Past exhibitions

The Poetry Library Open Day | 16-Oct-16

This year's eight annual Open Day display was curated for the London Literature Festival on the theme of Living in Future Times

Poets as diverse as Edwin Morgan, Renee Gladman and Arthur Rimbaud have explored what it means to be alive in the new metropolis – but what about poets who aren't human? Can robots write poetry? Our open day invited you to experience the poetic future, if you dared.

Artist and writer Nancy Campbell was in residence on the day inviting guests to take part in her Polar Tombola, a project which allows you to take away your own personalised Greenlandic word, highlighting a language that is in danger of becoming lost.

But what of languages which don't yet exist? In the contemporary world where meaning seems constantly to be in flux – can poetry be our global language?

The Open Day exhibition was followed by a live event in The Poetry Library where poets Nancy Campbell, NJ Hynes and Nisha Ramayya read new works specially created in response to the open day and the objects featured. Read words from each of the poet's below to get a taste of the one-off event.

Image: Frank Sharman

Nisha Ramayya, 'Sleeplessness' 
Past versions of you
Past versions of me dreaming past versions of you
Inherited dreams of you
Inherited qualities of me inherited from dreams of you
Inherited qualities of me you
Inherited qualities and strings of pearls and lightly wearing me you
Places where your pearls were lightly worn were like me unlikely you
Places where your loved ones were born you were born like-minded you me you
Places where your loved ones die in all likelihood you die you me you
Places where you would die you would die your like-mindedness would die you you you
Singular moments of laughter you
Plural moments of laughter with you with you with you
Singular moments of fear of you of me of you
Plural moments of fear of walking with without these moments with you
Desiring to walk home to leave home to leave you
Desiring to leave home with you without you without you
Cleaning the room as if that is all you can do you
Cleaning the room cleaning and cleaning and missing you you
Squatting to clean and squatting and sitting and missing you me you
Unseating you are deep-seated within me you you you
Desiring to clean to unseat you to squat you
Desiring do not squat you do nothing you do nothing you
Images and actions are not images and actions you
Becoming visible ink on the walls of the mind you
Becoming characteristic of poetry you
Becoming sensibility of writers and readers of poetry you me you
Becoming visibility of the walls between minds you you you
Visibility of the walls is neither image nor action you me you
Shame at placing this moment beside that moment you me you
Shame at placing this room beside that room me me you
Retching between moments of laughter and fear you
Retching while walking not with you not like you
Retching the lengths between me and you me and you
Measuring lengths between wanting you having you
Measuring lengths between wanting having wanting having you you you
Finding ourselves in our friends they’re like you they’re you they’re not like you
Finding ourselves on the outside we’re inside we’re like you we’re not you
Finding ourselves wanting we’re having we’re not you we’re not you
Inheriting your loved ones you are qualified by love you me you
Inheriting rooms I am further and further and further from you you you

Nancy Campbell on the installation of The Polar Tombola at our Open Day

'This is the first time I've looked in a dictionary since my A-levels,' confided a hipster, eagerly flicking through the yellowing pages of my 100-year-old Greenlandic–English dictionary.

The dictionary was part of The Polar Tombola, a participatory live literature project at the Poetry Library Open Day. The Open Day theme - 'The Future' - has been preoccupying me during my research into endangered languages. Since the 1800s, 21 indigenous Arctic languages have become extinct, and more are being added to the list year by year. 

Greenlandic is one of those vulnerable languages, according to the UNESCO Atlas of World Languages in Danger. Vocabulary is especially important in places suffering the rapid effects of climate change: as an environmentalist I was concerned how future scientists would study the Arctic ecosystem without access to the knowledge of generations enshrined in the languages of the region. As a poet, I wondered what happens to an individual’s experience of words when their language begins to disappear.

Tombola has its origins in the cold, closing months of the year. The game (which draws its name from the Italian word tombolare, to tumble or turn a somersault) is inspired by the raffle played at Christmas time. The Polar Tombola is likewise a game of chance, one that turns expectations upside-down, as participants are invited to pick a Greenlandic word from a giant snowball, and discover its meaning. Over the course of the Open Day around 100 Greenlandic words were taken from the snowball and looked up in the dictionary.

I encourage players who have picked out and learnt a Greenlandic word to leave behind a word of their own. 'If you had to lose a word from your own language,' I ask, 'what would it be?' I hope to generate a sense of what language loss is, one word at a time.

But it's a big commitment to vow never to use a word again and some people decide not to play along. I give away more words than I claim back. While I’m secretly pleased that some people want to bend the rules of the game, the notion of exchange is important to me. 

One issue came up again and again in conversations with players: censorship. 'I'm not giving away a word,' people said. 'I don't have enough as it is.' Others were only too glad to give up words that had negative connotations - whether these were commonly understood (in the case of 'war' and 'hate') or distinctly personal ('compass'). Both reactions made it clear that the surrender of a word was a potent act. There was no going back: each renunciation was a binding contract, as the player's signature on the card attested.

At the end of the Open Day I carefully gathered up all the cards on which these words were written: there were Danish, Dutch, Farsi, Icelandic, Korean and Spanish words, as well as many English ones. There were political epithets, meaningless verbal ticks and Latin scientific names. All these words will be safely stored away in the archive, and a selection have been published in the anthology The Polar Tombola: A Book of Banished Words, alongside new texts on language loss commissioned from poets including Vahni Capildeo, Will Eaves and Richard Price. 

Meanwhile, it is pleasing to think of the many Greenlandic words now in circulation in the UK, with new ambassadors for the language such as Sophie Herxheimer, who has been introducing Londoners to the concept of qimatut or 'winter stores'. Maybe in the future I’ll encounter these Greenlandic words again – as loan words used on the street, or in a poem.

Image: Nancy Campbell

NJ Hynes, 'Yellow, maybe'

In playing with colours, I was inspired by Laura Vaccaro Seeger's Green. A prize-winning illustrated children's book, its simple language works beautifully. She moves through semantic possibilities -- noun (place or plant) + green; adjective + green; adverb + green; verb + green, etc. -- to create a sense of progression, a hint of narrative, while mesmerising us with vivid, cleverly cut-out pages that, when turned, became the scene for the next utterance about green.  I loved the total immersion -- and it made me think about how to use language to animate colour.
I liked how Matt Martin's Full Spectrum Apotheosis used colour squares at the top of each page as a prompt and constraint, each colour a reference point for the following poem in quirky and surprising ways. So colour became almost a launch pad, animating the poem's language.
Most subconsciously influential of all was A dog by James Davies, with minimal text (by Gertrude Stein) printed on 16 pieces of heavy, vivid yellow card, in its own yellow box. Maybe absorbing its colour started my poem, "Maybe Yellow".
My response to "Living in Future Times"  also including writing about robots. Inspired by M. NourbeSe Philip's Zong!, I used text from the marketing description of a popular therapeutic robot (Paro) as the basis for a series of poems exploring identity, simulation, language and dominion. 

Yellow, maybe, radiant and still.
Green rustles and blue plays catch until dark,
stretching contrails into tightropes for acrobats.
Purple likes a dare, quick to fight, already bruised;
beige mutters, smuggling pearls in a stiff purse.
Fuschia is often confused, trips on its skirts,
cracks an ankle and turns another hue;
but yellow sits silent, lighting the space
between your mother's chair and you.

Images below taken by Harpreet Kalsi www.thatthingyoupluck.com

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