I come from
the antipodes

New Zealand poet and artist,
Charles Olsen

TO ACCOMPANY my new poetry book Antípodas (Huerga y Fierro, 2016, Bilingual edition) I wanted to tell a little of the story behind my writing. 

IT'S ALMOST 20,000km from Nelson, NZ, to the antipodes, Spain. But the journey was longer still as I’ve lived in Culverden, Dunedin, Wellington, later more than 20 years in Surrey in England and a few years in London (South Tottenham and Camden Town) when I was studying Fine Arts at Middlesex University. Since 2003 I’ve lived in Madrid.

I travel light: backpack, pencil and notebook.

My poems include experiences from each place. The rain in Wellington that stings like needles in the wind. The macrocarpas that swooshed in the strong gusts at my uncle's farm in the Wairarapa. Horses galloping free on the farm where I lived and worked in Lyne, England. These are images that come to mind when I reflect on my poem Farmer’s dream:

                 Fine needles of water weave a cloud to a thatch roof,
                 aspen leaves converse in the wind
                 and in the stable a black horse shakes its mane
                 – flow of shadows –.
                 In the dark of its eye dances an angel.

Antípodas (Huerga y Fierro, 2016)

POETRY CREPT UP on me when I was distracted by other things. I always enjoyed writing and reading and the first poem I learnt by heart was Thomas Hardy's 'The Darkling Thrush', but then I also loved maths, geography, technical drawing and physics. Although I decided to study Fine Art at university words were never far away.

Art in writing

The Costa Blanca from Campello, watercolour, Charles Olsen August 2015 (Image from the cover of 'Antípodas')

AT UNIVERSITY I wrote my thesis on 'Velázquez and his influence on following generations of artists', focussing on the works of Manet, Picasso, Francis Bacon, and my own work. I was also attracted to the aesthetics of Wols and Emil Nolde, the poetic objects of Marcel Broodthaers, or the mixture of art and performance of one of my professors, Marc Camille Chaimowicz.

It was Marc Camille who spoke to me on my use of writing in relation to my paintings, where I was mixing words and images. We spoke about the history of the book as a form of communication and the relation with my books of watercolour paintings which had no words: the contradictions, the different ways to explore text. I keep books of notes and sketches, travel notebooks, with my thoughts and ideas:

I LEARNED THAT painting is not just about knowing the materials and ones artistic investigations but it's also about the connections with all the arts; my studies of flamenco guitar, reading, travels to Egypt and New Zealand. Although there was little figuration in my work at university I was often surprised by the parallels that appeared of themselves in my paintings.

…and look with watercolours at flowering oleander…

WORDS AND IMAGES go together. The various narratives that underlie my visual work, be they in abstract or figurative paintings, photography or stereoscopic photography, or moving images, is something I enjoy exploring. 

My painting La Súndari, for example, is the result of numerous stories: my studies in painting, photography, the flamenco guitar and practicing with my friend, the Dutch flamenco dancer Miryam Chachmany in the academy Amor de Dios, my walks through Madrid and my search for a cheap surface – with its own history – to paint on. Later I see connections with my reading, for example the fictitious artist Rabo Karabekian in Kurt Vonnegut's Bluebeard, or in other artists – like the books of found wood by friend and artist Rupert Hughes where the wood tells its own story. La Súndari’s participation in the Los Artistas del Barrio exhibition and its journey to the Saatchi Gallery in London in 2007 speak of other stories of social networks and new forms of getting one’s work known.

I MOVED TO Madrid to study flamenco guitar, to find inspiration in Spanish art, to experience a different culture and learn a new language. Little did I think I would eventually be writing and reciting poetry in Spanish.

Finding my
Spanish voice

In Tenerife as a guest poet in the 'Tres Orillas' Poetry Festival , 2015 (Photo by Lilián Pallares)

A CHILD CAN usually communicate pretty well by age 6 or 7 but continues developing and learning into their adult life. Having a head start with another language meant I could come out with abstract concepts such as 'preocupación' or 'complicación' although I was stumbling over the basic grammar. Anyway, I wasn't preoccupied and as each year passed I found I understood a little more. I put more effort into studying Flamenco guitar than Spanish and took classes with El Entri in the flamenco academy Amor de Dios. We came to an agreement of classes for paintings and so I had seven hours of classes a week for almost two years and one of the portraits I did of El Entri has pride of place in his Flamenco guitar school in the Cañorroto neighbourhood.

IT IS ONLY WHEN I was around 'six years old' in the Spanish language that I nervously gave my first recital of a poem in Spanish. Not long after that I wrote my first poem directly in Spanish. My first book Sr. Citizen (Published by Amargord in the collection 'Hecho en Lavapiés', 2010) includes poems written in both languages as well as my drawings, paintings and photographs. 

Later with the support of my wife, the Colombian writer Lilián Pallares, I set up the online Spanish poetry project Palabras Prestadas, or Given Words, in which an invited guest chooses five words and poets have to write a poem that includes said words. I secretly participated under the pseudonyms Gastón de Maeztu and Constance de Nelson as the format was a challenge and motivated me to be creative in Spanish and explore different poetic voices as well as find my own. It is a little of this mystery of identity that I wanted to capture in the following booktrailer for Antípodas I made with Antena Blue:

Apart from the watercolour on the cover which I painted on holiday in El Campello in Alicante, Spain, the rest of the book has no illustrations. It is nevertheless full of images and I have already begun collecting sounds and pictures to work with to create film poems inspired by the texts. Antípodas is not just a geographical location, it is also about the different worlds inside each one of us – those points where our understanding and questioning meet. As the grandmother says in the opening line of the poem The Embroidered Patio,

'It's a good day to meet some aliens.'

Antípodas (Published by Huerga y Fierro, 2016) is available from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.es as well as bookshops in Spain.

It is also on Goodreads.