From their inception my diagram poems have been an exercise in recontextualising readymade text and exploring the new meanings that creates. Bringing these previously unconnected words and phrases together makes space for new interpretations and redistributes the weight given to words and phrases in their original context. It’s an exercise in unpicking language and I’m particularly interested in the language of belief. Of primary concern in my practice are the similarities between the language used to talk of romantic love and of ecstatic faith and the mystery in which we shroud taboos by only alluding to them. Diagram poems allow me to critique the idea of sacred texts and the notion that books hold mystical knowledge. Words in books can make ideas feel too concrete and I’m keen to both revere and challenge this at the same time. For me playing with holy language is a way to renegotiate the authority of the written word and indeed my own beliefs.
The first diagram poems that I made were a book of absurd piecharts. My process hasn’t differed much since then although I have expanded my repertoire of diagrams. I’m particularly drawn to diagrams whose structure could have religious significance or relates to theories of sacred geometry. I’ll often make up a completely abstract diagram solely for its aesthetic value. For me this combination of clear structure or statistical schematics with affective terms points to the relationship between the everyday and the cosmic. Or the “Transcendent Everyday”. My artwork has always explored this sense of ordinary wonder, and the possibility that that-which-we-personify-as-god is lurking amongst the normalcy of life. This is always my goal as I come to the stage of pairing the words I’ve collected with appropriated or made up diagrams.
Postit notes play a major role in my editing process, their sticky strips being the perfect place to line up the words that will later become diagram poems. I arrange the words thematically or by mood, with a different colour for each category – orange is religious, pink is sexy for example. When choosing the words that I’ll use in a diagram poem this system enables me to jump to the right sorts of words, working within a single category or mixing it up with cross categorical selections. Orange and pink are regular combinations as my practice as a whole is largely concerned with faith and superstition, prohibitive belief and the traditions that guide our behaviour. I like to make work that walks the line between reverence and irreverence, as in many ways my art-making leads to the renegotiation of my own beliefs.
This use of postits as a way to order cut-out sections of text enables me to edit my work in physical space. The process of writing a poem comes to overlap with the process of assembling a sculpture as I add, remove and reposition words and phrases, exploring their relationships with a simplicity not possible when using a word processor. The above image shows completed stanzas awaiting diagrams, at this point the colour coding goes out the window and finalised phrases are collected on any empty posit. I can easily pair words with each other as well as with images, colours, textures and structures to begin to see how they will work in a finished diagram poem. My desk is covered in off-cuts of previous collages, magazine clippings and readymade diagrams from old text books. Making a diagram poem is very much an intuitive process of finding small glimpses of order and chance connections that allude to new meanings or create emotional weight amidst this litter of words and images.
I like to get the first diagram poem of a series finished early on in the process, even before the rest of the words have been collected, sorted and collated.
This collection of diagram poems will be exhibited as an edition of hand bound books in POST artists’ exhibition “Parable Shift” at a church in Whitstable as part of the Whitstable Biennale Satellite Program. As POST artists’ remit is to make art that responds to place, this collection of diagram poems responds to the life of St Alphege to whom the venue is dedicated. This 10th century saint’s life is characterised by generosity, grace, justice, courage and ends in imprisonment and murder. This being the point of departure, I have started the series with a simple Anchorite poem in the form of a piechart.
Completing the first piece helps me to get a taste for the mood of the collection and begins to suggest a trajectory for the rest of the work to grow around.
When beginning a new series with a pre-defined focus, I collate relevant words and phrases on posits for the eye to drift over and pick out effective and surprising connections from which poetry can grow. Selected words are gathered in stanzas, often with sketches for possible diagrams alongside them.
I enjoy the surprising allusions of these miniature poems, the briefest of which I tweet as typographic diagram poems before committing them to paper for good (twitter.com/matthewjameskay).