Leaning on the Goddess

Flying & landing – book collaborators!

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.

Laying out the stories with their pictures and post it notes on the floor.

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.

I was glad to discover a creature called the ribbon seal, lolling about on the internet, graphic as a papercut. And Sedna. Without her, no plenty more fish in the sea!

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.

Green Tara – a goddess/saint from the Buddhist pantheon – cut from a book called Collectible Spoons.

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.

Hekate – she looks three ways at once. I cut her from a page in an old cookbook and was gratified to see her turn the puddings into timeless stone.

Then again – some goddesses are known through their small scale manifestations, St Bridget is in the snowdrops, Persephone sparkles on in every pomegranate seed –

Snowdrops for Bridget
The crowned majesty of madam pomegranate

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.

Diana and Actaeon, by Titian.

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.

Actaeon as papercut – turned into a stag and devoured by his own dogs.

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.

Bear faced chic! A papercut I made for the story of Artemis, whose apprentices accompany the goddess, learn to hunt.

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.

Sekhmet. Lion headed goddess loves to eat awful human law breakers.

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.

Isis and her brother/husband Osiris – Lord of the Underworld. Again, I found them in the spoon book.
On the road: I was at some different tables over June, luckily paper, blades and goddesses are portable entities

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.

Lilith becoming a snake, giving birth to demons

In other news, I was grateful to poets Kathryn Gray and Andrew Neilson, the editors of online poetry journal Bad Lilies for including my poem Eggs and Bacon in their latest issue. A poem that also skirts around power.

I grew these ones. Amazing colours, quite weird smell!

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.

Athena: paradoxical and mighty goddess of wisdom and war.

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.

Hindu goddess Lakshmi has elephants to splash her with water in the heat.

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!

Poem for Alison & her wasps nest

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.

Belfast – what a blast

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.

Needed colour dabs to save me from decline

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.

Emergency backdrop nervously begun in hotel room

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.

some of the works we read from

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.

I incorporated words from my ‘newspaper poem’ written in Christodoulos’ workshop on backdrop no. 2

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 & Cathy Rentzenbrink – lighting up the Belfast night – the perks of a book festival- great writers & readers.

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.

Poet Gail McConnell reading in Belfast June 2022, ink pen in notebook.

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.

Poet Julie Morrissy on zoom, drawn with my ink pen – June 2022

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.

Made by Hannah Wilks
By a wonderful poet called Paula
by Natasha Cuddington in a ballet and battenberg palette
Rama & Sita find themselves in a new book made by a participant called Ruth ‘I’m never going to an ordinary poetry workshop again!’ she said.

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.

I hope to see what gets made next as the scraps are given their next meanings – I left this in the hotel bar & Liza picked it up…

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.

Bebe Ashley with a poem 3D printed in braille.

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.

Coded amulets for my travels, slid into my Mongolian 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.

In the hothouse at Belfast Botanic Garden
The Crescent Arts Centre. Home to Belfast Book Festival as well as a thriving arts and education programme for the city. Squint & see the plaque honouring Helen Lewis between door & window on the left.

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.

A friendly stranger took this snap
of me in my poetry dress as I was walking past – so I made them air drop it to me!

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.

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 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 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.

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.

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

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!