I’m charmed by a new book that recently arrived in the post: The Camden Town Hoard is a catalogue of detritus that’s been given a new spin.
It’s creator and curator, Natalia Zagorska-Thomas, has published, with the consistently fabulous small press C B Editions, a collection of images of incomprehensible objects dredged from the Grand Union Canal as it galumphs through Camden, and beside each one is a learned label, elucidating the object. Natalia invited a group of writers to choose an object to write about. I was late to the party, as I had been too deadline-hectic to notice the project’s beginnings. But she kindly roped me in and sent me a picture of this horrible thing.
I didn’t write and I didn’t write. But after some nudging from Natalia, I pulled myself together and wrote something, (which of course I really enjoyed, just like making myself go for a walk) despite my initial blood-out-of -a-stone resistance. It’s lovely to be asked. I expect all these weird lumps and barnacled pipelets are metaphorical portraits of the people whose words accompany them. There are some spectacular writers being inventive in here, and the book is a tenner.
I have also been savouring a new anthology: Living With Other People , (another tenner well spent) edited by a small team of poets under the banner Corrupted Poetry. They are Fiona Larkin, Nic Stringer and Michelle Penn. This book modestly contains no poetry by them, but pulls together a kind of gritty survey with work by so many poets I admire, and interwoven with original drawings and other visual experiments by people (like me) who are not pure advocates of one medium only.
I have two quite personal, and very slowly written, poems in the book: ‘Cold Buffet’, marks an abrubtly ended friendship, and ‘Some Mirrors Held up to the Child’ is a poem I’ve worked on on and off for about 15 years, a kind of cubist portrait of my autistic/learning disabled son, made of language used by him, by us his family, and by many of the professionals that step in and out of our lives: culled from reports from teachers, occupational therapists, psychologists. I am grateful to be cushioned by a chorus of other voices who hit different notes and angles on the pain and delight that come from living with other people! Look out for a launch in London in mid March where some of the featured poets (including me) will be reading.
Two more by me in the latest edition of Cyphers – a long established literary journal based in Ireland. The underlying theme for this issue was ‘heritage’. One of my poems is a prose poem called South London Jew, and the other contains a story. SeekingArtemisia recounts an interail pilgrimage I made in my art school twenties, to see the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi. Both poems put a solitary woman in a world that might or might not be her own and leave her there. Cyphers is a beautiful magazine and its editor, legend Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, was part of the original group that set it up in 1975. It was exciting to connect with some brilliant Irish poets at Belfast Book Festival last summer, and this feels like a nice way to continue that conversation.
Huge thanks to all the editors mentioned, for giving me the opportunities to get my work into the world. Thanks too, for reading my blog – about which please read on! It has now mostly migrated to its own page on my evolving new website.
Because of my work spiralling off in so many media I have tried to limit the section headers – I resist putting different strands of my practice in separate categories, everything is just ‘the work’.
The website design is being ingeniously devised by artist Joe Bradley Hill who has done a revolutionary job of helping me get organised and sort out my long built up layers of studio activity – do take a look: new website in progress – sign up for the newsletter, and have a rummage. Many pages are still empty or in their early stages – but if you do go to the embryonic poetry page & click on the word INDEX – at least you’ll find a brand new prophesy at the top to add its seasoning to your day. (If you don’t like the first one, click refresh!)
Over 2022 I was back on the live story collecting and drawing road, taking my ink and brushes both round the corner in south London – and all over the UK.
To recap: this process is one I’ve written about before. It usually involves me sitting with a person and having a conversation, often on a theme, (like food) which I then draw and write live in front of them, using ink and brush and a distilled selection of their own words. Each narrator gets a copy of their story to keep, either on the day if we have a helper and access to an A3 copier, or later, by post.
Early in the year I worked with a group of women from across the African diaspora, who are meeting to cook together and share stories with Brixton chef and teacher Marie Mingle, and doctoral researcher Natasha Dyer. We spent a day in Marie’s kitchen, and as well as doing one to one story drawing, I was invited to cook and eat with the group. I learned about some fantastic spice mixtures and recipes, as well as hearing of many tough situations that the women I met are dealing with, both here and back home. The food and company were delicious, also, bittersweet. I took home a jar of Marie’s green sauce which gives everything a lift.
Still in London and still with the African diaspora, the people at UK book HQ – ie The British Library, are in the middle of a major project to connect their Sound Archive back with some of the communities the recordings represent. Chandan Mahal and Emma Brinkhurst from the BL team got in touch to see if I could do some listening with a group of Somali Londoners, together with Mancunian East African poet, Elmi, and a bunch of recordings from the 1980s – collected by ethnomusicologist John Low.
To begin with, we all listened to the magnificent voice and music of iconic Somali singer Maryam Mursal . I drew her from a video clip and wrote down some of what she said, as well as what was said about her, by the people gathered for the session. Over subsequent weeks we listened together to lullabies, house building songs, herding songs and other examples of Somali music.
A high spot for me was listening to the women sing and ululate live in the room where we gathered. Their voices animated the air – a spell to mend post-lockdown hearts.
As a thank you to the group and for continuity, the library produced this booklet based on the project, with pictures by me, a new poem by Elmi – many quotations and insights from the participants and a QR link to the music recordings. I think you can request one from the British Library as they have a few.
In September, I travelled to Glasgow, where the university, along with those of St Andrew’s and Edinburgh, is working with a newly set up body called the Scottish Council on Global Affairs. The SCGA has been set up to ‘deepen the debate’ around migration and citizenship, amongst other things. I was very proud to participate in such conversations, invited by two enterprising doctors of History: Rachel Chin and Sarah Dunstan. There were speakers from the worlds of law, local and international politics, grassroots migrant organisations – and many practical and potent ideas were expressed to challenge ongoing Brexit rhetoric.
After the talks I listened to and drew stories from some of the participants. Every story was a glimpse into the hidden worlds we all carry, of family, memory, home.
I heard more treasures of inherited language at a recent gig at JW3 . As the event was to thank people who had supported the charity – I was asking narrators to tell me stories of things they’d been given, or learned from their parents, or things they would hope to pass on… Debby’s rather roguish dad had a family whistle, her mother: a Yiddish lullaby.
Marcel didn’t know his parents, but became surprisingly conversant with the glamour of the Folies Bergère, aged four. He still speaks, with an almost indiscernible French accent, and great pride, of his astonishing rescuers.
Here are a couple more stories from London Jews: I heard these in the summer and include them here for their thematic resonance. Language: lost and found.
On another type of story jaunt – project Phakama was participating in a brand new festival in Brighton, and so myself and fellow associate artist (and dear pal) Charlie Folorunsho headed to Wildfest, in glorious Stanmer Park.
Charlie and I were trying out an IRL version of a project initiated by him, with support from a Phakama Digital bursary in 2021. Called The LORE, which stands for Language Of Resilient Expression, it started online as part of an artistic response to the pandemic. We’ve been joint facilitators: getting together with small groups of people online, sharing stories of the ways we have managed to cope and keep going through the challenge of covid and austerity and difficulties with health. This was our first go at presenting the workshop face to face. People came and practiced listening to and drawing each other’s stories. Charlie asked participants to reinvent the LORE, and try alternative R words that might help us survive – we heard ‘revolutionary’, ‘rebellious,’ ‘resourceful’ – please add your own, however ‘regrettable’ & join us. We hope to make a book of the LORE one day, in which we collate all we have heard and drawn from and with participants. A kind of survival kit.
Her talk followed a guided meditation to begin the event in calm, led by poet Ros Goddard.
Jacqueline gave an inspiring talk on rhyme, which she packed with dazzling examples from some of her favourite poems. I drew what I could catch – trying not to get so absorbed that I forgot to move my brush across the paper.
Jacqueline’s talk was followed by a presentation from Debris Stevenson who got us all to shake, and talked about what had provoked her towards her path of poetry and performance.
The last speaker was current TS Eliot prize shortlistee Victoria Adukwei Bulley who gave a talk on the practicalities of getting funded to make work, and showed us clips from her fascinating film, Mother Tongue, which explores language in exile and the poetry born from and inherent in that. Notice a theme?
There was a great buffet lunch and a fallow period to follow, in which I ran a kind of rolling collage studio – and also read peoples’ fortunes from INDEX.
The last part of the day heralded the grand announcements of who had won this years Women Poets’ Prize. There were three winners chosen from a shortlist of thirty. You can read more about the judges, all the poets and their brilliant work, on the Rebecca Swift Foundation website, as well as on social media.
The huge and ancient wood-beamed hall fell silent. Intimate worlds were spilled by the poets into the room from the stage and even from the video screens. Suddenly after all the busy whir of chat, meeting friends and jotting down ideas, we were in a different space. A mirror to the morning meditation we’d begun with – a contemplative zone.
I had made over 35 drawings, and was pleased to see that many of the assembled poets had also made fabulous collage poems and zines in my portable studio. It was a truly creative day.
Huge thanks to all those who have shared stories with me, and all those who have found the imagination, space and funding to commission me to do this ongoing work which means so much to me.
And of course, thanks for reading my blog. Wishing you peace and poetry in 2023.
Over recent weeks I’ve watched astonished – my poems from Velkom to Inklandt coming freshly alive in rehearsals for a stage adaptation that is coming to North London in November. Talented actor Sarah Malin, (who is also a friend and lives on the same street as me in Brixton) succeeded in getting Arts Council funding to develop the book into an hour long show. So now together with director Lucy Richardson and musician Nico Brown, and myself as designer/set maker, we are in full swing towards this new collaboration.
Sarah’s late father Morris was cared for in his final years at Nightingale House, a Jewish old peoples’ home in Wandsworth. Initial performances and workshops are taking place there, with and for the residents and carers. The home has generously provided rehearsal space as well.
Sarah is also a wonderful writer, and has devised a story to help structure the poems into a framing narrative. She plays the grand daughter, as well as Liesl.
I have found it so fascinating and enlightening to watch and listen to the intense work – as ideas, language, gesture are tried, discussed, inhabited, fused into performance, met in exactitude and inventiveness with music and direction. Nico has been insistent on a real piano, we are lucky that two of the three venues have a baby grand, and for our last night at Camden Peoples Theatre he has hired an upright. We are also lucky to have found theatre maker Carlos Piña to do the lighting, and trainee director Chi, a blaze of iniative, to assist Lucy.
It’s a real education to be part of this detailed journey from poems into drama – keeping to the precision and rhythm that poetry creates and demands, and at the same time offering pace and a relatable story to an audience.
I’m grateful as ever to live near John Purcell Paper who delivered a roll of Japanese mulberry paper and a roll of thick black Canson mi-teintes paper to me early last week so that I could snip into the small hours and not run out.
If you’d like to book tickets to see VelkomtoInklandt, there are two live performances in the building and an online offer, at JW3, the big Jewish community centre on Finchley Road, on November 13th. Details and booking via the link.
The following night Monday 14th, we’ll be on at Camden People’s Theatre, I’ll be around at all the public performances and would luff to see Reeters oont Frentz. Meenvial, sanks as effer, for reedink my Blok.
Besides a lot of scooting about lately, and the heat, I’ve been staying grounded with some focused paper-cutting in the cool vaults of mythology.
I’ve been laying into sheets of black paper with scissors and scalpel, and summoning a great variety of goddesses, and their assorted props and consorts for the next book. The Mighty Goddess – a collection of 52 myths and stories for adults, gathered over many years with intrepid care and respect, and written in her own inimitable style by old friend and collaborator Pomme Clayton. This is to be published next spring by The History Press. We raised extra funds to create the book via our Kickstarter campaign. Thanks to all who supported that.
Some of the stories are very familiar to me. Pomme and I have had four of our children’s fairy tale and myth collections published over the years. I’ve painted Durga, Ama Terasu, Demeter… Our first book together: Tales of Amazing Maidens, came out with Orchard Books in 1995. It featured Inuit goddess Sedna on the front cover. So I enjoyed revisiting her (as an Arctic elder must inevitably also do – or she will be in discomfort under the sea with her tangled hair. ) Richard Price has dived into this material too, in his beautiful collection The Owner of the Sea. Sedna provides fish and poetic inspiration in equal measure.
As with previous projects, like INDEX, & 60 Lovers to Make and Do, I have branched out from using only plain papers, to finding tone and texture in old black and white photographic images, which I use as collage material.
I like the playfulness of scale between the objects in the photographs (spoons, cakes, shrubs) and the grandeur of a deity – a being so large it cannot be seen or comprehended, let alone fit on a page.
Then again – some goddesses are known through their small scale manifestations, St Bridget is in the snowdrops, Persephone sparkles on in every pomegranate seed –
Other stories were familiar in another way: Artemis/Diana the huntress, turning Actaeon into a stag for spying on her naked beauty as she bathed… I remember copying Titian’s version of this, that hangs here in London at the National Gallery.
We Camberwell foundation students of 1982 were each set a painting to study as an exercise in composition. We were instructed to make three versions: reducing it further in each incarnation – eventually making it into a 3 colour abstraction. I recall that laborious absorbing afternoon.
I returned to Titian for help with my papercut, loving how he caught Actaeon’s bodily astonishment at the moment of transformation.
There’s another Artemis story in the book too – of the young girls apprenticed to the goddess – who dressed as bears to play hunting games in the forest.
Other stories were a total revelation. The violence and incest, sex and torment in many of the tales – from Māori creation myth to ancient Egypt. Stories to make even the most jaded Twitter user gasp.
I felt nervous about making images of Isis and Sekhmet, partly because I so love and admire Egyptian art – and did not feel I could add anything to the perfect depictions we know so well from the tombs and the looted beauties I grew up staring at in the British Museum. Of course that made snipping these goddesses and their head dresses all the more exciting in the end. ‘Only do something that you know you CANNOT do’ – as I’m fond of telling my students.
Reading and rereading these ancient myths was a balm in these times. These stories remind us of our own impermanence and solidity at the same time, always useful. Thank Goddess for the power of imagination.
Those bad lilies sure got a nose for a poem. One they published last summer in their second issue: Pollen, by the amazing Clare Pollard has been nominated for best single flower in the Forward Prizes.
Congrats to the wondrous Chrissy Williams too, poet and editor of online journal Perverse. Two poems first published there have made the same auspicious list – one by Louisa Campbell and one by Cecelia Knapp. No shortage of goddesses in this post as it turns out.
And nobody creates new work entirely alone. We only get good by reading/looking/listening to/rubbing shoulders with other people who read and make, so this goes out to all those who aren’t on a shortlist either… and who are slogging away anyway! May Lakshmi’s elephants cool you & may Athena’s owl toot wisdom instead of war!
Here is a non prize winning wasp poem I made from phrases clipped from a child’s encyclopaedia I found on a wall near my house. I made it for my poet friend Alison Winch who inspired me with her wasp poems. They’re not published yet, but watch out! Thanks for reading my blog & strength to all creative resisters in the long hot jam of now.
Like a lot of Londoners of my era, all I knew of Northern Ireland was from the relentless news of the Troubles throughout my youth. Luckily I’d met people from there over the years who’d also shaped my imaginings. It was the good influence of one of them, the painter Patricia Doherty, that made me extra curious to go and visit the city that had produced my funny and talented friend. So it was great to be invited to read and run a workshop as one of several poets at the book festival this June.
I arrived the day before I was due to read, and was taken aback to find that the hotel room I’d been booked into was painted dark grey. Comfy & all, but like, almost black.
I walked into town & bought myself peonies and a scroll of Chinese paper and when I got back made the first of two backdrops, ostensibly for the reading, as I like to have something painted in a room, but also to vanquish the gloom. I was glad to find an amazing bookshop run for Self Help Africa and relieve them of some old volumes that got pressed into action at my workshop as well as in my emergency backdrops.
The first event I went to was that night, about Belfast poet, the late Padraic Fiacc. Poets Tara McEvoy and Joelle Taylor were there to read some of his work and lead a discussion of it – following a screening of a grainy and great 1970s German documentary about him, unearthed by the festivals intrepid poetry curator Natasha Cuddington. It was a revelation to hear him and his powerful writing of conflict, inner and outer. Many people in the audience had known him and were engaged with his work. He’d read and anthologised poetry across the sectarian divide, and often feared for his life in doing so, but made it to 94 in the end.
The next day Christodoulos Makris arrived and we got talking about our shared reading which was to be hosted by Natasha that night. I attended Christodoulos’ workshop in the afternoon, where we constructed poems from that days newspaper, before rushing back and making another emergency backdrop, & changing into my poetry dress for the evening.
Both Christodoulos and myself invited the audience to read poems with us at points during the evening, which was fun. We talked about instinct and spontaneity and some of the poetry projects we have been working on. I read some fortunes from INDEX as well as other poems and Christodoulos read from his book this is no longer entertainment (a total must-read) as well as his collaboration with the brilliant Kimberley Campanello – an online work called sorry that you were not moved.
We spoke of poet Tom Jenks of course, bold publisher of poetry objects by Christodoulos, Kimberley and myself amongst many others, with his press zimZalla. It was so enlivening to be live with a live audience.
After we’d recovered with a large dinner at The Woodworkers – I wandered back to the hotel and was spared immediate re entombment in the charcoal interior by friendly shouts from the pavement.
Joelle Taylor and Cathy Rentzenbrink – both amazing people, writers and festival headliners, were having a chat at the outdoor tables in the balmy Belfast night & invited me to join them. I read their cards from INDEX (‘spookily accurate!’ said Joelle) and we had a wonderful conversation.
There were still ace chats to come. Gail McConnell & Julie Morrissy read at a hybrid event the next night, Gail in person – Julie by zoom from the USA. Natasha again asking the questions.
Gail’s book: The Sun is Open is a moving, questioning, elegiac work – using archive material from her father’s life. It’s incredible, and currently a fiver in the Penned in the Margins July sale!
I don’t know Julie’s work yet, it sounds powerful, connecting the threads of close family with political histories via feminism. I liked drawing both of them in my notebook.
Back at the Woodworkers there was more illuminating chat, I sensed a very alive poetry community in Belfast, the layering of centuries of Irish and English, not just as languages. It was refreshing to be far from home and find people arguing, laughing and sharing poetry as a home.
A bunch of excellent women turned up to my own workshop session. I tipped my cornucopia of scraps onto the table – and the room hummed with industry, as book manufacture took hold of those who love to rummage, snip & glue.
The collage game in Belfast is strong, and I’m glad to say I found a willing recipient of my scrap bag – which saved me lugging it to my next destination.
Poet Bebe Ashley had a residency at the festival, with a 3D printer, with which she was recycling plastic food packaging into braille poetry. Here she is with her poem Tom Daley dives for David Hockney and David Hockney paints Tom Daley.
I had a go at translating it just from its spacing and the colours used. If you’d like to try this – look carefully at the picture and try to read what you see! Bebe kindly let me take two of her little chips of braille – they spell the words alive and heartbeat and I keep them in my wallet.
In between readings and chats I walked in the city. Two favourite discoveries were the Botanic Gardens – very nearby, free and stunning, and independent bookshop No Alibis, where David the bookseller told me about his late friend, choreographer and dancer Helen Lewis, an extraordinary woman who survived Terezín and Auschwitz to pioneer modern dance in Belfast. She taught dance for years at the Crescent Arts Centre where the book festival was taking place. I was glad to read her memoir, A Time to Speak , a beautifully written book and more fuel for my Terezín project.
Thanks as ever for reading my blog. Thanks to Sophie Hayles, Natasha Cuddington and the whole team at Belfast Book Festival for their warm welcome and their tireless and good natured running of the many incredible events.
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.
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. TheMighty 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.
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!
As ever, thanks for reading, and hope to cross paths on the poetry road before long.
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.
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 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.
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.
Thanks for revisiting this city of image and text in which we citizens continually collaborate. And for reading my blog.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 pullof desire, and how that conflicts with being a diligent student, a good daughter.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Brandeis.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.