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Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library

speak / volumes

From today, the Scottish Poetry Library hosts speak / volumes an exhibition of work by poet and artist’s book maker Heather Yeung. Yeung is an academic at the University of Dundee, and a fellow of the Centre for Poetic Innovation. Yeung’s creative work and her research focuses on contemporary poetics, particularly its spatial aspects, and spans many languages and literary traditions.

This evening celebrates the acquisition of Yeung’s archive of works by the Scottish Poetry Library. The archive will sit alongside the Thomas A. Clark archive, the Edwin Morgan archive, and the SPL’s holdings of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s works. It forms a part of the Scottish Poetry Library’s important collection of artists’ books, and of intermedial, concrete and innovative works.

Yeung’s archive is a vital contribution to both the Scottish Poetry Library’s artist’s book collection, and her work both follows in the tradition of, and diversifies the possibility of artist’s books and their relation to contemporary culture.

The works that Yeung will display are mixed-media works, all of which respond not only to a variety of formal restraints but also to the medium in which they are presented. Yeung works with historic materials, such as papyrus, and historic bindings, such as Coptic binding and hand scrolls. These materials and their treatment are always closely linked to the content and themes of the work.  The works exhibited are mostly quite fragile, and small – Yeung has an interest in fragmentary text, or mistranslation, and the fabric and composition of the books formally reflects this interest.

The work on display moves across various themes. The first of these explores Yeung’s ancestral connection to ancient Greece, via her great great-aunt who participated in the archaeological excavation of the temple of Artemis Othia in Sparta, and her grandmother, a classicist. These works combine Yeung’s interest in the ‘non-epic’ line in Classical poetry. Yeung has produced two ‘mistranslations’ of Sappho, one of which incorporates fragments of blank papyrus which mirror the missing words or lines in Sappho’s work.

Yeung’s Orcadian heritage is evident in her ‘kenning’ works. Kennings are a poetic circumlocution, where a phrase (of two words, most usually) stands in for the object being described. These range from simple phrases to riddles. Kennings originate in Old Norse poetry, and can also be found in Icelandic and Old English. Yeung’s work, ‘Kenning’ is a continuous single scroll of poetic kennings on the sea, and Orcadian place names, which in its form echoes both the continuous unfurling of a single wave, and is a gesture toward Classical Chinese presentations of poetry.

The Ogham alphabet, an early medieval alphabet used to write the early Irish language, pairs trees with letters of its alphabet, through kenning. Yeung uses this alphabet in her work ‘Beith’ (the Ogham letter associated with Birch) and the text itself if written on Birch bark. In ‘a pining’, a delicate dried pine-needle forms an integral part of the work. By engaging with natural materials, Yeung encounters their limit and possibilities, and creates work which is mindful, not only of its delicate material status, but of the delicacy of the natural world which the work incorporates and gestures outward to. As a line in Yeung’s ‘Ashberys’ suggests – ‘sight provokes remark / on sight itself’ – so, here, the incorporation of natural materials provokes remark both on the materials themselves and on the wider world from which those materials are drawn.

Yeung’s delicate work balances ideas and materials with care – from the precision of Sapphic metre to the grain of natural papyrus and the shine of glass – everything in these extraordinary works must be considered in isolation and in accretion. Blending the precise with the recalled, obscuring direct meaning behind sly kennings – these are works to continually revisit and enjoy.

speak / volumes runs until August 30.

Many thanks to Alice Tarbuck who wrote this blog.

Category: exhibitions