Fabian Peake is an artist and poet who has recently had an exhibition at 43 Inverness Street and staged a poetry reading at the gallery on 7 July 2012.
43 Inverness Street: What compelled you to start writing poems?
Fabian Peake: I was trained as a painter and have continued to do painting throughout my career, but during the 1980s my work began to diversify. I felt the need to work with ideas that were not accommodated by painting. I was making constructions, using photography and making fabric wallpieces which were based on clothing. I was also playing in a saxophone quartet. Some of these new directions necessitated learning skills such as sewing and pattern cutting and I began going to workshops and courses in poetry. I had written poems spasmodically since schooldays but started writing seriously in the 1980s.
When you ask why I was compelled to write poetry, I suppose it was because my ideas began to arrive in different forms. Some would make their appearance in visual form and others in written form. I found myself writing words on the paintings and the tailored objects that I’d been making. At the same time, I was going to classes in versification at The Poetry School and learning about traditional forms. Words in my work were being used in different ways. A visual way and a literary way. Although I had entered a literary world of sorts, I nevertheless thought of my poems as extensions of my painting. The same methods were being employed for thinking about and realizing a work, whether it was a poem, a painting or a photograph. Each work would be built from separate parts, trawled from many sources in the world around.
43I: Was this also around the time when words started to appear in your work, or were they always there?
FP: No, they weren’t always there. You’re quite right, though. That was the beginning of the use of words in my painting and other forms of art that I was doing. At first, words crept into my work as single, unattached entities. Over time, phrases and longer sentences of obscure and sometimes nonsensical character joined the visual imagery. The written words were part of the make-up of the work, just as colour, texture or drawing might be. With this use of words there were two things working in tandem but to very different ends. The first was the use of words as abstract counterparts to other qualities in my painting and the second was the development of poetry as a thing in itself. These would be purely word-based works written on paper. In my mind, these two approaches come from the same springhead.
43I: Your wallwork ‘Before I know’, which is at the gallery, is also the title of one of your poems. Can you tell me a bit more about that phrase and what it means?
FP: Yes, I’d been asked to take part in a live radio broadcast which was celebrating the first live radio broadcast in England. It was in 1922 at Writtle in Essex. Now, ninety years later, people from different walks of life (artists, writers, scientists and others) will be responding to the idea in any way they like. I thought about what I might do for this project and got intrigued by the idea of speculation prior to experience. As I knew nothing about Writtle and the shed in which the radio broadcast was made, I could not accurately form a picture of the place. But I could, through imagining, invent an entire world in my mind. Of course, it had nothing to do with the reality of the shed in a field in Essex from where that early broadcast was made. That shed is now in a museum. ‘Before I know’ is about one’s state of mind and thinking processes before having first-hand knowledge of something that one knows will happen. ‘What will it be like?’, ‘What will the place be like?’
I was speculating about what the land might be like in this rural setting and thinking about the word ‘broadcast’. The word is agricultural in origin and means to scatter seeds in all directions. The same word is used for the transmission of radio waves. I was thinking about what kind of seeds would be broadcast from a radio station. If they were words, what kind of crop would emerge from the fields? What plants? Radios, dictionaries? What would a field full of books look like, and how and when would they be harvested?
So, getting back to this idea about not knowing something, I see it as a fine line between the knowledge that one would acquire through actual experience and the knowledge that one imagines in advance. I know that I am going to do something and I know what that something is, but I have no idea about the reality.
43I: Is this related to the work in the gallery? Did the idea of a poem come afterwards?
FP: It was all going on at the same time, really. The work in the exhibition (at 43, Inverness Street) has the same name as the poem because of the ideas that I was preoccupied with at the time. I think that the idea for the poem came first, after I’d been invited to participate in the live radio broadcast. ‘before I know’ was a phrase I had in my mind while thinking about what I’d do for Writtle. The wallwork in the exhibition doesn’t really have a direct connection with the poem (the piece itself has more to do with shop signs) but my thoughts were so steeped in the idea of the falsity of prior knowledge that I decided to give the painting the same title.
43I: Let’s talk about collage. When we’ve talked in the past, you’ve mentioned that you use collage in your visual works and that you think of your poems as collages as well.
FP: Yes, it’s very much to do with the way I construct a painting, mentally as well as physically. Poetry has followed the same pattern – that of a gathering or scooping process. A painting, drawing, woodcut or poem will be constructed in a similar way to each other. The images jump about on the surface of the canvas or (in the case of a poem) on the page, often having no relationship to what is next to them in time, place or emotion. They are moved about until they find some kind of settling point. Often, awkwardness is the motivation behind the positioning of an image or a line. Sometimes I employ more narrative ways of putting a poem or painting in place, but by and large, a kind of fractured, chaotic, erratic method of working is used, where experiment is paramount. Of course, this is at the start of a piece of work, but later, strict controls follow and a more formal, compositional approach takes over.
43I: What about the poems where you use Morse Code? Does that function in a similar way, in that rhythm and sound form a sort of collage?
FP: Morse Code has a very different feel about it. It’s fairly new for me to use it in poetry and in my readings. It is as a result of thinking about the Writtle broadcast idea. While thinking about the 1922 broadcast, Morse Code came into my mind and I was reminded about learning the code when I was very young, after the Second World War. I have recently been re-learning it. So far, I have used Morse in readings translated from my poems. As you say, the sound and rhythms of reading in Morse Code come across in a jerky, collaged sort of way. The effect is uncompromising. It’s an abstract language quite akin to codes that I might use in painting. Comprehension is put aside. For most people the sound will not be accompanied by an understanding of the meaning. Each letter sounds like a whole word.
With my poems I am trying to find forms that are not the prescribed forms that are taught when people study poetry. I believe that the content of a poem can suggest what form is right for it. I suppose that conventional forms are right for certain kinds of poetry, but I feel quite rebellious about those given forms and feel impelled to disrupt them. Morse Code is another way of exercising my interest in form and experiment.
43I: What is it about form that you’re rebellious about?
FP: Well, I’m not rebellious about form in general. I am fascinated by form, but I feel trapped if I am working with a form that has been decided upon by somebody else. I want the form of a poem to discover itself through the process of writing and surprise me and the poem. Form for me is a mood and moods are changeable. I would like each poem to forge its own set of muscles and bear its own distinct anatomy. It would be naïve to be rebellious just for the sake of it, but I baulk at the idea of working within preordained constraints.
43I: I was thinking about what you said about small ideas. You start with almost nothing and you expand it and see where it leads.
FP: A lot of my poems and paintings come about from small observations in the world around. I find it more exciting to expand an idea from something which initially may be unremarkable. The painting or poem will behave in a remarkable way through the process of the development of the work. I like working with ‘stuff’ – from innocuous, half-experienced sightings on the one hand, to larger landscapes on the other. It is all material to use for the construction of a piece of work. Sometimes though, while small ideas can find themselves expanded, larger ideas can find themselves diminished, for the purposes of a particular piece of work. I have a painting in my exhibition, called ‘Little Mountain’. The mountain in the painting has been reduced to almost toy-like dimensions. I had in mind those pre- Renaissance paintings (Christ standing on a mountain) where there is a code for the understanding of dimension. We know that we are looking at a mountain, and mountains are large, but for the purposes of this painting, we agree to ignore its physical state and accept the code.
The same methods apply with my poems. Often originating with observations of a fleeting moment, they use that moment to expand in all directions and follow any road that is suggested while I write. The subject matter is disjointed and moves about in an unsettled way, often using automatic writing as part of its make-up. A kind of ordered chaos is probably the best way to describe the poetry that I write.
listen to Fabian Peake read his poem “this alley”