by Federica Giudice
A giant knitted poem for the centenary of the Poetry Society of Great Britain! What a great idea! I immediately thought - and like more than 700 knitters around the world I got in contact with the Poetry Society to receive the knit pack and start knitting my letter, which turned out to be a ‘Y’….like in happY, sunnY, lovelY,
beautY….I can’t wait to see in which word of the poem my knitted letter will appear!
The entire knitting process that resulted in a 12-inch square with a big black Y in the middle has been intense, not for the difficulty of it (even though at certain point I got all tangled with the 5 bobbins jumping around on the back of my work) but for the many questions I started asking myself about the whole initiative …’”How did they get the idea for this amazing project? What will it be like t o stare at a giant poem all made of soft and warm wool? Which poem will they choose?”… and meditations on the same process of knitting and writing poetry that kept my mind busy…” Do you realize that writing a poem requires the same attention, care, creativity, patience, time, love, passion, unraveling, reworking involved
I needed some answers and Judith Palmer, Director of the Poetry Society was really kind to take her time to answer to my questions. If you are curious even half of how I was you will enjoy reading the interview and discover how did the idea of ‘Knit A Poem’ get started and the knitting experience of a creative knitter and passionate poetry expert like Judith.
F: How and when did you think about creating the first giant knitted poem for the centenary of the Poetry Society?
J: I took over as Director of the Poetry Society just before Christmas 2008, with our Centenary year, 2009, just around the corner. To mark our 100th birthday I wanted to think of a project on a grand-scale which lots of people could participate in - something that was about Poetry but which also summoned up the idea of
‘Society’ – to reflect all the thousands of people who’ve kept the Society going since 1909.
It being Christmas, the Christina Rossetti poem came into my head “What can I give him, Poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;” So – what skills could I offer the centenary? – I thought – “I CAN. This dialogue was going on in my head as I drove up Highgate Hill one Sunday afternoon, on my way to my
friend Tanya’s house. A few months earlier, I had made a one-off knitted painting for an exhibition called ‘The Bad Painting Show” – it was a joke exhibit really – entitled “Still life with mixed citrus and surprised mule.” I hadn’t realized, but Tanya had bought my stocking stitch still life, so I when I arrived in Highgate,
there it was, hanging on the wall. That reinforced the idea that knitting was definitely the way to go.
Driving home again, the knitted poem idea began to take shape in my mind.
What I love about it is it enables people to participate in a big national project wherever they’re based, even if they are housebound, and hopefully feel part of a friendly poetry-knitting community.
F: Are you a knitter yourself? If yes could you tell us when did you start knitting? Who taught you to knit? What do you like most in knitting?
J: I’m an intermittent knitter. I like making people presents – especially if there’s a new baby – but I haven’t had much time recently. I vividly remember my grandmother trying to teach me with some red and green 4-ply just before she died. I must have been about three, and I never quite grasped it. I got stuck in properly at
University when I shared a house with a handknitter called Harriet. It meant I had someone on hand to teach me how to read patterns and help when I dropped stitches.
What do I like most? I love yarn itself – all the different colours and textures; losing myself in the meditative clicking; conjuring something into being from all-but-nothing; and the ability to give something special to someone, in this time-poor age that is quite literally a labour of love. Knitting’s also seen me through some
rough times in hospital waiting rooms and patient bedsides, where it can be so helpful to have a long project to lose yourself in and calm your mind.
F: On a long train journey do you prefer to knit or read some poetry?
J: Funnily enough, one of the first images for the project which dropped into my head was of an enormous long knitted poem – maybe Paradise Lost – stretching all the way up the West Coast Main Line, alongside the tracks, so it could be read by all the passengers travelling past. Decided there would be way too much bureaucracy involved in pulling that off!
I like doing both on trains – reading poetry and knitting – but it depends how packed the train is. If I’ve got a nice clean table, and a bit of space, that’s good for knitting. I recently made my god-daughter Eira a stripey green beret on a train from Bournemouth. Yesterday though, I was travelling down from Carlisle and I was
reading Colette Bryce’s collection “Self-Portrait in the Dark”.
F: Would you consider poetry more a craft or a skill?
J: Poetry is an art and a craft. It requires skill, but skill alone won’t make a work of art.
F: Is there any similarity according to you in knitting and poetry? Is yes, could you please name one?
J: I can’t name just one! There are so many connections. I’ve always been struck by the shared physical characteristics – building the finished piece up, line by line, row by row. That’s the most obvious one. But knitting’s also such a great metaphor for the creative process, where you take something and transform it into something else. Knitting and poetry also share that sense of compression and expansion, of interlocking things closely.
The knitted poem, I hope makes another link. I wanted people to be reminded of the work that goes into making any poem – the hours of reworking, and unraveling. Poems don’t just drop out of the sky onto the internet – they need to be carefully crafted by people. A small poem might have taken the poet a huge amount of time to get perfect – and although a poem might be a small thing, its significance in readers’
lives the world over, might be huge.
F: How many knitters are there in the poetry society?
J: The Poetry Society has around 4000 members and 14 staff (mostly part-time). Of the staff, the keenest with our yarn are probably myself and Rebecka – who is a demon crocheter. Our Publishing Manager Mike’s partner Carolyn is a crocheter, feltmaker and weaver, so he’s very wool literate. Our President, poet Jo
Shapcott has written a lovely knitting poem. One of our Vice Presidents, poet Gwyneth Lewis made a Radio 4 series about knitting and poetry, and our Vice President, Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy is also partial to a bit of a knit.
F: Are you going to exhibit the giant poem when it will be finished? Do you already know where and when?
J: We should be unrolling the knitted poem in London in October. Keep checking our website for details – and to watch us post up photos of the letters as they roll in, as words begin to form, and the full poem begins to take shape. And to read our weekly poems for knitters.
F: What are the channels you are using to promote the initiative?
J: The whole project has spread by word of mouth. Woman’s Weekly mentioned it before we had the project fully mapped out, and we couldn’t put the genie back in the bottle. Word was out and it’s just passed from blog to blog. Now we keep people updated via our website, the main Poetry Society Facebook group, our Facebook Knit a Poem fan page, and a forum on Ravelry.
F: Some of the knitters did have to drop out the initiative for different reasons, to name a few: cost of 100% wool, lack of availability in their local shops (for example, they do not use wool in Arizona as it is too hot), allergy. Is there a particular reason why you did ask knitters to use 100% wool for their
letters and blank square?
J: We were so sorry to find we couldn’t accommodate everyone. The decision to stick to wool only, was made on the advice of our advising knitters from Prick Your Finger, Rachael and Louise. The feeling was that for the whole piece to come together, we needed some unifying principles - if we stuck to all wool then sizes,
thicknesses, stretchability would vary less, the different sections would knit up better, and the colours would be more harmonious (so we wouldn't be mixing tweedy homespun with day-glo fluorescents).
F: As you said you are mainly using social networking websites to promote “Knit A Poem” and I was wondering what is the relationship of poets and poetry lovers with internet and the computer world?
J: Just as knitters need to feel the texture of yarn against their fingers, poets and readers will never give up on the scent and touch of a book in their hands. BUT most poets and readers also embrace the internet gladly, and enjoy the ability to stay in touch with a global community of like-minded people. Hopefully the Knit a Poem project will have rekindled an interest in poetry amongst knitters, and got more poets and poetry enthusiasts knitting.
Thank you very much Judith for the insight in the backstage of the Knit a Poem initiative!
Etsy Knitters, do not forget that letters and blank squares will have to be joined up and the staff of the Poetry Society will need you and your sewing needles ready to help them. Please check the Poetry Society website for details of knit-together social sessions in September and beginning of October!
In the meantime you are all invited at the joint event the Poetry Society is organizing at the SouthBank Centre, London SE1 in occasion of National Poetry Day, Thursday 8th October from 2 to 5pm (admission free). There will be live performances, films, archive footage, poetic knitting and some poetry word games using knitted letters.
The great news is that so many knitters wanted to join the Knit a Poem initiative that together with the main poem there will be a knitting a poet annex - composed of poets' names. Those knitted poet’s names will be highly visible at the SouthBank Centre event, where, in the occasion of the centenary of the Poetry Society, the BBC will release the results of the votes gathered through their website to name the Nation’s Favourite Poet.
Please contact Rebecka (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you would like to knit a letter!