Dr Ruth Burton writes about her work on the Ken Smith Archive in Special Collections as Leeds Arts and Humanities Research Institute Brotherton post-doctoral Fellow.

Earlier this year I was delighted to be awarded a short-term fellowship to undertake research on the collection, which I carried out during July and August.

The purpose of my research was to investigate how ‘mapping’ strategies might be applied to archival material and to consider how the different perspectives of archivists and academics might usefully inform each other. Mapping is a broad term. It can refer to the geographically specific approaches of writers, poets or literary critics: approaches that Robert Tally (2013) has grouped under the terms ‘literary cartography’ and ‘literary geography’. Or it might include network mapping: ways of visualising and interrogating relationships between objects, individuals or institutions, for example.

Both of these approaches were rewarding. Ken Smith collaborated and corresponded with a large number of poets and writers and his archive overlaps with others held by Special Collections including those of Jon Silkin, Tony Harrison, Stand magazine and Northern House. I began to create a network map of the informal and formal literary networks and spheres of influence in which Smith was involved. Work to map these links and to make them visible within the Special Collections catalogue is now underway.

A more geographically-specific kind of map-making infused Smith’s working notebooks and poetic drafts. Space and place are key components of much of Smith’s writing. At different times Smith lived in rural Yorkshire, Leeds, Exeter, America and London. These places influenced his poetry, and this can be read in the shifts in language, tone and imagery between poems and collections. Mapping Smith’s poems to their locations and evaluating their poetic differences is informative, but I found this process deeply enriched by examining material from the archive.

envelope with fox drawing
Correspondence envelope sent to Ken Smith dated September 1980. Image credit Leeds University Library.

In Fox Running, Smith’s pivotal London-based poem, the protagonist journeys around London by tube and on foot. ‘[L]oose in his sleek skin / loose in his slick fur’ he ranges through ‘the city’s inner spaces / being scavenger of skips parks / and desirable period residences’. The poem is infused with the social and political climate of late-seventies and early-eighties Britain, as well as the emotional unsettlement of Smith who moved to the city and worked in a Kilburn bar following the end of his first marriage.

Notebooks, drafts and correspondence reveal how Smith’s experiences of London were worked and reworked in successive versions of the poem. Notebooks detail Smith’s own tube journeys, where he jotted down half-heard conversations and station minutiae, and considered the linguistic resonances of London districts: ‘Crouching down in Crouch End / Pinned down in Pinner’. Smith’s notebooks reveal his creative similarities to his scavenging alter-ego, Fox. In a published essay Smith wrote that he was ‘an earwigger and an observer’, and this is evident in his drafts. ‘I frequent railway stations and markets,’ he noted, ‘anything that appeals to me in the way of words I’ll snatch’.

manuscript notebook
Ken Smith’s manuscript notebook with details of tiles at London tube stations. Image credit Leeds University Library.

I am very thankful to the LAHRI and Special Collections for opportunity to research this wonderful collection, and I am now developing a proposal for a larger study.

A celebration of the life and work of Ken Smith is taking place at the University of Leeds on 9th November.