Gift Horse


Collaborations often emerge from relatively separate artistic communities who, while their policed borders discipline their form and concentrate their fields of energy, thrive when the authorities are given the day off. Under such circumstances smugglers from the different arts meet to exchange what they hope, or assert, are premium goods. Sometimes the meeting becomes a little rough, a little disorganised, or a little too enthusiastic: different merchandise spills into each other in the swap and a new contraband is formed.

I first worked with the artist Ronald King in the 1990s, first getting to know him on one of those days when the border guards had been told to go home early: a small press book fair on London’s South Bank. At these fairs there is typically a range of different arts represented: visual artists, conceptual artists, sound poets, academic poets, lyric poets, visual poets, performance artists, political activists, fine press experts, book artists, and so on. At that time I was co-running Vennel Press, which published early poetry collections by W. N. Herbert, David Kinloch, Elizabeth James, and Peter McCarey, and Southfields magazine, a cultural review. I had a stall at the book fair and so did Ronald King, who was representing his book arts publisher Circle Press.

During the course of the day we started to talk about our shared enthusiasms for the book as a visual object. Once the fair had closed we took our discussion to the bar.

Ron, who has always worked with poets, collaborating with Roy Fisher over many decades, was receptive to an idea of an artist’s book that featured the white horses of the southern downlands. I had already written a single poem for it and imagined this poem as the entire text for the book. The fluency and ancient mystery of the Uffington white horse particularly fascinated us both and it seemed to anticipate Matisse’s jazz on a grand scale by millennia. I was also interested in the endurance of the shape of the horses over centuries, generations of care from their neighbouring communities sustaining these beautiful figures on the land.

The poem just didn’t work for Ron and he very gently declined it. He didn’t say why and I was swallowing my pride too much to probe. I am not sure if it was the poem as such or if it was that he just couldn’t find a way of reacting to it within his own form. Looking back, I think the poem, which works across the whole of a single page’s white-space and collages different kinds of literary register within that page, was actually doing too much spatial and typographical work for Ron to manoeuvre around and through. In a way it was asking Ron to be a printer not an artist and that should never have been the deal. I think this is important about collaboration, so important it’s a cliché – that each has to move towards each other and gain in the collaboration by, if necessary, appearing to ‘lose’ within ones own form.

What happened next was that really the horse itself grabbed me. Unusually for me, I couldn’t sleep: I kept hearing a kind of ghost beast running the hills and that imaginary stallion’s rhythm became the start of a strongly stressed poem that was not pictorial or typographical but a poem of movement. No doubt this was a romantic trope borrowed from tales of Ted Hughes’s thought-fox experience but the pulse seemed real enough to me.

This new text proved to be the catalyst. Ron conceived the book as a series of openings in which a single horse figure would move from standstill at the beginning of the book to gallop by the end. Using blind embossing, in which uninked metal is pressed on to dampened paper to produce an indented form (uplifted on the next page), he began to plan what eventually became a kind of slow motion flicker book that was extremely tactile. By using the centre of each opening to bisect the horse, Ron was able to ‘move’ the horse from zero to its greatest speed. It was fascinating to see that Ron avoided in any way copying the Uffington horse: in the course of the collaboration we had exchanged several images of it and it was certainly the horse we had in mind but Ron’s is taller, more slender, and at times more gentle (I think there are comic effects, too). I guess Ron had also been collaborating with the artists of the Uffington horse in a way – allowing those ancients their own space as well. Finally, Karen Bleitz, who years later I worked with on laser-cut books, typeset the poem in a clean looking sans serif font. Together, finally, after a serious false start, gift horse was made.

Richard Price’s Rays is published by Carcanet. He recently collaborated with Luke Kennard for a Likestarlings conversation, here. His website is He is Head of Modern British Collections at the British Library.