Lawrence Sail
'Out of Silence'

Lawrence Sail has published seven collections of poems, most recently Building into Air (Bloodaxe Books 1995). His poems have been broadcast on radio and television. He reviews for Poetry Review and Stand, and contributes a regular column to PN Review.

Interim Report

'The common of silence', in Emerson's phrase, is all round us. Yet it is far more than the blank margins surrounding words or speech, and far more complex: there are, as Thomas Cromwell says in A Man for All Seasons, many kinds of silence. Poets have often been aware of the adjacency of silence and its variety: it can be 'the perfectest herald of joy', as in Much Ado about Nothing, Wordsworth's 'eternal silence' contrasting with 'our noisy years', 'more musical than any song' as Christina Rossetti suggested, or Keats's 'icy silence of the tomb'. Its influence and effect often depend on its location and its nature: sometimes an imperative, sometimes natural, sometimes in man-made contexts, silence is sometimes willed, sometimes simply an absence of language or human sound. Its effects can range from the unnerving to the spiritual, from tension to profound calm: and it has always the potential to inform the world of sound and noise that it surrounds.


Lawrence Sail
Out of Silence
1

It is the silence of the world that is real - Thomas Merton

Beneath the civic gardens and the roots

of plants, under the blue fumes,

the darkness at first reports nothing

to displace the world above,

or its cold air nipped by the cries of finches.

 

But change follows change: the threshold turns

to a corridor, then to a room filled

with a morse of footsteps tapping overhead,

then comes the rush of a drowning downpour,

resolved as a pool where every ripple

converges to drain away at the centre,

leaving only the red earth. The water

brought to nothing, and with it

the flesh and all its working parts.

 

Yet here, in the starless sump of the city,

the siren songs of its weathered people

are held on stems of silence that prove

unbreakable: black frequencies

that fill and empty, fill again.

 


 

Final Report

Aim of the project 
The writing of a sequence of poems centred on the theme of silence and its contexts: the setting of the poems: and the performance of those settings in a series of concerts, one in each county of the South West Arts region. 

Participants 
I, as poet, and the composer Isabelle Ryder had collaborated before in poems, settings and performances commissioned to celebrate the opening of the Layard Theatre at Canford School. The performers were Rachel Rowntree (violin), Andrew Tortise (tenor), Robbie Tomlinson (treble) as well as Isabelle herself. 

Funding and Finance 
The writing of the poems was funded by The Poetry Society, with the award of a Poetry Place: the settings and performances were made possible by a Year of the Artist grant, with additional support from Exeter Arts Council and The Arts Council of England. 

Timetable 
The project was to run from November 1999 to December 2000, with the poems to be completed by the end of May 2000, and the settings in time to allow for finding performers and rehearsing fully. This timetable was well observed. 

The poems
On Monday 8 November 1999 I went down into the dark of Exeter's underground passages, the first of ten locations in which I was to experience something of the variety of silence and its relations with sound. Between then and mid-May 2000 I also visited the following places: 
Hartridge Buddhist Nunnery, Upottery 
The Royal School for the Deaf, Exeter 
Sainsbury's Central, Exeter (at night) 
Mecca Bingo (formerly the Gaumont Cinema), Exeter 
The Teign Valley (at dawn) 
Belstone Tor, Dartmoor (at night) 
St David's Church, Exeter 
The sea off the East Devon coast at Beer (in an open boat) 
The air above and around Bath (in a hot-air balloon)

To these must be added Oradour-sur-Glane, visited in July 1999: a location which I had not initially intended to include at all, but which imposed itself ever more forcefully as the project developed. 

I gave myself certain rules, allowing myself to take brief notes in each location, but not to re-read them until every location had been visited, in the hope that hatching the poems and attempting to write them all together would enhance their cohesion and unity. At the same time, it would have been foolish to suppress any poem which showed signs of wanting to emerge, as was the case with one of them (No.2). But with this rule-proving exception, the plan worked. A first draft of the whole cycle was written from 2 to 5 May 2000, apart from the final poem which depended on a twice postponed balloon flight. However, even this took place on 14 May - a blazing clear Sunday morning, and on 17 May I was able to send all the poems to Isabelle. (For a fuller account of the genesis of the poems, see 'Informing Silences' in Poetry Nation Review 136, November/ December 2000). 

The settings 
Over the summer, Isabelle and I met several times, as well as writing to each other and talking on the phone frequently, in order to clarify the musical possibilities and possible interpretations of the poems. This was a most rewarding and invigorating phase of the project, valuable to both parties. 

By the end of August, Isabelle had completed her settings, while remaining open to the possibility of amendments during rehearsal. 

Venues 
During this period we also began to seek out venues for the forthcoming concerts, booking St David's Church, Exeter for Advent Sunday (3 December 2000) for the first concert, which would be one of a series of events celebrating the church's centenary .We also booked Wimborne Minster as our Dorset venue, and Harry Chambers' wonderfully converted chapel in Calstock for Cornwall. It proved rather less easy to find suitable venues that were also available in early December in Gloucestershire and Somerset. Thanks to the support of the Friends of the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, we were finally able to make use of a fine room at Cheltenham College: and in Somerset we were offered the church of St Martin, in Kingsbury Episcopi, for our final concert on 8 December. 

The venues, dates and times were: 
Sunday 3 December St David's Church, Exeter 
Monday 4 December The Old Chapel, Calstock 
Wednesday 6 December Wimborne Minster 
Thursday 7 December Cheltenham College 
Friday 8 December St Martin's Church, Kingsbury Episcopi

In all our venues we owed a great deal to local helpers and supporters who rallied to the project with real enthusiasm.

Publicity and Promotion 
The project was included in an initial Year of the Artist feature on BBC1's 'Spotlight' programme. I was also interviewed for regional radio programmes in Gloucestershire and Dorset, thanks to Gillian Taylor, South West Art's Press Officer, who gave valuable encouragement and help, including a number of press releases. The Poetry Society included details on its website, along with several of the poems, and pieces about the project appeared in Poetry News and Poetry Nation Review: details of the concerts were also given in South West Arts' Literature Newsletter. We had 3,000 fliers and 100 posters printed, and these were well distributed by our local contacts at all the venues: 500 were specially targeted and sent out by me. Details were also sent to national papers. Articles were printed in two parish magazines and one neighbourhood magazine. In addition, I gave three readings, with discussions, to promote the concerts, in Ledbury (where I had been asked to spend National Poetry Day at the local comprehensive), Cheltenham and Wimborne. 

The performers and the programme 
Having completed the settings, Isabelle set about marshalling her forces, and succeeded in engaging the interest and then the services of two very talented musicians at Cambridge: Andrew Tortise (tenor), a choral scholar at Trinity College, and Rachel Rowntree (violin) who is reading music at King's College. Meanwhile, back in Exeter we asked Robbie Tomlinson, a treble with an excellent local reputation, to take part, and he kindly agreed. 

In developing the programme, Isabelle and I agreed that we should combine the new work with established items. Vaughan Williams's setting of R.L. Stevenson's 'The Roadside Fire' (one of his Songs of Travel) linked by chance with one of my poems, which took the first two lines as its epigraph, while Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel complemented 'Out of Silence' beautifully. 

The concerts 
Accessibility was a cardinal point of the project: all the concerts were open to the public, with free admission, and with a well produced programme including the texts of the poems also available free of charge. 

In general, we were very pleased with the way the concerts went. Inevitably, each concert had its own particular high points, and each performance taught us something new. For the last two concerts the weather, which had been bad all week, became abominable, and certainly adversely affected our audience figures in Cheltenham, where the downpour lasted all day and intensified still more during the evening, and in Kingsbury , where only one access road to the village remained not blocked by floods. Many people told us that listening to the TV and radio news about regional and local flooding had been enough to put them off coming. However, we were well rewarded by the attentiveness and enthusiasm of audiences at all the concerts, as well as by the number of letters and positive comments received since. 

Attendance figures for the five concerts (a precise count) were as follows, and of course do not include hosts or performers: 

Exeter 152 
Calstock 75 
Wimborne 112 
Cheltenham 75 
Kingsbury 52

Total: 466

The performance at Wimborne was professionally recorded (by John Hide, of Aquarium Studios, Wardour Street, London) and a CD which we can use as a master will shortly be available.

Conclusion 
Perhaps the essence of the project, and the best indicator of its effectiveness, was represented by a feature which all five concerts had in common: at the end of each one, there was a protracted silence. We all found this immensely exciting - it was not the silence of indifference or incomprehension, and since the audiences had the texts of the poems there could be no uncertainty that the end had been reached (nor was the music ambiguous about this) - but a silence of real energy and character, as if we had together as performers and listeners reached the point at which silence could reclaim some of its ground. These unforgettable minutes meant more than any amount of applause. They also illustrated something that had been a characteristic of the project all along, the sense that silence is a universal theme, whose particular relevance to our clamorous society is readily understandable. 

Encores? 
Perhaps the project will develop its own afterlife. In addition to the CD, interest has been shown in performing the settings at a literary festival, at a regional theatre and at a Cambridge college, as well as making use of some of them in an educational context. Whatever happens, it has been -and I can confidently speak for all those involved a fascinating and entirely worthwhile project. We are very grateful to all those individuals and funding bodies (they are listed on the back of the programme) who have made it possible. 

 

- Lawrence Sail

Young Poets Network