Artists collaborate on island over found objects and garbage poems
By Sue Tiffin
Artists Anna Swanson and April White have come to Haliburton County from Newfoundland to take part in the Halls Island Artist Residency, and they joked that they’ve packed some garbage along with them.
But they really have travelled with litter. It’s what they need to collaborate on The Garbage Poems, a multi-disciplinary project about the experience of swimming that brings together Swanson’s found poetry, White’s painting and illustrations and Matthew Hollett’s interactive website.
“We knew we probably wouldn’t find garbage on Halls Island so we came prepared,” Swanson told a crowd of people attending a community engagement session offering a poetry reading and artist talk by the award-winning, established artists at the Haliburton Highlands Museum on July 14.
Garbage at a swimming hole caught Swanson’s attention while she was swimming during a writing retreat in Flatrock, Nfld.
“I can’t remember how it happened but at some point the worlds collided in my head and I thought, well what if I take all the garbage, lay it out on the kitchen table, take all the words off all the pop cans and all the chip bags and beer cans and soap bottles and all these things, and use those words to make poetry?” she said. “That’s what I did, and that’s how it started.”
Swanson gives herself freedom with the titles of the poems, titles like For the boys cliff-jumping by the memorial stone; In which skinny dipping temporarily fixes a life; In which we replace garbage with love. But otherwise, she said every other single word in her poems is taken from a piece of garbage.
“When you’re looking for something like the word had, or have, or was, or me, and it’s not in there, then it makes you do some interesting things, which is wonderful, I was glad that not all the words were in there,” she said. “It forced me out of some of my usual habits of writing which was a really fun exercise and part of what found poetry does and why it’s kind of valuable as a starting place for people coming to poetry.”
It’s why, when Swanson was looking for a way to say “cliffjumping,” a word that didn’t show up on any of the garbage that she had collected, she instead described the act with “Adidas punch into the water.”
“Sometimes you just look until you can find a word that you can bend to your purposes and will,” she said.
Swanson and White came together after Swanson saw an exhibition of White’s work, which, according to White’s artist statement, “questions societal understandings of emotion, vulnerability and control through commonly experienced involuntary actions such as yawning, waking up, sneezing, laughing and crying.”
“As I sat with her work longer and longer I couldn’t imagine working with anyone else on this,” said Swanson.
White’s watercolours and animation show what she called a self-portraiture into vulnerability.
“At the time I wasn’t too impressed with my daily existence, so this was sort of a way, this exhibition was sort of a way, to take back control over my narrative, my time,” she said. “It felt really powerful to say, I’m actually going to become an observer of my day, instead of being stuck in the grind and then step outside of it and look into it.”
Swanson ended up with one of White’s pieces on her fridge.
“So I sat with this on my fridge for several months and I hadn’t thought about illustrating and working together on this project, but during that time, the idea developed and by the time the idea developed, having looked at the picture every day, I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing it,” said Swanson. “I loved the qualities of the work, I loved that it was recognizable but not photo realistic and that it was ... it just had that quality of the everyday body and the quality of the everyday object and not elevating garbage so it was unrecognizably garbage, but that there was sort of a beauty in noticing what was, and I loved that quality.”
The artists began working together, and then Hollett’s work expanded the idea to bring the work to an interactive website in which users can scroll over each of the words of Swanson’s poems, showing an illustration or watercolour by White of the piece of garbage that each word came from. The website also enables users to try making their own “garbage poem,” an asset to teachers offering students a sort of easy entry into poetry. A cut and paste option allows for potential poets to add their own text to the site – Swanson suggested text that has a particular language to it, such as text from the Indian Act, a press release from an oil company or an 1860s etiquette guide.
“That was our invitation to people to try their hand at it, and to kind of see both how easy and how hard it is, because it sort of is both,” said Swanson.
While on the island Swanson and White are working toward a book-like manuscript of poetry, to have The Garbage Poems published as a combined illustrated poetry book.
“I don’t think about it as a problem with littering, so much as I think about it as a much wider problem of how we consume natural resources in the world and how our system of commerce is set up and stuff like that, so you know it’s not just the person who leaves their garbage there, it’s the whole chain of how it gets there,” said Swanson. “In a way, going to a place where you swim and put your body in the water and coming face to face with it, that is a bit like looking in the mirror, how we affect the places that we love but at the same time, how those places in turn affect me and how they change my relationship with place and myself and other people.”
For more information on the Halls Lake Artist Residency, visit hallsisland.ca. To learn more about The Garbage Poems, visit garbagepoems.com