‘Trust your instincts. Be true to your own (sometimes lonely) "impulse of delight"… Wait, keep listening, and let the material speak for itself.’•
(Mario Petrucci, poet)
” Finding out about archives can be a bit daunting for anyone who hasn’t used them before. For inspiration, I’d recommend browsing online catalogues first. “
Susan Snell, The Library and Museum of Freemasonry
” I suppose one could go in ‘cold’ and thereby stumble across fragments of gems scattered amongst the seams and folds of a sizeable archive… but I also spent some time online, looking at how the archive presented itself to the world. “
” There are these wonderful sleuthing tactics that archivists seem to have. It’s detective work. “
Begin with an online search (try using keyword searches using themes; names; dates; types of material).
Many archives have large amounts of information online, commonly through the publication of archive ‘descriptions’.
Don’t forget that many organisations and institutions will have an archive, so it’s always worth asking direct if it’s not immediately apparent.
Consulting the archive
Archive descriptions often include details of a record’s “conditions governing access”. If the materials you’re interested in may be viewed, draw up a preliminary list of items to explore and from here contact the archivist with your list.
At many archives, expect to receive an introduction on the safe handling of more delicate materials.
Make a booking
Book an appointment to view the items. Have an idea of what you want to explore and set aside some time to start your research.
Contacting the archivist
Telephone/send a request email to the archivist, including your preliminary list of items to view. The archivist may help you extend or hone this preliminary list before your visit.
At the archive
View the materials. This is your unique chance to see objects and documents first hand and close up.
Where appropriate (and with permission only), there may be scope for copying/photographing certain materials.
Set to work!
Begin the writing process. It may be that inspiration strikes at the archive, but be prepared to go away and mull over what you have seen.
During David Harsent’s time at Library & Museum of Freemasonry, the poet learnt that Louis Armstrong had revealed an aspiration to join freemasonry by becoming a member of the American fraternal organisation, the Knights of Pythias. In writing about Armstrong, Harsent ‘slightly replicates the rhythms of Storyville jazz’ in the poem’s taut line structure and carefully notated caesurae (or pauses).
Claims he was born | Fourth of July | underneath | a clear blue sky
Red light district | New Orleans | life barely worth | a hill of beans
(extract from ‘Louis Armstrong’s cake-walk on the chequered pavement’ — David Harsent)
Fiona Sampson’s ‘Washday’ glimpses a day-in-the-life of Irish washer-girl ‘Lily’ in 1864, based on Sampson’s exploration of the Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives.
I will swim down to the river
arm over arm among sheets
clouds and pearled river lights.
(extract from ‘Washday’ — Fiona Sampson)
Page from ‘Pathological Drawings of Astley Paston Cooper’
Mario Petrucci’s ‘Pathological Haiku’ draw on the precise ‘Pathological Drawings of Astley Paston Cooper’ (found in the archive of the Royal College of Surgeons of England). Using the spare, three-line form of the haiku, Petrucci captures the vivid yet ‘disembodied’ anatomical subjects of Cooper’s illustrations.
(right: extract from ‘Pathological Haiku’ — Mario Petrucci)
hung wordless in swill
bleached oak of bone
grown from one socket
George Szirtes’ poem ‘Hologram’ is inspired by records held at the Imperial College archive on the visionary scientist Dennis Gabor. Gabor was awarded the Nobel Prize for his invention of the hologram and Szirtes cleverly mirrors the complex fabric of a hologram in the poem’s structure. The poet uses just the words ‘there’ ‘me’ ‘image’, ‘illusion’ and ‘another’ as each line’s ending across the poem’s six stanzas, the poem’s form thus beautifully evoking the intricate repeating patterns of light that compose a hologram.
Huygens Fresnel holograms
But look, the world may be perceived as image
and yet have laws that apply to you and me.
I profess myself. I am simply the image
that I see, my own self being the image
here photographed. My parents who were there
combed my hair and tidied me. My image
was what they made it. I was the very image
of them. Although a child I was another,
an image in a mirror that is itself another.
I was diffracted, refracted. I became an image
in the mirror, the mirror that was illusion.
Everything in the mirror was illusion.
(Extract from ‘Hologram’ — George Szirtes)
Imtiaz Dharker’s ‘Cherub, St Paul’s’ (written during Dharker’s time at the St Paul’s Cathedral Archive) describes the soot and chaos of the blitz, taking as its starting point a photograph of a stone cherub found peeping out amidst the partial wreckage.
In the aftermath
the hesitant dust falls back to blanket you,
rubble tries to cradle you. Just
as we turn away, light seeks out your mouth
and wipes it with stained fingers.
(extract from ‘Cherub, St Paul’s — Imtiaz Dharker)
” I was amazed by Imtiaz’s poetry and how she brought the cathedral to life. I found her work so evocative: you got a real sense of place from these poems. “
Sarah Radford, Archivist at St Paul’s Cathedral
Cherub figure, previously part of the altar table at St. Paul’s Cathedral
Based on an exploration of the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, Fiona Sampson’s poem ‘Fish Stew’ explores the experience of an inhabitant of Paradise Row in ‘who is home-sick for the Caribbean’, powerfully evoking the slippery feel of a fish.
(right: extract from ‘Fish Stew’ — Fiona Sampson)
A carcass flips
along the drainer
its black meat full
of a stew
of dock water.
Slip your hand
this slithery undoing.
In the opening poem of Andrew Motion’s ‘In the Stacks’ sequence, Motion draws on a letter (collected in the British Library’s archives) to Rupert Brookes’ girlfriend Cathleen Nesbitt, sent by one of the friends who buried Brookes. Motion notes that the correspondent also enclosed ‘some leaves from the olive tree that bends over [Brookes’] grave’ and captures the distinct texture and feel of these objects.
(right: extract from ‘1’ [In the Stacks] — Andrew Motion)
These dry scraps are five olive leaves
Denis Browne pulled from the olive tree
growing over the grave he had just dug
for his friend Rupert Brooke in 1915
and posted back to Cathleen Nesbitt.
They look as brittle and delicate now
as the scales of a very large fish,
but I think they are what they say they are…
Simons Jenner’s poem ‘17th November 1849’ closely draws on a stock/pea-soup recipe found in the Hackney archives, mirroring the recipe’s crisp layout and diction in his poem. Jenner notes: ‘as with all information, it’s as accurate as possible… I’ve quoted verbatim, allowing period rhythms to direct sensibility, colour tone, sonance.’
Mondays, pea soup Saturday’s salt pork liquor
being two pounds penny pepper — salt onions carrots suits
leeks to taste — salt two ounces suet dripping four ounce flour
one third Patna rice — boiled fifteen minutes.
(extract from ‘17th November 1849’ — Simon Jenner)
David Harsent’s time at the archives at London’s Freemasons Hall saw the poet exploring the diverse people found to have taken the Masonic Oath, from Louis Armstrong to Oscar Wilde: “I came to see that I might produce a sequence where each poem featured a famous mason with a particular story to tell.” This poem gives an account of noted theosophist, writer and activist Annie Besant (1847-1933), and uses a range of archive materials and poetic techniques to bring its intriguing subject to life.
Illustration of a Masonic Skull
Annie Besant considers a skull:
Memento Mori in the chamber of reflection
Either the mystery has gone from this, or this
is the mystery: the human shape beneath the shape
by which we know each other. I face my father’s face
on his deathbed and saw hope beyond hope
that only mystery could replace, coming soon in place
of who he used to be. I watched him change, and change
back again. Next day my mother’s hair was white-on-white…
I’m held in this blank stare, that hollow look the look
my daughter gave me when they took her from me, took
what was usual and rich and turned it strange, estranged
and lost to me as I was lost to her as God was lost!
to both of us. I hold this head and hold this head to be
what once was Kabbalah, Hermetica, at least the least –
once here, now gone – of what it is we know we cannot know.
Annie Besant’s letter
During his time with the archives at the The Royal College of Surgeons of England, poet Mario Petrucci encountered the The Diary of a Resurrectionist, thought to have been authored by Joshua Naples between 1811-1812. In the diaries, Naples describes his activities supplying bodies to anatomy teachers in London, including to St Thomas’s and St Bartholomew’s Hospitals. Petrucci’s poem subsequently used fragments from Naples’ diary to create this colourful account of the ‘Resurrection Man’.
Joseph Naples: body snatcher
At night went out & got 3
Sold to Mr Cline St. Thomas’s.
Looked to see what funerals were about.
At Home all night.
Got paid for the 3 adults & settled.
Met & settled with Mordecai. At Home all night.
Brought the Shovils from Bartholomew. The dogs
flew at us. Could not succeed. Met early
at Mr. Vickers. Came home
At night went out & got 10 whole. Opened another
whole through bad with small pox. Found
a watch planted.
Went to Pancrass. Got 2. 1 adult 1 small.
Went to Bunhill Row got 6. 1 with the throat cut.
Sold the extremities.
The moon at the full.
Could not go got Drunk. Slept a sleep
of the unburied. I did not do
India Proofs for Anatomy, Descriptive and Surgical (Gray’s Anatomy) 1858
- Through the Door
Through the Door is a unique project from AfL and Poet in the City which aims to engage new audiences for poetry, archives and local history. By exploring the rich creative resources of archives, and the imaginative possibilities of poetry, the project aims to transform public engagement with both.
- Poet in the City
- Archives for London