Błażej Mikuła is a filmmaker, photographer and journalist. His new project, Poetronica is an independent video production website , that is committed to producing and publishing poetry videos. He made two poetry films with Thresholds poet Imtiaz Dharker while she was in residence at the University Library.
As a member of the audience the Threshold Project has been a surprising experience. The great Don Patterson humbly read his poems while standing behind a chair and said his favorite object in the Whipple Museum of the History of Sciences collection is an instrument that focuses on artificial horizons.
A week later at lunchtime I passed a sign in the grass saying NO LANGUAGE GAMES while walking to hear Sean Borodale read from his astounding Bee Journal at the Museum of Classical Archeology.
The next event was at the University Library at teatime with Gillian Clarke and Imtiaz Dharker both fresh from teaching a workshop with young Peterborough students who were so galvanized by the experience that they clapped enthusiastically after each poem.
The following evening was at the Fitzwilliam to hear part of the emotive dramatic poem ‘Pink Mist’ by Owen Sheers after which he mentioned that in years gone by summer sunbathing on the roof of the Fitz was a popular pastime for staff. Finally last Thursday at 6:00pm we gathered for Jo Shapcott’s compelling radio verse play ‘Erebus’ at the Polar Museum in a room with an enormous polar bear skin splayed on the wall next to a fierce sign: CAUTION Do Not Touch This Pelt.
Not only has the poetry been inspiring but the museums have come alive in new ways. All the events are free, there are many more to come, check the Thresholds website regularly.
I hear another boy’s voice in letters to his parents, and see his prizewinning copperplate writing in ‘A Christmas meditation’ (the prize was probably a bible).
This time the young writer is the 1940s Acid Bath Murderer John George Haigh.
Stuart Stone of the Radzinowicz Library (part of the Institute of Criminology) shows me the letters from the boy who grew up to be a serial killer. He was in the habit of dissolving his victims’ bodies in acid, thinking that if no body was found he could not be convicted.
He was wrong.
In the library’s collection are illustrated Victorian books that catalogue the weird and wonderful (and some indescribable) criminal tattood body parts, as well as studies of physiognomy and handwriting to indicate criminal tendencies.
They wouldn’t have clocked young John George.
They were great cataloguers and list-makers, the Victorians, as if they hoped that recording aberrations would throw up a pattern and turn their wild guesses into science.
(For example he showed me the Library’s collection of prisoner art, painstaking montages made of thousands of tiny photographs, large sculptures constructed from matchsticks, by people who have all the time in the world).
Above image: a photograph of one of the more distinctive pieces of prisoner art, Morning Smile, made by three young offenders in HMYOI Brinsford (the hippo has been named Asbo by the Institute).
Imtiaz Dharker, poet in residence at the University Library.
Outside the Cambridge University Library, icicles are hanging off the trees and the snow has thrown a thin blanket of silence over the streets. Inside, though, the quality of silence is different, it has weight. This silence is warm and velvety, luxurious. Walking past secluded alcoves lined with great tomes, all I can hear is pages turning and the rhythm of my own footsteps following me along the corridors like the start of a poem.
Passing the backs in the reading room, curved like question marks, I remember Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire, and the great scene of the angels in black overcoats passing through the library. Suddenly, like them, I am listening to something that is not silence at all, but the murmur of questions, the thoughts and stories of the people working here, as well as the voices coming out of the books.
In an upper room, Emma Saunders is cataloguing the papers of the First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon. On a small cushion that cradles the notebooks, she carefully opens his childhood poems for Mamsy, and there is Sassoon speaking to me in his clear ten-year-old voice.
He has tried to create a whole book of poems as a birthday gift for his mother, complete with illustrations, a frontispiece and instructions like ‘turn over’ just in case she doesn’t think of it herself. There are all the places where he changes his mind about a word, crosses it out, makes a spelling mistake. At ten he has read enough older poets to copy their poetic melancholy and sometimes just take a few lines he likes.
He goes on to fill notebook after notebook, even in the war when he is hospitalised, first with ‘trench fever’ (actually picked up in the barracks rather than the trenches) then shot through the shoulder, and later wounded in the head. In the archive, among all the poems, is a hospital tag, a seemingly prosaic thing that tells a story of its own.
‘Siegfried Sassoon’s hospital ship identification tag, used when he was evacuated home during the Battle of the Somme, August 1916. From CUL MS Add. 9852/1/7.
Walking into the Cambridge University Library is like walking into one of the architect Giles Gilbert Scott’s powerhouses, and it does feel like a powerhouse of knowledge – all the knowledge of the world well cared for, preserved and disseminated from this one source.
I am looking forward to workshops and readings but most of all to welcoming the students of Thomas Deacon Academy into this treasure-trove.