Our final guest curator this month on Global Poetry System is David Ogunmuyiwa, an architect and fiction writer.
The Royal Festival Hall is my favourite building in London, because of the open, fluid, democratic way it works. London is my favourite city in the country because of the varied Babel of humanity it represents. Cities are my favourite form of settlement in the world. The world is my favourite planet in the entire solar system.
It’s appropriate for me that a building I admire so much was the pilot-site for GPS poetry. A place where I have always found the time, space and setting to notice poetry which was hidden in plain view. Not to mention the more straightforward delights of the Saison Poetry Library – a literary gate-head tucked away in a wing of the 5th floor and one of London’s best kept secrets – it should be in every single tourist guide book.
I wanted to come at the GPS project from the perspective of an urbanist. The practices of architecture and writing (whether poetry, prose, or narrative) are important to me, being the vocational substance of my life. I used to think there were deeper formal echoes in the two practices – the emphasis on technique as well as creativity for example, but in truth these are rare, far between. In reality architecture and writing are mainly, profoundly different – as are the processes of practising them. Of course, this depends on the frame through which the comparison is drawn.
However, in one easy to grasp sense, what can make architecture and writing (poetry in this case) can be what is expected traditionally on the one hand (a shiny new gallery in a cultural quarter / a perfect Petrarchan sonnet delivered by a Poet Laureate on the birth of a royal heir), or contingent, accidental, fleeting or ‘found’ (Snippets of overheard conversation, ‘Cut-up’ literature / cardboard homeless shelters under the IMAX roundabout, the undercroft reclaimed by skateboarders and graffiti artist under the Queen Elizabeth Hall) on the other.
It was this point in the ‘found’ world at which architecture and poetry intersect that I wanted to draw out in the ‘poems’ I have selected. I like what they tell us about the form and typology of built environments and the people who live on the surface and in the deep reaches of them. For me poetry is a lot about what is implied and the resonances that encourages.
The approach I took to selection was 2 fold. Firstly, I used 4 poems I found insitu on the GPS site and secondly, I uploaded 4. The pieces I uploaded were collaborative, I asked architect friends and colleagues to provide images, which spoke to them through moments of text but loosely encouraged a speculation on architectural space.
From the poems I found already on the GPS poetry map, Ryan Ormonde’s piece ‘Be prepared’ reminded me of all the safety strategies, which can define much of how space is planned in buildings. Especially in cities, every public or institutional building is laid out with a view to statutory regulations. In turn we often (for better or worse) as users absorb a bit of this sense risk analysis – which is probably illusory. For instance am I the only one who’s ever been in a hotel in an earthquake zone trying to figure out what I’d do if the ‘big-one’ that’s due every 100 years or so finally hits?
‘Except after C’ also by Ryan Ormonde is as much a code as a poem. It reminds me of stories such as Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ or Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’, back offices in faceless office blocks, where obsessive clerical taxonomy is undertaken by pale and unhappy denizens, where anything that doesn’t fit neatly into a category is ignored. In a Hitchcock movie this is where the bad guys would meet to agree the plan.
‘Mind the gap’ by Ben Byford is so resonant of cities for me. The flip-side of ‘voluntary’ rules and regulations. Where solicitousness for your personal safety becomes an invitation to conform, which can sound like an instruction to be safe, backed up by the hint of a threat to your safety from the authorities if you do not ensure that you are safe. The office of ‘Emergency Gap Jumper’ seems both terrible and privileged, able to be held only by fearsome box dwelling golems who intercept the ‘independent-minded’ commuter.
‘Sexy pigeons’ by Alix Silver has captured the exuberant, flamboyant and amusing ownership of that paradigm of public space – the pavement. For me pavements are the life blood of streets, and busy active overlooked streets are what make sense of cities during day time and night time hours. City slickers aspire to ‘café’ cultures where the streets are vibrant and pleasant. We look down on sidewalk-less urban jungles where to be seen outside of a car is a cause for suspicion.
Of the poems forwarded by architects, I find ‘Biting criticism…’ intriguing and amusing. It speaks of the services and business you get situated and organised in surprising places in certain exotic locales. Very specialist medical services, I’m guessing from very specialist practitioners. It reminds me of cities such as Lagos or Rio where low income communities sprout up out of necessity and organise themselves without the boundaries of planning zoning.
‘The Bartlett School of Architecture Exhibition, Unit 6’ was forwarded to me by a student. The image is thematic text on which the unit’s work had been based during the preceding academic year. The rhythm and detail of academic language has a pleasure of its own. However this snippet also refers to scenarios where dramatic physical phenomena become the prompt for and architectural response. For Londoners how we inhabit a global city built largely on a flood-plane is as live an issue as how to emit less carbon.
‘Signage – a hard crucial slog’ is lavatorial and silly, which is why I like it. I leave you to get the pun (or to pretend that you don’t). Choosing signs that function and capture attention without cluttering everywhere up and looking institutional is important for buildings. I often thought I wouldn’t want to be a dazed and confused person in an emergency trying to find the right ward for a loved one in London’s hospitals as the signage is invariably pants. I’ve been to some countries where the signage is so effective, yet unobtrusive that you are not conscious of reading it. You get somewhere almost before realising it’s where you wanted to go.
‘How the Portuguese learn English in cities’ is an image I contributed. The essence of cities is the people and London in particular is a metropolis that absorbs (and disgorges) people from all over the world. I live in an area where there are many Brazilian, Portuguese and Palop speaking people. I found a wardrobe at the end of a terraced street on which a homemade Portuguese to English dictionary and been touchingly, diligently constructed, complete with pronunciations. It was covered from head to foot in this writing. It was a magical thing in that all no Portuguese speakers including myself kept stopping to see it. When we thought no one was looking we would have a go translating familiar words and from English into Portuguese.
Obrigado. De nada.
Global Poetry System is a user-generated world map of poetry. Explore the map, choose your own favourites and upload poems here.