Velkom to ze Staich, olt Frentz

New papercuts: Kaddish for ze Tvince

Over recent weeks I’ve watched astonished – my poems from Velkom to Inklandt coming freshly alive in rehearsals for a stage adaptation that is coming to North London in November. Talented actor Sarah Malin, (who is also a friend and lives on the same street as me in Brixton) succeeded in getting Arts Council funding to develop the book into an hour long show. So now together with director Lucy Richardson and musician Nico Brown, and myself as designer/set maker, we are in full swing towards this new collaboration.

A large scale paper cut to hang as part of an evolving backdrop

Sarah’s late father Morris was cared for in his final years at Nightingale House, a Jewish old peoples’ home in Wandsworth. Initial performances and workshops are taking place there, with and for the residents and carers. The home has generously provided rehearsal space as well.

Transformations in progress – Sarah Malin rehearsing at The Nightingale.

Sarah is also a wonderful writer, and has devised a story to help structure the poems into a framing narrative. She plays the grand daughter, as well as Liesl.

Cutting out Liesl’s garden – for the poem Beink Prektikell

I have found it so fascinating and enlightening to watch and listen to the intense work – as ideas, language, gesture are tried, discussed, inhabited, fused into performance, met in exactitude and inventiveness with music and direction. Nico has been insistent on a real piano, we are lucky that two of the three venues have a baby grand, and for our last night at Camden Peoples Theatre he has hired an upright. We are also lucky to have found theatre maker Carlos Piña to do the lighting, and trainee director Chi, a blaze of iniative, to assist Lucy.

Violins ‘for ze Tvince’

It’s a real education to be part of this detailed journey from poems into drama – keeping to the precision and rhythm that poetry creates and demands, and at the same time offering pace and a relatable story to an audience.

Eppels, Kewkumpers, Ekks, Kepbejjis.

I’m grateful as ever to live near John Purcell Paper who delivered a roll of Japanese mulberry paper and a roll of thick black Canson mi-teintes paper to me early last week so that I could snip into the small hours and not run out.

This week (Thursday) I am also doing a poetry reading at the lovely Chener Books, a story collecting session in Brighton (Saturday) with Charlie Folorunsho at Wildfest, as part of our ongoing work as collaborators and associate artists with Phakama – and then I’m running a poetry collage workshop with Laura Mitchison of On the Record next Wednesday. If you are coming to any of these events THANK YOU and see you soon.

If you’d like to book tickets to see Velkom to Inklandt, there are two live performances in the building and an online offer, at JW3, the big Jewish community centre on Finchley Road, on November 13th. Details and booking via the link.

The following night Monday 14th, we’ll be on at Camden People’s Theatre, I’ll be around at all the public performances and would luff to see Reeters oont Frentz. Meenvial, sanks as effer, for reedink my Blok.

Late last night in the snipping saloon

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.

On the Poetry Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Etching & kvetching with Blake in Lambeth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happening all over

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

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

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

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

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

A giant loom at the National Wool Museum in west Wales

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

beautiful girls in beautiful sunlight – from Happening

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

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

Props & vessels on the street, Crystal Palace

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

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

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

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

The final poem I wrote in response to the film Happening

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

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

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

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

The Abortionist

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

I Have to do Something Illegal

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

Glad to be a crow amongst daisies

The devastating power of children, drawing.

Marzipan Titans hold up Prague, balcony by balcony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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