Seeing voices

An interview for Raceme Poetry Journal #9 about picture-poem collaborations, and what thinking in images allows. The interviewer is my friend, colleague and Guerrilla College of the Free Arts writing mentor, the poet Alyson Hallett.

AH: Mat Osmond is a poet and artist, and senior lecturer on the MA Illustration Authorial Practice at Falmouth University. I’ve known him for ten years and during this time we have worked together with students and also on a residential course at Dartington, Intimate Ecologies, where we taught poetry and image making. I’ve always been interested in how poems and images can inhabit the same book, how images and words can begin conversations of their own and I wanted to explore this further … The conversation between us begins on 5th February as the moon inches towards being full.

Seeing Voices exhibition poster designed by Antonia Glücksman

AH: I wonder if you could tell me a bit about an exhibition you organised at the Poly in Falmouth a couple of years ago responding to Brendan Kennelly’s book, The Man Made of Rain? It struck me as a very generous thing to do, to invite artists to respond to a single book of poems. Can you say what inspired you to work with this book?

MO: I first came across The Man Made of Rain in a book by Robert Romanyshyn called The Wounded Researcher. I learnt that Kennelly’s book-length poem had been prompted by a series of NDEs – ‘near-death experiences’ – which Kennelly had undergone whilst lying on a hospital gurney awaiting a quadruple bypass. The poem recounts a series of journeys that Kennelly found himself taking in the company of a being who was exactly as the title of the book suggests – a man made entirely of steadily falling rain. Several years later a small team of us were busy setting up the third Cornwall Contemporary Poetry Festival – CoCoPoFest – and I agreed to take on the organising of an exhibition as part of that. From the start a plan began to take shape around producing a collective illustrational response to The Man Made of Rain. I wanted to create a collaborative work as the centrepiece for this show, one that all 28 of us who were taking part would contribute to. The way we set it up was to give each illustrator one chapter to work with (there are 43 in the book). They were all asked to work within the same format and size, and to return their image (or images, some of them made up to six), along with one line of poetry chosen from their allocated chapter.

We ended up with 48 images arranged non-sequentially in grid formations of 16 across three walls, with the relevant line of poetry under each image. The resulting work invited the viewer to go for a directionless swim in Kennelly’s language and in that of the illustrators. We called it ‘Night English’ – a lovely phrase that Kennelly coined to distinguish the language of poetry from the Day English of our rational minds.

AH: What happens when you put poetry and images together and what is illustration for you?

MO: I’m not a commercial illustrator, so I’ve never made a drawing in response to a poem for any more serious reason than that I love it, or that I wrote it. It’s a curious business illustrating poetry. Most of the illustrated poetry that moves or delights me involves pictures that speak in parallel to the words without addressing them directly. There are exceptions of course. Blake can do what he likes and it still makes your hair stand on end. His illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy are probably my favourite example of illustrated poetry anywhere, as well as being the most powerful of all of his cycles of work for me. Those loosely-sketched watercolours made just before he died invest Dante’s images with Blake’s own weird, luminous voice.

AH: Am I right in thinking that you also organised an event to read the whole of The Man Made of Rain out loud in one sitting? How did this go?

MO: We did indeed, and it was a surprisingly powerful thing to do. I had a couple of colleagues in the curation of the exhibition, the artists Irene Vidal Cal and Charlie Sherratt. Charlie and I decided we’d do a reading of the poem. We took the poem’s 43 chapters in turn, reading continuously over about three hours in front of the images we’d all made in response to it. Festival-goers came and went or sat through the whole thing, as they pleased. I’d wanted to bring The Man Made of Rain into the room in some more tangible way than the 48 lines from the poem displayed within the body of the Night English exhibition, and doing so in this way was really my favourite part of the whole project. Reading aloud in the exhibition space allowed us to celebrate Kennelly’s beautiful, mysterious poem.

AH: In fifteen words or less, what do you think is the special relationship between words and images?

MO: The body dreams in images. Poems and pictures share that common root.

AH: That last question was a bit of devilry – would you like to say more about working with poetry and illustration?

MO: I’m fairly allergic to direct or literal correspondences when combining poems with pictures. It almost always feels clunky or heavy-handed and crowds what’s happening in the words rather than opening up the space around them. As for what doing it well entails, I’ve had a way of framing this in my own head for years that I don’t think I’ve ever spoken of before. Bringing pictures and poems together feels like a process of triangulation – one where both picture and poem point beyond themselves to a third, absent thing – or rather, a thing which is present only as the sum total of their encounter. So an illustrated poem acts as a metaphoric sextant. That image helps me to think about what I’m trying to do when I bring together words and pictures, from one direction or the other.

AH: What are you working on at the moment?

MO: In 2015 I illustrated a book-poem by Em Strang called Stone. I’d got to know Em through The Dark Mountain Project and loved her work. Our collaboration was an unhurried, back-and- forth affair within which Em allowed me complete freedom to decide how I wished to respond to her poem. Having made illustrated chapbooks of my own poetry since 2006, this was my first experience of producing drawings to accompany another person’s words. I was quite thrown at first. The poem’s full of very physical, tangible characters and places. Most of all, it’s full of horses and it felt inappropriate to draw any of that. But at the centre of the poem there’s an enigmatic smooth black stone, one that gets passed from hand to hand and around which the poem’s uneasy atmosphere slowly coagulates. The stone itself was the most compelling and perplexing image in Em’s poem and I decided that I’d use my not understanding that stone as a kind of key to work to. So I began to draw black stones – the same kind of smooth stones I’ve carried around in my own pockets for years.

Lift off my scalp
and there’s the stone,
cooried like an egg
in its fine, warm nest. (from Stone, Em Strang)

In April 2020 I’ve got a second collaboration coming out with Atlantic Press. This time the poems are written by me and the pictures are by my friend Kate Walters. At the heart of the pamphlet is a series of ekphrastic poems that reply to paintings by the artist and Benedictine nun Sr Meinrad Craighead. It’s called The Black Madonna’s Song. Kate’s a painter and a healer who uses trance and ritual in both aspects of her work. She and I have shared a sense of connection to the Black Madonna for many years. I liked the idea that we’d have two different voices addressing La Moreneta (‘the little dark one’) here. We have three if you count Sr Meinrad herself, who maintained a lifelong devotion to her. Kate’s images bring an oblique visual complement to the poems that I’m thrilled by.

AH: Not understanding seems to be an important part of the process in your work – is that right?

MO: It depends what you mean by understanding, doesn’t it? Maybe not explaining would say it better. It’s about respecting mystery. I love the idea of mystery that Malidama Somé speaks of: the thing that knowledge cannot eat.

AH: What sustains your practice as a writer and artist?

MO: I think all of my work attempts to provide a space for the religious imagination in one way or another. A phrase I’ve settled on lately is ‘the recovery of prayer’. In my outer life I’ve wandered in and out of various spiritual communities for a good three decades now. Poetry, which I’ve come to late in life, has brought a kind of breathing space to all of this. Coming late to poetry is like being given a second chance to get something right in this fortunate life. And along the way, it’s also been slowly re-educating my drawing practice – as if the poems were reminding the drawings of what they’re here for.

AH: What are they here for?

MO: To turn towards mystery. That or nothing.

AH: What’s the most important poem you’ve read and why?

MO: Twice in my life I’ve happened on a poem that’s shifted the ground under me. The first was in Hughes’ Crow – I think the actual poem was ‘A Horrible Religious Error’ – which I read when alone in Florence in my late teens. The second was some two decades later, when I came upon Mary Oliver’s ‘Wild Geese’. I can still remember the scrappy bit of paper it was printed on. I had no idea who she was, but that poem rooted me to the spot – like someone shouting your name in a crowd.

I must be one of countless thousands who’ve come to poetry through Mary Oliver, or even through that particular poem. No shame in that – ‘Wild Geese’ still feels like a poem she wrote specifically for me. I think it was when I read that poem that the possibility of turning towards writing first seeded itself. I’m less well-read than most of my poet friends, but Mary Oliver is where this all began for me, and I still love her work. Except the dog poems – what is it about dog poems? But maybe I’ll come round to those too one day.

AH: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

MO: I was asked this same question exactly ten years ago. The answer’s as clear now as it was then. When I was nineteen and newly arrived in Cornwall, a friend took me to a Spiritualist Church in Falmouth. It remains the only time I’ve ever set foot in such a circle. I met an elderly Cornishman there called Harry, who led the welcoming-in of those not physically present. He told us before we began that if any of us felt called to share anything, we were to stand up and he’d come over to us. This suggestion immediately seeded the mischievous idea in my head that I might stand up anyway, despite having no visitor to report. As we sat in silence this impulse to stand up became more and more obsessive, until after however long it was, it struck that I was now battling not to stand up. So I got to my feet, and as I did so something odd happened: it was as if my legs were continuing to straighten and straighten, until I found myself rising up above the room, looking down into it. Harry came over and took both of my hands in his, which were knotted as oak roots. He began to laugh, and said to me ‘Well I’ve seen people grow before, but you’re as big as a tree and you haven’t stopped.’

When he’d settled me down again, Harry told me some things. That I need not pay any special attention to the advice of the dead, just because they were dead. ‘A dead fool is still a fool.’ That I should always remember that receiving such visitors was entirely a matter of choice, and never something I need feel compelled to do. There was more, but what’s kept this memory fresh across three decades is what he finished with: ‘There’s something in your life you’re trying to rush. Don’t. Even if you could hurry it, which you can’t, you’d regret doing so. There’s a reason they call it a lifetime’s work. And remember, just because you can’t see the path, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there’. I recently found out that Harry himself died shortly after all this took place. I’m still grateful to him.

AH: You’re organising a symposium on grief at Dartington in November. Can you tell us a bit about that please?

MO: I’m organising a three-day summit on death and dying for, a Dartington-based research network I’m part of. It’s called ‘Borrowed Time: on Death, Dying and Change’, and one of our central themes will be how we might better negotiate what’s now being called ecological grief. What struck us was that the discussions we often find ourselves part of concerning mass- extinction and associated loss and endings might benefit from the company of those who speak from a more immediate and practical experience of human death and dying. We’ll be joined by the Butoh dancer Paul Michael Henry; the climate psychologist Caroline Hickman and the palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke. So we’re bringing together the languages of art, ecological grief, personal death and dying.

AH: If you could read one poem to one piece of art, or show one piece of art to a poem – what would you choose?

MO: I’d go to the Museo San Marco in Florence which I visited a number of times on solitary teenage travels and enter the cloisters of that old convent where each cell has a fresco by its one-time Prior, Fra Angelico. I’d pass by his unforgettable Annunciation and go into one of the cells, maybe the one which bears the fresco depicting the Magdalen’s encounter with the risen Christ, supposing him to be the gardener. Fra Angelico’s icons are as powerful and beautiful as any religious art I know. They also sit right at the murderous heart of the Inquisition, the Dominican Order. I still don’t know where to put that contradiction. If I was allowed to (which I doubt), I’d close the door behind me and read aloud one of the poems from The Black Madonna’s Song. Maybe I’d choose ‘Lazarus’. Reading that poem to Fra Angelico might be a kind of confession, allowing me to own my meandering, ambivalent pursuit of some elusive sense of belonging.

AH: It’s been fascinating to read these responses to my questions – many thanks for being so open and giving us a glimpse into your process.


Remembers light

being reeled in to light

caught by a fierce hope

that dragged him in its wake

stuck here now with all the rest

hooked on that bright mistake

and they want to come back

yes they want to come back

but he knows better than that

nothing he can do

the door cannot be opened

no the door will not be opened

so they wait here as the light falls

they gather where the light falls

on the closed door of the world

because they want to lie down

yes they need to lie down

to turn out that endless light

but Lazarus knows better

nothing he can do

presses on the door in silence

falls through

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