Yesterday was a rather surreal day. I have never spent a Sunday in Poole before and had forgotten how sleepy some towns can be towards the end of a weekend. The museum was quiet, except for the protestations of my grumpy parrot, who clearly felt she’d spent far too long on a train the previous day. I was there to run a workshop with some members of local adult writing groups, facilitating the writing of poetry around ‘Sea Music’ and its restoration. Between 10am and 3pm we wrote, talked, read and speculated. We had some very interesting discussions, ranging from our individual attitudes towards ‘Sea Music’ itself to our relationship with the sea and why human beings imbue powerful things with personality. We talked about gods and we talked about memory. We laughed a lot. It was a lovely experience and, although I finished it in high spirits, I also finished it exhausted.
And then the cameraman turned up. I’d never met him before. An extremely efficient, smiley human being with a real knack for capturing moments of visual intrigue, we shall call him George for the time being. He had arrived to film me speaking three poems for the project so that they could be turned into videos for the exhibition and for advertising. In my usual, excited stupidity, I had agreed that filming three poems immediately after a five-hour workshop was a really good idea and of course I wouldn’t be too tired, it would be fine.
I was too tired. As George set up the cameras in various locations, directed me to sit or stand in various positions and turned light towards me, I suppressed yawns and tried to focus on the page. George laughed and said, “As long as you don’t do it in the middle of a poem!” I promised I wouldn’t and, somehow, managed to keep that promise.
The three poems we had originally agreed on became four poems as I read a new one to both George and the project organiser. This new poem was much more personal, and came from a revelation I had had whilst on the project that the phone call made by Tom Roberts, then head of Poole Arts Council, to Anthony Caro in which he asked him to design a piece of art for Poole Quay happened around the same time I was born. To an extent, ‘Sea Music’ and I were born at the same time. From then on, I drew a series of parallels between myself and the statue. Though it did not actually appear on the Quay until two years later, in 1991, it had been conceived and was being constructed from the moment the phone call occurred in early June 1989, the time of my birth. With a mix of slightly more thoughtful and evocative poems alongside this new, personal one, we set to work filming all four. After a while, the movement from sitting to standing to walking to talking became so fluid I stopped thinking about the position of my body and just focused on the camera and the poems. The words felt liquid in my mouth, spoken as if without my permission. I lost count of how many times I read each poem, how many times I had accidentally looked straight into the bright light of the galleries and ha to blink away the bright impressions they left behind.
At ten past four, we left the museum (my parrot protesting wildly in the top room) and headed out to film the final shots on ‘Sea Music’.
George said, “can you go right to the top viewing platform.”
I looked at it. I’d been up there once before, having steeled myself and clung to both railings as I forced my feet to walk me higher.
“Ok,” I said. “I’m really scared of heights.”
He smiled and said, “It’s not that high.”
He had a point. It wasn’t that high. It did not even reach the top of the sculpture. But it was difficult to communicate this to my legs. I took a deep breath at the final set of stairs and lurched up them, squeezing past a father and daughter on their way down. George asked me to lean out over the railings, looking down, and speak the poems while he filmed them from below.
I don’t know whether it was fear that made me speak them louder, or a general feeling of needing to project because the camera was further away, but reading the poems from the top of ‘Sea Music’ felt a little like declaring love from the top of a balcony. I tried not to notice that several people stopped to watch, mainly out of confusion than anything else. One man shook his head and carried on walking at a swifter pace, as if I had lost my mind. It was hard not to laugh at that. I was sure, once or twice, that I felt the sculpture laughing. Perhaps it was just the wind.
We finished with a few moody shots of my walking amongst the steel buttresses and curves of the sculpture, looking out across the harbour, running my hands down the painted flanks in a way that I would never do unless I was being filmed. I realised I had inadvertently painted my nails almost the same colour as the sculpture and wondered if I had, somewhere at the back of my mind, done so on purpose.
It’s funny how you get to know a thing when you are aware of your own shape and movement in relation to it. I swung myself from the steel columns, stumbled on ‘Sea Music’ as I tried to walk backwards from a viewing platform, felt the roll and ripple of the steel under my fingers. It felt like greeting an old friend.
That lunchtime, I had sat with my parrot on the second platform of the sculpture, wolfing down fish and chips while Maya yelled at passing jet-skis, whose drivers searched the skies for the strange-sounding gull that was harassing them.
Earlier that day, I’d listened to the attitudes of the workshop participants towards ‘Sea Music’. Some said they felt the viewing platforms cut up the sculpture, making it difficult to view as a whole. One said they didn’t like the blue it was painted in, and that abstract art wasn’t for them. Another said they felt the art would be lovely if they could see it properly. I thought to myself how each of us builds up, in our minds, what a ‘piece of art’ should be, and how confused and annoyed we get when art doesn’t meet our expectations. I thought how many people had been up on the platforms when I first sat down to eat my lunch, how children had leaned over the topmost railing to point out passing boats to their parents. Funny how our relationship with art is almost grudging sometimes.
I finished the day thoroughly looking forward to seeing the finished films, but also very excited to go to bed. It was a long journey home, and I fell asleep on the train at one point, dreaming that I fell from the top platform of ‘Sea Music’ to be caught by the statue. It was surprisingly soft and warm in the dream, like being cradled in a giant hand.