poempondscroll by Helen Douglas and Valerie Gillies
Although they knew each other’s work as respectively an artist and a poet with international reputations, Helen Douglas and Valerie Gillies had not met before. They were excited about the prospect of working together, and saw the commission as a way of arriving at a common ground, where, in the truest sense, they could combine their sensibilities. During their conversations, they decided to base their work on the site of Helen’s home, in Deuchar Mill, Yarrow, near Selkirk in the Scottish borders. There is a pond there, and the Yarrow Waters of the area are part of the rich history of the land and its inhabitants. Many ballads (‘The Dowie Dens o’ Yarrow’, for example) and epic poems came from this territory, most of them inspired directly or indirectly by the land itself. The second stage of their collaboration was the meeting in Edinburgh, when Helen brought Valerie examples of fine Chinese paper she had collected in her travels. Her sensitivity to paper and fabric materials is as finely attuned as her attention to the details in the landscape. Scotland, China, water and light - the motifs inspired by their chosen place - began to merge. Valerie, who has often been inspired by wells and water, says:
All that I know about the valley, its poetry, song and story, is at the back of whatever I write, even though it may not make an appearance as a line of verse. The new poem will emerge from that greater understanding: it must be fitting, apt, grow from the place. Helen and I spend the day around the pond, keeping our ideas open, discussing, putting together a possible layout of materials… The circle of the pond gives Helen the idea of the scroll, and gives me the idea of couplets encircling the creatures who live in it. First draft of the poem. A Chinese form, but a little expanded, into seven couplets. Now I can choose words to fit my experience of the pond. We make the decision to let lines of the poem run through the scroll, rather than giving the poem in full anywhere. I am keen to see the words dissolving and vanishing in some places, or appearing more crisply in others, just as Helen describes. The pond life is on the move from darkness into light, surfacing on the scroll.
The result is poempondscroll, a horizontal scroll over five meters long, in which the imagery of the pond, with its light and reflections on the water merging into details of tadpoles and reeds, and the text itself, which calls up views of light on water.
Helen Douglas was born 1952, lives in Yarrow, Scotland. She began making artists’ books in 1972 and in 1974 joined Telfer Stokes publishing under the imprint Weproductions. Her books, widely collected in Europe and USA, develop visual narrative and contribute to the genre of Book Art. In 1997, she gained a doctorate from Edinburgh University and is visiting lecturer at University of the Arts, London.
Valerie Gillies has participated in combined arts exhibitions for two decades. She received a Creative Scotland Award to make a poetic journey across Scotland to the healing wells and springs, to write The Spring Teller, Luath, 2009. She spent 2009 – 2010 in Massachusetts as an Associate of Harvard. Her work-in-progress is the New and Selected Poems.