‘Giving yourself to the other’ – an interview with Frances Presley

In October 2011 Likestarlings met with Frances Presley in her home in Finsbury Park, North London, to discuss poetry and poetic collaboration. Here is an account of the conversation that followed.

Likestarlings: Often your work is a response to a work of art. When did that start to happen?

Frances: There was a phase when I did a lot of that, particularly in the late ’80s, early ’90s.

Ls: There’s quite a bit in your collection Linocut from that period…

FP: Yes, especially in Linocut. It probably had to do with two things. One, being in London working pretty much full-time and going to exhibitions at weekends. And secondly having to write, writing occasional poems – in my pre-project days – often related to an exhibition I’d been to.

Ls: So you felt the need to be writing things. Did you seek them out as deliberate subjects sometimes?

FP: Not really, I think it was more just a general enthusiasm for going to exhibitions. I’d always had a fascination with the visual arts. My unfinished thesis was on the visual arts and poetry, and I did my MA on Pound and Apollinaire and the visual arts. I’d always felt at home with the visual, in a way that I hadn’t with music. And because of the way that modern poetry’s been involved in that world; the other home for experimental poetry has been (visual) art, because that’s been successfully experimental as an art form. There was also the feminist aspect and discovering forgotten women artists – Leonora Carrington and Meret Oppenheim for example.

Likestarlings: On Automatic Cross Stitch I’m interested in how you devised how the collaboration would work between you and the artist Irma Irsara, and how you made the performance as well the creation of the book.

FP: It started with a poem called ‘Stitching’. I was watching a woman making bridal dresses in a factory at the end of my garden and that was a straight account of what I could see out of my window in that factory and also imagining what was happening. That was the first one I wrote, before the collaboration began. It was more Irma’s idea that we’d actually go and talk to people. So that was slightly novel for me. And also she was very keen on doing research, which again wasn’t something I was thinking of at that stage because you look at her work and just think ‘oh, abstract art, lovely colours’, but when you get to know it you see that in fact there’s always a theme and a project that comes through.

This whole issue of thinking in projects was something that existed in British experimental poetry and which was reinforced by the influx of Language writing around that time. But as an artist Irma would also have a major theme for a project and would do lots of research and that would come through in the work in various subtle ways. She was the one who suggested that we go to the V&A library and do all the research there on fashion and textiles.

Ls: So the research element is something that’s continued to be an interest?

FP: Yes, and the community aspect of interviewing people as well – especially working with Tilla Brading [on Stone Settings] who likes to get involved with community issues. I found it quite tricky in a way because it’s sometimes easier not to know people. The only real falling out Irma and I had was because she was unhappy that I’d transcribed somebody’s conversation. But it was teacher giving a public lecture and I felt it was out in the public domain. Some of it was just downright comic and I couldn’t resist using it, having collected the material, and it was relevant to the sequence. Because Irma was in a way much closer to fashion, as an artist, than I was as a poet – using words – she could actually use forms and shapes and colours and materials. She was already in that domain, the non-verbal. There was a point in the V&A library when I thought: what am I going to do with all this? So these interviews became both fascinating and important for my writing.

Ls: Did she suggest things to you that might be interesting to write about? Did you draw her attention to certain aspects that she could incorporate into her artwork? And how did you organise what each of you would do and the order it would all go in?

FP: Well, the book came later; the performance was the initial thing, which was for a Feminist Aesthetics conference Penny Florence organised with Dee Reynolds in 1995.  I read my texts while Irma projected her slides. The book is not an exact reproduction of the performance, and includes some texts that were added later. Regarding what material we dealt with: it was very give and take.  I made a list of things we ought to cover, different aspects of the fashion trade and women’s clothing and we discussed it together, making additions and changes.

Ls: This is one of the key questions with collaboration: to what extent do you have ownership?

FP: For it to be really interesting you do have to have a kind of intimacy. And you do have to get very involved with what the other person’s doing, and you have to be able to say what you think about it and be open to ideas and criticisms. I think, for instance, that Irma suggested I write about buttons. She’d done something on buttons. And I started by just emptying a tin of buttons onto the table and picking them up, and seeing what happened, so it was a very tactile, sensory experience. And the sound of the sewing machine, Irma said we should talk about that – so we recorded it and I listened to the tape and wrote from there.

Ls: So these are things that just wouldn’t have ever happened without the collaboration…

FP: Yes, you get bored with that you’re doing, and you want to do something you never would have expected to do, to go off in a direction you would never have expected to go in. And hopefully it comes together as a coherent whole between the two of you. But it’s also partly just about friendship, and not being alone as a marginalized poet!

Ls: Returning to the question of how things are organised or devised: when you were working with Tilla on Stone Settings, how far was the actual layout already there for you? – in the sense that the stones setting are physical things in the landscape.

FP: Tilla’s probably more of concrete or visual poet than I am. She also creates visual sequences on Powerpoint with photographs and images and texts that appear and disappear. I’d been writing about visual art for a long time but the actual visual poetics aspect came a bit later. Then it developed on a larger scale in my writing after meeting Kathleen Fraser, and encountering her take on visual poetics and other American women poets and their close alliance with artists. Meanwhile of course visual artists had been using text for a long time. In fact the pieces of mine that tend to have the most arranged visual layout in Stone Settings are the ones based purely on text. When you’re in the landscape there are all kind of distractions – like the elements!

Ls: Although of course these poems are based on the actual stone settings, as I read the work I began to realise that you’re in fact also setting the stones yourselves…

FP: Some of the time we are, yes.

Ls: … in the sense that as much as you’re deciphering them by writing about them you’re actually re-ciphering them, or perhaps re-enchanting them as well…

FP: Using those geometric forms was interesting.

Ls: On page 16, in ‘Withypool Tracks’ you have this discussion of directions, with the speakers trying to locate themselves correctly in the landscape. As the authorial voices are blended in collaboration, and you are co-signatories to the work, I was wondering who the people in this section are – if they can be ascribed individual identities? Is this an amalgamation or a persona?

FP:  I was transcribing some material Tilla gathered on her recording equipment, and there were three voices. Tilla wasn’t deliberately recording these moments – she just always had a tape recorder on, and she would be more likely to extract some sound from the recordings to soundtrack our performance of the work later on. I became more interested in the dialogue. I didn’t want to identify individuals, and we were also working together in our search for the Circle.

Ls: With these stones did you say: ‘Right, today we’re going to go here and respond to that’?

FP: Yes. But it would also depend on the weather and whatever else we had to do. The difference between Stone Settings and the sequence I did with Elizabeth James (Neither the One nor the Other) was that it wasn’t what you would call ‘simultaneous’ collaboration, where we would directly respond to each other’s texts, and this was often due to various constraints of time and place. So we tended to go to a particular site and make individual responses, then or later. There are a couple of poems that were simultaneous, like the ‘Tercets’ on page 10, which began as an exchange of lines. For the ‘Interrupted Tercets Near Furzebury Brake’ I actually dragged Tilla out on the hillside and we wrote at the same time, for no particular reason other than it was just an easy place to get to. Her tercets are on the left and mine are on the right.

Ls: The approach to laying out the text with one poet aligned left on the page, the other aligned right, is something you employ in your Likestarlings conversation with Julia Cohen.

FP: Yes it’s a neat way of distinguishing voices without naming them. With Tilla I didn’t know what she was writing; I arranged it afterwards on the page. It’s an example of two people writing at the same time and place without actually talking to each other, but with the same things happening around them. This guy came and interrupted us and complained about us being there.

Ls: Being out en plein air is something you experimented with in your sequence with Julia Cohen as well isn’t it? There are the journalistic and also landscape art aspects to this approach. In your poem in Paravane, ‘The Landscape Room’ (a response to a work of art by Jane Prophet), one line reads ‘disappointingly 2D’. Are you sometimes frustrated by the trappings of page-based or desk-based poetry and are these explorations ways of escaping that?

FP: It’s something I’ve always done and I go to the country and I just have to be there. But in terms of writing poetry I didn’t really think of it in that way for a long time, and to some extent I was influenced by getting to know Harriet Tarlo and that fact that she was doing all her writing outside. It becomes an addiction after a while.

Ls: So do you go somewhere and think, ‘I’ll make a sketch’?

FP: Yeah, and it’s a good excuse to just go out there.

Ls: So in the same way that collaboration can make one’s work porous, writing away from the desk can have a similar effect? Because there’s a kind of arbitrariness to what goes into the poem in that situation.

FP: Yes, it’s the giving yourself to the other, as in collaboration, and that’s what poetry’s all about really – whether it’s the unconscious mind, or artwork, the landscape or language itself. So you’re allowing things to happen and relinquishing total control.

Ls: When you do one of these pieces with a date at the bottom, how far do you work up the sketch when you come back to the studio, so to speak?

FP: Ah yes, that’s always interesting. It’s a bit like simultaneous collaboration and working out whether you’re allowed to revise things afterwards. For instance, when I was doing Neither the One nor the Other with Elizabeth she always wanted to revise things more than I did… But yes I do revise things. Sometimes you think ‘Oh, this hasn’t worked at all’. But you have to really believe in that particular place and your reasons for being there. With writing on site I do keep a lot of what just happened, and the accidental stuff, especially when you’ve been writing a long time you want to take larger risks. It’s always risky and less controlled, but then again it is somewhat controlled as you’ve gone out and decided to be at this location.

Ls: In Neither the One nor the Other you quote Ulli Freer’s ‘there is no ego in collaboration’. That sounds like the aim rather than fact…

FP: Yes, becoming an other and not recognising yourself in a way is quite exciting. And of course the whole issue of ego is part of the feminist idea as well. I remember Bob Perelman giving a talk and saying that with men it’s never a question of losing the ego – there’s always a huge signature there! It’s a fiction really.

Ls: It’s a process isn’t it, part of an ongoing development and evolution in poetry.

FP: Yes and it depends at what end of the spectrum of experimental you’re on. I mean with the extreme forms of surrealism and Dada there was really no telling who was doing what. But that was only a part of what they did and the rest of the time they were saying ‘this is my work and I’m an important poet’.

Ls: Collaboration also seems to engender a sort of metacommentary on the work as it’s being created. There seems to be a need to acknowledge what’s happening…

FP: Yes, in our case that’s partly because it was so experimental, and we started incorporating bits of our emails to each other and saying what we were doing. So there’s quite a lot of that in there, which wasn’t the intention originally but became important.

Ls: When something is very experimental like that, and non-linear, does it sometimes seem good to include that sort of information as a helpful signpost?

FP: I think it’s a way of binding ourselves together as well, because you’re sharing the process as well as the actual thing itself. You’re making sense of it as you go along and developing it and deciding new aspects.

Ls: I guess because with collaboration the process is the thing itself as well, to a larger degree than normal, so you want to retain elements of that process. Borges says of his collaborative writing with Bioy Casares that together ‘we have somehow begotten a third person that is quite unlike us’. Is this a fair reflection of any of your own collaborative experiences?

FP: Yes, well that’s the ideal – like a sort of heavenly marriage! And there’s always a sense of bereavement or a period of mourning afterwards, having experienced this intense intimacy.

Ls: Who’s your next or current collaborator?

FP: Peterjon Skelt, who I’m working with on An Alphabet for Alina. I’ve just finished X.


Select bibliography

Neither the One nor the Other, a collaboration with the poet Elizabeth James. London: Form Books, 1999 (CD version also available)

Automatic Cross Stitch, a collaboration with the artist Irma Irsara. London: Other Press, 2000

Paravane: New and Selected Poems, 1996–2003, Cambridge: Salt, 2004  www.saltpublishing.com

Myne: new and selected poems and prose, 1976–2005, Exeter: Shearsman, 2006 www.shearsman.com (includes Linocut)

Lines of Sight, Exeter: Shearsman, 2009

Stone Settings, by Tilla Brading and Frances Presley, Minehead & London: Odyssey Books & Other Press, 2010

2: An Anthology of New Collaborative Poetry, ed. Sheila E. Murphy and M. L. Weber, Colorado: SugarMule.com, 2007

“Collaboration: Neither the one nor the other by Elizabeth James and Frances Presley, with an introduction on working practice”, in How2, Fall 2001

“Neither the one nor the other: aspects of performance within a feminist collaboration”, in Additional Apparitions (ed. David Kennedy & Keith Tuma, Cherry on the Top, 2002), pp. 172–180