Author Archives: stevedsmart

About stevedsmart

Steve Smart is an information designer, poet and artist.

Antarctic poetry

The Antarctic Poetry Competition is unusual in asking entrants to submit both poems and photographs, and specifying that the photographs must include the poems entered! I’m excited that that one of my entries for this year’s competition was shortlisted and will be on display, along with work by all the other shortlisted entrants, at Dunedin Public Library in New Zealand from 8th-31st October.

As well as my shortlisted poem, Polar Exploration, I’ve included a selection of photographs below. These were taken on the polar research vessel RSS Discovery, a research vessel launched in 1901 during the ‘heroic’ age of polar exploration. Discovery is a connection to Antarctica which is now permanently docked where it was built, in the city of Dundee, near to where I live. Gill Poulter and Suzanne Paterson at Discovery Point kindly arranged for me to have access to Captain Scott’s cabin, the chart room and other locations aboard, and also to access some of the unique objects from the Discovery collection. I’m very grateful for their help.

Reading about the experiences of polar travellers, it seemed to me that people journeying in these regions are as much exploring something within themselves as experiencing an unknown place, or a physical challenge. In the poem I tried to riddle basic challenges which Antarctica presents to human beings alongside questions about this kind of inner journey.

 

Polar Exploration

Who are you in a place with no name?
Stranger here or home at last?
Are you an Adam now, or a wiser Eve?

What are you in a place with no life?
Curiosity of transient biology?
Are you an alien, or a fresh infection?

Where are you in a pyramid with no stones?
Smiles alive under Scott tent shroud?
Are you a moth unformed, in swaddle-down cocoon?

When are you in a land with no night?
Pacing on and on or clock unwound?
Are you awake still, or persistent dream?

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More:


Sea Symphonies

I don’t think I’ve written a poem inspired by a diagram before. This particular diagram came to my attention as part of my “day job” as a designer. Over the past couple of months I’ve been working on graphics and media for an exhibition at Dundee Science Centre about research studying the songs of humpback whales in the South Pacific. The study was undertaken by researchers from the Sea Mammal Research Unit of the University of St Andrews.

It’s fascinating work, and one piece of it is distilled in a diagram made by Dr Ellen Garland and her colleagues. It shows how humpback songs recorded by scientists over a 10 year period have not only travelled regularly in a west-to-east pattern over a 10,000km long stretch of the Pacific, but have changed year-on-year as humpback whales learn each new season’s “score” and sing it across the ocean. You can find out more about this remarkable, and as yet little understood observation of whale culture on Ellen’s website.

The more I thought about Ellen’s diagram, the more I came to feel how deceptively simple it was. I think that as you look more and gain a sense structure over time, you realise this is showing something genuinely astonishing, that had previously been so hard to see (or hear!) as to be effectively invisible.

So, here we are – a poem about a diagram… (who knows, maybe not the last.)

poem and reading by Steve Smart
original humpback whale photograph by Nicolas Job
original field recordings by Ellen Garland
montage by Steve Smart

 

Sea Symphonies

Ellen’s diagram is like a child’s quilt.
I turn her checkerboard about,
swap out strident Microsoft primaries
for shades that hurt me less,
and in handling the squares,
in redrafting with attention,
I accommodate their stories.

These colours are movements,
in many meanings of movement,
like impressionism, baroque, punk,
like skiffle,
shifting cribs of style from one mind there
to another even more far-out,
where we’re somewhere deep
in exotic waters,
for this all seems deeply exotic
to me.

The song square game is played
with cryptic southern ocean rules,
some tunes drawl short seasons,
just a few months drift afloat,
while others go pacific, spun for
a whole year swum on seaborne airtime.

She’s charting trends of alien voices,
the whales’ just discovered folksong,
sung to some purpose still unknown,
and sung untold, in all this time.
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The exhibition at Dundee Science Centre was supported by the Royal Society, the University of St Andrews, and Dundee Science Centre. It’s aimed at children, but there is lots for anyone to enjoy and find out. It launched on Saturday 28th September, and will be open for several months.


A piano, falling

I made this sound piece as a competition entry a little while ago. The competition said entries without sound effects, so I made a version like that. It didn’t get anywhere. I also made a mix with additional audio – which was what I really had in mind when I first saw the competition title (which I think is a great title!)

The full mix with additional audio is what I’m posting just now on Soundcloud and here. Text also below. Let me know what you think.

The picture is a CG image I made a bundle of years ago that seemed to fit – no performers or pianos were harmed in the making.

Thanks to: ERH at Freesound and huggy13ear at Freesound for piano and wind audio samples.

 

A piano, falling

Fourth floor. My music still unsung.
Uncertain how I got here. I know
all falls begin when yawning gravity
blackjack twists our real potential.

Third floor. Know me. Know who I am.
Half my soul’s piano – so play me sol-la softly,
Softly, Softly like old tv policemen nee-naw zed-cars,
catchee monkeys all so black-and-white.

Second floor. Coming into Grace land, Brothers,
carpets, travel goods, and bedding material.
Getting closer, the world’s air rising, our throats
fear-parched, croak, are we really going down?

First floor. Time dilates when falling, one beat
sheds sixty easy, squeezes out all our years,
flowing slowly like silk on serpentine.
Pray for a shiny handle – pray for a ripcord to pull.

Ground floor. Wo-ho-hoh! They call it ground rush,
tell virgin parachutists, not to anticipate
when you’re about come in to land because
that’s how bones end up really screwed.

Bargain Basement! An unexpected coda,
plunging beer traps left by lorry-men, we’ll pay
just a pound now, we’ll pay the ferryman,
so play my forte strong now. Play, to make us brave.

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Young’s slits

Young’s slits

A locked door
in dark woods
blindslat slits filleting
light from elsewhere.
What is outside?

Crabbit dark-oath laird
of ruddy anger
welcoming visitors
like deadly ailments
long hoped dead?

Walled garden,
too long neglected,
cosseting ancient seeds,
warm bowered trysts,
and story fruit?

Interference patterns
in imagination physics,
destructive, constructive,
both can condense
together all at once.

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Place of Graves

I seem to be making more posts that I want to begin with “something a little different this time”. Hopefully that is a good thing. This time the different things are a short film, and that the poem is not my own. The short film is one that another poet asked me to make. The poet was acclaimed Scottish writer and Stanza founder, Brian Johnstone. Of course I was flattered to be asked, so, not really knowing what I was getting into, I said ‘OK!’

Brian sometimes performs with musicians Richard Ingham and Louise Major as ‘Trio Verso’, and he wanted to use improvisations Richard and Louise played around readings of his poem. Brian sent me an ad hoc recording he that he’d made already. I listened and decided I’d like to re-record it so I could make a new sound mix.

The problem I found was that the subject of Brian’s poem was both difficult, and something I knew very little about at all. This very short preface that he had written for the video explains the context:

“In the aftermath of the Holocaust a Jewish actress returns to her ancestral shtetl in Eastern Europe too seek evidence of her family’s former life.”

I didn’t even know what a ‘shetl’ was. I had to look it up. I learned that shtetls were small market towns in Eastern Europe with significant Jewish populations. The Yiddish word ‘shtetl’ means ‘little town’. They existed for hundreds of years, but by the 1930s they were in decline to some extent due to a variety of demographic and cultural changes. The Holocaust destroyed what remained of the way of life of the shetls. There is a great deal of excellent material available online. This is from a short piece by Joellyn Zollman:

“For American Jews, a majority of whom are of Ashkenazic (Eastern European) descent, the shtetl serves as a mythical point of origin. This simple, down-to-earth culture–guided by what seems to contemporary observers a colorful combination of religion and folk wisdom–is where we came from. And while shtetl life was inexorably changed by industrialization and modernization, it was destroyed by the Holocaust. Thus, shtetl life is sanctified with an aura of martyrdom.” [source]

I’ll be honest – this all seemed quite alien to me, and felt a long way from anything I knew. Brian had given me some cues about season, and winter. We also talked about an inscription in Hebrew I’d been surprised to discover in a rural church churchyard near where I live. These offered some possible points of visual access, but Brian had suggested the idea of the film to me at at point in the year where, even in driech old Scotia, the snows had mostly melted. On top of this, I wasn’t finding Trio Verso’s improvised musical take on the poem very immediately accessible. I needed something to help me connect. In the end this came from an odd place, an in-between place. Lost ground on the AM band of my car radio.

I’d noticed that when switching sources on the radio, there were places, not properly tuned in on AM where the radio produced odd rising and falling notes as I drove along: pops and crackles of radio frequency noise generated by machinery or power overheads, occasional radio echoes of distant voices or music, sometimes foreign, usually indistinct. In my own mind I’d called it ‘AM drift’. Sometimes now I just leave the radio there instead of tuning to a channel. It’s a strange sound, slightly ghostly. I find it oddly soothing. As the car moves through the outskirts of Dundee it feels as if the radio is picking through scratched layers of paint to older shades beneath. Like itching at an underskin of remote times and places, tuning in to vague shimmers of somewhere else.

I started bringing together samples of ‘AM drift’ with the recordings of Brian and Richard and Louise. The drifting static of forlorn radio noise, at once contemporary and remote, seemed to provide traction. Like the sensual roughness of surface that paper manufacturers call tooth, it offered to hold marks. I still didn’t find this an easy piece to make. I think that I felt I was an intruder in a place cherished by other people.

In retrospect I suppose the feeling was like when you enter an old cemetery as a tourist. You probably don’t know that much about the people who are buried there, or the people who might have come to mourn them. But you step quietly. You don’t want to behave poorly or give offence. It is a place that might be pastoral, perhaps even serene, but you know it is not a place that has been easy.

Place of Graves will be included in ‘Fields of War’ on Saturday September 7th at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh. 

 


Breaking the mould

Breaking the mould

In the box-van back a mirror cabinet
trembles leafy outer worlds under
a roller-back gate of steel, half open,
like the cloth-bound shell of my father’s desk,
a sticking portal to cryptic drawers, tiny shelves,
to faint unsmoked tobaccos of before.

Ahead, and through my windscreen,
outside inside, green shimmers framed
by the mover strapped hardwood mouldings,
whisper hints of a remote Narnian spring.

Breaking the Mould grins in lean sans-serif,
strap-line wry beneath the tailgate logo.
I pray granny’s paper-lined display case
will pass Dens Road’s potholes un-cracked,
that still somewhere seven more years’ luck,
or even fair Cair Paravel, might be found intact.

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branching

This post is a bit of an experiment! The idea had a couple of starting points…

I was looking at some Lady’s mantle flowers in bright sunshine. This started off a chain of thought which had a lot to do with the process of branching – how we see it in natural growth, echoed in man-made patterns, and also in mathematics.

Not long after I read about a free piece of software for game developers called Ink. This is a lightweight tool aimed at authors writing stories where the reader gets to make choices. Ink is made by an award winning Cambridge based game development company called inkle. If you’re interested you can find out more about the company and download ink software from their website.

I decided to try to make an interactive poem, where your choices can affect the flow of the poem. To begin with I chose something quite simple, and fairly structured.  I wrote three short threads of poetry about my Lady’s mantle ideas, then developed a page using Ink that allows you to choose how the poem branches as you read. So in the end I had a poem about branching … that could actually branch!

I’m not able to embed the resulting poem here on the blog, but I can host it on my website, so I’m going to add a link to show it in a new window, but if you’d like to come back here and like this, and/or leave a comment about it, I’d love to hear from you…

Click to open a new window with the interactive poem ‘Branching’

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