Coast to Coast to Coast

And its Tributaries

Maria Isakova Bennett

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December 2016, A marriage of text and textile

Fabric sculptures incorporating text which I was making in 2006 as part of postgraduate work, were an ideal breeding ground to explore a marriage of poetry and fabric, but it was ten years later, in 2016, after writing my own poetry for several years, and becoming acquainted with the world of poetry publications, that I started to think more seriously about the creation of a journal. From the beginning any ideas were as much for an art object as for a traditional magazine.

Setting out without a map

During early 2017, I realised that I could spend a lot of time planning for the journal or I could make a call for submissions, trusting that this would create the impetus to start the project in earnest. I knew that once the poems started to arrive, I would start stitching. In this way Coast to Coast to Coast came into being. The call went out in April, and the first journal was launched in August at The Open Eye Gallery on Liverpool Waterfront. The first issue was a wonderful learning roller-coaster:I became expert in the nuances of the feel and weight of tissue papers and how they reacted to stich, competent in selecting needle sizes for various fabrics, and experienced the fun using and choosing bookmaker’s thread and its alternatives.

Due to both the format of the journal, and because of the concept behind it, I was limited to select no more than twenty poems for each issue. Although the labour involved in producing each journal as an individual work of art is intense and demanding – on average each journal takes up to three hours to create, the most difficult part for me is saying no to poets.

Everything about the creation of Coast to Coast to Coast  – format, the nature of the hand-stitched cover, the way it’s fastened and packaged – comes from a desire to create a small journal as an art object that I hope will be treasured but frequently read. I want to create something that’s the antithesis of rapid production. I love all sorts of poetry, but I’m interested in the idea of the labour that goes into honing a poem and I wanted a sense of that labour to be present in the creation of the journal, and for the journal to really value each poem selected and published. The issues are created as limited editions (70 for the first issue which sold out in a week; 150 for Issue 2; and 99 for Issue 3 and subsequent issues). I hope that due to its size, the poems within its hand-stitched pages will be reread and maybe returned to as short meditations.

Shortly after the creation and launch of Issue 1, Coast to Coast to Coast opened for submissions for Issue 2 which was launched mid-December at The Open Eye Gallery.

Bringing together poets from different parts of the country to a city that I love is enormously pleasurable. One big bonus has been the number of non-poets who’ve happily come along to launches. The comments received from people who now own copies of the journal have been heartening and encouraging.

Coast to Coast to Coast travelling coast to coast to coast, during 2018

For the project as a whole, I didn’t have plans aside from a desire to offer poets a journal as art object in which to have their work published, to hold launches in Liverpool/ places of architectural interest, and to see Coast to Coast to Coast as an organic project – a faith that the next step of the journey will come out of where the project is at present. This was the case at the beginning of 2018 when, in addition to creating journals in the way Issue 1and 2 were created (the Original Journals), I was invited to create a Special Irish Issue for The Belfast Book Festival. Hundreds of submissions arrived, twenty poets were selected, and throughout spring, I created 70 unique hand-stitched journals, The Irish Issue. The journal had a wonderful launch at which fourteen of the twenty featured poets travelled from all over Ireland, from Cork, Galway, Dublin and so many places in between to read at the launch. It was an exciting, inspiring event.

In addition to the creation of The Irish Issue and two Original Journals during 2018, both of which (Issues 3 and 4) were launched in an apartment with a fascinating history in the Georgian Quarter of Liverpool (thanks to friend and supporter Michael Allen), I was invited to be artist and poet-in-residence at Poetry in Aldeburgh in November. The residency added two further tributaries to the project: a concertina journal – a litany to the coast – and exhibition inspired by writing from forty-eight poets around the UK, Ireland, and beyond. It was a large collaboration and paved the way for another such collaboration in 2019.

In 2018, a fourth tributary joined the project: Coast to Coast to Coast’s Individual Poet Prize, the first competition won by Jane Lovell and Rebecca Gethin for their journals, Messages and Forbidden. Two further competitions ran in 2019 and 2020, awards given to Isabel Bermudez for Madonna Moon, Lydia Harris for Painting the Stones Back, and upcoming to, Clare Best, Stephen Keeler, Maria McManus and Sarah Salway.

During 2019, Coast to Coast to Coast projects resulted in a further two Original Journals, Issue 5 and 6, a Special Aldeburgh Issue with readings at Poetry in Aldeburgh, and a fifth tributary: collaborations and commissions with individual poets including the creation of both a hand-stitched journal and a printed edition for poet Jeffa Kay (Step by Step), limited edition hand-stitched journals for Maureen Boyle (The Nunwell Letter), and an exhibition and collaboration with John Glenday (mira, 2020). This year, due to the pandemic, a collaboration for Poetry Day Ireland was adapted to an online venture: thirty-six poets responded to a prompt to create a litany to the coast which will be shared online and hopefully in Ireland once we can meet. This litany adds to two previous litany collaborations started in Aldeburgh in 2018, mapping the coast of the UK and Ireland.

Collaboration: Stitch Translations of mira, and mira by John Glenday

mira, a collaboration with John Glenday, was the culmination of three years of Coast to Coast to Coast projects, and broke new ground resulting in a limited edition of 99 hand-stitched journals, a launch, and an exhibition of Stitch Translations of John’s poems at The Byre Theatre in St. Andrews, Scotland.

For the collaboration, I developed the journal further than I had before, experimenting with papers to reflect the mood and content of poems in John’s journal and that of Untitled (Discs) 1972, a work by Mira Schendel, an artist who fled war-torn Europe for Brazil, and whose modernist works including drawings on rice paper and sculptures often featured fragility as an element. John, in his journal of twenty-four short poems responds to Untitled (Discs) 1972. In essence the journal and the Stitch Translations were a conversation between Mira Schendel, mira, John, and myself.

To create the Stitch Translations, I spent time with each of John’s poems. The process was very meditative, reading each poem and making initial sketches of ideas using only pencil and line. After sketching, I thought about media. A fragile fabric was required to reflect the experience of reading the poems and of looking at Mira’s work. The decision had to take into consideration the process of drawing with the machine, so I experimented for a few days with linen of various weights, cotton canvas, open weave sheeting and finally with muslin. I wanted to use muslin for its delicate qualities, the process of its creation is apparent in the weave, nothing hidden. However, it wasn’t possible to stitch through muslin without jamming the machine. For drawing the Stitch Translations, I used a simple straight stitch on a machine. I love the sense of line drawing – I see it as akin to writing, and feel drawn back to writing as a child. I’ve always loved to watch young children ‘write’ stories before they’re taught to write on lines or to spell. One vivid memory of childhood is the drive to write on any surface. If I wanted to use muslin, I had to ensure it would work with the needle and threads. I laid the muslin onto fine paper for stitching, and fixed each of the 24 fragile pieces to a small hand-made canvas board for hanging. Each Stitch Translation responds to one of John Glenday’s poems, and is named after the first line of each poem. This naming worked well, titles such as, don’t wait, hush now, I’m/ learning them all by heart, you/ offered him a silver coin added to the pieces and the poems, I think.

2020 and beyond

Something that started out as an idea for a journal has grown into a community of writers, opportunities to publish small, single poet hand-stitched pamphlets, and a creative space for collaborations and stitch translations. There have been poets, audience members, admirers and family who have encouraged and supported from the beginning and I’m so grateful to them. It’s been an unexpected but wonderful bonus to have the support and interest of photographer Ron Davies who has documented most of our Liverpool launches.

The rest of this year will be spent creating journals, each in limited editions, for Clare Best, Stephen Keeler, Maria McManus and Sarah Salway. I imagine, based on experience, that these will take around a hundred hours for each edition. To keep Coast to Coast to Coast projects flowing, I’ll make a call for another competition with results early 2021.

Once we’re free of threats from the pandemic, I look forward to sharing work of the Irish poets who participated in the collaborative poem for Poetry Day, Ireland, and to travelling physically and metaphorically adding further tributaries…

John Glenday’s most recent collection ’The Golden Mean’ won the 2016 Roehampton Poetry Prize. His Selected Poems will be published by Picador in 2020/21

Maureen Boyle grew up in Sion Mills, County Tyrone. Her debut poetry collection, ‘The Work of a Winter’, was shortlisted this year for the Strong Shine Poetry Award for a first collection. She is the inaugural recipient of the Ireland Chair of Poetry Travel Bursary (2017). The award enabled Maureen to research the poem, The Nunwell Letter, based on John Donne’s wife, Ann More’s stay on the Isle of Wight in 1611. Her latest publication is Strabane, published by Arlen House (2020).

Maria Isakova Bennett creator of Coast to Coast to Coast, explores ideas of stitch translation. She received a New North Poets’ Award in 2017 and was artist and writer-in-residence at Poetry in Aldeburgh, 2018. Maria has won, been placed and shortlisted in competitions including The National Poetry Competition, The Winchester Prize, Ver, and The Rebecca Swift Foundation Women Poets’ Prize, Maria has three pamphlets of poetry published in Ireland and the UK. 

Michael Brown (help selecting poems for Issues 1-3) Michael's work has been published widely in magazines. He received a New North Poets’Award in 2017. Michael was placed second in York Poetry Competition, 2019, has twice been shortlisted in the Basil Bunting Award, and in 2018 won the Wirral Festival of Firsts Poetry Competition. He was commended in the McLellan Prize by Sinéad Morrisey. Michael’s pamphlets are, Undersong (2014) and Locations of a Soul (2016). Michael's first collection, Where Grown Men Go, was published by Salt in autumn 2019. 

Ron Davies, photographer @RonDaviesPhoto