Ellen Storm

Writing the White and Purple Coats

The Serving Library


Today I went to see the exhibition The Serving Library at the Tate Liverpool. For those in the north-west, I recommend it. For those elsewhere, they have an interesting website.

A reflection on the future of libraries, this is a mixed media installation that considers the demise of printed media, and the opportunities presented by new technologies.

The Serving Library, Tate Liverpool

As my mother works for a printing company, I grew up with talk of typefaces and the smell of ink. I am interested in the visual aspect of poetry – not simply the arrangement of words on a page but also the decisions (or lack thereof) that are made regarding how those words are presented to the reader – the making of a tangible thing.

Easy to do badly, difficult to do well, often dismissed as trite, childish or missing the point – what do you think about the interface between poetry and the visual arts?

Discussing this subject, one of my fellow MA students recently suggested using words as shapes, as in Vispo by Jim Andrews. This was not quite what I had in mind, because words purely as shapes do not have inherent meaning, and for me, a poem is not really a poem unless it has some kind of meaning (although you could argue that the shapes convey or may be invested with meaning, in the same way that visual art does/is).

Can you think of a poem devoid of meaning, that still purports to be a poem?

I suppose when my daughters make up nonsense rhymes, using words they have invented, and they find those pleasing, their creations could be argued to be poems of sorts, but by and large while visual arts can be purely sensory without meaning, I’m not sure poems can. They need both.

So if you pay attention to the presentation of a poem, in terms of the media used to create the physical words on a page or rock or side of building or whatever, you are adding another sensory layer, and possibly further meaning, to the work.

Also for me there is the question of transmission: how poems may be made accessible to others (how they may, perhaps, advertise or proclaim themselves). I think this relates to the issue of learning styles. Perhaps unusually among poets, I am a highly visual person – very non-auditory – things literally go in one ear and out the other. I need to see poems to understand them. This is something I have written about before.

I had to make a plea in a poetry workshop, because it was clear that most of the members of the group were auditory learners (perhaps most poets are, but I’m not so sure about most readers) and I was the odd one out. Auditory learners like to listen to words being read aloud, and visual learners like to see them on a page. Meanwhile kinaesthetic learners like to interact with them, touch them, smell them even, through the interaction of the senses. How can this be made possible?

Can you smell a poem?

I guess I am interested in multi-sensory, mixed media installations in which words that have (or are invested with) meaning form a part of the whole, rather than are the entirety of the piece.

I’m also interested in the weight, colour and texture of the paper a poem is printed on (and whether it is recycled or from sustainable forests): the ink, and the typeface. All of these choices say something.

I’m not too keen on illustrated collections though. I haven’t seen one that really works for me yet.

Here’s the poem I wrote at the Tate:


The Serving Library


planned obsolescence


like light bulbs

built to break



designed to end



“Three asterisks calling special attention to a word or passage”

unplanned but nevertheless obsolete

end of the tactile


the smell of ink

the weight of paper



already inaccessible past

without the necessary equipment

or skills

dead media

chemical clocks




hard copy



all die with the object


the invisible university


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