letterboxing and circle poems

letterbox, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, photograph Jonty Wilde, 2005

A decade or so ago I adopted the letterbox as a means to compose walks within landscapes. Letterboxing is a kind of hide-and-seek hiking, a hobby-pursuit invented on Dartmoor in 1854, and the predecessor to geo-caching.

What drew me to the letterbox was that, like the nest-box, it is an informal sculptural form, an everyday container which conceals meaning and offers itself as a 'blue flower' to search for.

There are wooden letterboxes, like the one in the photograph, in Uruguay, beside Glenn Gould's cabin in Canada, and high on Mount Lushan, in China: their settings vary from sculpture parks, community woodland, forestry plantation, national park, and a pier. 

The boxes each contain a circle poem rubber stamp and ink pad. They are one means to solve the perennial problem: how to best offer people words in the out-of-doors, while avoiding the traditional inscription, or the language of advertising, posters, neons, and suchlike – options that I have since used, when the context seemed right. 

When I began the project I had only recently identified myself as an artist, and I was drawn to projects that combined modesty of means with a wide, even ambitious, reach. Still shy of making objects of stone and bronze, avoiding scale, wary of bombast; the idea of installing 100 letterboxes, over ten years, in locations around the globe, offered itself as a a BIG-little idea. It allowed me to work imaginatively with places I had never been, signalling a network of friends, who would site the boxes and write the guides, creating a kind of world-book.

Now it seems unlikely that I will ever complete the 100 letterboxes – it's rare for a project to remain in its original form for a decade – but, to date, over 60 have been installed. By now many of them will have been vandalised, removed, lost to weathering or bears. Their provisional nature is something I accept. The project taught me that a thing far outlasts its presence and duration.

letterbox, River Ex, photograph Lesley Kerman, 2006

Sometimes I have paused to reflect on letterboxing and circle poems; this post gathers together some of those thoughts. 

circle poems in letterboxes are the only
truly found poems

the poems are hidden so that they can be found

these poems, they have homes

letterboxing, poésie en plein air

letterbox-guides, word-maps, rubber-stamps, ink-pads,
take-away poems

a circle poem is not a flat line drawn into a loop,
a circle poem is an arc in time

in the finest circle poems there is no visible join

some day every back garden will have its own letterbox
or, for the young, geo-cache

remember to bring ink to freshen a dry pad

always report missing letterboxes, ink pads or rubber stamps

you stamp me your poems
I’ll stamp you mine (after Creeley)

more and more contemporary poetry requires
planning permission

some poems will sink, others will be stolen –
such is the fate of all poetry

Kinloch-Rannoch, Punto Del Este, Missoula:
the names are poems

letterbox, Isle of Thanet, photograph Stephen Turner, 2005

The letterbox project evolved as I adopted other mapping techniques and other means to share words. 

At Cairnhead, in a glen above Moniavie in the Galloway hills, I composed a renga word-map describing the walk upstream to the River Dalwhat's source, and then recomposed the poem, turning it around to read downstream. The letterboxes were placed as near as possible to the confluence of each little burn with the river, marking out the waterways that had helped to shape the contours of the terrain. Each burn was recorded by Suzanne Piper

Creating a poetic map of the Peak District National Park – commissioned by the rural arts project, re:place – was a highpoint in terms of quantity, with 20 boxes being sited, from the heathery bogs of Bleaklow in the north, down to Dovedale and the gentler wooded valleys of the White Peak. 

The ambition of this project, White Peak | Dark Peak, also seems to mark the moment when I drifted away from pure letterboxing. The box itself had lost some of its importance; useful as a way to protect from rain and wind, the circle poem rubber stamps were now accompanied by QR-code, printed on plaques, enabling walkers to download poems that describe over 70 views of the landscape. 

QR-code made it possible for people to walk to where the poet stood and listen to their description of the view. Technology has moved on as the project continued and the kind of experiences I wish to share does not depend on objects. 

letterbox, sited in Empel, Netherlands, Peter Foolen

This next text, in two parts, reflects some of the shifts in my thinking. It was first published in the publication for the White Peak | Dark Peak project.

each poet is a view
walking the skyline always changes
without outline there is no shape
burns to walk to, rivers to walk along
a poem is an open fold
a poem is a niche
this is our poem tom-tom
less than the whole dale gets in the poem
our views don’t replace your views
the point is: things looks different from the view
the signpost's not the footpath
the tors cast stone as celebrity
next time you walk this
new thoughts, old paths; old paths, new thoughts
a walk does the eyes good, like a poem does the mind
nature is the cone, the cube and The Peak (after Cezanne)
speculating beyond land that’s private or public
each car has an A–Z torn on the page-spread for home
sunbathing, mountaineering: pursuits have to be invented
hikes and haiku extend the mind, bending habits into particulars
hill-farming is a colloquium of specialisms

letterbox, The Roaches, photograph, David Gilbert

poem: line in time
circle poem: arc in time
horizon: line in space
skyline: earth drawn line
peak: line in dialect
audio: line fading as it is drawn
view: point
poet: view
reader: viewer
walk: in-between
map: poem (arranged NSEW)
haiku: marble
renga: beads
QR: kanji barcode
letterbox: poem-cache, ink stash
dale: V-vale
tor: storyline
sun: make a day of it
rain: are you coming to?
rainbow: meet me in the middle

letterbox, Langais Woodland, photograph, Andy Mackinnon, 2011

The last large-scale letterbox project was installed in Langais, one of the few forestry plantations on North Uist, in 2011. The angle of the weather has proved a bit much for the boxes, despite the precaution of our drainage holes. 

Scattered through the wood, the rubber stamps list the names of species – trees, flowers and mosses, birds, that we worked with Colin Will to identify – mapping the ecology of the wood. One of the poet's traditional tasks is to offer people the names for things that they may not know, or recognise, as in Langais, where the mono-spruce concealed seven other tree species, or by the Dalwhat, where the little burns meant that much more when they were given their names.

letterbox location, River Dalwhat, photograph Alexander Maris

It's true, part of me is still drawn to that moment when the handle of the stamp is brought down and the poem reveals its patterned information. Looking back over the evolution of the letterbox projects, the way they extend into maps, poems, blogs, photography, the internet and new technology, they led to the road north, where I allowed myself to become the one journeying, sharing what I saw, inviting people to stand where I stood. It only took ten years to let enter the scene.

As with letterboxes, so with the blogs that I have worked on: they desire to be books. I enjoy the possibilities new technologies allow, and they in their turn become familiar, and discover their own moods and gestures, but, nevertheless, each project is still the dream of a book I would like to make, and hope to, someday.

Some remarks on letterboxing are included in an interview that I did with Susan Tichy, first published in Practicemagazine. I would like to give especial thanks to Alex Hodby, David Gilbert, Rebecca Hall and the staff of Yorkshire Sculpture Park for supporting the letterbox project over the years.

letterbox site, Roundstone, Connemara, Tim Robinson

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