Paula Claire Interview
is a Poet Artist who has a lifetime of creativity after graduating from University College London in 1960. Extending the forms of poetry to show how the sounds of languages relate to music, how the look of languages connect with art, has been the aim of her activities: writing, performing, recording, exhibiting and teaching. She documents her themes with limited edition artist’s books and prints. And she features in many anthologies; the latest being
Women in Concrete Poetry 1959-79 (Primary Information Press, New York).
Her Little Press, founded 1980, published 8 Poems for 80 at her 80th birthday Performance at the British Library in June 2019, which was filmed for the British Library Archive.
She is currently, preparing her Catalogue Four: Diamond Is For Ever Diamond (Works 2011-2021).
Since the 1970s she has exchanged her work with fellow exponents worldwide, to assemble her Archive, a Collection unique in the UK, comprising over 6,500 items by over 300 practitioners from 28 countries.
She published from WORD to ART: Browsing the Paula Claire Archive in March 2020.
For more information, see:
Audio recording: www.archiveofthenow.org
Giles Goodland is a poet, whose books of poetry have been published by Shearsman and Salt. He currently works as a researcher in historical linguistics.
GG: How did you come by your name?
PC: Why I decided on using only my first 2 names “Paula Claire” when I began my creativity. When I began writing, 4 May 1961, I decided on “Paula Claire” because I did not want my surname to feature, either my maiden name or a future married name. Coupled with this was my profound respect for John Clare (1793-1864), the Northamptonshire nature poet.
GG: Can you describe to me what your early poetry was like? And which poets were you reading at this stage? The common opinion is that the early 60s was quite dull for poetry, with the Movement dominating most channels. Perhaps you found some poets at the time who shared your visionary enthusiasm?
PC: I count my “early” period as 1961-68 when I was developing the basics of my style. At
University College London, the emphasis had been on the history of our language: having to translate all Beowulf and poetry of that period; then Middle English, where my great favourite was the continued use of the emphatic 4-beat line and alliteration of Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight. When I got a job teaching ‘A’ level English at a school in Bromley, on the syllabus I taught was G. M. Hopkins, who was determined to perpetuate this ancient tradition of powerful utterance through his knowledge of ancient Welsh poetry intoned to the harp. I consider him a “concrete” artist along with his contemporary Van Gogh because both used their medium as a substance in its own right. Hopkins’ dense vocabulary is for me the equivalent of Van Gogh’s swirling impasto. I attempted to capture the elemental energy of language in my short utterances that invited interpretation of various meanings. Late 1966 while teaching in Athens, I began to write words above and below each other in clusters, non-linear structures to be “mobilised” by improvising voices.
From the outset, my influences were from the world of music－jazz. A college friend of mine, Ursula, was living with jazz musician Michael Garrick, who studied around the same time as us at UCL, and I stayed with them from time to time, and heard him playing. Equally important were Ravi Shankar’s marvellous improvisations－I was at his first performance at the Edinburgh Festival. Additionally, I was drawn to the spare intensity of Anton Webern. Yes, I did buy new poets published in the Penguin Poetry Series but none of them grabbed me like G. M. Hopkins－I did not think they used language with the intensity that he had achieved.
The big leap forward was leaving Athens in July 1968 after 4 years, and returning to live in Oxford where my parents had retired. In search of what was going on in poetry that I felt starved of in Athens I went to Better Books in London, and spotted and immediately bought An Anthology of Concrete Poetry edited by Emmett Williams and Hansjörg Mayer, that became my bible. It introduced me to a whole host of international practitioners working in a gamut of styles. I was so glad I had developed my “mobile” style myself before being exposed to the contents of this book. It ratified my own experiments developed from my studies of the ancient traditions of our language and their culmination in G. M. Hopkins. In the book was Bob Cobbing, who lived in London, and I joined the Poetry Society, that was remarkably open-minded at that time, and went to its Conference on Contemporary Poetry in 1969, where Adrian Mitchell was all the rage. And to York University in 1969, where I heard, and met, Bob. What an earful: the voice untrammelled.
I showed Bob examples from my first booklet Mobile Poems Greece, complaining I could not find anyone to improvise them. Immediately, he started uttering and I joined him: ducks to water. As a result, he invited me to perform with him, his work and mine. Then in 1971 Bob founded Konkrete Canticle, a poetry-music improvisatory group (him, me and Michael Chant) to make a vinyl LP to accompany the seminal exhibition ‘?concrete poetry’ that originated in Amsterdam. When the Arts Council brought it to the UK, we performed at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and at MOMA in Oxford. Konkrete Canticle (with poet Bill Griffiths now in the line-up from 1977 onwards) lasted till 1993, going out on a high with a film made by Australian ARF ARF, called Thread of Voice. My visual poetry also took off in 1970, thrilled by all that Bob showed me of his Writers Forum publications, generously giving me copies that I kept, becoming the nucleus of my archive.
GG: Could you say more about what you mean by your “mobile” style: any examples you would like to share?
PC: The term “mobile poems” that I coined to describe the development in my work in late 1966, was due to my admiration for Calder’s kinetic artworks－I had bought a small modern art series book about them before I went to Greece in 1964. When I created poems that invited the reader to explore nuggets of language by creating multiple meanings from various forms of the words (a noun becoming a verb, an adjective simultaneously a gerund e.g. “singing”), these free-floating sections, indicated within asterisks, had to my mind the same kinetic quality as Calder’s ever-changing structures. My first performance offering poems in this style, and inviting several voices to improvise these fluid sections from
Mobile Poems Greece, was at the Reading Series on 12 December 1969, run by Norman Hidden (chairman of the Poetry Society), and always held at the Lamb and Flag pub in Bloomsbury. By 1969 I had created poems that were fully “mobile”, that is the words were placed in groups of columns, to be said in any order, and in any grammatical form using repetition to bring out rhythmic qualities of the sounds of words.
GG: What are your recollections of the events at the Poetry Society? Were you involved in the “Poetry War” between the traditionalists and the more radical poets, culminating in mass resignations?
PC: Bob Cobbing’s workshops held at the Poetry Society are legendary, spanning 1969-1977. I was lucky to take part in many from 1970 till July 1977. They were on the broad themes of Sound Poetry, Visual Poetry and Performance Poetry, with visiting speakers and an International Festival annually, continued from those set up in Sweden, in connection with Fylkingen Radio, that he ran at other London venues.
Regarding the Poetry Wars, my husband Paul and I were at that Extraordinary General Meeting in July 1977. The Arts Council was determined to quash the Print Room that Bob had established for anyone to print their own work, because the only poets using it seemed to be Bob’s mob, printing out an alarming amount of what appeared to the traditionalists as “not proper poetry”. All of us who approved of Bob’s workshops and Eric Mottram’s catholic 6-year editorship of
The Poetry Review, resigned that day.
GG: I wonder if you could say a bit more about how earlier writers and artists have merged the visual and the verbal? And how much of an influence were they on you?
PC: In 1970 Bob showed me a book, The Word as Image, which included his typewriter visual poem ‘Whisper Piece’. This was a truly mind-blowing book for me, written by Berjouhi Bowler. The 101 black and white illustrations encompass ancient Chinese, Indian, Persian and Hebrew calligraphies; shaped ancient Greek poems and Roman carmina figurate, leading to the European tradition, in particular the 17th century metaphysical shaped poems. William Blake consciously harked back to medieval illuminated manuscripts, making coloured illustration integral to Songs of Innocence and
Experience. Finally, the breaking of the linear grid in Mallarmé’s ‘Un Coup de Des’ led to non-linear 20th century explorations of the Futurist and DADA movements and the concrete poetry of the 1950s onwards.
The Emmett Williams anthology had removed my sense of isolation in creating “mobile poems”, but this book demonstrated a worldwide historical basic human impulse to believe in the validity of language itself, inscribing it in shapes and patterns as a way of linking verbal expression to the infinite design of the universe. For me, visual poetry is not an ingenious, obscure game but a celebration of the inextricable bond of the word and what it names, contributing to cosmic coherence.
Dick Higgins wrote a comprehensive illustrated book with essays by various scholars called
Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature. The most extraordinary book, extending our knowledge of the human urge to write words in significant patterns, is the
The History of Text Art by Karl Kempton.
GG: I am interested in the “voco” element of the verbivisivoco triad. Word and image are both static and visual, whereas the sound element is performative and of the moment (although it can be recorded of course). I am wondering how much you thought about the sound element of performance, and how you think about relating this to “text” or object. Particularly because you are also an archivist, how much can paper or the recording device preserve a performance?
PC: The real foundations of my poetic practice were established as far back as I can remember: saying, singing, drawing, painting. My mother convinced my father, in those days termed “a free thinker”, to send me from four onwards to the school she had loved, as one of the first intake in 1918 of scholarship girls, to Notre Dame High School, Northampton, run by a Catholic order of nuns. By the time I was a teenager, I choked on the dogma, but readily acknowledge that our school’s tradition of choral speaking and singing from kindergarten upwards nurtured my natural inclination. Ancient learning techniques of group chanting: the catechism, times tables, Latin verbs and prayers, not only at assembly but before every lesson, convinced me of the power of speaking together to imprint meaning, although at worst it is brainwashing. Singing in the carol concert under the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral was a hugely influential experience establishing my love of grand-scale resonant places.
The feeling of community－it is OUR poem－has always been central to my practice. My invitation to “all present” (don’t like the term “audience”; a group of passive listeners) to join in, arises from my experience of the happiness of expressing ourselves together; a conviction that enables me to transmit a positive vibe at every event and “break the ice”, allowing that this is a step-by-step process. And I always stress that some may prefer not to be vocal.
GG: I think you call some of your works “scores”, and I have heard you “reading” a gingko leaf as if it is a score. But if all of nature can be seen as a score, where would that stop? Can everything be read as a score?
PC: Along with my characteristic “interactive” style, I have contributed a unique element to my field: vocalising of natural objects I term “my gestation of language research”. The inspiration to interpret markings, patterns, text/ures in sound originated in September 1972 when Paul and I had our only child, and I was entranced to hear him; watch his responses develop day by day as his birthright repertoire naturally expanded into copying our sounds. I astonished my intellectual self by intuitively speaking to him in particular tones of “silly” voice that mothers, and many people also, automatically use when communicating with a tiny one. A primitive response clicks in, bridging the baby’s vocals by making a great variety of semi-verbal sounds that connect mutual utterances. Songs, lullabies, nursery rhymes, all nourish language learning. Language is the ululation of the tongue: “la langue”. Babies have language; don’t we know it in the wee hours!
Coinciding with “baby talk” was my work with Bob Cobbing in the early 1970s presenting his “sound scores”: mimeoprints, stretching the ideas on how to express a poem on a sheet of paper. Having fragmented language in the 1960s, he started experimenting with text and texture, making stencils on his machine, then feeding them through with different amounts of ink that resulted in distorted letterforms, blobs, smears, squidges. I found myself uttering them. Then some beach pebbles I had brought back from holiday in Devon caught my eye. They spoke to me just as much as Bob’s scores. I had various kinds photographed, then Bob copied them for me (no easy access to copiers in those days), and I cut up and collaged what he provided. I am convinced we access a deep ancestral memory bank of humanity’s earliest responses to marks and signs when we “let ourselves go”, and instinctively utter what we see and feel. I have offered natural objects for group utterance on many occasions; always getting a moving response. I am always at pains to emphasis: this is NOT a performance: it is a retrieval. Such experiences are of their very nature fleeting－magical. As soon as we think about what we are doing, it becomes contrived.
GG: Relating to this, is the question of where the artwork lies. Did you feel that your performances were linked to the idea of performance and the “happening” in the world of conceptual art?
PC: Anyone who goes to a Paula Claire gig will be a part of the performance, often in unpredictable ways.
GG: I am curious about how this developed, and how you thought about this or theorised it.
PC: As explained earlier, my performances are not in the same spirit as Happenings that sprang up in the late 1950s onwards, especially in North America. For me, those are essentially DADA, committed to the cathartic effects of destruction, with a strong exhibitionist element: flirting with danger in a provocative way－brinkmanship.
GG: It has developed? What is your sense of how your poetic practices have developed since the early days of the British Poetry Revival? (This can include both a sense of an inner logic of development and change, but also changes in technology: computers, recording technology, new media, that kind of thing)
PC: Fortunate to be in touch with so many practitioners, I had the confidence to explore a range of techniques. As early as 1970 Peter Mayer contributed a cluster of concrete poems in
The Poetry Review that included 'Chartres Windows: Winter', a 19-line visual poem, a colour meditation designed for slowly changing red and blue
neon (influenced by an exhibition at MOMA Oxford). Another, 'VORTEX', was for a flashed glass acid-etched roundel, having seen so much by stained glass artist Paul San Casciani.
Technology has helped me combine word and image. Three of my photocopied illustrated publications were done with photographer/lecturer Dr Peter Day, then a student at Alsager College, who chose concrete poetry as his special subject and invited me to talk about it. When point-and-shoot cameras came in, this gave me control over the images I could take, so by now I have made over 100 Limited Edition artist’s books combining text and image in many ways.
My family’s gift of an iPad in 2012 has given me the opportunity to create new kinds of visual poems I send to my photo store and print out when required. I have strong feelings about the value of handwriting. Using my iPad I have focussed on script as a crucial part of self expression. I use my iPad as a diary.
GG: Any observations about your relations to the British (and world) poetry scene as it has developed In general since the late 90s there has been such a broadening out of connections and possibilities with the growth of the internet. It seems that Concrete Poetry was one of the first worldwide artistic movements, with a lot of sharing of ideas internationally: do you think this is still the case?
PC: Absolutely. Rarely a month goes by without someone coming out of the blue to exchange contacts and ideas. Email has revolutionised the exchange of information. But you see I am old-fashioned, I am not in the shark-infested sea of
social media. Sound and visual poetry are not bound into or limited by particular languages, although I also see in your poetry a close attention to the English language.
Certainly concrete/visual/sound/performance poetries have got me to some most unusual places. In 1976 I was invited to Iran by the family of my Zoroastrian student I was teaching English to in Oxford. I put up a mini exhibition of 100 photocopies of international concrete poetry that we discussed, then we improvised with my sound poems in Farsi and English. It was a joy to communicate so well with them in what I believe is a kind of international language. They recognised shaped texts because they are integral to Islamic art, the depiction of the human figure forbidden.
Teaching in Athens 1964-68 made me hyper-conscious of language. ODE is a visual poem collage of words we have pinched from Greek.
Multi-language collage is a recognised form of sound poetry: I created 'ASTER' as one of 28 poems in
PHOS PHOR, my Silver Anniversary of Creativity large-scale piece made to premiere at the Houston Festival 1986 with my musician colleagues from Texas Tech University where I had 4 short Residencies 1983-6.
GG: Anyone visiting you in your house or googling you will be quickly struck by the importance of your archive. Could you say something about how this started, its scope, and also its future?
I have just self-published From Word to Art: Browsing the Paula Claire
Archive. This Limited Edition book run of 50 is meant for Library Special Collections, some collectors who have supported me over the years plus those practitioners who have exchanged a body of their work with me over decades. I aim for it to be adopted by a
press that will print at least 1,000 copies to be sold at a reasonable price to students and enthusiasts. This details how my archive started and has developed since the 1970s. Over these years I have exchanged my publications with colleagues all over the world. My true companions are scattered round the globe; desultory letter-writing has given way to frequent emails: distance is transcended.
I never intended to have an archive, but working with Bob Cobbing, he used to give me his Writers Forum publications for us to perform, along with anything else he was publishing. The key event that gave me contacts was taking part at Bob’s invitation in that seminal exhibition '?concrete poetry' at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in November 1970. Participant Mirella Bentivoglio, dynamic visual poet and art historian based in Rome, found me in the catalogue and wrote saying it was her mission to discover whether the 139 exhibitors of whom merely eight were women was a just assessment of female practice. Mirella urged her colleagues, female and also male, to send me work for my archive and she formally opened it in May 1980 as part of the Oxford Poetry Festival. It has accrued. I wrote the catalogue. What a task: over 6,500 items, over 300 practitioners in PART ONE from 28 countries, plus masses of information in
magazines, anthologies, exhibition catalogues and documentation－
never throw anything away!
Where it will go? Stay in the UK I trust. I was gratified the British Library invited me to hold my 80th birthday celebratory performance there, in June 2019, filmed by their archivist for their
collection, so I feel I and my archive have been recognised as significant, helping whoever might be wanting to take it on.
GG: Is there anything else that you would like me to ask you?
PC: YES!!! WHY HAVE YOU SPENT YOUR LIFETIME UP THIS PECULIAR CREEK OF LITERATURE?
Lockdown has convinced me more than ever of the therapeutic value of sparse words combined with image. Visualisation is an increasingly recognised medical practice helping people to feel calm. I have been using 2 of my poems every day for a few minutes. The first is from 1994 ‘Breathe’ a typewriter “text-ile” from a “seequence” called ‘Balancing Act” using the word “Breathe” typed line by line to create a regular diamond shape BREATHE/REATH/EAT/A, this unit repeated 12 times across and 18 times down on an A4 page is emblematic of the natural in/outtake of breath. As soon as we feel worried, this regular pattern is disrupted. The bombardment of bad news we have received due to the virus causes breathing problems in everyone whether they acknowledge it or not. Gazing steadfastly at this image and allowing it to balance our breathing works for me and I am sure would work for others as long as they are sympathetic to the idea.
I strongly object to the contemptuous attitude from some literature department academics that concrete/visual poetry is trivial, a word game that is an indulgence; the breaking of the linear grid and fragmentation of words into letters, destructive of language that civilisations have assembled over millennia. I appreciate they don’t want to venture into what we term ‘the non-linear’ but they should willingly point out to their students the vast amount of creative work that melds with art. All other art forms during the 20th century boast of sprouting out in all directions, the sign of healthy growth, but similar outburst in poetry have been restricted. Even within concrete poetry itself there are King Canutes trying to hold back the successive waves of new work, denying them validity because they don’t fit into their narrow canon, much of it by women. Yes, at last we are being recognised, see
Anthology of Female Practitioners 1959-79. I now feel greatly heartened by the increasing number of practitioners and their determined publicising of new work by the latest online methods. I am just one piece of a vast jigsaw painting a full picture of the imaginative ways language can be presented hence reinvigorated.
copyright @ Paula Claire and Giles Goodland