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Saturday 2nd August 2014, 07:30 BST | Cambridge,UK

Finding poetry in the Thames

Artist Krissy Wilson talks to Zoë Large about how mudlarking has inspired her to create public mosaic poems, and her explorations of London’s murky river foreshore

Tim Sidford Textual fragment from the Thames: "I love them that [l]ove..."

At its base,” artist and poet Krissy Wilson tells me, “the word ephemera means ‘lasting only one day.’ It usually refers to print objects with an expiration date, destined to become waste.” Such transient phenomena– the usually rejected and inchoate – form a running motif throughout Wilson’s own work. Her thesis chapbook So Mute was this Wide Plain consists of cento and erasure poems composed entirely from the text of binders’ waste, originally found as padding in the spines of nineteenth-century children’s books. Now another project, The Art of Google Books, reveals an accidental beauty in the anomalies and glitches that have slipped into digital page archives – the gloved hand of a human scanner, or an image recreated by a fold in the original paper.


Wilson acknowledges a satisfying paradox within these paeans to the ephemeral: “when you write with or showcase something that was thrown away, it elevates the finished work to an archival gesture.” These possibilities are nowhere more apparent than in her newest project Detritus, for which Wilson will assemble textual artefacts from the Thames midden into public, mosaic poems. “Archaeologists have long known the importance of the study of the midden, the study of what’s been thrown away,” she points out. “It’s just as important to study what a culture discarded as what they valued. My artistic practice moves pieces of text from the midden to the shrine, as archaeologists move trash to the display case.”


Inspiration came to Wilson in 2011, while attending a Rare Book School Course at UCL: “I decided to walk the Thames foreshore at low tide, around dusk, and I was astonished to discover that the sand was crowded with an array of tile, ceramic, brick, glass, and porcelain (among other things). Most startling were the textual fragments I found; small chatter like ‘S D / ON N’ and ‘HT’ and ‘GHTO / LL.’ I was fresh off of my thesis chapbook, and I found that the Thames foreshore was a textual midden – a database – just as attractive and just as related to the lives of children.”

Krissy Wilson Wilson on the Thames midden


In using the river’s waste in this way, Wilson will follow in the footsteps of many a marginalised Victorian mudlarker: “the poor, the elderly, people of colour, foreigners, and, importantly, the young,” who “illegally braved the Thames foreshore which was dangerous with sewage and refuse, searching for anything they could sell to make a little money.” These long-time river hunters reported finds ranging from highly valuable (a rare Roman brothel token) to dangerous (a live bomb) to downright terrifying (the seventeenth-century skeleton of a child). And while Wilson awaits the grant support which will allow her own extensive exploration to begin, she is already prepared to encounter similar challenges along the Thames’ tidal banks. Mudlarking is no longer illegal, yet London’s foreshore is “still a dangerous place. Raw sewage and Weil’s disease are still present; tides change quickly, and the water is fast and cold.”


Still, Wilson remains determined to honour the Thames as her unpredictable agent. Aiming to “construct a text that has existed for a long time, but never in contiguous, readable form,” Wilson’s engagement is one which exists comfortably under the title of ‘found poetry.’ Given that she sees this as a movement “about being startled, about reading the poetic into the mundane,” it seems suitable that chance plays a central role in her artistic process. “The work of finding is never done,” she says, “because each tide uncovers a new slew of artefacts, assembled happenstance on the shore. Every fragment that I select will have entered the Thames with a different circumstance – perhaps lost or dropped accidentally, perhaps thrown in or discarded with purpose – and present itself on the shore after a long journey. Each find is an accident, a coincidence, a crossing of paths.”


In order to aid the completion of Detritus, Wilson will forge more deliberate partnerships with London-based institutions. A number of archaeological foundations such as the Thames Explorer Trust and the Thames Discovery Programme are already leading collecting walks along the foreshore, and the mosaic studio Southbank Mosaics is likely to prove useful for assembling purposes. Wilson quotes an announcement made by the latter organisation with approval: “mosaics are a metaphor for London: all the communities, colours, peoples, faiths, tribes and creeds coming together to make a brilliant whole.”

Krissy Wilson

Indeed in its blend of traditional and modern forms, Wilson’s project presents a peculiarly apt homage to modern London. When I mention the apparent surge in the popularity of ‘found art’ over the past fifteen years, she reminds me that “separate from each other, cento and mosaic are both ancient forms. Their use only becomes contemporary when the two intersect.” Ultimately aiming to put the final piece on display for the enrichment of public space, she is seeking an end in tune with what she sees as the “especially democratic” nature of found poetry. “It’s writing that everyone should do for exercise,” she states, “enjoying happenstance enjambments, and taking the experience un-self-consciously to other writing. Accidents can be very generative, and in many cases more productive than staring at a blank page.”


Though the centonist’s work is restricted to the re-arrangement of pre-existent texts or artefacts, Wilson remains adamant that such creations can also be autobiographical. On one level, she suggests, the methods and purpose of Detritus present a pleasing circularity – the result will be “a piece of poetry about the history and future of the Thames, made from the text that already resides within it.” On another, the resulting work will express the individuality of the artist herself. “Many, many writers can begin with the same textual database and end with completely different pieces of writing. Every cento is autobiographical because the choices that you make say something about yourself. The poet’s I is everywhere in a cento, in every arrangement and rearrangement.”

Follow Krissy Wilson's Detritus project here.

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