St James’ is an inclusive church, full of ideas, people and action coming together to address contemporary issues – and as it’s the place where Blake was baptised in 1757, and home to The Blake Society, this poetry project was focused on how Blake’s radicalism could still speak to us today, and encourage creative forms of activism.
When it came to it, I was the only one who could get to the west end in a COVID safe manner by the date in March agreed for filming. I put on my poetry dress and best jewels and tubed it to Green Park in my matching gold mask.
In the courtyard in front of the church a magnolia was shedding its furred khaki buds as the blossoms burst & raised their pink glazed teacups to beneficent blue sky. Piccadilly was hungry for footsteps, but was quieter than a backstreet in suburbia. Mr Fortnum and Mr Mason came out of their clock to nod and bow the hour to nobody. It was a strange dream to be abroad in the loaded yet familiar grandeur of my native city after over a year of absence.
Christopher Wren designed St James’, and the buildings exterior leans on the sheer quantity of its tiny warm coloured bricks, which mass to enormity like an epic congregation, contrasting with the vast transparencies of its glittering windows.
Inside there are miraculous carvings in lime wood and marble by Grinling Gibbons, including the font in which Blake was baptised. (I’d like to meet the mother who looked at her newborn and decided to call him Grinling Gibbons as well, a poem there surely!)
So enough with the gold dress and fancy schmancy carvings! Where are the poems? You can watch the movie on YouTube at this link: Blake Now – and if you’d rather have a quiet read: here is my poem.
Look out for all the commissioned poems, those by Joseph Coelho, Ruth Awolola, Natalie Lin Bolderston, Ankita Saxena and myself will all be available via the Poetry Society website and on St James’ site too in coming weeks. Meanwhile, thank you so much to both organisations for this golden opportunity, and to you dear reader, for reading!
I wrote about paper cutting in a previous post – and now the book that these were made for is out in the world and getting the excellent reviews it deserves.
Inventory of a Life Mislaid is an ‘unreliable memoir’, a complicated layering of memory, research and invention – that re creates the world of the author’s early childhood.
Marina Warner tells the story of her parents – who they really were, as people, experiencing the love and trials of a flawed romance against the backdrop of a bombed out London and then a bustling colonial Cairo just after the second world war.
Each chapter is conjured by a real object found amongst Warner’s late mother’s possessions. These are the items from the inventory of the title. It was these that I was asked if I’d consider making paper versions of for a series of chapter header vignettes. I’d worked with Marina Warner a long time ago, making ink drawings for her collection of seventeenth century French fairy stories: WonderTales, (Chatto and Windus, 1994.) Back then she’d found my number on some wrapping paper I’d designed as one of my doomed post art school money-making schemes. I traded briefly as someone who made cards and wrap for Paperchase, code name Sybil Tongue. She’d been given a present in my ‘waltz wrap’ and tracked me down as she had a hunch about whoever’d drawn it!
We spent a good ten minutes on the phone in my old studio before she told me who she was. When she said her name, I became suddenly polite. Marina Warner! Being a life long fairy tale aficionado I was already a fan.
When I came back from Berkeley last summer, I drove over the river to have a reunion cup of tea with Marina. We sat on two chairs she’d arranged on the pavement outside her house, where she’d organised a little card table piled high with the mysterious objects of memory. It was a very special jumble sale. Each thing held aloft in turn and it’s place in history talked about.
I had already read the manuscript and understood the gravity of the film canister, the futility of the brogues as means of transformation, the promise of the powder compact… Marina put her mother’s two worn out rings on her own fingers and the project began to sparkle into shape.
How to translate the astonishing light-shooting behaviour of these rocks that had magicked Ilia from the bright sun of southern Italy to the black soot of London?
Cutting ice from black paper is the kind of impossible task I like. I was pleased to locate in my stash of collage books a little volume I’d already hacked up due to its treasure house of phrases: Practical Gemmology (1948) A page describing the different cuts of stone seemed just right for showcasing Ilia’s jewels.
The great thing about working in graphic black and white is that light is one of the most exciting tools one can play with: whether by leaving it to the blank page to furnish it, as in a silhouette, or by using reversals such as these above, to imply the solidity of three dimensions. I also enjoyed expanding my repertoire into found printed material as with the rings, or as below with these movie star hoopoes.
I combed the usual sources (my studio floor, charity shops and peoples’ front walls…) for old books and magazines that fitted the period or place, and tailored them into the story as it unrolled. I had lots of great conversations with Marina, who understood my process intuitively and allowed for my intermittent departures and translations back and forth from the objects themselves into my parallel imagination.
We had a wonderful time, like two girls poring over the strange ingredients of a spell.
If you’d like the chance to hear Marina talk about her beautiful, long and heartfelt work on this book, and more about the ways we found to collaborate to make it a worthy offering to the ancestors, we will be live online this coming Wednesday night at University of East Anglia as part of their lit fest: UEA live, click here to book. We’ll be hosted in conversation by poet Alison Winch , whose brilliant work I also recommend.
One way to knock the surprise back into making things is to turn them upside down. It’s a trick I learned in the painting studios at art school. It helps shake out the form and the colour, as well as to refresh tired eyes. A painting that’s spent a while the other way up, nearly always comes back in better shape for its next stint of back to the wall engagements.
Getting my Ancestors Practiced at a Different Landscape, gouache, ink and collage on paper, 2020 (upside down)
With INDEX, my new collection, I have puzzled over the form from several directions. Finding a last word or phrase for a poem before finding a theme or a thought. Laying whole sentences in little piles. Searching through yesterdays yellowing magazine banter for something to skewer the now.
This is one of the ways I write when I’m finding writing difficult. Leaning on words found or put together already by somebody else and re or decontextualising them.
The results of these can also be read from the bottom up, and if this is done will give a different yield. Actually like a lot of poems, these can be read in any order you like!
Since the whole proof set of 78 cards in INDEX came back from the printers last week, I have been trialling them as daily prophesy, and this changes the way I hear them too. I pick three, from a morning shuffle, a yesterday, a today and a tomorrow.
Once I’ve tried to apply the poems, I choose one line or phrase from each card and make a new small poem, and if I remember, I let it set the tone of my day. Eg from the above I chose to imagine the strange pairs in the first card as parental figures: and from the second card I took my anxiety about ageing, and the third card made me think about decorating grief, cruelty or difficult things with flowers. A quick mantra poem for the day might go like this:
Numb shrubs wish for splendid vitality like a bee. Two owls forgive me. Decorate cold reality with calendulas.
I used the anywayup principle to create the backs of the poem cards. My challenge being to make these small collages readable whichever way up they fall.
I used black and white images from a lot of the same broken books and old magazines I’d been clipping phrases from for the fronts. I was only planning to make one image for all the card backs, but the process got a hold on me, so I ended up making thirty nine.
That being half the pack, meant that each reverse could appear twice and allow those not interested in the poetry to play games of Dada snap instead. I also like the idea of these images working as poem prompts for readers or players.
It has been a treat to work with Tom Jenks who is publishing the deck of cards as poetry object number 60, from his experimental press zimZalla.
Tom and I first met in 2013, wearing some cardboard headdresses I’d made for me & him & Chris McCabe when I offered to help the two of them with their performance of a piece they’d collaborated on, that imagined Boris Johnson as Pere UBU . Sadly this also proved prophetic.
We wanted to make sure these poems were produced without plastic coatings or shrink wrap (who doesn’t want their poetry to rot down quietly with the cabbage stalks once the time comes?) So we were glad that a local printers in Sale, Manchester, Phoenix Press , had a very helpful Jack Russell and time over lockdown to make INDEX and print the poem cards on unvarnished stock.
Thanks to everybody who supported the Kickstarter campaign and preordered the box.
Is it too late to pre order a deck? You could try emailing firstname.lastname@example.org whilst the printing is still underway…
A prophesy: Soon a red box with gold letters full of pastel coloured cut up poems will be tipped upside down on my kitchen table – and people will be once more allowed inside the house, to drink together from the teapot of language in a fresh brew.
Going to poetry readings is a high risk activity, even outside of pandemic conditions. There’s a good chance of getting badly bored, as well as the daintier hope of having one’s entire being revivified by the power of language in its most indisputable finery.
Two of the biggest ones: The Forward Prizes and now the TSEliot prize, have had to move online recently, like everything else.
I watched the latter last night and the night before in manageable chunks. Having a seven day window to watch and listen to ten poets read for five minutes each, on a prerecorded video, is a very different experience to the old fluster of catching the 59 bus from Brixton Hill to Waterloo, and stampeding around with fellow poets at the Festival Hall.
Those were fun and unpredictable capers of catching up and talking shop, laying bets, exchanging views and verdicts on books, performances, (outfits) and the shortlist in general. Who had read what, who had been overlooked, and what a load of nonsense prizes are!
Because even mainstream poetry has less pull for a wide audience than other artforms, the hierarchies in it seem less extreme. So it’s easy to have a chat with a big prize winner who is also off on the bus afterwards, and stopping in at a supermarket for a cheese sandwich on the way home.
Poetry is magic, on the page and in the air, but the completion of the magic is in the reader, and how difficult it is not to catch or share that energy as it is cast into the collective space. The futility of this put me off attending the Forward readings online, though I’d read and loved many of the shortlisted works. But I decided to be brave and try with the TSEliots this time, even at the risk of the screen flattening my responses.
The word reassuring could have been coined for Ian McMillan, who is the regular compère of this ceremony in its live form. He is an expert in both poetry and audience handling and can hold the most incongruous gaggle of poets together. His unpretentious introductions to each gives space to any voice or content that may follow.
We only heard five minutes of work from each of the shortlisted poets, as compared to eight when it’s a live event. This made it almost impossible to arrive at boredom, (I was a little disappointed.) I took a special pride in those I knew or had read with. Poetry is nothing if not subjective.
For me, hearing Sasha Dugdale was a highlight. In her book Deformations, she questions power between men and women, artist and subject. Pain is trapped and inspected in her concision. Her renaming of Odysseus as Pitysad – with that conscious sounding of PTSD within it – made the poem she read from that sequence: Stripclub, extra layered. Words fluttered in a demimonde of desire & loss and the cumulative inhabiting of both. Whose skin we occupy in relationship, who performs and who feels. I looked at the book again later that night, and read a prose poem in the voice of Penelope. Always waiting. Still waiting now. It reminded me of Molly Bloom’s parallel monologue that ends Ulysses, but Sasha Dugdale inhabits the voice of a female lover in a very different key from the one James Joyce created.
I enjoyed the helter skelter wit and delight in language of Natalie Diaz– in which she piled on layer after layer of celebratory metaphors for her lover’s hips.
Ella Frears has a talent for the unsettling. She pulls horror from beneath the pretty, with a twisted aplomb. I read with her a couple of years ago and this adds to my feeling of connection with her, and the tornado of her poetry and mind. I also loved how she began, by saying: ‘I wish we were all in a room together.’
Wayne Holloway Smith, with his oversized glasses and funky green sofa makes poetry refreshing. There’s no stodge or pomp in his poems, but pictures. The boy, the man, the town, the scene – emerge visceral, visible: blazing in city rhythms. He sat in my kitchen once, when such things were allowed, as I was asked to draw his portrait for the cover of Poetry London.
Daisy Lafarge is a poet whose work I didn’t know. I really enjoyed the textures and delicacies she created in the work she read. Musicality, muscularity. A book I look forward to reading.
I don’t have Rendang by Will Harris yet, (my reading life has narrowed horribly since the libraries have been shut) I enjoyed his poems too. The work is subtle and imaginative: images open out and expand, reappear in different guises, places and objects are conjured vividly.
I admired the assurance & surprises in all the works laid out before my eyes and ears as I wandered through the dismally flat carpet emporium of my laptop.
So, prizes for poetry! Absurd! It all seems counterintuitive in some ways (like how can a consensus be reached on what is good quality poetry, or god forbid, the best!)
But listening to these poets who’d thought so richly about which words they’d arrange in what order, did somehow re kindle my somewhat pandemic-crushed writing arm – and make it re-member – that a voice is an instrument of power, one worth using & raising – more than ever in a muted period of admonishing slogans, and their accompanying blanket of nightly death statistics.
So thanks – for reading, and for continuing with the exhausting work of being a three dimensional human person with limbs & not just a flat zoom shaped head, for being… ALIVE!
A tool I love to use is a scalpel. I don’t like the word scalpel, with its whiff of surgery and pain, but for operating on paper, there’s nothing quite like one.
These last few months I’ve been through a lot of blades. My priority job once back in London from America wasn’t really a backyard mosaic. It was an immense new book by Marina Warner, called Inventory of a Life Mislaid .
She’d contacted me about creating vignettes for this memoir whilst I was still away, and sent me the manuscript then. The book recounts her parents’ life and her own early life in Cairo, after World War II and before the Egyptian Revolution. It is full of sharp eyed detail and emotionally rich detective work, alongside scholarly wonderings that emerge from her interrogation of personal memory, real archive material, language and collective myth. Packed with history, it is affectionate, erudite and atmospheric. I loved reading it, and responding to the world it conjures, with sheaves of black paper and my scalpel and cutting mat.
I made over 90 vignettes including five full page section dividers. I will write about it some more when it comes out with William Collins in the spring.
Marina Warner and I will be ‘in conversation’ at the University of East Anglia Literary Festival, UEA LIVE , so do book if you’d like to be part of the event.
This work really sharpened me into new intricacies with my blades, and after the boosting time I’d had in California, working with colour, I decided as well as making very graphic black and white images – I could experiment with distinct colour palettes for some of my projects.
I was pleased to be commissioned by friend and fellow writer Gemma Seltzer , who runs an early morning writers’ organisation called Write and Shine, to make an artwork for her winter programme.
For this I devised a palette, and thought about the ideas she’d mentioned: mystery, mischief, and winter, with its long nights and festivities that counter and also celebrate the dark and the cold. I included six types of steam and a soft red to warm the scene, and I cut some mountains from the last page of an old atlas that I found on my street. So lots of place names beginning with z are built into the landscape to take the reader and writer on a zig zag journey through their imagination.
If you are an early riser, I really recommend Write and Shine with its welcoming workshops and retreats. An inspiring way to start the day.
I was back in black and white after that, to make a book cover for Nine Arches Press. Poet and publisher Jane Commane had decided to publish an amazing one hundred daily sonnets written by Jacqueline Saphra during the first lockdown, as a special non-profit, limited edition book, to raise money for The Trussell Trust, (as well as raise spirits via its poetry.) I made a papercut cover that will be embossed on the clothbound hardback in an edition of one hundred. I’m proud to be part of this beautiful enterprise.
Gemma then also wanted a second image for her Write and Shine January- February programme, something to reflect workshops on the theme of the path ahead, drawing on moonlight and sunrise. I enjoyed creating a new palette around these times of day, using papers that I painted specially to cut, and reimagining the city as a place built of books, pens, pencils and crayons, again with the mind-focusing magic of a hot drink on the horizon to symbolise the waking hour. I’m only sharing a close up detail of this as Gemma is yet to launch the full image on the waiting world!
Working within these strict yet flexible palettes, I was reminded of a time long ago when I worked mixing colours for my mum, Susan Collier, in her textiles studio. I’d just left art college and had no work or idea how to begin, so she took me on as a lowly painter of tints or backgrounds. I had to get these right with a precision I could barely grasp. A tiny drop of Naples Yellow to grey a mauve, no more than a wink of Burnt Sienna or Bengal Rose to nudge warmth into a white. My mother was meticulous about these things, and would shriek if I added great globs of excess gouache in her presence. My paint mixing really lacked subtlety, a quality that often eludes me still.
As this month approached, I was contacted by Laura Seddon, creative producer at Manchester Jewish Museum. She wondered if I could make a piece of artwork to give out to subscribers for a Hannukah gift. This was to accompany a series of video conversations with five talented contemporary female musicians, all working with klezmer music.
All five are asking questions about tradition and innovation and Jewishness too. This music programme, brought together by cellist Francesca Ter Berg, is part of the museums current trailblazers season.
I made a playlist of their music and tried to let my scalpel dance in sync with the sharp turns and inventive rhythms I could hear coming through my speakers.
Working closely with my own parallel inner dialogues re tradition, innovation and Jewishness, seemed to dovetail with the ideas in the music – its timeless weave of gaiety and melancholy.
Paper cutting, like fiddle playing, is a strong traditional form across much of northern and central Europe. I have been inspired by visits to Chateau d’Oex in the mountains above Geneva, where a creaky wooden museum groans with old paper cut treasures made locally by deft scissored Alpine folk. Even my German Jewish grandmother, who was not ‘artistic’, used to snip little heart shaped paper baskets and boxes to put sweets in at this time of year. And thinking of presents, I had a whim to cut some of my papercuts further, so had a couple of them made into jigsaw puzzles online.
Scalpels and scissors are potentially scary – maybe symbolically adjacent to Brexit and social isolation. But before I rest my implements in the name of peace & the imminent cushions of some holiday collapse, here’s one more papercut I made last night.
We have some amazing & lovely neighbours on our road in Brixton, and during this year we have been so grateful for their friendliness and local community spirit.
Like on quite a few streets in recent years, our more organised inhabitants decided to plan an advent window display, and though I sighed inwardly in a grinch like way, I took on yesterday’s date, the 17th, to ‘do’, as part of it. I remembered how much I’d liked the all embracing ‘happy holidays’ decorations in Berkeley. With the help of our pets, Zippy & Morris, I managed to get over myself & cut out some fun for our window.
Thanks for reading my blog. May your inner light keep you warm and safe from sharp troubles in this turning sharp-blunt world! Happy Holidays!
Tonight is the prelaunch reading for my new collection INDEX !
The Kickstarter campaign set up by brilliant Tom Jenks at zimZalla, has met its target – so the printing can go ahead. There’s still time to register for a pack of prophetic cards at a 40% discount. And there are strange extra rewards for anyone who is inclined or able to pay extra!
I’ll be reading alongside the amazing poet Philip Terry whose newest publication, TURNS, is an Oulipian box of surprises also made by poetry object press zimZalla. Do sign up!
Over the last year I’ve been making little cut up poems and pasting them onto pastel coloured index cards. Like a lot of things I do this began as a mild diversion creeping out from the side of a couple of big projects that were claiming my daylight attention.
It continued in this way – every few days I’d find a couple of hours to pore over the collage stash I’d been hacking to bits for my last book: 60 Lovers to Make and Do, and I’d skim the prose for phrases that seemed particularly pointed or musical or visually charged.
I love the drama in old fashioned phrases from the Biggles Annual or Girl: any 1960s & 70s books and journals from the decades when I was a child, full of advice, morality, implicit and occasionally overt -isms of every sort. Favourites that also inspired 60 Lovers, were activity books including craft and recipe books.
I couldn’t use text by named authors – nothing where the notion of authorship vaunts loftiness or self consciousness – this wouldn’t be raw material for my own authorship and would feel more like stealing than repurposing.
When I got to that dream residency studio in Berkeley last December – I had the fun of assembling a transatlantic collage stash – which I wrote about at the time. I found a good selection of index cards and boxes to stack them as well, at the wonderful Elmwood Stationers on my local parade.
When I was finding my big paintings heavygoing – I would just put the colours to one side, and get snipping through the treasures I’d accumulated – with extra delight at the different language opening up from this American material.
Dan Schifrin, the residency manager, asked me a good question: What’s it like to inhabit the body of the person who makes these big gestural paintings and the person who makes these tiny cut up collage poems?
I found this impossible to answer, so I wrote a short play in which two very different women have to share a studio. They don’t get on, although they do respect each other’s processes. Gloria, the painter, is full of exclamations about the wonder of nature. She gets on Edith’s nerves. Edith, the misunderstood poet, is introverted and terse. She can sometimes be soothed with a nice coffee and home made cookie from Gloria. I sent the play to Dan, and for fun added this photograph taken of Gloria and Edith on one of the rare occasions when they were in the studio together.
For now, I, London Sophie, have a few things to sort out between now and the reading. Hope to see you there.
Ink runs through my work and life, the line it draws connecting many disparate incidents, projects, ideas and approaches. Sometimes it draws the world with a bold swish, sometimes with a faltering scratchy nib, or it might just whoosh into a blob of water and make a new cosmos where it lands.
The sheer out of control runniness of ink is a great adjunct to thinking. I rely on its speed & fluidity to outrun the pedestrian metronome of reality. Let the ink get there first, it knows what needs drawing.
There is no material like it for tension between spill and control: it’s tendency to spill and stain everything is as sure a promise as its readiness to express ideas with a clean and velvet precision.
One day last year, I was out walking with my young Canadian cousin Miriam – she was eyeing up a density of brambles with a scientific air. When I questioned her, she said she’d been making ink from berries, and alerted me to this book.
I saw a copy in Moes Books early last spring and I did not resist. The author, Jason Logan, makes sensational inks with mainly foraged materials, and runs an outfit called The Toronto Ink Company.
I didn’t get into the recipes in the USA, it sounded distracting, plus the mystery of recognising American plants! Besides, I was enjoying discovering a new palette of interesting shades and tones with Noodler’s Ink from the Artist and Craftsman Supplies store on Shattuck Avenue.
Once I was back in Inklandt, that’s when the bug really bit me. On holiday this August it turned out that the combination of the season and the presence of the family were conducive to ink making as side hustle.
The first recipe I had to try was black from oak galls – the ink used by medieval scribes on their vellum. It’s what the Magna Carta was written in, proper black. I’d been surprised, once I concentrated my search, to find a lot of galls under the oaks in my local Brockwell Park. They are the convoluted husks left by a species of parasitic wasps that like to encrust themselves into innocent acorns. They contain a lot of tannin, which is the secret of their power.
Once in Devon, artist friend & fellow ink aficionado Alice Leach let on that she’d got a bag of ferrous sulphate, or iron in dust form, and was prepared to share.
Iron reacts with the tannin from the oak galls & the two substances lock together to make the black. The ink oxidizes and the black deepens once the marks are exposed to the air.
I was mesmerised by the variety of tone and the extra colour within the black – it’s wilful inconsistency, marks dragging an undertow of nicotine yellow beneath their black, the wetter brush marks resting in a shimmer of handbag navy.
I began to compulsively gather stuff I found whilst out walking: elderberries, lichen, rosehips… I found myself unable to throw out onion skins or avocado stones, my eyes darting towards lost pennies & bits of rusty metal on wet pavements. I began grinding up or boiling up all kinds of debris in vinegar. The barn we stay in would smell terrible – there was a lot of flinging open of doors!
The sample sheets, like this one, were fun to make. Though really I was using drawing to help me see what colours I could find. It was exciting to see the air react with my brushmarks, and reds and greens appear.
Since being back in London I’ve had to lay my inkmaking to one side. I have had a couple of story collecting gigs though, and tested my homemade ink alongside some shop bought black.
I was invited to listen and draw in the courtyard at Somerset House, as part of a large scale installation by artist duo Yara and Davina . Their project addresses life and death: is called Arrivals and Departures, and so as I sat at a suitable distance from participants, each of whom had booked a slot in advance, I heard many touching stories about love and loss, joy and shock.
There were many more equally beautiful stories. It feels like a great honour to hear people’s memories, griefs, life changing moments – and to try to listen for the essence of what they tell me and get it down on paper. As ever, each narrator was given a same size copy of their drawing to take away.
The fact that I’d made the ink myself added another layer of connectedness, between me, the narrator, their material, my material – ink as blood, as water of life, as transformation, the black river of mortality we all briefly bob about in.
In these brutal times making things feels like the opposite of severance – even making masks or meals or jokes – helps shift some of the relentless NO that we are all subject to under the pandemic, as well as the current politics.
As part of the ongoing experiment in how to connect with others and continue live performance, The Crick Crack Club is offering sessions with me & my inky brush over zoom. I will be listening to personal tales that tie in with fairy tale themes, as I did for them during the summer.
You can book a slot via that link if they aren’t all gone yet, and I’ll see you across my kitchen table, almost like we were breathing the same air!
Also I’m proud to say that some of the original ink drawings I made of people’s food stories in Margate in 2011, will be up at great community organisation Our Kitchen over the half term break, as part of a brilliant roll-outable anywhere seaside festival called Back and Fill, which is designed to allow for local arts and participation to continue in fun and COVID safe ways, and as it is happening in a few seaside towns. Do check it out.
Ink! It’s led me in and out of landscapes and stories all over the world. Just an unsuspecting brush dipped into a staining liquid made from crushed debris and allowed to lead the way across unmarked paper terrain.
Poet Tamar Yoseloff, who in her publishing hat published The PracticalVisionary, a book made collaboratively by myself and poet/artist Chris McCabe in response to William Blake in 2018, invited me to write a guest post for her press Hercules Editions.
I wrote this, about my return from California, and how making a mosaic in my back garden helped me get my feet back on the ground.
I took Blake to Berkeley where he was glad to walk around hand in hand with Allen Ginsberg.
The residency I’d been invited to take up there was for six months from early December last year. During the first three I monopolised the monster of a library, raided the art shop, scoured and scampered in San Francisco, its devil-may-care book palace City Lights and sparkling vintage stores. I invited half the locality to my gorgeous residency house and studio for a reading, showed off my new Californian paintings, served up my best borscht and baked goods — and mostly, had my mind blown by living in a new place, where birds were process blue, Chanukah was as popular as Christmas, and winter lasted two weeks.
The following three months, well, you know the score. No salons, no visitors, no galleries, no bookshops, libraries or museums, no restaurants: LOCKDOWN. Even Blake went paler than usual, though my husband Adam had arrived by then, so things began to domesticate. A game of two halves. What a fearful symmetry.
It’s almost two months ago now that we returned to Brixton, and were shocked by the loose crowds in Brockwell park wandering round mask-free and wild. ‘William,’ I implored, ‘are we Lambethans really so unruly’? He laughed. He’d acquired a west coast accent. ‘Don’t sweat it honey,’ he quoth, ‘you ain’t sick so quit protesting, Rose’. I put the kettle on and tried to stay indoors.
The kids had been minding the house, and our small back garden had become sheer overbearing weeds. My studio at home was similarly overgrown, but with bits of my pre-Berkeley project-mad ink-scrawled paper.
How could I land from such a life-changing experience?
William advised I build on the work I’d made in California, the great connection that I’d felt whilst there, to nature and her colours.
He helped me clear the garden and drag out crates of hoarded broken china from underneath the deck. For twenty years I’d kidded myself that I’d make a broken china mosaic on the back wall. In poetry there are some word that poets snigger at, words forbidden in poems, like ‘shimmer,’‘soul’ and ‘shard’. These were the very things I found in the crates of long forgotten jaunty crockery: plates I ate off as a child, a gold teapot, blue lustreware saucers bargained for in Brick Lane, green plates moulded like cabbage leaves from hefty porcelain, all waiting in chipped and cobwebbed oblivion. ‘Nothing from the famous Lambeth potteries though?’ William sighed. ‘Come on, I said, you never even liked that Doulton mashing clay in your Jerusalem! You’re like me Will and you know it, you need the colour!’
He fetched an old bucket and we mixed up sand and cement.’I like to haunt the tunnels near St Thomas’ he said, ‘those mosaics made in honour of my songs, I’m taking Allen there tomorrow’. ‘Yes yes, I know,’ I said, ‘well stick with me, and we will make a brand new cosmos for you in this very yard, then we’ll say kaddish for you and Allen, the nurses and the unnamed Covid thousands’
The china needed whacking into flattish pieces. Then I made a palette, using trays and washing up bowls for shards of different groups, the greens and blues, the tiles and cups, raised textures and bits of spout… More ghosts were gratified by my restitution of their glorious works, including the unsung painters of the Staffordshire potteries, often women, like those who even rose to fame, such as Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper, glimmers of both these genii found places in my new arrangements.
Friends came by with extra bits of cracked yet lovely china too,
Welcome familiars, despite the impossibility of hugs. Something about this, and the rehabilitation of the broken stuff of the past, together with that gritty sensation of earth under my fingernails, helped settle me back into my neighbourhood for real.
‘What if we can never go anywhere again’? sulked William. ‘Oh you of all people!’ I snapped. ‘You, who persuaded me that Poetry was the only type of transport that I’d ever need, and that through printmaking one could visit all the Realms Imaginable! In these times of downgraded A-levels and economic collapse, letting our souls fly where they will on the shimmering shards of broken promises is the nearest thing we have to hope!’
The garden was quiet, gold china fragments glowed in the dusk of an English heatwave. Emily Dickinson floated through the lack of French windows carrying a round of beers. She winked as she lay down the tray of tinkling beverages, international queen of strange weather and seclusion, ‘Back to normal then?’ She said, her sense of irony shimmering like the real butterflies fooled into landing on a glazed art deco flower. ‘Back to normal,’ we nodded, doing our best to dwell, as poets must, in possibility, a fairer house than prose.
With thanks to Rachel Osorio, for extra incentivising and cement encouragement, as well as all who brought me extra china.
My usual methods of teaching are often materials based. I give people assorted random bits of writing to bounce off, and I tip up huge bags of assorted hoarded scraps, and ask them to choose colours, respond and make things. ‘Use your greedy eyes!’ is one of my favourite invitations at the outset.
I love to watch the action. There’s collective energy in the room and it crackles over all our tables as we search for the right thing, to make a thing we don’t even know about yet.
I wander around, as the hum of concentration settles over students/artists. Arms stretch up into space to tear escape hatches from red paper, cautious scissors snip new shapes from crumpled old gossip, eyes are lowered as poems are read and read again, pencils are sharpened to their holiest purpose: underlining.
The last two Tuesdays however, I had to get 22 students through a day of collage and poetry where we were just an assortment of disembodied heads, and where each person had been asked to muster their own scraps.
For a totally 2020 sentence, what about: ‘Sophie, my broadband went, could you assign me a new breakout room?’ (My tight lipped answer – straight from the 80s: ‘hmm, I’ll see what I can do’)
Yes, a new language to learn, and alien teaching devices: being made ‘the host’, creating breakout rooms for tutorials, uploading resources to Padlet, checking the chat column for questions, screen sharing, speaker view, muting myself at lunch!
I liked that we could make every aspect of the course into a virtual collage. The resources & reading lists which went on the Padlet page could be put on by Rosie and I, in a free formation of video attachments and web links and other handy references, built up according to whim as well as theme. Just the teaching itself: a base support of exercises suggested by Rosie, followed by additional thought-shapes from me, layered with ideas manifested by the students, more input from Rosie, the world, me…
The students could upload their work onto an adjacent gallery page, and share the interesting techniques they were discovering, separate and far flung across this collaged world. Also on the plus side, we had a wonderfully wide reach, with students in Ireland, South Africa, France and Germany, as well as all over the UK. All of us were stuck indoors somewhere, and glued, with the PVA of learning, to our screens.
What pleased me in the end, was that concentration and the desire to make analogue creative experiments – did manage to transcend the dreary flatness of the screen, and that between us, there was a very real, if temporary, community built, just by sharing poetry, ideas, work.
One morning between my Tuesdays I walked over to Clapham with my daughter & went to get a takeaway coffee in my mask. ‘You’re my teacher!’ said the barista. ‘Really?!’ I said, ‘but look at you. You’re so… so… three dimensional! Arms legs, everything!’ – ‘you too!’ she rejoindered. Had being online excessively dulled my imagination or fostered it?
Either way, it’s a different way of looking and engaging, and hopefully learning like this will enrich the process, for when we come back to the physical, as well as imaginary, spaces we use and create by making and teaching art.