pharmapoetica : a dispensary of poetry

Poems as labels : this seems obvious to me now, though it took a lifetime of hanging about with poetry to make it happen. It also took the collaborative spark of Maria Vlotides to realise the idea: an idea that she'd been thinking through for some time. In 2011 we had a series of meetings to think through how this might work, and then she set me off on writing the poems that would become the text of the labels. A label needs a jar and a jar displays best in a cabinet: Maria has executed the conception of this idea beautifully in Pharmapoetica.

Pharmapoetica, the cabinet

Maria always had the idea of accompanying the work itself with a limited edition book and Pharmapoetica : a dispensary of poetry has just been published by Pedestrian Publishing. It includes ten previously unpublished poems by me including this one, 'Daisy':

"Maybe Dadda needs these for his poems"
the Boy says & picks three flecked pink.
The insides are SM58 microphones, yellow,
the one-two sound-check explodes in white
word-fronds. If this was the EVENT we'd be
waiting for the visuals. If this was the EVENT
I'd want the answer. If this was the EVENT
I would ask you to marry me. If this was
the EVENT I'd be just about half-crazy. 

In this EVENT there is a boy
with three daisies, here for the love of you.

Pharmapoetica cover

I went out into nature for a week to write these poems. I had two sources of inspiration: my then four year old son, Pavel, and my collaborator, Maria Vlotides. Maria was present in the form of a sheaf of notes about herbs that she’d written for me; Pavel was as physically present as the clams that barnacle the rocks along the Cornish coastline. The location was a campsite in Perranporth, overlooking the Atlantic.

The book contains a foreword by poet, ecologist and physicist, Mario Petrucci. Mario is an incredibly versatile and prolific poet and has that rare capacity for flexing musical language across a range of styles, including the modernist lyric. His book anima has just been published by Nine Arches Press and continues his epic Anglo-American sequence of 1111 poems.

Maria Vlotides and I had first met in the Poetry Library to look at her artist’s book, Pavement Poetry. Her project, in which she had plated poets’ words into the form of coalhole covers and had them fitted into the streets of West London excited all of my site-specific, poetry-as-material, location-as-chance interests. The beautifully executed folio sized book captures both the process and outcome of the project. Shortly before meeting Maria I had been commissioned by poet James Wilkes to write a poem about nettles for a project taking place at Southwark Physic Garden; the poem was anthologised in a book called Herbarium. When Maria contacted me to talk through the possibility of a collaboration on the theme of herbs it took me less than a second to say Yes.

Pharmapoetica text + image

And that’s how I found myself at a table in a chalet in Cornwall looking at pages of texts combining science, folklore, personal history and – helpfully as inspiration – Maria’s own linguistic responses to herbs. Sometimes she had got there before me in making the kind of connections that poets try to make: “lawns… are the constellations of daisies that turn a green space into a reflection of the night sky”. Notes like these became the stonesparks that flickered the first dry hay of the poems into fire. That, and watching the new life I’d co-created (Sarah, my wife, was naturally here too) playing around the campsite, filling a bucket with mud, flowers, fennel seeds and anything else he could find. There was something flowering inside him too at this time: language. In a sense we were playing at the same thing, Pavel and me: looking, naming, defining.

My collection THE RESTRUCTURE documents, through a range of poetic forms, the first wave of inspiration in my writing following the birth of my son Pavel. In many of those poems I had described him as “the Boy” and it’s that same boy that occupies my attention for seven of the ten poems here. THE RESTRUCTURE had been written out of illnesses, the tender fronds of his early years. Maria described in her text on daisies how that herb grows much better against a brook rather than on a lawn: these poems begin to turn their heads up to sunlight from the nourishing bankside of health and wellness. If there is darkness – and my poem on St John’s Wort reflects back on my mental illness written about in THE RESTRUCTURE – it is the darkness of a daisy amongst its constellation on a night lawn. Shortly before arriving in Perranporth I had introduced a constraint into the collaboration: not only would I try and write a poem on each of the herbs that Maria had introduced for me, but that I would do this through trying to find an extract – either real, dried or in essence-form – before the holiday ended. 

Perranporth, Cornwall

Ten poems in seven days. I trawled the site, found a natural medicine store and asked in the bars for drinks including a hint, at least, of the herb I was working on. Walking the coast with a head full of hints, facts and suggestions of something that couldn’t be found introduced that essential element of writing poetry that lactates around lack and loss: emotion. And what experiments haven’t been devised to find one thing and ended up discovering another? Hawthorn and wormwood benefited from their own absence; I drew on my own experience of St John’s Wort. Other herbs turned up or were creatively induced as unlikely poetic stimulants: rosemary was stuffed into a delicious homemade kiev by Sarah; elderflower was found in a bottle of cider in the Mermaid Arms on the beach at Newquay. There was a deep satisfaction in ingesting the herb after I’d written a poem about it.

The poems are the containers of that week’s inspiration wrapped as labels around the containers of the herbs themselves. As with all good collaborations it’s hard to unravel how the layers were formed to make the finished piece. I think of the poems as- labels-on-jars as a distinct form in itself: containers enclosing containments. The patchwork of words derived from the local landscape of Cornwall, Maria’s inspirational texts and the excitement and bedrock of family love have materialised into a work inseparable from that week in nature. The poems – to be read and handled – contain no hazard warning against being opened up and reimagined.

The poems as labels

You can read a review of Pharmapoetica on Sabotage here

You can listen to a podcast about Pharmapoetica on the Londonist here

Pharmapoetica : a dispensary of poetry is available for £15 from Pedestrian Publishing here


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