This is the text of the talk I gave at the launch of proviso
at the Small Publishers Fair, London, on 6 November 2015
More information on proviso here
In 2010 I travelled to Greenland. I ended up leaving a word behind there. I’ve tried to get through the last five years without it. It’s a common word, without an obvious alternative, so occasionally I have to reorder my sentences in a convoluted manner to get around the fact it’s not there any more.
Why do this? Partly, it was a promise I had made. Before I left the UK I stayed with my good friends Frances and Nicolas McDowall who run the Old Stile Press in the Welsh Borders. It was December, and snow fell until their house was surrounded by deep snowdrifts. We joked that it was probably unnecessary for me to go to Greenland - there was enough ice and snow on our doorstep. It was like the trial runs polar expeditions used to go on: I practised all the activities I had planned for the Arctic, such as writing in the snow with maple syrup, and allowing the lines of sugar to harden into candy. When I finally left Frances and Nicolas inundated me with things I might need on my travels. I don’t remember when they concocted the scheme to give me a word to take away with me. Perhaps over a glass of Campari by the fire in the evening.
This word had been letterpress printed at the press several years before as part of a commission: a keepsake for a grand dinner held by a major media organisation. It is a beautiful piece of typography, though modest in size. But after printing was complete, the organisation changed its strategy, and the McDowalls were left with a large edition of these words, which lay forgotten in their attic.
Anyone who has trained as a letterpress printer or typefounder, who has cast type from molten lead, tin and antimony, and then set and printed it by hand, will understand how language begins to grow concrete in the process. I have often adapted my texts according to the number of sorts I had in the typecase, for example. In Greenland, by contrast, my experience of language was the reverse of physical. This is an oral culture, where for many years words were passed on in songs and stories, and never written down. As a writer, I found this historical lack of textual authority challenging. The original Danish missionaries did too: when they came to Greenland in the 18th century they introduced printing, despite the problems presented by using ink in freezing temperatures. But does printing ensure a language’s survival? Soon Danish was the first language of the nation, and by 2010 West Greenlandic was accorded vulnerable status on the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.
In Upernavik I got to thinking about the English words I had, valuable words to me, that were useless in Greenland, and thinking about the words that the Greenlanders were using. I began to gain a few Greenlandic words and I realised if I stayed there long enough I’d probably lose some English ones.
In Greenlandic a single word can express concepts that other languages tiptoe around with a phrase. I was delighted to discover that on waking up in the morning I could say nuannarpoq rather than ‘I am full of a delirious joy in being alive’. Or illisiverupa, which means ‘to put something away in a safe place and be unable to find it again’. As I grew accustomed to densely-woven Greenlandic, with its small alphabet of only 19 letters and polysynthetic words, I began to find English finicky and prim in contrast. As though they were knucklebones used in a game of dice, I shook up tiny English words and scattered them before my audience, having little influence on the score.
The Greenlandic language has always been haunted by absences. When spoken, the suffixes are uttered so softly that an untrained ear cannot hear them. Verbs accrue morphemes, while nouns tend to disappear. It was once customary to name people after objects, but since a taboo forbade reference to the dead, the favoured objects were repeatedly renamed. The original names/words were never used again. The power of such words is not diminished by their absence from the vocabulary.
proviso documents an intervention I undertook at Upernavik Museum as part of my investigation of lost languages. A clause in my contract as Writer in Residence read ‘Visual artists must leave a work behind in the museum, but writers are not required to do so.’
This proviso irked me a little. I understood that it was merely a reflection of the lack of prestige accorded the written word in Greenland, the preference for visual media. Needless to say, it was liberating to be excused from producing any work during the residency. However, it seemed strange that I should be exempted on account of working with language, when the Greenlandic language had proved such a rich resource for me. It set me to wondering how I might circumvent the rule and leave something verbal behind. Something not too obtrusive, something that no one would have to read. (I was thinking of the environmental caveat - variously attributed - ‘take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footsteps’.)
So I decided to leave behind just one word. Luckily I had a manifestation of language handy, in the form of the printed fragment created by Frances and Nicolas! I decided to not only leave the paper behind, but also excise the word from my language, so that I would never be able to use it again. It is a word on which future actions depend, so it is relevant to a place where decisions are being made that may change the fate of the globe. Climate change for example, or isolated events, like the recent, controversial proposal for a uranium mine in South Greenland. Of course, the word also features in a famous English poem.
It was to the Greenlandic dictionary that I turned as a custodian, leaving the word between its pages. Greenlandic has a long tradition of adopting loan words so I like to think my insertion will be welcome. Of course, that word was only one of a large edition printed by Frances and Nicolas. Perhaps it was the weight of all these unwanted words that led me to create the artist's book proviso as a record of the intervention. My own vanity likes the idea of leaving things behind too much.
Photographs (c) Peter Abrahams / Lucid Plane