Poet Tamar Yoseloff on the development of her collaborative project with photographer Vici MacDonald
• Formerly was conceived as a celebration and memorial to the disappearing corners of London. Vici MacDonald has been taking photographs of forgotten sites in the city for many years – shop fronts, pubs, ghost signs – places which are provisional, which are too often swept away in the process of gentrification and urban renewal. Her photographs do not depict “heritage” sites, but the locations of ordinary lives and businesses, providing tantalising clues to who came before us and what they did. I was interested in exploring the potential narratives behind these images.
I spent some time selecting particular pictures from the thousands that Vici has taken. I was attracted often by phrases or words that emerged from signage (or what remained of signage), and so some of the poems take those words as a jumping-off point. Others images moved me in their subtle portrayal of loss or neglect. Although none of the chosen pictures contain people (apart from the mannequin who stares out from a shop window on the Whitechapel Road), there is always a human presence (or absence) behind them.
I decided early on that my poems should be sonnets, the classic form for elegy, but also the appropriate length for a small glimpse. Some of the sonnets are more formal than others; I wanted a more broken or fractured form to match the ruined locations. I was keen to see how far I could stretch the boundaries of the sonnet while keeping within certain constraints: Inch & Co Cash Chemists is an Oulipo sonnet, using only the letters of the name to construct the words (apart from prepositions); X-Zalia Night Cure is a “found” sonnet, the text of which comes from the original 1904 advertisement for the product. The final sonnet, Formerly, obeys the rules of the classic corona, as it is constructed from lines from all the previous poems in the sequence (in the order in which they appear in the book and exhibition).
“I decided early on that my poems should be sonnets, the classic form for elegy, but also the appropriate length for a small glimpse”
Although I began with the photographs, and the single moment or view they captured, it then seemed natural to (re)visit the locations to see how they had changed. Vici and I did this only after my poems had been written; I wanted to work with what the photos gave me, to remain free of any other associations I might have had with particular places. Some of the locations in the images were familiar to me already, but at least half of them were not. As an extension of the project, we spent two days visiting the sites depicted in the photographs, photographing them as they are now, noting our experiences and gathering objects associated with each site. This field trip formed the basis for a new display at the Poetry Library exhibition.
We also created a map of the route so that visitors to the exhibition could recreate our journey, and a participation leaflet, inviting new poems and texts based on the experience of walking around the South Bank. I also led a guided walk and psychogeographical poetry workshop in conjunction with the Poetry Society during the Poetry Café exhibition, which is being recorded as an MP3 download for The Poetry School.
In addition, there have been three live performances combining the poems, their corresponding images and a soundscape by composer Douglas Benford. Benford’s sound piece captures the forlorn and sometimes menacing atmosphere of both the poems and photographs.