In May 2023 Vanessa Onwuemezi was the inaugural writer in residence with the Roberts Institute of Art (RIA) in Scotland. During her residency she met with poets, writers and scholars interested in the relationship between land and language, belonging and translation, and perception and description. One area of her research centred on how weather is translated in writing, another on accounts of UFO sightings in Scotland. She looked at each with the intent of exploring what they could reveal about perception and the ideas of home and belonging.
Colin Herd is a poet and lecturer at the University of Glasgow. His collections include Too Ok, Glovebox, Click + Collect, You Name It and, most recently, Cocoa and Nothing.
They wrote to one another in July 2023, following an in-person dialogue that took place at the Roberts Institute of Art Residency on 31 May 2023. You can watch a recording of that conversation here.
One thing that came up repeatedly in my reading while in Scotland on the Roberts Institute of Art residency is the idea of relation. This Little Art, by Kate Briggs, looks at how one language relates to another. Édouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation of course has relation as its central theme in the form of creolization, the limitless ‘meeting and synthesis’ of differences. And Carl G. Jung, in his Flying Saucers, suggests that the UFO sighting is a means by which someone relates to a subconscious or exiled part of themselves.
I’ve been reading about UFOs – or UAPs as they’re now termed – as research for the novel I’m writing. I’ve been thinking of the UFO sighting as a contemporary form of exile for the individual who experiences the event, or, perhaps more positively, as a form of subversion. This plays into wider themes in my thinking around the sense of home – in place, language, and in the creation of atmosphere and place in prose.
I was in Berlin last weekend, where there’s a fascinating exhibition on called UFO 1665 at the KunstBibliothek. It details an event from 1665 off the coast of Stralsund, in which herring fishers saw a ‘flat round form like a plate’ in the sky, and then an ensuing battle of ships in the air. This prompted considerable hype and frenzy. Depictions of the event in media persisted for decades. What interests me about this event is that alien life was of course nowhere mentioned in any of the coverage, because that idea was not in the collective consciousness. If the same events were witnessed today, they’d be considered a UFO sighting. The focus in all of the contemporary accounts was of the phenomenon as an act of God. It got me thinking about exactly the way that knowledge itself is a poetic and interpretative relation. Glissant has this idea of the world in its entirety, the echo world (the world of relations) and the chaos world ( those aspects of the world that cannot be systematised). I’m interested in the ways that UFOs seem to be part of the chaos world, in that they herald the inexplicable and impossible-to-systematise, but in fact the correlations across centuries and cultures of UFO accounts are incredibly similar, which suggests they belong more in the echo world, the aspect of the world through which we form our poetic relation to existence.
How does your current work relate to the themes of home, exile and alienation?
Before I answer your question I’ll say that yes, the idea of an ‘extra-terrestrial’ would have been absent from the conception of the world at that time, at least publicly. Only a few years before Galileo was tried for heresy and his book Dialogues, which seemed to advocate the view that the Earth went around the sun, was censored. So in that context any conception of earthly events was likely to be interpreted very differently than today. Having said that, there is a commonality to the ‘sign from God’ and the ‘extra-terrestrial’ – both mean that we are not alone.
This swings right back to a theme that seems to reappear in my reading and writing of alienation – exile, humanity being cast out of the garden of Eden, or as castaways in the universe.
It’s true also that there does seem to be something tangible about the UFO phenomenon – in the ‘echo world’, as you say – in the sense that there is physical evidence in the form of recordings and sightings, but then the almost unbearable ambiguity of the experience places it in another space, into ‘the chaos-world’. I’ve just been reading some of Aleister Crowley’s Magick in Theory and Practice, in which he speaks of ‘chaos’ as a generative force, not dissimilar to Glissant’s notion of the ‘chaos-world’, which I interpret as essentially a dimension outside of time and space.
In the small section of the novel that I have written so far, there is a line – ‘It has a realness which is not the same as mine’ – which I think points to all we are discussing now. The UFO straddles dimensions both known and unknown to us, and therefore has a reality that feels different to that of everyday life. A reality compared to which our existence becomes unreal. Like when something catastrophic happens. The experience feels unreal, time slows. These are the moments when you are paying more attention than you usually pay to the things in front of you. You are both within the world and outside of it – ‘the world’ as defined by your assumptions – at the moment everything changes.
Paul Virilio has this idea of ‘speed pollution’ and ‘the tyranny of real time’, where we are alienated from being able to understand our relation to space – and I guess any idea of what home might be – by experiencing everything ever-more-immediately, to the point that there is no room for deferral or thought. One of the examples he uses are astronauts, who experience a shift in their relation to time by being taken out of the day-night cycle. Another example are 24-hour casinos. I think this also has something to do with relation, because our relation to the world requires a certain amount of time . If we experience everything instantly then there is no time to relate to anything. It’s like when you understand a language when reading, but as soon as someone speaks it to you they speak so fast that all meaning is lost. There’s a moment in Robert Lopez’s brilliant novel Kamby Bolongo Mean River where the narrator speaks of listening to the time, or space, between words rather than the words themselves: ‘for instance I don’t know what happy has to do with birthday or good with morning’. I wonder if you are interested in the ways in which time can also alienate us as individuals?
Absolutely, yes. Reading what you were saying about ‘speed pollution’ got me thinking about Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy, in which he points out that writing, or literacy, is a deeply interiorised technology that has restructured human consciousness, and thus our relation to the world. Until literacy was widespread, no one would have known what calendar year it was, nor the year that they themselves were born. Writing has allowed us to develop interiority and analytical thought, which are its gifts, but with it we have lost orality, which gave us the connection with the word as an ‘event’ in time, a sound. The written, then printed, word ushered in one form of intellectual freedom, but also alienated us from certain kinds of experience. Words only point to experience, they can’t replace it.
So perhaps the Robert Lopez example you provide shows us what has happened when we became literate. The real event, the sound of the word, is replaced with the picture of the printed word that remains static in time. Now, we tend to expect that same changelessness from the world. So perhaps that is where the alienating begins. We understand the world one way, and then it shows itself to us in another way, a way that we fail to recognise.
To come back to exile, and the UFO, this alienation exiles you from the world that you knew. You lose the ‘inner sense of home’.
I’m interested in this ‘inner sense of home’, and whether one aspect of where UFOs sit in our imagination is in the estrangement of us from our own sense of ourselves and our identities. They push us to exist instead in other, permanent states, what Antonio Negri calls ‘fear, insecurity and domination’. In the UFO 1665 exhibition , I was interested to see that the events were interpreted as a portent of the Anglo- Dutch Wars. Indeed, thinking of contemporary accounts too, it feels like UFO sightings often go hand in hand with anxieties around cultural militarisation. When you write, Vanessa, are you conscious of writing from / to a sense of home, or away from / opposed to one? Dark Neighbourhood is everywhere concerned with ideas of home, but it is never homely, never easily comfortable or comforting.
I definitely write towards a sense of home, but it is, as I’ve said, an inner sense. Perhaps better described as a sense of ‘rightness’. This is different from pleasure or excitement, but it could be described as ‘joy’, in the sense that I want to allow everything to feel aligned. To put it more clearly, I feel that the story knows what it is and what it is not. I am trying to allow it to be itself. And so I usually have a sense of when I’m writing towards popular opinion, or ideas of what my character ‘would do’ according to my cultural biases, or what they ‘should do’ according to my political biases. These have to be put aside, and that allows me to write what is true instead. I know what the story is in the same, intuitive way I know when something is right for me. I know when I like the taste of something, for example, or when I like a person and want to see them again. You just know. It is the same inner knowing, which here we have termed ‘home’ or ‘rightness’, which guides artworks, and, I believe, everything in life that is worthwhile.
The link to military threat is a common one. Carl G. Jung noted that ‘emotional tension’ caused by the unpredictability of ‘Russian policies’ might provide a psychic link to the UFO phenomenon, as sightings multiplied after the beginning of the Cold War. But he stressed that whatever the phenomenon actually is, ‘The cause must strike at the roots of our existence if it is to explain such an extraordinary phenomenon as the UFOs.’
On Friday, Bastille Day, I went with a group of poets to try to find Loch Letter near Callander. It is nearby a Loch called Loch Venacher, which we dubbed Loch Vernacular to sort of stage the oral / literacy questions you mentioned. One of the poets left their phone in my car (an escape from speed pollution perhaps) and I delivered it back yesterday. We went walking along Newhaven and began talking about the haar, that word for a very specific kind of fog, associated with Scotland but, as I think you discovered when you were here, a word with Dutch origins. What was it that intrigued you about the haar? We never found Loch Letter by the way – it is approximately the size of a postage stamp according to some.
I love the idea of a Loch the size of a postage stamp. It brings to mind a line which I think is attributed to a Borges story: ‘Real places do not exist on maps.’
The haar – yes, it’s a Scots word with Dutch origins. The word ‘the haar’ can be found as far north as the Shetland Islands and as far south as East Anglia, according to an article by Benjamin Morris, ‘Air Today, Gone Tomorrow: The Haar of Scotland and Local Atmospheres as Heritage Sites’, which I also read while in residence. I first heard the word while visiting Arbroath, a fishing town on the East coast of Scotland.
The word probably caught my attention because it’s a Scots word still widely used among speakers of English. This gave it an air of mystery whenever I heard it. Not knowing the meaning of this word, ‘the haar’, in an English-language context almost personified it. If I were writing it, I might approach it as a character rather than an atmospheric event. You can have a relationship with it, and it speaks of a people’s relationship to the land in which they live.
It is out of these relations – between people, land, weather, objects – that narrative is built. Would you agree? You’ve just written a collection about your relationship to Ritter Sport, Cocoa and Nothing, written in collaboration with, or relation to, another poet.
The book came out of a gift of a Ritter Sport chocolate bar that the poet Maria Sledmere gave me. Like many gifts it came with a catch, or a contract: she said I owed her a poem in return. From there, we wrote Cocoa and Nothing, which chocks in at 400 square pages, through a process of exchanging chocolate ( IRL and virtual) and poems (maybe IRL and virtual too, now I come to think of it).
I think I know what you mean by atmosphere here. That links, for me, to the way that Glissant writes of the joy of moving between atmospheres, where the word atmosphere is functioning almost like border but obviously so much less defined. The process of writing Cocoa and Nothing felt like sharing an atmosphere of consciousness and mutual obsession with Maria, and it was totally intoxicating because she’s such a brilliant poet.
The idea of rightness you mention is so intriguing to me. It is the same reason why in my own work I’m interested in the idea of embarrassment . Embarrassment feels to me like it’s often engendered by a sense of inner rightness being in conflict with an outer or social sense of what we should be doing. John Wieners said he always tried to write the most embarrassing thing, and I like that as a literary approach.
I like that, and yes, it’s often true. I sometimes find myself cringing inwardly when I read my own work aloud. Circling back to our discussion on orality, I wonder if reading – or perhaps performing is a better word – your own work engenders this sense of embarrassment for you? As a poet, you might agree that performance is as much your work as the work written on the page.
In writing you create distance between you and the text after you write things down – you can forget about it. In performance the text is re-enlivened, it is made ‘real’ again.
I agree with that idea of work being made ‘real’ again in performance, but it maybe has that sense of where we started: ‘a realness that is not the same as mine’. When you perform a piece of writing and an audience experiences it, you realise that they are all experiencing completely different texts, related but also unique. I haven’t thought of it in this way before, but performing text aloud in front of an audience is a little like Glissant’s echo world in miniature. For me, embarrassment is also interesting because it is a visible signal of the moment where we as individuals meet the collective we find ourselves situated in. James Scully writes of the line break in poetry in this way, as the moment where the poem opens itself up for the world to creep over it, Haar-like maybe. In this sense we all experience the world at a line break. Embarrassment wouldn’t make sense if we only experienced the world singularly. A poetry reading can be an interesting Petri dish of that: nervous laughter; contagious boredom of confusion gradually spreading.
So beautifully said. I’d never thought of a line break in this way, but I think most of us have an intuitive sense of this, especially if you’ve ever experienced the embarrassment that comes with performing your work. I put a lot of gaps in the lines of my stories, which for me is something more oral than textual, although there is a visual effect. When read aloud these gaps become pauses which, as you say, invite in the echo world. The haar, the way the mist fills our vision, has a parallel in the sound world in the way silence fills a pause.
Once I wrote a collaborative poem with a friend and poet, Martin Wakefield. We used lines from 50 Cent’s ‘Many Men’ and mixed them with the Emily Dickinson poem ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’. On performing we paused on the line breaks for an excruciatingly long time. But something happened there, at the point where you feel like you just have to say something to break the silence. The echo world opens out onto the chaos world, you reach the edge of sense – perhaps that’s it – and anything can happen, you can sense the potential that underlies the world again.
The Roberts Institute of Art invites international artists to their residency in Scotland to support their practice, offering time and space without the pressures of production. The residency responds to the specific needs and aims of our residents on a case-by-case basis, and aims to provide creatively stimulating conditions for residents to explore ideas, materials and projects. During their stay, residents are connected with practitioners from different disciplines, as well as with Scotland’s rich cultural field. Find out more about RIA on Instagram and Twitter.
Cover image courtesy of Paul Maguire.