Poet & collaborator Chris McCabe and I have been sharing and exchanging ideas about one of our favourite genii, William Blake for a few years now, including teaching creative courses on him for The Poetry School.
These have involved reading, writing, walking Blake’s Lambeth (including the amazing Southbank mosaics, e.g. above) drawing and collage and also a printmaking component, for which we were lucky enough to get to use Slaughterhaus Print Studios in Stockwell, where students could try the heavy wheel of an etching press, and immerse themselves in some of that engraver’s back to front thinking that was such an essential part of Blake’s process.
This September sees the publication of Chris and I’s book in response to William B: The PracticalVisionary, as well as an exhibition at the Poetry Cafe of some of the original work that this has generated.
Our publisher, the small but heroic Hercules Editions, run by poet Tamar Yoseloff, was named for the road Blake and his wife Catherine lived on in their most productive 10 years, making illuminated books in Lambeth, the borough I was born and raised in and live in still, and the borough Chris is in during his working week, as the librarian of the National Poetry Library at the Southbank.
Do look at The Practical VisionaryKickstarter campaign – there’s more here about the way we created the content and the pages, starting with quite a funny spontaneous video, made at the end of a publishing meeting. Though I say so myself, there are some amazing art bargains available in the list of rewards for supporters.
We’ll be launching the book officially at the Poetry Cafe on October 17th, but the week before, there’s a chance to come and do some Blakean responding of your own at our evening workshop at The Poetry Society.
Whoever your Blake turns out to be, I hope you catch a glimpse of his colour and fire somewhere in the pages of The Practical Visionary.
Golgonooza the spiritual Four-fold London eternal In immense labours & sorrows, ever building, ever falling, Thro Albions four Forests which overspread all the Earth, From London Stone to Blackheath east: to Hounslow west: To Finchley north: to Norwood south
I’m proud to be a ‘distinguished friend’ of The Migration Museum Project and was recently invited to hang 100 of my drawings collected live in ink on the theme of home, in their current premises on Lambeth High Street.
If you’d like to see them fluttering along the high walkway like inky washing, they’ll be up until September 2nd. I’ll be at a special late opening there on Thursday 26th July. Please come.
I was invited to make an installation for a unique space in the lovely town of Lewes.
Come to a private view and reading of three massive collage poems that are hanging in the window of this sweet ex sweetshop. I’ll read the windows and there’ll be milling and chatting under the sherbet lemon sun… right round the corner from Lewes Station, you’ll find the Lansdown Sweet Shop and opposite that is the Symposium Wine Emporium where there will be a table and a glass of something chilled…
I’m three quarters of the way through a really interesting and sustaining commission: The Poetry Foundation in Chicago have asked me to make a series of portraits of some of the most essential poets of the English language.
This is for their education resource called poetry 101, which is a web based series, consisting of a multi angled look at each poet, including a portrait, a critical essay, a sampling of poems, some analysis of their work and ideas about their context and influence.
The approach I’ve taken was partly provoked by the work being required to be landscape format, for masthead purposes. This meant that a head only drawing was never going to fit. This led me to thinking poetically around each poet! What might you see ‘with’ them? Not literally of course, but if they were to be accompanied by rhythmic echoes of who they were or are, their themes, colours, types of language, texture, imagery, tone/intonation…
I began to experiment with two textures or types of drawing: the mainly naturalistic, painterly observed likeness – pitted against a more abstract collage technique in which a graphic approach could dominate, creating a tension like poetic or musical counterpoint.
For this I wanted to further emphasise the poets as language wielding icons, so I’ve been making them big initials to go each side of their heads, cutting the letter forms out of paper, card or cloth that seemed to me redolent of their own voices…
Martín Espada’s giant M & E cut from corrugated cardboard that I bashed & sullied with marks: to look like hoardings round a building site, or other semi industrial markers one might see and ignore walking round a city… this felt right in the context of his poetry which champions workers, particularly the often invisible immigrant worker. The ripped bits of newpaper, paper bags from corner shops and maps of New York outskirts augmented this urban, everyday aspect of Espada’s political poetry and human subject matter. He wasn’t a poet whose work I knew before I saw his name on the list, so I was glad to discover him. He has just been awarded the Ruth Lilly award for lifetime achievement in poetry.
I’ve always believed that drawing people is best done by meeting them, and with these subjects I meet them all first and mainly, in their poems. This project has been a great way to extend and challenge my reading. The act of imagination is helped by the reading, but it still doesn’t tell me how wide apart their eyes were, or demonstrate relationship of nose to mouth to chin. For that of course, I scrabble about in books and the internet – but then I try to imagine really meeting and talking with the person…
With Shakespeare and Dickinson, for whom there are such well known singular images, I was nervous, but it turned out that the familiarity of ‘listening’ to their poetry made them rather more willing to appear in the studio for ghost sittings!
For Emily Dickinson, I made a hairdo tree and a cloud volcano to tally with her playful use of scale and natural imagery. There are scraps of ribbon and the insides of envelopes that call to mind her own frugal yet mighty and pioneering way of working within the vocabulary of scrap, and a certain New England puritanism that must have been a great constraining foil to her wild and proliferating imagination.
Alice Notley is the only one of the poetry101s whom I’ve been lucky enough to meet and draw from in person. She has lived in Paris for the last 25 years though she is originally from Arizona, and spent many of her formative poetry years in New York. I was excited to go to visit her and find that she that also makes collages, so I photographed some of them, and made sure that I found similar elements in my studio to use for the background to her portrait. Below a fan collage by Alice Notley.
Here is the portrait I made. I hope it comes through how much I enjoyed her company as well as her work.
You can hear her read at Kings Place in London on June 21st at the launch of the summer edition of Poetry London, and she’ll also be reading in Birmingham on July 6th, at a symposium on the New York School, at Birmingham University.
Some of the portraits have been very difficult to arrive at. Both Keats and Plath have such strong cult status, and died so young, that to make new icons from their already iconic images was challenging. I wanted to draw them fresh, as though they too just came round to the studio. It took me 6 attempts to get Sylvia, and 5 to get John Keats. Here are some of the versions I drew:
In portraying Sylvia Plath I wanted to capture her wit and colourful aliveness, and show it as being as essential a part of her as her famous destructiveness and depression: the combination having made her a poet of clout, fire, originality. I used these joyful colours in high contrast, as I find spookiness abounds in the extra bright, and I wanted to present her in the context of both the dream and the oppressiveness of a 1950s England and America, and how it must have been to be a woman in that. Anyway, she eluded me, and I respected her for it! It seems a bit hysterical, but the days I was trying to draw her were hard, I felt myself sliding on her thin ice, sometimes sinking, and I longed to get to the safer shores of some plodding old poet who did not negotiate such extremes. One thing I did find comforting was that I could summon Plath up in my city: I imagined her wandering along the Thames embankment arm in arm with Shakespeare, here’s a little joke I drew on that theme…
I was relieved to listen to the kind, flat tones of Chicago’s own Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize and a woman who did everything in her considerable power to encourage young people towards poetry. She just marched in and sat down in my messy studio with no fuss at all and smiled.
The portraits up online and not already linked to are in the list below. I hope you find time to get to read and hear their different voices – it’s been an amazing whistle stop tour for me so far, and on and on I go – through more pastel dust and scrap bags, more mind blowing and interesting reading, more surprising knocks on the literal and metaphorical studio-library door!
On October 2nd, Short Books published Velkom to Inklandt, a seekventz of 30 poems I’ve written phonetically in the borrowed voice of my German Jewish grandmother, who came to live in London in 1938.
My grandparents were rescued by a scientist called A.V. Hill , instigator of the Council for Academic Refugees, which saved over 900 German Jewish scientists. (It still exists, I was touched to read with a wonderful poet and university lecturer from Baghdad, Nadia Fayidh Mohammed, who’d arrived here two years ago via the same organisation.)
I’ve changed/fictionalised all the family names throughout the poems. My late father, who saw the beginning of this project, felt reassured by this idea. This also freed me up to create a voice that could play with the facts and the character, and elasticate and blur the narratives around them.
It was a total bonus and surprise that Short Books wanted to publish this work, they have not published much poetry before and as they are a small company they need to be careful about what books they can take on. They have a great track record on biography and other practical books…
They came across the poems via my visual art – Aurea Carpenter, one of the partners, had followed her nose and eye to my studio, having liked some drawings I’d hung in the window of the LRB Book Shop last National Poetry Day.
She made her way to South London and I left her to rummage in the plan chest and browser while I made us lunch. What IS this? She asked, having found one of my enormous photocopied Inklisch poems draped over a canvas. I use the giant photocopies at readings so people can get the phonetics….
I explained and she said: Would you read it to me? Of course I refused. (Nonsenz Reeter! I LUFF reading zem! If ennyvun asks me to, reet zem I must!) Have you any more? Would you email some to me?
Aurea went off with a drawing about Balzac and screen prints for her daughter and niece… I emailed her a couple of Inklisch poems and she wrote back saying: our youngest employee, William, is the best at reading them aloud. That sounds like a nice place to work, I thought.
About a month later we arranged to meet again as Aurea needed a different screen print. We were chatting about books and suddenly she said: could WE publish your granny poems? Wow! Of course! I said. What pictures would you do to go with them? I became rather puritanical and replied: Well they’re already visual poems, they don’t need any pictures. She looked a bit disappointed but we soldiered through our cake. I saw that this was a rubbish answer, and offered an idea about using black and white pattern to accompany the poems based on the guinea fowl continental old lady clothes my great granny used to wear… like fabric swatches? asked Aurea, brightening a bit.
A couple of weeks later I went to see Rebecca Nicolson, the other half of Short Books. I showed her the things I’d been doing over the years and we talked business. She too rather insisted that the putative book should have pictures. I loved how she and Aurea had obviously conferred and got me in a pincer movement. When you decide how you’re going to illustrate it, just let us know, she smiled, firm but fair.
Luckily I awoke the next morning to a dream in which the words ‘cut out domestic objects’ were floating in large black cut out letters in front of me. ‘That’s it! I thought. No pictures of people, just hatstands and colanders: the stuff of an ordinary (displaced, European ) life in the London suburbs in the twentieth century.
I started by cutting out a bread basket and a loaf of rye bread.
Then I remembered some scratchy upholstered chairs and the standard lamp. I gradually got used to memorys half light, and cautiously wandered around that interior that had been so familiar to me as a child, amazed to notice the house plants, bedspreads, side tables… I could feel the breeze filling out the gauzy curtains as ghosts came and went, benign and oblivious. The picture below was my first attempt to catch this. Later I developed a version of how I imagined their former apartment in Berlin, in its just left emptiness.
We used that as sekschon header for Ze After Leif – (I always like the pun inherent in ‘curtains’.)
We all had to work as fast as possible to get the book out by this years National Poetry Day, so that we could harness that annual gust to push its small craft out from the harbour of obscurity!
My editor, William Pimlott, the one who’d been so good at reading the poems from the first email, who is half my age and twice as clever, made several useful suggestions. He’s a Yiddish speaking gentile and knows a lot more about Jewishness than I do. We’d meet with Aurea and Rebecca and the designer Georgia Vaux, and have long but whizzy meetings to work out the title, the cover, typefaces, images. Here are some earlier versions!
I wrote some extra poems to help fill out some of the gaps in the story, enjoying a chance to meet with some less familiar cousins, who kindly shared their stories, again over pastries. Of course I’ve made free with these as well, and can only offer poppy seed apologies for what may seem to be frenkly, a Vepp off Lyze, in which something recognisable may lurk.
We tried to get the spelling consistent, and we argued over the order and what went into each Sekschon. It was an extremely fun and funny process.
Although I’ve been writing these poems for some years, only a few months have passed since Aurea first came round, and I am so surprised to see the book out, and already in Waterstones and Hatchards.
A proper hardback, set with crisp modernist type and my brand new papercuts, it’s a dream: bringing my modest and determinedly ordinary grandmother back to the city we loved and shared.
The Sunday following the books publication I was delighted to get this lovely review in The Observer.
Come and hear some of the poems, and celebrate with me on November 15th at The Poetry Café 7pm with a reading at 8pm.
So thrilling when personal obsessions are given the chance to expand into real projects, real objects.
This has happened twice in recent months with two of my sequences making their way into books and exhibitions.
Here’s an account of the the first to appear: Your Candle Accompanies the Sun.
In the spring I had a bout of terrible Mondays, when my teenage son, who has learning difficulties and autism, decided he was never going to school again. He’d take off around the neighbourhood, and nothing (believe me) would get him on the road to his school, (a lovely place btw, he was fine once he was there.)*
While he was out wandering, I was obliged to stay at home and wait, as when he would eventually find his way back, he needed me to be there.
During these times, I really was stuck indoors, quite anxious, unable to do much. In an attempt to ‘do something useful’ I began clearing out some of our excess junk. I came upon a small 1930s book of duotone tourist photos of Switzerland that I’d forgotten I’d picked up at a flea market years before. ‘Why! This is collage gold.’ I gasped. ‘In fact, it’s the inner landscape of Emily Dickinson!’
I’d seen a Poetry School competition callout on instagram re Emily D – provoked in turn by the new Terence Davies’ biopic: A Quiet Passion.
I began, at the kitchen table, to make one collage after another, glueing and stitching flat turquoise Alps to scraps of photographed kitchenware… and finding my own words to add, after rereading the energetic, mysterious and spiky poems Emily Dickinson wrote so urgently in her many years stuck indoors.
She made some sacrifices in order to develop her revolutionary work. Being a female artist was never a picnic.
This summer I showed a selection of the collages in an exhibition at The Art Stable, Dorset. The work remains up and viewable by appointment, until September 15th. Curator Kelly Ross had had the idea to set me up with brilliant painter Gigi Sudbury, so we could potentially collaborate, and show our work together. This was an added delight, as we share a passion for colour and narrative, the domestic and surreal combined.
We met and looked at exhibitions and forged a valuable exchange. I’d like to write about this more, but for now, here is one of her paintings from the show. We encouraged each other’s image text tendencies.
To co ordinate with the exhibition I again called upon the book producing genius of the Henningham Family Press. They devised a beautiful new binding for a book of the Emily Dickinson collages.
I tried to write an introduction to the work, but ended up writing a little poem instead, which felt less cumbersome.
To accompany the collages I picked out a handful of Dickinson’s poems, a few old favourites and some more obscure ones. It was fun to choose poems that showed her wit and her visual acuity, her skill in collaging language, her games of scale.
E.g. one starting: ‘I’ll tell you how the Sun rose – A Ribbon at a time – ‘ And another that begins: ‘The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants – ‘ which made Gigi and I laugh our heads off when we met to compare art notes in my kitchen.
The book is available at £20 from Henningham Family Press. Each copy contains 28 collages impeccably reproduced at actual size, my poem and ten by Emily Dickinson.
Each book is cleverly hand-bound to allow for two different sized pamphlets in one set of covers, reflecting our two voices.
Henningham Family Press will be showing the book, amongst many others of their inventive works, at FREE VERSE: The Poetry Book Fair on September 30th. I will be reading along with David Henningham – times to be confirmed.
It’s a great event in any case, for anyone interested in poetry, and the variety of publications being made by presses on every scale. Take cash and be prepared to wave goodbye to it.
And if you too get stuck indoors – solidarity. All I can say is – poetry can sometimes unstick a person with its odd letter shaped keys!
And happy National Poetry Day on September 28th, for which the theme, as I’ve said before, and cut out of black paper and white… is Freedom.
*My son now has the offer of a college place where his independence can be fostered and encouraged, so less stuckness for all of us hopefully.
A Pilot Poetry project in Four Hull Schools: May 2017
This year, 2017, National Poetry Day will be launched from Hull, in honour of its status as city of culture. Hull, with its proud abolitionist history, via celebrated son William Wilberforce, is also behind this years NPD theme: Freedom.
I was invited by Susannah Herbert of National Poetry Day, to assemble a team of poets, and work with NPD manager Andrea Reece, to roll out a four day poetry extravaganza in Hull for primary children, ahead of the day itself in late September.
The idea being that the children of Hull could lead the way in showing how freeing it might be to work with poets, and find poetry of their own to explore and document their ideas and feelings, and the world around them. We prioritised getting a wide cross section of voices and styles so that the students would discover that there are all kinds of poets, and many different ways to work creatively with language.
Schools and children up and down the land could then follow suit, and be inspired and empowered by the poetic imagination revealed in Hull!
Ian Reed and Roisha Wardlaw of the Hull 2017 No Limits education programme helped us set this up and with their support we rolled into town.
In April we made a trip to meet and work with teachers from the schools that had elected to take part. Andrea and I spent a great day with them where they found themselves unselfconsciously writing poems, playing a game of poetry lucky dip, practicing choosing and reading newly discovered poets work aloud to each other, and arranging image and text together in their own spontaneously evolving artists’ books.
Before the teachers workshops we had a day to look around Hull, meet some young artists and poets from an organisation called Ground and also go to a book launch at the university where we met tutors and students of creative writing, and heard two poets read, one of whom, Sarah Stutt, seemed like a good fit for our schools programme, so we invited her to join us.
Some of the teachers/schools had proposed themes for our workshops as well as the overarching theme of freedom, and all had made plans as to how to best deploy each poet to the right year groups and classrooms. It was interesting to note which workshops were most effective, and not surprisingly, there’s a lot to be said for spending a whole morning or a day with pupils on reading and making poems, rather than zipping through at speed. Assemblies were a good way to gather everyone in school under the poetry umbrella, we all did whole school assemblies which were an important part of the week, and allowed for introductions… below I’ll just give a few examples of workshops that I was part of.
At Alderman Cogan School, year 5 were looking at the Vikings and Anglo Saxons, and I joined Chris McCabe who had devised an inspired class on sound poetry, playing the children recordings of Old English, Dada poetry, and Edwin Morgan reading his Loch Ness Monster’s Song. (‘Yes, you are definitely allowed to laugh!’) Everyone had a great inventive time making up a script for Beowulf and Grendel in contrasting modern English and monster sound poetry… this scroll was made by a girl called Georgie after school, she came and showed me the following day, what a star.
Another brilliant child made a whole sound poem book, also in his own time, and not only came to show me, but read from it with real flair at the childrens public poetry performance held in Hulls Jubilee Hall on the Friday.
It felt like poetry luxury for me to work for three whole hours with one class at Saint Mary Queen of Martyrs. Year 5 wrote Oulipian anagram poems and made their own books. First we looked at all the words we could get from SAINT MARY QUEEN OF MARTYRS, and pooled our findings on the whiteboard. The students discovered rafts, serenity, men, mountains, nutters, mum, sun, rain, tents, roses, a sister… and much more.
I then taught them how to make a little foldy book from an A4 piece of paper, and we each made one, using precise folding and crisp, black paper. Black pages are hard to write on, so we had to use collage papers and light coloured pencils to make our words appear. I was blown away by the concentration, the sheer enjoyment of the challenge, the use of colour and language, and also the enthusiasm of the teacher, Mr Herman, who expected wonderful work from his class, and got it!
This double page spread seemed to offer profound insight on the domestic scene! It definitely struck a chord with me.
My Wednesday was insanely busy running six sessions with foundation stage at AC school; a high spot was the spontaneous creation of a commemorative frieze poem with a Reception class to celebrate the bike/scooter ride they’d just completed before my appearance.
When I asked them to tell me how proud they were, how sweaty they got, how tired – they came up with original similes that were pure poetry. I wrote 15 of these out in my swirly ink calligraphy on long strips of paper, and ran these underneath wider strips, on which I’d asked the children to draw self portraits on the vehicles they’d ridden.
Examples of what the children told me: “as sweaty as the sun,” “as tired as a tired horse,” “as proud as a bee that had stung 109 people and then died,” and a wonderful image from a boy who hadn’t found a bike or scooter, but had done the circuit on his legs: “I want to go to sleep as cosy as a basket of eggs.” For the full effect please imagine that distinct Hull accent shaping the words. I was totally charmed.
With the smiling help of their teacher, Ms Hodgeson, we displayed the poem as a frieze all the way round the walls, recreating that cycling round the playground look for indoors.
Shazea, Joseph, Chris, Sarah and Kate all told me great stories: of young poets finding their voices, children that normally avoided writing suddenly joining in, and other inestimably valuable responses. Us poets really enjoyed having colleagues for the week, and getting to read as well as eat together, and compare notes about workshops, school dinners and POETRY! Our reading in town on the Tuesday night at The Kardomah was a blast, we were joined by Joe Hakim, a Hull poet, and others who contributed via the open mic slot. One of the teachers who’d been most involved and helpful with our visit, Mike Goode, is also a poet, he got up and read that night, inspiring.
What an intense week: thinking, planning, teaching, reading, listening, performing. It seemed like everyone we met was excited to be a part of this, and to consider poetry as a vital part of everyday life. As this was now over a month ago I’m hoping that the ideas are still filtering through the minds of the children we met and wrote with… I know they’ll be buzzing around my head on a permanent basis now!