A Poem at Tate Modern

We are all expertsOn Friday, I got to do something unusual. As part of WE ARE ALL EXPERTS, a new series of events run by Raw Canvas at Tate Modern, I was invited to talk for five minutes about piece of art of my choice to a room full of young art-enthusiasts and random passers-by.

My favourite way to engage with any kind of art at the moment is to sit down and write about it creatively, to see what happens. For this event, I chose a piece of sculpture by Miroslaw Balka, descriptively entitled 480X10X10. It’s a long string of soaps hanging from floor to ceiling. The soaps (all used) are threaded on to wire and are all different colours, sizes, textures and shapes. They look like stones or beads or even chewy sweets.

A close-up of a soap-chain by Miroslaw Balka

A close-up of a soap-chain by Miroslaw Balka

At the beginning of my performance I asked everyone in the audience to think of a word in response to the soap-string. Here are some of the words people came up with: collection, sea, beads, necklace, coral, holocaust, clean, upset, mundane, eat-me. Between each section of the poem I pointed at different people in the audience for them to say their word. So the audience composed a ‘list poem’ in response to the artwork, which became part of the poem I’d written.

I had some great reactions to this, including the best kind of audience comment: “I’m usually skeptical about poetry, but I really loved your piece…”.

Here’s the poem. It was difficult to hear all the audience’s words as the acoustics weren’t great, but I’ve inserted an approximation:


I used to love collecting.
To see a family of things connected
A string of beads
A line of coloured stones
Bones curved in a spine.

I collected pebbles.
The beach was my museum
one by one I’d turn them
rinse them in the shallows
till they gleamed, moss green
slate grey, a grainy darkness
between red and black.
I’d press them in a snake
across the sand, run tiny fingers
wet, along their shapes
as smooth as soap, they smelt
of the places they’d washed.
They could have been anything.


I want you to shrink this
to the size of your pocket
take it with you, hold it
lick it, wherever it’s touched.
Let smell connect to memory:
lavender, white musk
a whiff of Imperial Leather
your grandmother’s bathroom
soft hands on your skin
lather and bubbles and snow
building worlds out of foam.
I want you to look beyond
meaning. To make it your own.


I used to love collecting
to see a family of things connected
A string of beads
A line of coloured stones
Bones curved in a spine.
I wonder what things you collected.

4 thoughts on “A Poem at Tate Modern

  1. This is a fantastic poem. I admire the way in which you convert such simple objects and words into things totemic. (I just came across your site today by accident and am looking forward greatly to reading more of your poetry.)

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