On the Poetry Road

I was very excited to get an email from the BBC – to ask me to record a poem from Velkom to Inklandt for Radio 4 programme Poetry Please .

On 29th May it is being guest presented by the wonderful poet Fiona Benson, and I look forward to my poem being part of her selection, as well as hearing her poems, and others requested by listeners to the programme.

Another chance to listen to poems by me and many others, and a wide range of exciting contemporary writing – is at Belfast Book Festival , which is taking place at The Crescent Arts Centre from June 10-18th.

I’ll be there reading and discussing found text and experimental poetry construction with poet Christodoulos Makris – including some light prophesies from INDEX no doubt. You can read more about that event or book a ticket here. I’ll be running a collage-poetry workshop too on the Thursday.

I’d heard that my local cool literary rag had reviewed INDEX, but only got my hands on last autumns copy of Brixton Review of Books the other day at Lambeth Readers & Writers Festival zine fair. A relief to see it was pretty favourable. Thanks to the mysterious PJ Carnehan, nice work making a new three line poem and following the instructions!

I had a great day at the zine fair reading the poetry fortunes of fellow subversive citizens in our main library. Here is Pat who was quite freaked out by the accuracy of the card she picked for her day. She had just come back from Jamaica and said the first line was very relevant.

There were lots of people who’d made comics, books and zines and what’s more the big hall we all sat in was full of brilliant paintings & prints by friend & neighbour artist Martin Grover. A day full of ideas and exchanges. Fun to hang out at the table with Tamar Yoseloff too, who was selling her latest Hercules Editions chap books, two beauties by Costa winner Hannah Lowe.

Meanwhile, most of this month and definitely next, I am cutting out images for a new book project. A collaboration with storyteller, writer and friend Sally Pomme Clayton it is a collection of amazing goddess stories from everywhere, that has taken Pomme years to research and write. The Mighty Goddess is for an adult audience and honours divine female power in all its glory. Here is work in progress building up on the studio floor. The book will be published by the History Press next spring.

Anemones created by Venus from the blood of Adonis as he dies. A regular fleeting memorial to her love.

Yesterday I enjoyed making a set for a Sally Pomme & I to perform some storytelling and poetry – which we are doing together over zoom tomorrow – it’s for a birthday treat for a generous friend/supporter in the USA. She pledged for this on our crowdfunding campaign for The Mighty Goddess, so we have devised a brand new show, which we hope may reach wider audiences one day. Here’s me in front of the set, photo by the talented Joe Hill, who helped me change the room and its fireplace so radically!

Storytelling/poetry set at home, featuring my paintings, and some OG Collier Campbell fabric (my harlequin print!) plus a vintage sequin throw from India.

As ever, thanks for reading, and hope to cross paths on the poetry road before long.

Etching & kvetching with Blake in Lambeth

Our Days: one of the 7 etchings made as part of me & Chris McCabe’s Blake collaboration

I was glad to be interviewed by William Blake scholar Caroline Anjali Ritchie last year. She is looking at how Blake and London shape each other – the mapping of a mutual imagination that continues to this day. Warning: this is a long interview attached, thank you Caroline, for letting me digress like Blake’s untrimmed vines in his garden in Hercules Road, Lambeth.

Flags & smoke: one of the 7 etchings made as part of me & Chris McCabe’s Blake collaboration

Here is her account of our conversation along with plenty of examples of my own work, as influenced by Blake, on the Zoamorphosis site, which is in any case, a fabulous rabbit hole of advanced Blakery.

The Nets: one of the 7 etchings made as part of me & Chris McCabe’s Blake collaboration

There are interviews on there too with my collaborators on The Practical Visionary, poet Chris McCabe and our publisher, the poet Tamar Yoseloff.

Anaglypta: one of the 7 etchings made as part of me & Chris McCabe’s Blake collaboration

The Practical Visionary, published in 2018, necessitated some proper inky printmaking. We knew that to connect authentically with Blake, we’d need to inhabit the etching studio, and join him and all printmakers in the back to front thinking that is the hallmark of such a practice. The book includes a series of 7 etchings by Chris McCabe and myself, editioned in Lambeth at Slaughterhaus studios. Each work was photo-etched onto a zinc plate, and each one is signed by us both. They were printed on a press similar to the one Blake himself turned a couple of centuries ago in a nearby street.

India Club: one of the 7 etchings made as part of me & Chris McCabe’s Blake collaboration

The final set of etchings was editioned by master printmaker Rob White. Ten of these sets of the original twenty that we made are still available via Hercules Editions. Printed on beautiful Somerset paper and rather tiny, (the plates are each about A7 and fit in a standard large postcard frame) the whole series of 7 is available for £300. Individually the etchings are £70. Those buying etchings will also receive a free copy of the book in which they appear.

The Eye: one of the 7 etchings made as part of me & Chris McCabe’s Blake collaboration
Stench of cash: one of the 7 etchings made as part of me & Chris McCabe’s Blake collaboration

Thanks for revisiting this city of image and text in which we citizens continually collaborate. And for reading my blog.

Happening all over

I recently had an interesting commission with quite a rapid turnaround. I was asked to write a poem in response to a new feature film: Happening. I was one of ten female artists invited by BFI/Picturehouse Entertainment to make a piece of creative work in the run up to the films UK release date, 22/4/22.

In writing about my approach below I’ve added and included some random photographs from recent wanderings. My excuse being that it was French film and poetry that got me into flâneuse ways, back when I was the same age as Anne, the films protagonist. (And also I don’t like to make a blog post without some pictures by me!)

Based on Annie Ernaux’s short memoir L’Événement, and written and directed by Audrey Diwan, the film charts the impossible situation of a young working class woman in provincial France, who finds herself pregnant after her first sexual experience, at a time when abortion is illegal and women are discouraged from pursuing anything like a career. But Anne, the student (played movingly by Anamaria Vartolomei,) has plans for a different sort of future: an intellectual life, the chance to escape the confines of her own birth and circumstances.

Eg. Sorting the butter from the margarine is a full time job in Lambeth
Luckily I’d read this short memoir a few years ago – Annie Ernaux is an incisive writer – recommended.

There is a lonely mounting desperation in the film, nobody to help, no money, no way out – and an overwhelming encounter with shame – around sexuality, desire and ambition. As if these are simply not to be countenanced in women.

A giant loom at the National Wool Museum in west Wales

The film, set in 1963, is a lush period piece and is paced like a thriller, with nods to Jean Luc Godard in its 60s existentialist chic. The camera loves the burgeoning womanhood and delicious flesh of the girl students, even the male characters, whose bodies are also lingered over in their beauty.

beautiful girls in beautiful sunlight – from Happening

I loved the sense with which it conveyed the shocking transition girls face when they turn from tree-climbing rectangular kids – into languorous sirens, objects of sexual fantasy and longing. What are they/we meant to do with the new self: body, hormones, ideas, feelings – and apparently no power beyond the power of seduction!

In terms of writing the poems, (like Anne in the film,) I had to act fast. So I followed my usual emergency writing strategy, and watched the film last thing at night so that my mind could tangle with it in my dreams. On waking I could write all the material that floated to the surface along with lists of striking visual details I remembered – and fragments of script that resonated.

Props & vessels on the street, Crystal Palace

I was taken with an early scene set in the lecture theatre – where Anne knows the answer to a question about a poem they are studying by Louis Aragon. It’s an anaphora, she says. A Victor Hugo poem turns up later in the film too. Anne is studying literature. She will need to be immersed in the work of the (dead, white) male genii to get the grades to go to university. This too reminded me of my own education, how when I was at art college in the 80s, there was not a single female tutor on my painting degree, for example. The form of an anaphora is one of repeats. I thought, I’ll use that for my poem: Anne’s experience, mine, the zillions of women, we are an anaphora – with our repeated opening phrases and phases.

So I had several starting points: like the tension of the scene at the back street abortionist’s, the idea of an anaphora, the burden of carrying a shameful secret, the turning from a girl into a woman, the irresistible pull of desire, and how that conflicts with being a diligent student, a good daughter.

Don’t sit down- a chair factory at dusk, Litomerice.

The poem that Picturehouse Entertainment ended up using was the final one I wrote, Girls, Keep It Empty, and it is a kind of anaphora, riffing on the idea of emptiness. Empty is a word I’ve always loved, those three central consonants making a hollow sound – like a row of rinsed out milk bottles on the door step knocking into each other. I wondered about how a young woman is supposed to cultivate emptiness – as if only a man or a baby could fill her up, and I made this thought into the poem.

The final poem I wrote in response to the film Happening

I wrote six draft poems and went round in circles with them – running them past trusted writer friends (so helpful) and finding out what jarred or rang true by operating tests for the work: recording the drafts on my phone, playing them back for rhythm and sound, looking at the film again in bursts and letting its cinematography permeate my brain via my eyes. I love listening to French too. I spent a term on a student exchange in Montpelier in 1984, in my second year of art school, which gave me another strong way in to the film. I recognised the vibes, even some of the slang, to my delight!

Me at my dad’s house in 1985 – my awful
art school days – that is my poor Canadian cousin James Rolfe trying to get through to me. He is a celebrated composer now & we are collaborating on a song cycle!

The other poems that made it past the cutting room are more closely tied to the film itself. The scene in the library where Anne flicks through the diagrams in a dry biology book, seemed to want to become a sonnet.

The abortion scene itself, which I wrote into tough little couplets, as a mirror to the two women acting in complicity.

The Abortionist

And the poem I’d thought of as the main contender, which aimed to inhabit Anne’s voice and is called I Have to do Something Illegal.

I Have to do Something Illegal

If you want to see and read the responses from the other commissioned women artists, follow @picturehouses on Instagram and the hashtag #HappeningFilm on all social media. Thanks for reading – and thanks for help to writer friends who read and commented on drafts. Thanks also to the commissioners & their funders for having this bold idea, and amplifying the voices of creative women across the arts.

Glad to be a crow amongst daisies

The devastating power of children, drawing.

Marzipan Titans hold up Prague, balcony by balcony

I have just returned from the Czech Republic on a research trip for a new project. Getting away from this little island was quite a reawakening after the insularity of the pandemic. I was immersed in the history of a part of Europe where dictatorships have raged and scarred and changed borders, demographics and culture, and apparently still do.

And where, despite never having been there before, the architecture, fairy tales and pastries felt a lot like home to me.

Poppy seed strudel – say the words, feel sleeps comfort in the rolled black tarmac crunch.

In December I was surprised by an invitation to collaborate on a new project – to make a book based on the experiences of one family during world war two. I won’t tell you what happened, that’s for the book itself, but much of the story takes place in a small fortress town not far from Prague, called Terezín, which from 1942 to 1945 functioned as a prison ghetto and transit camp – Theriesenstadt in German. It had a distinct purpose in the nazi plan, and many eminent Jews in the fields of art, science and music were sent there, as well as nearly all Czech Jews, and also elderly Jews from all over the reich, who the nazis wanted to make a show of treating well. As members of my own family had been sent there too, never to return, I felt both curious and honour bound to take up the project and see where it would lead, especially as I’d be working with a wonderful collaborator whose work in other fields I admire.

I drew at the Grand Cafe Orient, fascinated by the lamps which beamed in sixes from starched green skirts.

She already has a lot of books and knowledge about the strange world that existed at Terezin during those years. I began to catch up with her, reading, watching documentaries, (like The Music of Terezín) and exchanging thoughts.

We agreed I needed to go there and draw before the real work could begin. I took a lot of art materials and books to help, like Austerlitz by WG Sebald, and East West Street by Philippe Sands, and for communist era insight (and laughs,) the brilliant B. Proudew, by Irena Douskovà, translated by Melvyn Clarke.

One of the main reasons for my journey was to look at an extraordinary art collection: drawings made by children at the ghetto in clandestine classes run by an artist inmate called Friedl Dicker Brandreis.

Trained at the Bauhaus, Friedl had long worked with imagination at the forefront of her own practice. Using hard won resources like the old forms left by the previous Czech military occupants of the place and the materials she herself had filled her one case with on deportation there, she set the children exercises in drawing that she knew had the power to temporarily release their minds into another reality. Some of the children’s drawings are in a small gallery at the Pinkas Synagogue, one of many compelling sites in Prague’s old Jewish district.

I loved this roll of ‘footage’ – Myckey Mouse! Made by a child as a birthday present for their friend in the camp.

I spent some hours in that space, drawing from the children’s pictures, hoping to hear them and learn from them through an imitation of their gestures.

Ruth Schächterova & Gerti Elsinger – their works were shown beneath pre Terezín photographs of them. I drew them, and the pictures they made, as best I could.

Works by the child prisoners include charcoal drawings of different rhythms, experimental exercises in colour and dynamic collages, often using a stash of red wrapping paper and some green that was found in the camp and carefully saved for art class.

One of the many collages made from red wrapping paper by child prisoners at Terezín.
A double page spread from one of the nine tiny books I made to document my days. This is from day 2, volume 1. (The Nazis actually insisted that Jews add Sara to their names if they were female, and Israel if they were male.)
My drawing of a collage by a child called Ella Hermannovà – I loved the way she’d cut the figure of Mummy on a symmetrical fold, from already drawn on paper. The table with the pots on, also made this way.

Friedl along with practically every child she taught, was murdered at Auschwitz in the autumn of 1944. After liberation, over 4,500 of the children’s drawings from her classes were found hidden in two suitcases in Terezin. I was extremely grateful to be able to spend some time in the Jewish Museum Archive looking at more of the drawings in close up and finding out about them from their curator Michaela Sidenberg.

Me & Michaela at the archive. From Day 2, volume 2. The first drawing I was shown was by a Karl Koralek, whose name also belongs to an old friend of mine, a descendant, one who also observes and draws flowers with acuity.
My copy of Karl Koralek’s drawing.

During the middle of the week, days four and five, I was at Terezin. Now parading as a seemingly normal small town with cafes, shops and Czech residents.

The cover of day fives little book. Our guide Ondrej drove me and my fellow two tourists in his old car as it was so rainy.

I was taken on tours in English both days by kind, well-informed guides, who both had a firm handle on the painful facts and statistics. On day four I’d caught the bus from Prague and walked across the road from the ghetto itself to a place called the Small Fortress.

At the Small Fortress in Terezín. At first I had this once densely crowded yard all to myself.

It was a haunted place, from its grand SS villa and empty swimming pool to its windowless solitary confinement cells. Whilst on the tour we experienced every type of weather, from blazing sun to hail, matted grey sleet-chucking clouds to rainbows. I felt the ghosts were operating the skies and illuminating the darkest of all dark human enterprises.

Excerpts from day fours tiny book.

The days back in Prague after Terezín were less intense. Adam had come to meet me and we walked by the erasing gush of the Vltava river in the biting wind. I returned to the present, a place of gift shops and garnets, and great Czech taunts to gravity such as dumplings and giddying spires.

Since my return home I am resolved on drawing more than ever. I discovered a power to those tender marks on paper that really does outlive the tyrant.

Watch! Repair!

I was struck by this neon on my way home from a newly allowed jaunt in town – made bright to shout out – but muffled by its own habitual shutters. Metaphor for current self? Imperative to broken world?

I’ve been so grateful to be back at live events these last few weeks, the Poetry London 100th issue celebration, and the following night, a real buzz at the Forward Prize readings. Both these were held at the Southbank Centre. It felt great to be back in that quintessentially public space and share the sensations zipping off language, reforged and flying about in the London air.

Last night more treats, as I sat mesmerised listening to Marcia Farquhar read from her new book Pushing 60 at iconic venue The Horse Hospital, another treasured space. She’s a born performer, funny and serious at the same time.

Marcia Farquhar & friends launching her book Pushing 60 at the Horse Hospital

It’s also been epic to work in real rooms with other people again. I wheeled my trolley of art making gear to Walthamstow, where I was part of two inspiring projects that support refugees and asylum seekers: Stories and Supper & Stories in Transit which had teamed up on a couple of Saturdays for some creative collaborations. We worked together to create new songs and banners to welcome Little Amal to London. I learnt a lot from everyone there and loved working with Debsey Wykes who swiftly made everything into a song as if it was no trouble at all.

Marina Warner and members of Stories and Supper making up lyrics for a welcome song
drawing nice food on welcome flags with a young participant, photos: Hannah Machover.
Little Amal on her long journey, seen here with Alf Dubs.

Also I’ve been teaching some of my classes live again at The Royal Drawing School, though most remain online. I have been lucky to work with some life models who can act. The two IRL ‘Drawing a Story’ classes I ran over the last weeks involved a lot of speedy costume and character changes, as Lidia became a frog, a king, three brothers and various other characters… – and Richard became Sita, Rama, Ravanna, Hanuman and a great variety of demons, in the section I told of the Ramayana. I used this book as a springboard: Rama and Sita, Path of Flames, one of the four books I’ve collaborated on with good friend & storyteller Sally Pomme Clayton. We would love support with our next collaboration, which is a book called The Mighty Goddess, coming out next year with the The History Press. We have a Kickstarter campaign waiting in the wings.

Lidia as enchanted frog in a Russian Fairy Tale
Richard as Sita – in exile in the forest, from the Ramayana
Some drawings I began – this is Sita based on Richard

Other areas of watch & repair have stretched to me patching my parka, replacing the pins with stitches in a sweet old patchwork quilt, and getting to the next stage of studio sort out – which is being masterminded by young artist Joe Hill. His eyes light up spookily at the prospect of creating an organised HQ from my mayhem.

I’ll be escaping both home & studio this Sunday, in Manchester, where I’ll be reading upstairs at The Peer Hat . I get to share the bill with two fabulous poets, Nell Osborne and Sarah-Clare Conlon – so I’m looking forward to meeting them and hearing them read. It’s free and doors open at 6:30pm. It’s been put together by Tom Jenks of zimZalla, publisher (as perhaps you know by now) of INDEX. This is Index’s northern launch. Do come if you can.

A collage flyer by me, with torn pages from a pre internet address book…

Thanks in advance, and thanks for reading.

Essex: a short inky epic.

Yesterday I was invited to bring my ink and brush along the tracks eastward out of London, to Chelmsford in Essex, where next to a car park in the grandly named Marconi Plaza – I’d been allocated a table in a domed tent – as one practitioner among several sharing ideas at the British Science Festival.

Setting out my stall in a tent beside a car park in Chelmsford. That’s poetry for you.

I was to work at a table with two women, Alice and Kayleigh, who run a project called Snapping the Stiletto, which aims to debunk the stereotypes around the much mythologised Essex Girl and engage with the stories and lives of real women from or living in the county. My remit was to collect lockdown stories from visitors to the festival.

As this was a science based event – most of the other tables had really interesting ideas to explore, and were offering demonstrations of research based findings from Archeology to Zero impact food production. The helpers and volunteers were mostly science students, and I collected a couple of stories from them. Both these ones, from Allegra and Fatima, had little twists that I didn’t see coming!

The first narrator of the day was eminent scientist Gina Rippon, author of The Gendered Brain and herself originally from Essex. Here she is.

Talking books with Gina Rippon, behind us you can see the warm & funny author & comedian Rosie Wilby who was offering spoof relationship counselling, including time based kiss graphs & other scientific notations!
“Suddenly everyone wanted to listen to scientists” Gina Rippon

After Gina, I had a constant flow of people, some alone, some with other family members, all taking the seats opposite mine and ready to talk to me about their experiences over the course of the pandemic, and the varying effects it had had on their lives. I listened, asked questions, drew. I encountered people full of reflections, humour, will to connect, contribute, mend the world.

Holly & I had a great conversation about textiles & sustainability.
Pic by Holly of me with her story.
Work in progress
Leanne works with Rothamsted Research and loves to communicate scientific ideas in schools and other educational settings. She taught me something new about ants & aphids!
One of the thoughtful Essex teenagers I spoke with yesterday.
And another… brave girl dealing with disrupted schooling and health challenges.
This mother and daughter helped each other find new ways through strange times. I found what Myk said about working with homeless people really interesting and touching.
Natasha’s adorable babies
Three more lovely kids on the path of learning (via drawing, of course,) they stared at me & I stared back!
Three teachers talk about work and life.

My final storyteller of the day was a woman named Jacqui Mulville, from Guerilla Archeology, I started by admiring her perfect pale pink hair and then really enjoyed and related to her stories of family life under lockdown. Being a mother and having a mother. Sigh.

Anyone who makes narwhals from tissue paper is alright with me.

Usually I have a photocopier whisperer who can make a copy for each narrator to take home, but in these times it’s extra hard to get an A3 copier & my heavy old machine has bitten the dust. So copies will be made this week and go out in the post to all who shared a story.

Alice, from Snapping the Stiletto, unpegging the days drawings at 5 o’clock.

Thanks to Anna Woolman of the British Science Association, who found me and had the notion to get me along. A delight to exchange stories with inspiring Essex Girls.

Graphic Habits in Familiar Palettes.

The book I worked on last autumn, making many paper cut vignettes: Marina Warner’s Inventory of a Life Mislaid, is soon to be published in the USA by New York Review Books.

For the cover of the UK edition, a handsome hardback out with William Collins, a compromise was reached between my twirly analogue suggestions and the corporate giant’s thwack that was needed to pitch the book squarely into the mainstream.

One of my original cover roughs: I really wanted to avoid the use of black, to contrast with the strict monochrome of the inside pages.

Luckily this was arrived at through the great skills and collaborative decency of their in house jacket designer, Jo Thomson, whom I knew to trust, because I’d seen her work on some of the most striking jackets of books I’d actually read.

Part of the original jacket design, with Egyptian column spine, frock and jackal
Playing with legibility is not usually seen as a good idea! Pink space for text on flap & asemic letter with shadow from my original wraparound papercut.

I always stare at the tables laid with the latest sellers in bookshops and play games with my eyes and their graphics. Which are the books that cry out to be picked up? Is it the ones with lush colour, or a touch of the handmade, or a stunning dose of clever, succinct type?

My stack of copies

Jo T used my papercuts and swatches from my painted palette and devised a ‘mid century Cairo shopfront’ lettering for the long title, which needed to occupy the central space of the front. The use of gold in the lettering, and an embossed black for the papercuts around the words, really made for a stand out design, and once I’d got over the ‘kill fee’ (which halved my payment for the jacket work) I was pleased with how the book ended up looking.

For the US edition of Marina’s book – I am designing a new cover. I can have the freedom of the whole rectangle for imagery – as NYRB has a uniform house style: with the text along the bottom in a clean san serif upper case.

The editor of the US edition, Edwin Frank, also proposed a change of title: so it will become Esmond & Ilia: an Unreliable Memoir. It is to be a paperback, another change in terms of the look, less grand, more portable.

All jackets involve many conversations – often between editor and sales team, rather than necessarily with the author. They’re not called jackets for nothing, they’re the clothes a writer’s words are dressed up in to go out alone and make their way in the jagged, crazily book-laden world.

Too many layers!
Colour try outs – fun to play spot the differences between these images?
A rogue nasturtium leaf – a sharper hoopoe beak…

Marina quite rightly persisted in nudging me until I’d got the tiny approximate portraits of her parents right.

Marina wasn’t keen on the portrayal of her father here, nor the brown arabesque frame, – I knew in my heart that the hoopoe’s beak was wrong, and that the hatbox needed better definition.

This was a breakthrough for me, as I really don’t think I’d imagined lively likenesses possible in the medium of papercut, preferring to concentrate on objects – things with their own inherent graphic qualities like coffee pots and envelopes!

Attempting to capture real people through a few incisions in some painted paper
Blue and orange laid on layout paper painted gold – fancy!

I’m still going through lots of hand painted paper in a great variety of shades, turquoise, golds and yellows, blues, corals purples and oranges – looking for post war ex pat Egypt, something to evoke the glamour, the complicated people and histories layered within the pages.

This is perhaps my current favourite for NYRB book jacket for Esmond & Ilia by Marina Warner

I was startled to notice that I’d settled on orange and ultramarine in my favourite version, as I began to realise these were the main colours I’d chosen for the new edition of my own book: Velkom to Inklandt, coming out this autumn.

Cover design as it was, in progress, spring this year
Also experimenting with many colour trials in the search for my own best book jacket – for the reprint of my first poetry collection Velkom to Inklandt. Josef Albers is a helpful ghost.
The final jacket: more analogue papercut letters and envelopes – signifiers of the predigital age that both Marina Warner and I are writing about in these books.

Inwardly I sighed. This orange and blue is a default palette for me, especially if I want to evoke joy. As when I was a child and we went on a summer holiday to France, I was bowled over by the gigantic Orangina posters plastered to the side of buildings. Beautiful, like summer. I insisted on drinking orangina although I really didn’t like it.

One of many orangina advertising posters designed by Bernard Villemot, that I loved from the olden days!

Naturally for the first proper graphic job I did, which was for a charity bike ride in 1989, raising money for AIDS organisation London Lighthouse, I hit on ultramarine and orange. I made a papercut and primitive colour separations which made the printer groan. (That was Steve Sorba at Aldgate Press , a co-op and a London institution, still people l’d always choose to work with. Steve turned out to have been to the same primary school as me in Battersea and once he knew that he treated me with respect, lol.)

My 1989 poster for a charity bike ride. Initially designed as part of a bike repair deal with Paul Hobbs then of (my still local) Brixton Cycles.
More of the same two colour printing for Verso, saving the only 100% reflex blue for the V on the back – and the white card only revealed as ‘Spring’. I love tones & overlays!
Not paper cut this time, (brush work!) a pumpkin poster for the Thames Festival, a couple of decades on.

I see two of these old works are from Septembers, so I expect the leaves turning orange against the blue skies of autumn are also part of why my brush and eye would have naturally turned to this pair of complementary colours.

There’s energy in that orange, a little fire summoned. Even proper ultramarine is from the warm end of blue, up with the purples rather than the icy greens.

Today I noticed that my front window canna lily had sprouted two new flowers, and that the clothes I put on were allied to the paper cuts I was making. If I had to find a cardigan, I think we know where we’re headed.

Cardigan weather, coordination with project, and a canna lily from Brockwell Community Greenhouses

Autumns mellow fruitfulness. Very lovely of course but I don’t much like the way it leads to the awful dark afternoons of winter. All I can advise is that we arm ourselves with books, colour, and a good pinch of paprika in the goulash.

Thank you for reading my blog, and good luck with new terms, and any other changes looming.

Drawing Challenges

Last week I was the other side of the zoom screen as a student at The Royal Drawing School, as opposed to teaching there as I usually do.

I’ve always dreamed of making a graphic novel ever since I first read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. And who better to learn from than my lovely friend and teaching colleague, the prize winning writer/drawer Emily Haworth Booth? When she tipped me off that there were places available on her summer school, I dropped everything and signed up!

The last bunch of captions added to a four panel ‘this morning’ prompt

We began by drawing four panels about our mornings activities. We changed the sense of these by writing a series of alternative captions. A revelation. We also had chances to collaborate with another student and make a comic strip about how they’d ended up on the course. I was listened to and drawn by a young man called Tom – who’d captured me with psychic accuracy – taking a poetry book off a shelf. This is just one of the eight little pics he made.

On Tuesday we were able to draw from a model, the amazing Lidia. Emily had us draw without looking at the page, flip the pose onto our paper, draw poses from memory, all kinds of playful ideas and approaches.

Drawing Lidia with the paper covered up

The sensation of working from observation all day using an ordinary pencil was strangely Proustian – it scribbled me back to a time last century, when my ability to reproduce a complicated corridor full of plaster cast gods using line alone, was enough to earn me gratifying astonishment from the teacher-gods on my foundation course.

Lidia, modelling as woman in café

I’d practiced drawing continuously as a teenager, in the then flourishing local authority subsidised adult education classes of the late 70s. Life drawing evening classes were my self inflicted ritual transition to adulthood. The eventual realization that being able to describe in pencil the distance between a shoulder and a toe wasn’t actually a job, sunk me into a depression that put me off the HB line more than I knew. Then here was Emily, gaily suggesting that we drew familiar locations from life as we walked around our areas. Stopping and drawing the endless wheelie bins, hedges, kerbs and parked cars on scraps of paper, made me both swear and dream of moving house. But it was a good reminder as well as triggering! It made me think about the paths I’d taken, and how learning to draw really has served me quite well as the backbone to my strange career, even four decades on. Proper drawing can’t help but convey emotion – just the raw immediacy of hand to paper, applying different pressures, frustrations, textures, variety of line.

The next exercise showed us how to slow the reader right down by looking at some simple Jeffrey Brown comic images, choosing one & extending it across several panels.

Extending a moment over several panels to generate real time awkwardness and silence.

I loved doing this. This blue pencil and a spot of invention took the edge off my graphite pain.

By Wednesday we were looking intently at story structure, with Emily’s great selection of clips from rom coms and classic movies. We began work on our own stories, encouraged by sharing bits of them with fellow students in breakout rooms.

We were to think about a problem in our lives and consider the ups and downs of its narrative arc. The ‘problem’ I told my fellow student in our breakdown room more like, was about my son. He is not a problem, he is a beloved child, now aged 22. But learning to parent him when he has a range of disabilities under the general banner of learning difficulties and autism has been a major challenge. Raising him has shaped me, as a person and as an artist, but I doubted I’d get to a place where it would feel okay to write and share this story – yet I’ve always wanted to, partly in the hope that some of what we learnt along the way might be interesting and useful to other people who face similar situations.

Diagnostics
One or two of the many trials

By the time the week was over I was firmly into this project. I have been drawing panels ever since, and a book seems to be on its way. Hopefully it will find a publisher when the time comes, so I won’t put too much up here yet. I will leave you with my thanks for reading – and a wave from a puppet called Party Pig, who narrates much of what is to come.

A Box of Tricks in Red & Gold

So, on Thursday a heavy delivery arrived from the north! I was very excited to rip it open and survey the repeated rhythm of upper case INDEX, foiled in Elvis Vegas gold on that poppy red cardboard, and know that here were poems!

Emptied out! Photo by Mike Sims

Each box contains 78 cards, fronted with a poem I’ve assembled from found text, and backed with an anyway up collage made from found images. Also included are instructions, which outline how to play or read the cards, printed on a small strip of vellum. Published with incredible collaborative attention to detail by zimZalla, an experimental press based in Manchester, which is essentially a one-man side-hustle set up and run by inventive fellow poet Tom Jenks.

Some of the cards – photo by Suki Hayes Watkins
Some of the backs of the cards – photo by Suki Hayes Watkins

The last couple of days I’ve been back at my cutting mat, rifling through the already dessicated sources of these poems, wishing I still had the shreds of law books & westerns I left in my hastily assembled and then abandoned collage box in Berkeley.

Phrases trimmed and ready to bag.

I’ve been combing phrases from my London stash: the instructional, the moral, the romantic, to clip and put in sachets for Kickstarter supporters.

Behind the scenes at the House of Phrases

I find the process funny and painful. Despite having made all these poems from them, cutting up books still goes against every fibre of my being, and I have to reassure myself on a kind of loop that books are replaceable, and that these are cheap tattered ephemera that have usually cost me nothing, and anyway a lot of them are full of terrible old ideas that badly need rearranging! Inspite of this, I have so much affection for the author of the book on period furniture and his scathing words on mass-produced cupboards, or for the female authorities on flower arranging and cookery, or the well meaning hack in fever of empire, writing for children about their peers in ‘other lands’. Snip snip!

I had sixteen backers who’d signed up for the ‘bag of choice phrases’ reward option, and this is how my allocations looked in the kitchen last night, (how many phrases would each bag need? Should I weigh them?) I enjoyed folding A2 layout paper into 16 and dividing the spoils into piles. They became creatures: the animal ghosts of old texts, and I was surprised by their aliveness – their soft pelts of faded paper, their little lettery markings.

Other subscribers qualified for DIY collage kits. These have been really fun to make and feature lots of one-off favourite scraps from my messy studio. I’ll be sending these rewards out as soon as I can.

Meanwhile if you’re kicking yourself that you missed the Kickstarter, (so easily done) and feel moved to get hold of zimZalla object number 60: INDEX, then please don’t fight the impulse to order one. Details here: zimZalla

Thanks for reading, thanks to all who’ve bought or might yet buy a deck. Big thanks to Tom Jenks for publishing them, and also to Andy Jackson and Bill Herbert who featured them on their ‘Dr Malthusia pandemic poetry blog. If you do succumb and get a box of these poems – I hope they bring you much bonus magic of the right sort.

unlocking with Blake in ultramarine

Earlier this spring, I was excited to get a commission to write a new poem inspired by William Blake. I jumped up and down like a song of innocence whose experience has been recognised!

A new stone commissioned by The Blake Society and carved by Lida Cardozo was laid in 2018, and marks Blake’s actual burial spot.

Myself and four other poets, Joseph Coelho, Natalie Linh Bolderston, Ankita Saxena, and Ruth Awolola were each asked to write something new for St James’ Church, Piccadilly, as a joint project with The Poetry Society.

Poets on zoom (screenshot from the St James’ Blake Now film) top row: Julia Bird, me, Natalie Linh Bolderston, bottom row: Ruth Awolola, Joseph Coelho, Ankita Saxena.

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.

I was allowed to climb up and preach some Blake subversion from the outdoor pulpit.
Photo by Julia Bird.

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.

Carved from lime wood, this Grinling Gibbons reredos has been restored to its original 17th century brightness after some centuries of deadening varnish.

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 grateful that I have a poetry dress for an occasion such as this! I screen printed the satin myself in Peckham , with poems and collages from my book 60 Lovers to Make and Do and my great friend, dress designer and maker extraordinaire, Linda Brooker whipped it into this wrap dress & trimmed it with pompoms. Photo: Sam Allen

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!