Nicholas Walton-Healey on photography and poetry
In Land Before Lines Nicholas Walton-Healey presents sixty-eight unique photographic portraits of contemporary Victorian poets, with a revealing suite of poems written by each poet in response to their image. Here, he tells us why he started reading poetry in the first place, and still does so now.
I first encountered poetry in my final year of VCE when my English Literature teacher introduced our class to the work of Adrienne Rich. I remember going from Rich to Sexton to Plath with a fervency I’d never before experienced. At the time, I think I saw this work more as an entrance into art than as a lifelong commitment to working exclusively with poetry and poetics.
It was then with similar delight that, several years later, I first engaged with the work of poets affiliated with the so-called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school – Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Bob Perelman’s The Marginalisation of Poetry and the sprawling or rambling transcriptions of David Antin’s performance works. I found the political and philosophical intentions behind the way the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets deployed or used language reaffirmed my belief in the importance of poetry, language and art. It was around this time that I met Pi O, one of many local poets that left a significant impression on me. I remember thinking how brave and remarkable it was that Pi O was up on stage giving this incredibly passionate reading to roughly six people. That was really how I became interested in the personalities of poets; I wanted to explore the purity I found in their love and commitment to their craft and art form.
The following semester, I enrolled in a poetry subject at university that happened to be taught by Philip Salom. The two of us engaged in endless conversations about the work of Berryman and of Pessoa. Yet it wasn’t until I moved away from poetry and into photography that I was actually able to contribute something to the former medium. I had tried writing poetry for several years but photography just came far more easily to me.
My engagement with poetry meant I was able to work with poets in a way that would’ve been difficult for a photographer uninterested in, or privy to, the ideas or politics of their particular world. At some point, I realised I wanted to compile a manuscript containing the poetry and portraits I’d taken of people involved in the contemporary Victorian poetry ‘scene.’ The personalities of these people are generally complex, eccentric and frequently antagonistic towards one another. It was both challenging and rewarding to place myself in the centre of this. Documentary photography often has a strange affinity with outsiders and poets are, in some sense, doubly marginalised. First, because they work in the arts. Second, because the artistic medium in which they work is typically unable to be reduced to a commodity.
Land Before Lines is about this community and the unique personalities that simultaneously comprise and jeopardise it. The book strives to transcend the lines separating the different factions of this community – the academic poets, the street poets, the performance poets, the poets that otherwise fall somewhere in-between – by presenting an intimate insight into the work and lifestyle of the people that tirelessly commit themselves to this medium.