“Like many games, sacred and secular, the Runes are meant to be played upon a field. The field represents the world that is always coming to be and passing away.” – The Book of Runes, Ralph H Blum
Poet Sierra Nelson came by The Project Room yesterday to install a quiet but bracing installation of interactive poetry, the Rune Library / Runasafn. She used the word ‘bracing’ to describe the effect that one can feel when reading the meaning of Runes, and I think it is a fitting word for her entire project. Going through the process she sets up for you, selecting a small volcanic stone out of a tattered black satin-covered box lined with purple velvet – found in an antique shop in Reykjavik Iceland – you catch a glimpse of your hand as it passes in front of a decaying mirror, like a disintegrating membrane between this world and another just behind the glass. Whether through chance or luck, fate or the sensual attraction of a particular shape of stone, you are selecting a poem that will be yours, that you then find in the library and sign out on the traditional library cards we no longer use, writing your name behind the others who share your poem. Then you have a few bracing moments with Sierra Nelson whispering in your ear, her voice coming back from a time she spent in Iceland as she interpreted longer voices coming through the Runic language, ideas that still resonate with our daily lives now.
I’ll be the caretaker of the Rune Library / Runasafn until I leave The Project Room on September 2. Please drop by and find your poem. Also Sierra will be back on Wednesday August 31, 2011 from 6 pm – 8-ish to share more of her work created in Iceland, talk about her experiences and just generally letting me pick her brain. We’ll start with an Icelandic pancake feast, cooked here at TPR, while Sierra roams the room asking you to fill out a survey she created in Iceland about the mythic and mundane activities of ‘sending and receiving’.
More about the Rune Library / Runasafn….
M: What inspired this piece for you?
S: I’ve always been interested and curious about runes, and while doing a residency at SIM in Iceland, it seemed like the perfect place to investigate and work with them … in a Nordic land where runes were once used, and where people still find it interesting.
I wanted to make my own set, so I began gathering stones, and many of the ones I used are small volcanic rocks from the Vatnajokull glacier.
I also was gathering notes during my stay in Reykjavik and while traveling to different parts of Iceland, images and ideas, the way I would for any kind of poem. Then when I sat down to write the rune poems, I culled these images while thinking about the different runes, to find which pieces would resonate together. As I was learning about the runes, a poem would emerge from these images coming together.
M: Your Rune Library in The Project Room has with it “The Book of Runes: A Handbook for the Use of an Ancient Oracle” by Ralph H. Blum. Did you have this book with you in Iceland?
S: I did, I had the book before I went. It’s from the 80’s and it does have a very different take on Runes, just as any book would that has to do with esoteric ideas, every era has its own perspective. But I really liked his approach to Runes; it’s a little bit more philosophical. A little less “This Will Happen to You,” and more describing a process that we are all in, that your life is always a cycle and this rune can help show you where you are in that cycle, and maybe offer some insight or advice for that state.
Blum uses a great deal of imagery from the natural world, which made a lot of sense to me, considering where runes are often used, often scratched or written into a stone or carved into a tree or wood. Each letter symbol has an individual meaning that was thought to have a symbolic power as well, and could be used as protection, to create a spell, for divination, or to give you some sort of strength during a process you are going through.
M: Have Runes always been used this way? To help people make choices or decisions? Or have they also been used to record narratives, as well?
S: They can come together to express words as an alphabet, so they can also be used to communicate ideas, as a means of expression. But they have also always had that connection with the power of the actual word itself, that symbol itself, as well as the tradition of writing the individual symbols on different pieces (stones, or pieces of wood cut from a branch) and them drawing them out individually, an act of chance or divination that could provide meaning. People could also carve them and carry them as a talisman, to invoke some sort of power that they needed to go through an experience.
M: So their function is to carry the power of the word in a physical form?
S: Yes, to me runes speak to the power of word itself. The action of creating the marks for the words brings something into being. Which is exciting! Especially in the world of poetry, when each word has quite a bit of weight…and you’re thinking about what is happening in that small space of the written poem, each sound and letter can have a resonant meaning as well. You can say Runes out loud or incant them, but the actual marks themselves carry weight and meaning. I enjoy the importance of their physicality.
M: So each poem in the Rune Library has to do with the rune symbol it’s associated with but also has to do with your own observations during your residency as you lived your daily life.
S: Yes…a bit of both. I was gathering imagery as I walked around Reykjavik and to excursions around the country. I was also gathering images from the traditional symbols and their meanings. So then as I sat down to write each poem, I’d read a bit about that particular rune and look back through my notebook and see what resonated from my experiences and what stood out in relation to the particular Rune. They are my own slant on the rune, but I really view them as gifts from Iceland, experiences that I was able to put into the poems.
M: I’ve only read two of the poems — the one I chose and the one that Hazel got — and they are remarkably like little windows onto an intimate experience of place; being in a new location for an extended period of time, once you are there for a certain period, you get to have a certain quality of daily life, an ‘ordinariness’ instead of a ‘specialness’ which actually leads to what feels like a deeper understanding of a place. I think I gasped when I read my poem! I really love the flip-flop between such a sense of history and permanence of the Rune – carved in stone — and that you could translate and record something so transitory as your lived experience of private moments into forms of an ancient language…
S: A lot of contemporary images were coming through the poetry from when I was gathering impressions from my experiences. But it seems like part of what the runes are as well, what they have always been used for – reflecting back your actual life, but you have to find what those connections are. What some of the symbols represent can be quite intense – ice, disruption – they have this bracing quality. When you find yourself in that moment, within a broad range of strong emotions, it’s really nice to have the reassurance of the runes that this is part of the natural cycle too, to have them reflect that back at you. The rune meanings give you a helpful framework to realize it is transitory, the intensity of emotion…you are a part of a much larger cycle.
M: I looked up the rune I chose in your Blum book and it did catch my breath, how the ancient meaning behind it was oh so pertinent. I chose ‘constraint’, it said ‘…the role of nauthiz is to identify our shadow, our dark or repressed side, places where growth has been stunted resulting in weaknesses that are often projected onto others’. And then in italics like I was suppose to really remember this…..‘don’t take this world personally’. It was, to use your word for it, bracing! I am so drawn into this work of yours right where it intersects with my own process in making art; I am always hunting, sometimes randomly, and usually by luck for those moments in mythologies or archetypes where I see my own life reflected back at me.
I wonder, what has it been like for people to choose a poem at random, by luck or chance and their reactions to the connection they find in ‘their’ poem? I guess that is a question I should answer (laughter)…..
S: I can speak to that somewhat…It was such a pleasure writing these poems because I didn’t feel like I was writing about me or just my own experiences — other than pulling images through my physical person. My intention behind each poem was thinking more about that person who might be pulling this rune, what they might need in that moment, what the poem might be useful for in their life. That is why I did not want the poems to live in a book — though they certainly could — I wanted to present them in a way that people could have some kind of active experience connecting with a particular poem. Being able to choose a poem through chance or fate, it becomes a more meaningful event because it came together in that way; it creates some energy and aliveness between the reader and the poem that doesn’t have to do with me.
M: This interactive quality seems important to you, both with your own work and what you have done with Rachel Kessler with Vis-à-vis Society and earlier with Typing Explosion. Putting things in flux…it seems very important to you for a long time now.
S: There just is something so great that happens during those interactive moments… Rachel and I both are very much interested in the public/private relationship. There are these kinds of moments we all have all the time, and Rachel and I aim to find ways to look closely at them. Our intention is in finding ways to reflect back those moments through the process of making art, like say, with the making a graph of data of private experiences. We try to find ways to facilitate and value the way people have a private moment of reflection, and yet we can create the opportunity for people to see their own private thoughts collectively through graphing and recording the patterns in everyone’s experience.
So it is an important private moment, choosing your rune stone from the box. But to also have to sign out the rune from the library functions as a public way to mark and record the larger patterns. The Rune Library records what is happening on any given day, and potentially providing a larger sense of where patterns might emerge. It’s a library of experiences. Were there certain rocks that people were drawn to on that particular day? Are there some runes that are pulled more frequently over time? Is there some pattern to these random meetings?
Directions for Rune Library / Runasafn
1. Choose (or select at random) a rune stone from the container.
2. Find the corresponding symbol on the library card envelope.
3. Write your name and the date on the card.
4. Find the corresponding poem to the symbol and rune name.
5. The poem is yours to keep.
6. Return the rune stone to the container.