Alison Gibb reviews
Shooting the Breeze
By Linda Chase and Len Grant
Shooting the Breeze is a collection of poetry about the people, for the people. A collaborative project between American poet Linda Chase and British photographer Len Grant that started out as a bit of an experiment, became a slide show/reading for the Didsbury Arts Festival 2010 and finally this book. A collection of compelling documentary portrait photographs and simple poems, it celebrates the lives of the residents and passers-by in four diverse communities in Manchester, which they met over the course of a day.
Chase and Grant’s mobile Show‘N Tell photographic studio creates a contagious energy of curiosity and optimism that is present in both the portraits and the poems. Babies, couples, elderly ladies, teenagers, unemployed young men and workers all beam out of the pages of the book. Grant’s excellent photographs make VIPs of all his subjects. His images capture the self-respect, dignity, pride and humour of these people. They are a show of humanity at its best, further demonstrated in the generosity of the subjects to participating in this project. Each double page is made up of images and a poem. The photographs are inviting and a pleasure to look at. The poems, short and sweet, complement the images. Chase’s simple, naïve writing style, creates confident, unpretentious poems. Here, she writes in response to her experiences on the day. The content and form of her poems incorporate what she sees, hears, feels and exchanges with the people she encounters. In ‘Esprit’, Chase refers to the logo on Rebecca’s, Spirit of Cherokee, T-shirt, to set the tone and title of her poem.
At other times she take risks and she goes off on a whim. ‘White Cello Case’, a poem accompanied by a photograph of man standing with a white cello case, is little more than a play on the White Rabbit’s familiar lines in Alice of Wonderland ‘…I’m late, I’m late, how can we still debate / Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev? / I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!’ Here, collaboration has freed the poet, allowing her to write impulsively, associating what she sees with a known lyric. The factual strength of the image, allows the poet to be more fanciful with her text. The poem’s lack of originality, is easily forgiven when read in relation to the image of the man with the white cello case, presumably late for his next appointment.
Occasionally, Chase seems to gets a bit carried away with herself, projecting through the poems what she imagines or hopes these peoples lives to be: ‘Let’s Say’ a poem and image of two young men sitting on one push bike, seem to be entire make-believe: ‘..Let’s say they’ve had a hearty breakfast of bread, / cheese, olives and tomatoes with Arturus’s aunt.’ At other times, her playfulness is put to better use, adding to the spontaneous energy of the photographic moment: In ‘Couple’, a poem and image of a young couple in their early twenties, Chase uses the language of their professions as metaphors to gently spin a fitting love poem: ‘…His labourer’s hands pile, / one on top of the other ….Her hairdresser’s hands stack… …plaiting and intertwining.’
It is hard to imagine Chase editing these poems much. Here less is more. In keeping the poem simple and not overly worked on, she is able to stay closer to her initial experience and to produce more genuine impressions. ‘Standing’, a poem and close-up photograph of young boy, demonstrates Chase’s talent to create complex impressions in a few simple words:
Declan has waited patiently
for his turn to come.
Natkita, his sister who’s four
wants to stay beside her nana.
Gail, their nana, says it’s fine
for Declan to stand for them all.
And he does. Declan the artist,
the drummer, the Man U fan.
What does Declan the artist draw?
Fiction, he says. Pure Fiction.
Grant’s photographs are extremely compelling and easy to imagine as an exhibition of large-scale prints. Few of the Chase’s poems, however, seem strong enough to stand alone without the appropriate image. Together, image and poem present a sunny, optimistic commentary on the day’s events, the people that they met and the inspirational effect of these encounters. As Chase explains at the end of the collections, the point of the project was to be collaborative, as artists and also as fellow human beings: “… I feel that these short pieces are more like captions than like free standing poems, which had been our goal all along – to create an integrated, collaborative work – poet and photographer, poems and images, people and their communitites.”
Shooting the Breeze is a great collection of photographs with accompanying poems that celebrates an optimistic view of ordinary life.
Alison Gibb has an MA in Writing Poetry from Kingston University. She is a poet and lives in Cambridge.