Dovetailing: where wooden instruments and poetry meet

Ian Duhig on a collaboration with artist and filmmaker Clare Dearnaley and sculptor Juliet Gutch

Artist and filmmaker Clare Dearnaley and sculptor Juliet Gutch, two of the principal artists associated with the ongoing Dovetailing project, describe in a new book they co-edit with a team including myself, Dovetailing Gathered Notes, how it all “began as a collaborative exploration into the making of stringed wooden instruments. It takes its name from the dovetail joint which predates written history.”

This is an example of why I have loved my involvement in it, art reaching beyond words and time yet everyday still, our kitchen drawers connecting with the tombs of the Egyptian First Dynasty or of Chinese Emperors and the stone pillar at the Vazhappally Maha Siva Temple in India: domestic, international, timeless and, of course, vital for the making of stringed wooden musical instruments. Dovetailing Gathered Notes contains high-quality art photographs, descriptive and creative prose, poetry from participants including members of the Refugee Action workshop and a series of my own, all of which testify to Dearnaley and Gutch’s original inspirational concept.

Dovetailing’s first installation took place at Farfield Friends Meeting House in June 2021, since then visiting the USA, Ilkley and is now showing at the Windermere Jetty Museum. Dovetailing will continue to exist as a travelling exhibition or art caravan incorporating features of each new venue within the integrity of the overall idea. Its ethical concerns include our threatened environment – the date for Dovetailing Responses at Ilkley was specifically chosen to coincide with the UN COP 26 climate change conference in Glasgow. In 2018, freak storms destroyed large parts of Il Bosco Che Suona (‘The Musical Woods’) in the Dolomites where luthiers from Stradivari to the present day sourced spruce for their instruments. Climate change is likely to have played its part in this devastation.

I knew about Farfield from working on a project about first World War Quaker pacifists in the Yorkshire Dales and had also been reading about Quaker involvement in Irish Famine relief, so I felt sympathetic to their ethos and history. Also, as a poet, I have always been fascinated by the role of silence in Quaker worship. Something similar to its presence in the white space of poetry takes place in music: Stephen Dunn writes in The Widening “silence is a sound, an afterlife / for anyone with an ear”, an observation connecting much of the Dovetailing work to the losses suffered by the refugees.


Preparing for Farfield, Dearnaley and Gutch worked together to create a unified, integrated and harmonious experience with a custom-made new arrangement of a piece by composer Sally Beamish that she contributed to the installation. It was a great success and moved many of its visitors to make art themselves, including poetry, some represented in Dovetailing Gathered Notes, so I was delighted by the invitation to join the company at Ilkley with a particular brief for the occasion. Enabling finance was provided by the Ronnie Duncan Art Foundation: Ronnie uniquely links avant-garde 20th century art and poetry as a personal friend and patron of both Ian Hamilton Finlay and WS Graham.

I wrote poems in response to all aspects of the art as well as to the refugees’ workshop I led, including watching the youngest there being helped by volunteers to make a tree of hands with paint on paper, moving, beautiful and thematically apt. Religion was important for many workshop members and one of their poems began, “It can be said that Nature itself is a kind of music that God has created”: I admired this line for how it incorporated their faith into their Dovetailing experience, a faith that helped them endure their suffering, as that of Irish people did during the Great Famine. It was notable that Dovetailing had no original religious dimension, it called forth spiritual responses from many people, even atheists like myself.

Dovetailing’s great inspirational strength has been the sweep of its construction: how its music resonates backwards from played instruments, through film of the luthiers’ work (whose waste shavings suggested mobile shapes to Juliet); further into Clare Dearnaley’s forest installation, its birdsong and light reflecting how trees are born and nourished; forward into integral performances by Sally, Irish fiddler Kerry McMullen and the other musicians; beyond into technologies of the moving image such as Simon East’s motion-sensitive smartphone app which allowed visitors to create their own individual artistic relationships to the exhibition, with human movement interactions also extended into dance from Beth Cassani and Mati Torres and visitors including, for me most marvellously, some of the refugee children.

Surrounded by so many ways of thinking and creating without words electrified my awareness of them especially through the experience of the workshop where members brought many other languages to the table, including some of those of Iran, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as the European languages they had picked up as they travelled. I moved, so, from environments of complete linguistic absence to its presence in immense wealth and variety, including gorgeous Persian script the mobile sculptures’ shapes seemed to grow from, a passage in which we include in Dovetailing Gathered Notes.

“And yet we are determined to speak across borders,/ even if borders pass though every word.” – Ingeborg Bachmann, Of a Land, a River and Lakes

A few of Clare Dearnaley’s photographs accompanying this piece show shadows of some of the young refugees interacting with the installation, but although I have named many people here already, as we move into considering the arts of language we must leave names behind, for safety reasons: all the workshop members have to remain shadows and anonymous, including a 13-year-old Iranian girl poet whose father showed me photos on his own mobile of the horror they left behind. How could I turn away from them? They were his travelling exhibition of how and why his family came to be with us, evidence he could present to authorities of what he was fleeing, saying, like Goya in his own Disasters of War, “Yo lo vi”: I saw it, I was there.

Most of the poems the young people wrote, though, were joyous and exuberant, springing from how much pleasure they gained from an artistic environment unlike anything those they had experienced before. But inevitably some were haunted by trauma. I used a rewritten version of Kit Wright’s The Magic Box for a prompt and start with a couple of shorter, more cheerful examples:

I will put into my magic museum music box/ the sound of the violin:/ it reminds me of beautiful memories/ springing up like roses.

I will put into my magic museum music box/ the sound of music/ flowing through my veins/ when I dance.

Far bleaker and deeper is this:

I will put into my magic museum music box/ a block of nothing,/ nothing worth love./ What is a home/ without a heart?/ What is a home/ without happiness?/ A block of nothing,/ nothing worth love.

My last choice here of the workshop poems is Do It (slightly abridged from her original which appears in full in the book) by the 13-year-old Iranian girl I mentioned earlier, for its sheer rhythmic drive and determination. There is something a little frightening in the dedication it displays to helping her family and grasping the opportunities of her new life; but it also seems to me to show what powerful qualities experiences like hers can give rise to even in the young, qualities they can bring to new host societies, such as in the UK, where refugees are routinely depicted as a burden, although its history is full of evidence of their contributions culturally and industrially.

Do It

I will put into my magic museum music box

music: I love music because it makes me feel happy,

it makes me feel like I can do it.

It makes me feel like life is easier.

In music you can see yourself in your dreams:

but dreams are so expensive . . .

You want to succeed

but you also want to take a rest,

you also want to sleep,

you also want to be a good person in the future

but this won’t happen unless you work hard.

You have to be hungry.

You have to be tired.

You have to fall asleep while working

and in your future if someone says you are so lucky

say: No, I’m not lucky,

I just worked hard. I was hungry, I was tired, I was sleepy

but I didn’t leave my desk;

I was working harder and harder.

I didn’t leave my pen

and my book until I fell asleep while studying.

I’m here right now not because I’m lucky

but because I was hungry,

because I was the only hope for my family,

because I wanted to see myself in my dream job.

I wanted to show that I’m not just saying

but I will actually do it: I will say

“Don’t talk, just do it!”

Do It reminds me, in the resilience it embodies, of a line from Eavan Boland’s The Emigrant Irish: “What they survived we could not even live”, nor can we easily imagine the source of the energy that fires this poem.

During this time a piece of music that often went through my mind, certainly inflected by working with the refugees, was Port an Deoraí (‘The Exiles Jig’) in the version by Ceoltóirí Chualann under the direction of Seán Ó Riada. This opens with what seemed then a lonely feadóg, whistling in the dark, tracked by cantering bones, both slowly joined by other instruments, including an ominous bodhrán rhythm played by Ó Riada himself, all leaving apart from some nervy drones until we have a last turn of whistle and bones alone before the ensemble reunites for a dramatic finale. At Ilkley, I gave Kerry a bodhrán: some of the refugee children played with it and danced to her fiddle, in what might have been a jig. It was beautiful anyway.

There have been, of course, many successful multimedia installations and refugee arts projects in these islands, but being part of Dovetailing enabled me to observe certain features of a successful one up close and consider why it was. In this context I would note the following aspects: first of all, the sheer beauty of the mobiles, film, visual imagery, music and dance enthralled people from very different backgrounds. I had the opportunity to talk with several but also watch more in their wide-eyed fascination, mouths opening like fish in a gorgeous seaweed forest.

Secondly, Dovetailing was and is infinitely flexible. For a project conceived as not relying on words at all, it absorbed all the possibilities of language and interlaced them into its texture to the enrichment of both. Thirdly, it was conducted in an atmosphere of welcoming generosity that led the original creators to experiment, not just artistically, but with the audience: what might the installation offer disabled visitors such as those of Deaf experience? Being a multi-sensory immersive experience certainly helped. The invitation to refugees grew from specific agencies in the region but as you see from the poetry, Dovetailing sparked off important personal responses from people who have never been involved in anything like this before. Last, I quickly picked up on the way the hospitable imaginations behind the original Dovetailing allowed it to gather reflections from all angles that still harmonised with the design intent, like a jewelled Harry Clarke stained glass window with its thick, black border veining. The glass is the art, but the light is who comes to see and interact with it, giving it life, as you have by reading this. Thank you.

Clare’s short film of the Farfield installation can be viewed here: Dovetailing - Trailer on Vimeo and a selection of images of artwork, music, dancers and poetry from Ilkley here: Dovetailing Responses

Dovetailing Gathered Notes will be launched at the Grove Bookshop Ilkley on June 21st at 7pm from which copies can be obtained at £20 which includes a 10% donation to Refugee Action.

Ian Duhig’s most recent book was his New and Selected Poems (Picador 2021)