A strong coffee shared with Stella Halkyard before social distancing was implemented was how I was first introduced to the wonderful avant-garde poet, artist and Benedictine monk dom sylvester houedard (better known by his initials always written in lower case, dsh). Stella came to be an integral figure securing the dom sylvester houedard archive in the 1990s for the John Rylands Library.
High on caffeine I left Stella feeling energised and inspired, I thought about the collection and specifically the dsh archive. Stella’s words and wonderful insights into how the collection came to exist at the John Rylands Library stayed with me. I had to know more and we arranged to meet up again.
Sadly soon after we met the announcement came from the Government regarding COVID-19 and the lockdown. Stella kindly agreed to answer three questions for the John Rylands Library Blog keeping of course to the social distancing rules!
Q. How did you find out about dom sylvester and his work?
A. New in post at the John Rylands Library I first came across dsh’s work when I was carrying out analysis of the modern literary archives, I became the first person to curate them at the Rylands in the early 1990s. Being new in post, one of the things I had to do was to find out more about the collective and individual content of the collections. So I carried out a content/collection analysis exercise, which, in general terms, revealed the subject strengths of the collections.
When I was analysing the Carcanet archive I discovered there was a lot of material relating to concrete poetry, visual poetry, and the print culture of little magazines, and artists editions including material relating to poets like Edwin Morgan and artists like Ian Hamilton Finlay. Both EM and IHF were close friends of dom sylvester and part of the same literary and artistic networks – in fact dom sylvester was the greatest of networkers within the British concrete poetry movement linking artists in the UK to artists from across the globe.
On the grapevine I heard (via Professor Ian Rogerson, former librarian at MMU) that dom sylvester had died (1992) and that the community at Prinknash Abbey were keen to deposit his archive with an institution. We were visited in the Rylands by a delegation of monks from Prinknash. They were delighted to find that the library was home not only to fantastic collections of recent and contemporary poetry and art but it also held outstanding theological and religious collections (Christian, Buddhist, Islamic and Jewish) which tallied exactly with dom sylvester’s interests and vocational work. This was very important because they had been in contact with other institutions but they were only interested in acquiring the archival material relating to dom sylvester the artist-poet. But the Rylands, however, could also accommodate dom sylvester the theologian, priest and ecumenical thinker.
I was then invited to stay at Prinknash to appraise dom sylvester’s archive. I was the first woman (apart from district nurses ministering to the sick) to be allowed into the enclosure of the abbey and given free rein to explore dom sylvester’s rooms (cells). Suffice to say it was clear it would be an important acquisition to the collection of modern literary archives and the wider collections at the Rylands! During my stay I was invited to make a pitch to the community at Prinknash at their Chapter Meeting. It was decided it should be deposited in Manchester and so it travelled North taking two trips in the Prinknash Abbey pottery van.
Q. Was there a surge in interest for his work and the dsh archive?
Yes, there was a lot of interest in dom sylvester, his work and concrete poetry in general. However it is probably since the beginning of the 21st century that deep interest has been building in his work and his influence has been noticeably felt. It is especially the case that his work speaks particularly to younger generations of artists for whom he is an inspiration. They have often visited the archive to see his work, and their encounters with it then acts as a springboard for their own practice.
Q. Can you pick a poem or object from dsh collection that you can still see if you close your eyes.
It is quite hard to confine myself to naming just one work! As dom sylvester’s aesthetic of visual poetry is highly memorable and I can picture lots of his works in my mind’s eye and the range of media he worked in is dazzling. But the work I wish to nominate is ‘wind grove/mind alone’. The first time I saw this work it was hung on the wall in the cell dom sylvester used as his study in Prinknash Abbey. It hung, by his desk, on the wall surrounded by his books (now in the strong rooms of the Rylands). It was his companion, something he looked at often. It’s a multimedia work consisting of typstract – a form he invented where the words of the poem are made by the symbols on a typewriter in red and blue (hugely exacting work). These words also act as a reversal – another form he invented – where the words can be read in different directions to make new words – in this case by gazing into the reflective mirror surface. So ‘wind grove’ turns into ‘mind alone’. And I love the way it is participatory and invites the reader in – as a reader I have to take part in making the meaning of the poem actively as I move around it. I become part of the poem just as it becomes part of me – in my mind’s eye.
Thank you Stella for being so generous with your time and words.