Iris Colomb: ‘In Dreams I’ve Had of Falling’

‘In Dreams I’ve Had Of Falling’ 

Suspended reading & constricted writing

 

In Dreams I’ve Had Of Falling is a project merging poetry and Shibari that I have developed with the multidisciplinary artist, Nik Nightingale. In this essay I will unpack its experiential roots and highlight their relation to my poetic process.

In the past few years I have worked between poetry, visual art and performance, particularly exploring the relationships between visual and spoken forms of text and the performativity of reading. This has led me to create a variety of textual objects that function as three-dimensional scores. These objects require specific gestures to be activated and, once activated, continue to determine my movements throughout a piece. The development of my practice has been strongly influenced by the sense of my body as an obstacle that I struggle to find a place for in my work. My interactive object pieces solve, develop or postpone these questions.

At the same time, Nik, a friend and fellow member of the interdisciplinary art collective ‘No Such Thing’, has been developing a new facet of his practice in training as a rigger in traditional Japanese bondage, also referred to as ‘Shibari’. This medium traditionally involves binding and suspending bodies with rope. He uses it to develop projects between performance, installation, film and photography. Last February, we realised that we had not yet attempted to mix the different media that had become central to our respective practices and decided to collaborate on a piece in which Nik would bind and suspend me while I performed poems written in response to that experience.

This would be an opportunity for me to finally face my body and push Nik to challenge traditional approaches to Shibari. It would demand the combination of functional and aesthetic elements of Shibari in order to design a tie able to accomodate the act of reading. We were both interested in the tension induced by bringing together an act of control (reading) and a context where control is meant to be lost (Shibari). I had no idea how I would react to the physical constraints and strains that come with being bound and suspended, but the situations which make me most apprehensive are also those I am most urgently drawn to creatively. This project had to start from that experience.

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My first encounters with the practice of Shibari were both less difficult and more intense than I’d expected. When faced with a very new and potentially challenging experience, I am often surprised by my ability to cope. However, beyond that relief, those experiences also triggered a variety of simultaneously powerful and contradictory sensations.

Strung up, my body becomes vividly physical; my awareness of it pulses, all-engulfing, persistently new. The ropes compressing my rib cage frame every - restricted - breath, each limited intake provides a rhythmical pull, calling me back out of the text and into my body. I am here, now, and this is still happening. The pressure intensifies everything. Each of my limbs is incredibly concrete, each one a dense unit of space, outlined and held. I feel them all at once; their malleability, their resistance, each of their suspended weights, and the balance between them. They are all part of it, all crucial to this one irreducible entity, this finite apparatus, my body, the inescapable machine holding me together. This awareness washes over me like an echoing crash. I read with it. I read through it, my focus stretched between the text, the strain, and the harsh clarity it continues to bring. I am here, and this body is all I have.

In this intense state of self-awareness, I felt completely disconnected, separate from my environment; trapped, not so much in the ropes as in my body itself. However, this exacerbated inward focus was combined with the strong impression that the source of the entire experience was external. I had a similarly insistent sense that some ‘thing’ was happening to or being done to my body, a form of aggression or accepted intrusion that was completely new to me. Reading kept me focused and actively engaged throughout – and despite – the experience, introducing a familiar and comfortable element to a new and challenging experience.

Beyond this network of sensations, I was fascinated by Shibari’s technical precision and its roots in a combined physical, material and anatomical knowledge. As Nik created complex structures made of multiple simple knots to support my body, his gestures felt calculated, controlled, almost clinical. Through this, the ropes’ tightness and my resulting compression took on a secure, technical and pragmatic dimension. In this sense, I could understand Shibari as a sophisticated craft, and my own body as a material similar to that with which I made my poetic objects.

Around twenty minutes after each session, my memories would already begin to fade as if spontaneously eroding. It was difficult for me to remember my exact sensations or to evaluate their intensity, as if my mind was shielding me from the sensorial excess. Through Shibari, I was made to feel both very separate and engulfed by constant change, both human and other; I was both a passive recipient and a stubborn performer refusing to lose focus. My initial sessions with Nik allowed me to identify these points of tension and make them the core of my response.

Before moving on to my writing process, I want to address the interpersonal aspect of the experience I have attempted to describe. The relationship and interaction between rigger and model is a fundamental feature of Shibari. The strength and simplicity of our friendship and my working relationship with Nik allowed me to place my focus entirely elsewhere. The extent of my trust in my collaborator and our mutual focus on the project meant that there was nothing distracting about our interaction. Nik’s attention to the craft was evident; he knew what he was doing, and I knew he would not let anything harmful happen to me.

*

Discussing my impressions of Shibari with Nik, I often resorted to imagery in order to express myself. A range of analogies emerged from our conversations. While Shibari’s intense focus on the body invited comparisons with casting or life modelling, its constrictive structures linked it to animal traps or insect moulting processes. The intensity of my sensations and their engulfing effects brought to mind extreme sports such as skydiving or free diving. The elements of aggression and intrusion in my experience evoked situations in which bodies suddenly find themselves at the mercy of their environments, such as avalanches or rip currents. Losing control of my body led me to think about fainting, freezing and sleep paralysis. Beyond this, Shibari’s precision and craft linked it to activities such as binding, calligraphy or embroidery.

To explore the tensions between opposed and simultaneous sensations within my experience, I arranged 28 analogies into 14 pairs, associating images I felt were furthest from each other. Each pair brought together disparate textual sources such as a tutorial about embroidery and a medical description of fainting, an article about tightrope walking and a video comparing different animal traps, and so on. I went through these texts, selecting fragments which resonated with my experience. Once the two selections were made, I threaded them together to construct a short prose poem. I used this process to produce 14 compositions, each merging fragments of three to seven words and alternating between the two sets. Each poem would include between 100 and 120 words.

I had often used writing methods based on similarly deliberate cut-up processes, but those previous projects had always included elements of repetition, permutation and syntactic disjunction. Working the same way to produce prose poems required me to combine these fragments into grammatically viable compositions, which was an entirely new challenge. Working with textual fragments to curate new compositions demands a specific mindset, a form of focus that allows me to be both patient enough to notice the potential of multiple new combinations and firm enough to sort through those possibilities, evaluate them, go on to discard several and choose one. As the process unfolds through an accumulation of small, careful and often hesitant steps, I find myself having to consciously manage my thoughts and energy in order to maintain this balance.

This new project’s demand for coherence within a small word count pushed the process to an unprecedented level of constraint. Although my first two compositions came together quite smoothly, with the following two my initial ease and excitement gave way to hours of doubt and frustration. After struggling through the fourth composition at a time when my attention was divided between several projects, I realised this sequence would require my full attention. I arranged to produce the remaining compositions over a stretch of ten consecutive days.

Each poem required at least six hours of focus to choose the texts, select the fragments and rearrange them. In order to produce a poem a day, I would not stop working until I had developed a satisfactory draft which fit my minimum word count. This added imperative meant that I could not afford to consider the possibility of failure. This writing process developed into a kind of internal ritual.

First, I immerse myself in the material. Allowing my attention to flow freely between fragments, I notice their individual tone and structure, allowing connections to start to emerge. I can’t settle yet: I have to stay agile, unattached. To challenge my instincts I skim through several randomised versions, taking in new possibilities. Alternating between these arbitrary and aleatoric modes, I build various strands of potential combinations. As these options accumulate, my attention becomes more pointed, my choices more deliberate. With Shibari as my lense, I skip between sources, ready to grasp what will resonate. I sift through my arrangements, testing multiple iterations in an attempt to find something to hang on to. I think of this thing as the composition’s hook, a point towards which all subsequent combinations can gravitate, strong enough to hold them together. I don’t know how long it will take; I only know it has to happen and can’t be forced.

Once I have the hook, I thread the rest of the poem around it. Now, I need to be more selective while staying receptive and continuing to trust that I will find what fits. From then on the operation becomes increasingly technical; its grammatical constraints start to gain weight; my initial explorations become deliberate excavations. I repeatedly examine the remaining fragments in order to extract and merge particular types of clauses. Now I need words of specific classes, matching pronouns, verbs of a certain tense, connective words to tie phrases together. As my draft develops, the pressure builds, each choice restricting the next. To keep moving forward, I must avoid any form of frustration, cling to the bursts of energy I get from my findings, and move through moments of stagnation without letting them affect my momentum. The closer I get to the end, the more I need to find a form of cohesion; the more limited my options are, the more crucial and difficult it is to maintain my focus, to remain patient, to keep control.

At the end of each writing session, when the pressure finally dropped, the process often left me feeling drained, raw and irritable, somewhere between vague exhaustion and complete saturation. I was easily overwhelmed, struggled to manage my immediate emotions, and the impatience I had pushed against while writing would take over, as if my resources had been used up.

In responding to the challenging tensions of Shibari, I created a writing method the constraints of which pushed me well beyond my expectations. I trapped myself in an unusually tight set of constraints over a period of time solely defined by my ability to withstand and surpass them. This kept me in a state of constant tension and persistent self-awareness, as such, the writing process grew into an experience of its own. Its intensity led me to approach each of my days of writing with equal apprehension and urgency. Beyond the pressure, there was also something completely captivating about this sustained engagement with disparate fragments, and the challenge of finding poems between my recollections of simultaneous sensations and the technical possibilities of language.

 

 

Iris Colomb is a poet, artist, curator and translator based in London. She has given individual, collaborative and interactive performances in the UK, Germany, Austria, Romania, and France, at the Bucharest International Poetry Festival, the European Poetry Festival, and the Southbank Centre’s Poetry International Festival among others. Iris’ pamphlet ‘I’m Shocked’ come out with Bad Betty Press in 2018, her chapbook ‘just promise you won’t write’ was published by Gang Press in 2019, and her artist books have been collected and exhibited by the National Poetry Library and Chelsea College of Arts’ special collection. Her poems have appeared in magazines such as The Interpreter’s House, Zarf, Tentacular, Poetry Wales, Para•text and Datableed, as well as in a number of UK anthologies. Iris is the Co-Editor of HVTN Press, one of the editors of Pamenar Press and a founding member of the interdisciplinary collective ‘No Such Thing’.

 

 

 

 

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