In conversation with Richard Skelton about Reliquiae
Artist Richard Skelton has, between 2005-2011, published twenty editions of music through the Sustain-Release Private Press (Heidika, Carousell, Harlassen, A Broken Consort, Riftmusic, Clouwbeck, Richard Skelton), culminating in *SKURA, a 20-disc box-set retrospective (now also available as an MP3 DVDR with accompanying catalogue).
Richard currently runs Corbel Stone Press with Canadian poet and musician Autumn Richardson.
Last year they published Reliquiae:
"an annual journal of poetry, short fiction, non-fiction, translations and visual art... Each issue collects together both old and new work from a diverse range of writers and artists with common interests spanning landscape, ecology, folklore, esoteric philosophy and animism."
Mark Thwaite: You're best known as a musician, Richard, so why venture into producing a literary periodical?
Richard Skelton: Despite both being musicians, Autumn and I met over a shared interest in poetry and nature writing. It very quickly became apparent that we would begin our own press, and in 2009 we published our first collaborative collection, Typography of the Shore (subsequently collected in Field Notes). We've since published over twenty titles, all written either individually or collaboratively - so you could say that literature has been just as important to us as music over the past half decade. From the very beginning, we had the idea to produce a journal which distilled our shared interests, and so Reliquiae has gradually evolved over the ensuing years. Although Corbel Stone Press has primarily been a vehicle for our own work, it was a great aspiration of ours to publish work by people that we admire - and so the idea of a journal gave us the necessary impetus to begin gathering together various old texts and contacting possible contributors.
MT: Reliquiae brings together writing about "landscape, ecology, folklore, esoteric philosophy and animism" - these, presumably, are what animate your own writing, and your music?
RS: Yes, indeed. Reliquiae can be thought of as an expansion of the circle that we began with our own work. As individuals - and even a partnership - we can only do so much. What has been wonderful for us is the bringing together of different voices, and observing the connections between the seemingly disparate; finding resonances between the geographically and chronologically isolated; publishing fresh, new work alongside the out-of-print and nearly forgotten.
MT: Reliquiae is beautifully designed and typeset - were the aesthetics of the object as important to you as the contents themselves?
RS: With all our work we're simply trying to find the most suitable, appropriate and beautiful way of presenting it. We do believe that beautiful, tactile objects can enhance experience - that a stimulation of all the senses is important. Visually, with Reliquiae we were aiming for transparency, clarity and respect for the text itself. This is one of the first things we've published that isn't our own work, so we felt more of a responsibility to get it right. We'd like to think that Yeats or Rossetti would approve. As ever, there are always things that we would change, and there are always compromises. We were working to a budget, and to certain time-constraints. One of the exciting things about starting a journal is in seeing how it will evolve - and hopefully improve - over the coming years.
MT: Reliquiae travels to Greenland, Finland and beyond, and then back to the Isle of Man! There seems to be a strong sense that you're working hard to make sure that the focus on landscape isn't in any way parochial... that right?
RS: To put it simply, the journal reflects our various interests. In our personal work, the focus is necessarily narrower - creativity often involves a process of reduction, of distillation. By contrast, selecting texts for Reliquiae involved bringing more in, opening up, following connections outwards. It just so happened that the focus on landscape was diverse - whether or not it has set a precedent, we'll have to see. If we felt that we had an agenda, it was to draw attention to what we felt was overlooked, passing, or forgotten. The word 'Reliquiae' itself references 'remains', and there is some sense that it's a salvage project. An attempt to recover something vital, no matter where that might be from.
MT: Poetry of place has a nasty habit of being, if not xenophobic then sometimes worryingly insular - how can we balance concern with place, and love of locality, with open-heartedness and (radical) hospitality?
RS: I don't necessarily see insularity as problematic. As I mentioned, for us at least, the creative process necessitates a sharpening of focus, and a sense of clarity which comes from the immediate. We're fascinated by proximity, and most of the work that we do is inspired by our close surroundings. Autumn and I spend long periods of time immersed in a particular environment, deeply engaged with its topography, history, flora and fauna. An often unspecified, ambiguous and yet powerful sense of attraction has brought us to each place, and the creative work embodies that fascination. I think sometimes we fail in our task if we try to apply general rules, to make assumptions - the universal can be found in the individual, implicitly, without the need to make such things obvious. In fact, it's often the particularity of a work that distinguishes it, and - paradoxically - that attracts people to it.You mention open-heartedness and hospitality, and perhaps it's as publishers and editors, rather than as individual artists, that we can address such issues. By bringing together unique perspectives on place, the context provided by a journal such as Reliquiae can help overcome any sense of cultural isolation. We hope that our readers will take as much from an Inuit song, or an essay on Sufism, as they would from Jefferies' English nature writing, or the Celtic mysticism of Yeats or Ledwidge. Moreover, we hope that they would find commonalities between them.
MT: Reliquiae offers many delights - for me the discovery of the names of Henry Kirke White and Hans Henny Jahnn, and your own piece on the now-extinct grey fell fox. Putting together a journal is a journey of discovery in itself - what were you happiest with bringing into the light?
RS: It was a great delight to publish Noor de Winter's translations of Jahnn's Fluß ohne Ufer, because, as far as we know, these are the first English versions of this work. You mention 'bringing into the light', and this accurately describes our intent - so making Jahnn's work more accessible feels emblematic of what we're trying to achieve with the journal. Similarly, Autumn spent a great deal of time and effort working on English versions of Knud Rasmussen's own Danish translations of Inuit songs. For us, they are particularly poignant, as the resulting work is a translation of a translation - there are therefore levels of remove - of distance and ambiguity. Moreover, the written text is a remainder of something that would have been sung in Greenlandic, long ago - an oral tradition. It is the faintest of echoes, and yet it is incredibly powerful and moving. The words to 'A Little Song' are apropos, as they make an appeal for renewal through the words of others, which is a key theme of Reliquiae itself:
I sing a little song,
someone else’s worn,
but I sing it as my own;
my own dear, little song.
And so I play
this worn out,
and I renew it.
MT: Have you been pleased with the reception to the journal?
RS: One of the many nice things about being a small press is the direct contact we have with our customers, and many have sent wonderfully positive feedback in response to the first issue. We've also had some very kind words written on various websites and blogs, so it feels like a good start.
MT: What have you learned and what may you do differently next time?
RS: Hopefully it's a case of 'more of the same', rather than doing things differently. It was an incredibly rewarding experience for us to work for the first time with other writers and artists - to help usher their work into the world. The whole process engendered a real sense of community and mutual support, and the finished publication was well received by each of the contributors - so this bodes well for future editions.
MT: Are you already gathering materials for the next issue? What do you have in store for us?
RS: Yes, the next issue is already taking shape, although we're staying tight-lipped as to what's in store. Perhaps nearer the time we can give you an advance preview...