen.

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Screenshot from 'Sheltering from the Rain in a Country Church' (after Larkin) by James Norton

A medieval Book of Hours was a collection of religious readings and accompanying images.  By the fourteenth century these had become highly decorative works of art and many were produced by craftsmen for wealthy patrons.  They were created so that those outside of the religious orders could follow the monastic life. The book began with a calendar illustrated by images of activities connected to each month, such as sowing crops, harvest and feasting. The subsequent texts were divided into sections and one of these sections was the ‘Hours’, a series of prayers and readings spanning a complete day and night and changing with the religious season. This reflected the Hours of the Divine Office, a code of religious behaviour adopted by St. Benedict in his sixth century guide to monastic life. Each ‘hour’ was roughly three hours apart, and was the time for prayer and reflection. The first was Vigil, at midnight, followed by Lauds, then Prime first thing in the morning, then Terce, then Sext at approximately lunchtime. After this was None followed by Vespers and finally Compline, after which the monks went to bed. The ‘Hours’ were therefore a template for religious devotion, spirituality, reflection and connection to God.

There were variations in the format of a Book of Hours but a typical collection contained: a calendar and The Hours, (as described above); a selection of penitential psalms, expressing sorrow for the committing of sins; The Office for the Dead, (a prayer cycle for the repose of the soul of a deceased person); and the Litany of Saints, which were prayers for the intersession of the Virgin Mary and the martyrs and saints.  Books of Hours represented a layperson’s handbook to Christian devotion and were created in a portable size so they could be carried by the owner and referred to on a daily basis. They reveal a glimpse into the medieval relationship between humanity and God and are important compendiums of religious reflection.

In the modern secular society of the U.K we can underestimate the importance of the Christian calendar in medieval times. This was an unwavering structure in an uncertain world where the progression from Christmas to Easter to Ascension would be embedded in the minds and habits of everyone.  The monastic life was seen as the epitome of  proper behaviour and for an ordinary person to possess access to the religious life, in book form, was highly desirable. It was common in medieval art, and also in the pages of the Books of Hours, for the patrons to be depicted in religious scenes, such as witnessing the birth of Christ or worshiping at the feet of the Virgin, thus placing themselves directly into the holy narrative. In the medieval mind, saints could be ‘talked to’ through prayer and requests to God, Jesus and Mary were as common as our ‘wish lists’ of shopping needs.

A Book of Hours can also be seen as an interactive text as these books were not intended to be read chronologically. The reader chose which readings to refer to according to time of day, season and spiritual mood. The most noted example of a Book of Hours created for a wealthy patron is the Tres Riches Heures commissioned by John the Duke of Berry between 1412-1416 and illustrated by the brothers Limbourg. This is currently held in the Musee Conde in Chantilly, France.

The Duke of Berry was a passionate collector of books and his library contained more than fifteen Books of Hours. In Tres Riches Heures the illuminated pages are exquisitely illustrated; they depict a calendar of the month, the signs of the Zodiac and scenes from life, according to the seasons. In the page for October a white clad horse pulls a harrow and a farmer sows seeds over which crows and magpies are already fighting. In the background is a magnificent white castle. The pages of this book offer a detailed insight into the lives of the various strata of medieval society, from aristocratic hunters to peasants in rags.  This keen depiction of everyday detail is also a feature of other Books of Hours, where scenes from the Bible are set against a backdrop of recognizable scenes of medieval life.

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Screenshot from 'Mr Sky' by Sarah Tremlett

What I learned from my understanding of the medieval Books of Hours and what I felt I could translate into my project were the following aspects: the text, (in my case the poems) would be an embarking point for reflection. This reflection would not be a religious one but a contemplative one, offering responses to the modern world. It would be presented in a calendar format, following the months of the year, times of day and the seasons. It would contain a linear structure  (a calendar year) but the reader/viewer could choose when and where they accessed the films. My final aim was to somehow replicate the everyday quality of the medieval Books of Hours, and to depict the ‘illustrations in the margins.’ By creating a digital project which utilizes our accessibility to screens and downloads, I could also replicate the portability of the medieval books. I wanted the colours and sounds of the films to compliment the total experience just as the illustrated pages in the medieval manuscripts compliment the texts in the book. The themes which link the whole collection are reflections on the passage of time; reflections on the impact of urban lifestyles on rural landscapes and the transience of memory.

Each poetry film was created ‘in conversation’ with the film-maker rather than me ‘giving’ them a poem to adapt. Sometimes we started with an idea, sometimes we started with a sound track, or static or moving images. So all the poetry films in The Book of Hours have been created in collaboration with other artists.

Individual films from this project have been screened at many short film and poetry film festivals: ‘Things I found in the Hedge’ won first prize in the Atticus Review Videopoetry competition. and ‘Que Es El Amor’ won second prize.

 

All screenshots reproduced with the kind permission of the creator.