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!

Objects that speak: on making the pictures for Marina Warner’s Inventory of a Life Mislaid.

A Zoom backdrop taking shape, for our UEA event this Wednesday, Marina Warner’s Inventory

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.

Front cover: papercuts by me, lovely design by Jo Thomson for William Collins

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: Wonder Tales, (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!

A scrap of my 1990 wrapping paper… (on recycled paper note) waltz wrap! Please excuse poor image quality as raided from internet…

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.

The Marquise at her Toilette, an ink drawing/collage for/from Wonder Tales. A fairy tale of cross dressing and gender subversion from the 17th century. Please excuse poor image quality, I’m a long way from my books at the moment.

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.

Covid safe reunion to look at things together last summer

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.

Poetry is on the cards

With a wisp of grimy smoke

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.

Either way up perhaps menacing!

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.

Three from a reading a couple of days ago

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.

One of the 39 index card back collages, featuring a girdled front, and an index.

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.

Thirty nine small anyway up collages on the kitchen table

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.

Making the back collages was like a strange game in itself: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral.

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.

The most exacting Phoenix – a poem I made in Berkeley on my residency last year.

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 mail@zimzalla.co.uk 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.

Ancestors settle in new landscape (the right way up ) Gouache, ink and collage, 2020
The proof pack of INDEX

Poetry at a safe distance, with added snaps.

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.

A great kid who lives on our street. He hasn’t been to school in nearly a year. A granny from an upstairs flat lowered him down her old party balloons. Pop pop!

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!

Hanging out with fellow poets at the Festival Hall after the Forward Prizes, 2016. L to R, Jill Abram, John Clegg, Katrina Naomi, Malika Booker & me. Pic by Richard Skinner.

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.

collections on the T S Eliot prize shortlist 2021

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.

Trying to access the texture of real life through a distancing screen.

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.

This tree obviously knows what it’s doing & has done all its life.

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.

A window alights on a set of shut doors.

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.’

My local playground: not just empty, but what an impossible swamp to zip across.

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.

A version of Wayne by me.

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.

Images reappear & sometimes seem to flow or flood the readers imagination, doubling up like the river in the sky.

There’s tons to read – about the poets I have and haven’t covered. Shane McCrae, Bhanu Kapil (who won the £25000!) Glyn Maxwell and J.O. Morgan….

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.

Lockdown life with Zippy. Basket made by my son Conrad, photo by my daughter Rosa.

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.

Space on the narrow path & some rocks worth contemplating.

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!

Puddle the size of England, but better at catching the sun.

Paper light, snipped from a painted dark

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.

Scalpels glinting amongst painted paper & other scraps on cutting mat

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 .

A cover idea for Marina Warner’s forthcoming book.

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.

Piles of papercut vignettes queuing up for the scanner

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.

In The Old Days, Everybody Smoked.
A chapter header paper cut made for Inventory of a Life Mislaid by Marina Warner. Inspired by an Egyptian cigarette tin lent to me by the author.

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.

Winter in the Zig Zag Mountains
My December image for Write and Shine.

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.

Book jacket papercut for Jacqueline Saphra’s newest book with Nine Arches Press.

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.

The Writer Takes a Morning Walk
The papercut I made for Write & Shine to use for their January/February season, now launched and thus shareable.
Inherited palettes from my late mother’s textile days

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.

This detail is inspired by watching and listening to Carol Isaacs play accordion with The London Klezmer Quartet.

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.

A papercut for Hannukah/Chanukah. Featuring musicians Francesca Ter Berg, on the cello, Polina Shepherd, singing, Anna Lowenstein on the violin, Carol Isaacs playing accordion and Ana Silvera, also singing. Made for Manchester Jewish Museum.

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.

Number 17, celebrated by Morris & Zippy in our night window.
Holidays paper cut, from inside the house, daytime.

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!