Frances Presley was born in Derbyshire, grew up in Lincolnshire and Somerset, and lives in north London. She studied modern literature at the universities of East Anglia and Sussex, writing dissertations on Pound, Apollinaire, and Bonnefoy. She worked on community development and anti-racism projects, and also at the Poetry Library. She collaborated with artist Irma Irsara in a multi-media project about clothing and the fashion trade, Automatic Cross Stitch (Other Press, 2000); and with poet Elizabeth James in an email text and performance, Neither the One nor the Other (Form Books, 1999). The title sequence of Paravane: new and selected poems, 1996-2003 (Salt, 2004) was a response to 9/11/2001, and the IRA bombsites in London. Myne: new and selected poems and prose, 1976-2005, (Shearsman, 2006) takes its title from the old name for Minehead in Somerset. Lines of Sight, (Shearsman, 2009), includes an approach to the Neolithic stone sites on Exmoor, part of a multi-media collaboration with Tilla Brading, published in 2010 as Stone Settings (Odyssey Books & Other Press). Presley has written various essays and reviews, especially on innovative British women poets. Her work is included in the recent anthologies Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets (edited Carrie Etter, Shearsman, 2010), and A Ground Aslant — Radical Landscape Poetry (edited Harriet Tarlo, Shearsman, 2011)
Her poetry is marked by its high seriousness of intent and theme, made lively by her constant innovations in style and presentation, and a quiet humane humour. It is a remarkably unified project, in which avant-garde procedures such as improvisation, collaboration, multi-media presentation and site specificness come from long work in feminism and social activity as much as from artistic experimentation. Games are played with the meaningful things of this world (like words and stones) to rearrange them and see what they say to us. This isn't complicated or obscure — it is what both children do and what our ancestors did. It is how we get to know language, land, ourselves and our relationships with others. It is the very project of human culture.
This is poetry, then, which reflects contemporary social and artistic practice, but also picks up on the play with words and stones we all engage in and can relate to. The ancient stone relics on Exmoor that have interested her recently are characterised by their obscurity and small-scaleness, far removed from megalithic mega monsters (doubtless commemorating the power of our eternal ruling elites) like Stonehenge, Avebury and Brodgar. The Exmoor stones are equally marks on the landscape, but presenting not domination and incomprehensible awe, but smaller-scale, more human action, and need searching for rather than thrusting themselves upon their on-lookers. This is the level we actually live and work at, where our consciousness is formed. Her close attention to the sounds & letters of language is evident in her forthcoming Alphabet for Alina sequence (Five Seasons Press, 2012), and in the poem "Learning Letters", an improvisation on her childhood Dutch primer (her mother's tongue): "a new formation" always, whether from childhood words or quartz pebbles.
Another delightful quality is the openness of her writing to the world around her — whether it is writing where the site of its writing is important (poésie en plein air) or where the world itself forces itself in. Thus the poem "Culbone", written in the numinous location of Culbone Church, with language overheard earlier at the Ship Inn, Porlock (various Romantic poet memories in these places!) ends with the famous "Nonsense" that had got Walter Wolfgang ejected from the Labour Party Conference the day before.
Peter Philpott, June 29, 2012