A pack of cards

Conversation with John Hall

Part II

'You don't know me' by John Hall, in Shearsman Gallery
‘You don’t know me’ by John Hall
Shearsman Gallery

JOHN HALL: On the topic of variation, of the sequence, is a collaboration with a poet called Lee Harwood. A pack of 52 cards, we had them in the exhibition four years ago, they were not yet cards – they were framed, dotted around. We tried to defeat any possibility of reading in a given order. The idea is that you shuffle, you play games.

On one occasion I did a reading at Dartington with a camera, which was set up over a lectern, where we laid the cards.Basically the rules were: if you and I were playing, the only decision we have to make, from our four cards, is which one follows what you just read. So you’re making those sequence judgements from that basis. You could discard a card and pick up a new one. It struck me as being far more interesting if you could catch the audience out in counter judgements, so we had the camera over the two hands.

HS: Are these cards going to be made?

JH: It looks likely now, but it’s been terribly difficult. It’s easy to get cards made if you want 30,000 – the unit cost is cheap, but as far as I can see it’s the classic small press dilemma. There’s a production process, you’ve got to pack them, they’ve got to be treated, rounded corners, all of that. There’s a guy called Nicolai Duffy from ‘Like This’ press, he reckons he can do them.

HS: I’ll buy them, use them with my students.

Going back to your visual work, I’m just going to mention, it’s funny because to me those works, not just yours, but in general I always think they are the best poems for performance; of course you can’t represent what it looks like on the page in performance, but the way in which the poet has chosen to lay out and order the words, gives the performer so much to work with, space and distance between letters and order to play with, it seems to me more performative than a poem that’s laid out in the conventional way.

JH: I’d not thought about that next step. I agree they are performing on the page, but if anyone’s going to take them on they would have to have a sense of what they are doing.

HS: One of the reasons I like working with a loop pedal is that it starts to get rid of linear writing, of linear ways through a text. If you’re playing with a non-linear text you can work with many options, you can play with repetition and placement of words and different connections between lines.

JH: I do like that idea…It seems to me that any very short text, if you’re not going to say ‘OK I’ve got it’ – if you’ve not exhausted it in a single reading – then your brain introduces a loop pedal. It sets up a loop – this is speculative, I haven’t done laboratory texts. When you’re reading off a page the eye has got these saccadic movements, you’re seeing a bit ahead all the time. So what do you do with these tinies – pieces that are only a sentence or a word of even just a letter.

HS: When you work with a short piece in that way you’re constructing a line in a musical sense. It’s like reading a musical score, a basic motif and then improvising on it, so you are thinking ahead in a similar way to how we read but it’s different because you’re thinking ahead musically, and playing with the layers.

JH: It’s a troublesome term, if you use it loosely, because what’s generally meant when we talk, in poetry, about using language in a ‘musical’ mode is that the sound properties of a word are urgent or instrumental. Even with poems that forego end rhymes and metrication there are normally some principles of repetition of sound pattern going on. The interesting thing for me is there is something in skipping ahead, not just the eye, but bodily, where is this rhythm going? The pleasure is between when it does and it doesn’t. It’s doing that because it’s setting up memory of earlier bits of repetition. You are exaggerating that need, that sense-making, the echo effect, with a loop. Something that has disappeared because it is finished comes back into play, sets up expectations…end rhymes are classic, that infantile and enjoyable game, getting everyone to expect an obscene rhyme and then avoid it.

End of Part II.

[Part III is the meatiest of the parts and explores what John Hall means by the ‘minimal performance mode’]