Poet Anna Robinson hosts a monthly programme on Soho Radio called ThePoetry Parlour, in which guests are invited to read work and discuss interesting poetic questions live on air.
I spent a very fun hour in the bijou radio studio on Great Windmill Street on Friday, with Anna and Blake scholar Dr David Worrall, talking about William Blake – as a child of Soho, visionary Londoner and all round majestic influence.
We also each got to pick a song to go with the subject, and read a couple of pieces of work. You’ll have to listen via the link below if you’re curious, but here’s a clue, one poem I read was from The Practical Visionary , and the other was a brand new one written over the last month when I lived in a castle, as a lucky recipient of a Hawthornden Fellowship.
Thanks so much for having me Anna, for the pretend studio tea (in real pretend cracked floral teacups) and the real hardcore coffee to follow, needed to propel me to a necessary browse at wonderful new bookshop The Second Shelf, in nearby Smiths Court.
As a comedown from the fully catered Scottish castle life, I recommend chatting about Blake & books with nice people in Soho as a good first step!
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
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.
Over the last couple of years, my story collecting project has been expanding into the rich theme of migration: and I’ve had the chance to hear people tell me about what makes them feel at home: whether it’s a kitchen, a hobby – their body, or a poem…
Londons diversity has always made me relieved to return to it, but many people don’t experience the city as friendly. How do we live in our communities, connect with neighbours, make ourselves heard? These questions seem more urgent than ever, post brexit, where polarities have been amplified, in and outside of our various bubbles.
In Hounslow I was working with Creative People and Places encouraging residents to develop their own modes of story collecting, which we practised by listening, drawing and writing poems together, after initial inky story collecting sessions with me.
Over at the National Maritime Museum I’d also been listening and collecting, from visitors to the RE*THINK space there, as part of work with The Migration Museum Project. Poet and friend, Karen McCarthy Woolf was writer in residence on this theme. We hatched a plan to collaborate, and make a piece of work to show our findings. This is now manifest as a 36 page book: Voyage, and contains an essay and new poems by Karen, with stories collected and drawn live by me.
As we were addressing the subject of migration, I wanted to supplement the narratives I’d heard at the museum, with some from more recently arrived people, people who might not yet be at the museum visiting stage… so I approached South London Refugee Association, who welcomed me to their drop in. I met and spoke with people there, who shared some of their moving stories with me. Karen and I selected a range of drawings and poems from the work we’d made, the book was supported and introduced by Joanna Salter at the museum, and we in turn were listened to, re paper stock, layout and printing by old friends at Aldgate Press.
We’ve had a lovely article and review of the book, by Bidisha, on the BBC arts website.
In October I was one of a group of eight artist printmakers engaged in making a new piece of work to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the founding of the world’s first ghetto.
This was a space established in Venice in 1516, on the site of the old foundry there, (making it one of the few campos without a church) that was created as a concession to Jews, permitting them residence in the city.
Originally the word would have had a soft ‘g’ as it was where the metal was thrown (or jettisoned,) a ‘getto’, but as the first wave of incumbents were Ashkenazy Jews, and strangers to the soft ‘g’, they pronounced it like get, and thus introduced the world to the ‘ghetto’!
The commission was to make a New Venice Haggadah, deriving inspiration from a beautiful edition published in Venice in 1609, as well as with reference to the contemporary community, and of course our own personal responses and processes.
The haggadah is the Passover text, and is like a script for use at the Seder table. It conducts all the members of the family through the story of the Exodus, with ritual foods, questions, songs and wine. It is a chance to think about oppression and slavery, and wish freedom to all who remain oppressed. There may be nearly as many haggadot and interpretations of the story as there are families who mark the festival.
We were invited to do this work by Beit Venezia, headed up by Shaul Bassi, (far left, above) and as well as us artists, Vassar professor Marc Michael Epstein, (far right, above) joined our group to show us some of the vast history of illustrated haggadot. We were also lucky to be shown many intriguing aspects of Venice and its workings by our events coordinator Barbara del Mercato.
Right to left (like Hebrew) we are Barbara, Shaul, Frances Katz Levine (a supporter of the project), Kyra Matustik, Josh Baum, then on the sofa, also right to left: Andi LaVine Arnovitz, Nathan Gotlib, Jacqueline Nicholls (lead artist) Hillel Smith, Yael David-Cohen and me.
Our group of eight artists came from the UK , the US, Belgium, Israel, the Czech Republic – and with varying degrees of knowledge and experience in both etching and Jewishness!
Our base for the three week residency was the Scuola Grafica Internazionale di Venezia, a gorgeous and well equipped printmaking studio in Cannaregio. We stayed in apartments about a half hour walk away. My room made a nifty temporary studio.
A peal of bells came echoing out from this jaunty corner tower to wake us promptly at 7:00 each morning.
We read and thought about the text together in detail over the first week, as well as looking at significant treasures in Venice, such as the first printed Talmud there, which I was pleased to discover looks quite a lot like concrete poetry.
At the end of the first week Jacqueline allocated each of us two sections of the text to respond to visually. Mine were both densely emotional passages, one of suffering, one of joy. This was re: We cried out and the one below represents praise (very necessary Hebrew help came from my fellow artists Josh and Jacqueline )
During the second week, we drew and prepared, then etched our copper plates… as well as exploring the city, getting lost and looking at as much art as we could possibly squeeze in around the coffees.
It is such a sensational city: light zipping off the water to illuminate everything from the intricate and wonky palaces to the vegetable delivery boats, and the bridges; more of which seemed to appear daily, like a baffling dream.
Week three saw us unite and print: 6oo sheets of dampened Fabriano paper, many inky rags, many ragged but mainly undampened spirits!
The original copper plates and the editions of 25 prints per etching per artist (we each made 3 plates, that’s why we were editioning 600 prints in week 3!) remain in Venice for now and will be exhibited as part of the ghetto quincentery events. A beautiful version of our New Venice Hagaddah is also in production in Jerusalem, and will be for sale in time for Passover 2016.
You can read more about the project in the current (January 2016) issue of Jewish Rennaisance magazine, or watch us and laugh as we are dubbed in Italian on TV – and see the studio, the ghetto and the other artists.
Thanks to all members of our group, who were wonderful to work with, to Jacqueline Nicholls in particular for inviting me, to Shaul Bassi of Beit Venezia and Lorenzo de Castro and Alan Rogers at the Scuola Grafica for hosting us, and to Barbara del Mercato for showing us Venice from the inside.
I have also written a small stack of new Venice poems, hopefully these will find a home one day, in or out of the poetry ghetto…
Meanwhile, here’s to 2016: ink, friendship and freedom!
The project that catapulted me into Nature and away from my habitual London scenery: The Listening Forest, is now up in another form, as an exhibition at the HQ of the Poetry Society at 22 Betterton Street Covent Garden: The Poetry Cafe.
About thirty of the original drawings are on the walls, chosen from the hundred or so that make up the book, which in turn, were chosen from perhaps twice that that I made whilst in residence for Fermynwoods Contemporary Art in Northamptonshire.
Many of the drawings on show are those I drew live from local people recounting to me what they get up to in the woods; others are ones that I made away from company, on my own in the cottage I was put up in.
There are also the six paper cuts I made as a structural device to tailor the book into its shape as a mirror to the forest, filing stories as appropriate under section headings: noticings and changes of direction in path, strange sightings and confessions in undergrowth, the ordinary and everyday in shrub layer, revelations and insights in clearing, lofty thoughts in canopy, base material in floor…
New for the space in Covent Garden, I replaced Ralph Steadman’s Byron scribed lampshades with new ones of my own, some written on in loose ink with excerpts from my forest poem sequence, some coloured with streaks of Nepalese paper cut into leaf-spiders, moth-women, crow-huts.
The show opened on my Dad’s 90th birthday, so he came along, and after I’d read some poems, the audience sang to him and we all shared cake!
The same week it was the The Poetry Library open day at the Festival Hall, which took as its theme: The End of the Poem. It was exciting to see the library’s copy of the limited edtion huge version of The Listening Forest in its thirty metre incarnation, laid out on one of the tables, near another recent collaborative work: Collective City, the book we assembled from visual poem collages made by visitors to the Southbank Centre’s Poetry International Festival and made into an inventive street shaped book by the same team who bound the forest book: the inimitable Henningham Family Press
The Listening Forest exhibition runs until February 4th and is open most days and evenings, but please do check the Poetry Cafe website.
Another evening viewing is scheduled for Thursday December 17th, with mulled wine, a chance to buy screen prints, books and original drawings, and a short reading of some forest and city poems by me and some surprise guest poets!
I will also be running a day workshop in conjunction with The Poetry School, called Hide and Seek in the Ideas Forest, on Saturday January 30th. We’ll be working on how to set traps for the unconscious, and turn what we find into art and poetry.
So many people have been involved with this project, big thanks to all who joined me on the path: including Yasmin Canvin and the team at Fermynwoods Contemporary Arts, Kate Dyer and Lorraine Dziarkowska of Corby Community Arts – and everyone who told me a story or listened to a poem or idea. Particular London thanks to Tanya Peixoto of The Bookartbookshop and Mike Simms of the Poetry Society.
The Listening Forest is to take root in Covent Garden, at the Poetry Cafe.
Please saunter under its inky boughs, as they spread into the wintery world of a London November.
I’ll be showing original work from the residency/ project undertaken with Fermynwoods Contemporary as well as new screen prints I’ve developed. Drawings and prints will be for sale, as will the book in both A5 and A3 concertina incarnations. I’ll also be running some events alongside the show, so watch this space.
Private view: Thursday 4th November with readings, drawing, cake and wine.
If you want to experiment and make a book where image and text cohabit, however cosily or haughtily, there are still places left on my course at Morley College, starting on September 21st for nine weeks:BOOK IMAGE TEXT and also in the spring and summer terms.
Here’s an example of sheer image text mastery by a small citizen of Brent, from a holiday session in Willesden library.
A page inspired by each item in this sunlit window would make a nice fancy poem sequence!
Talking of which, I have three visual poems featured in a lovely online journal called wardrobe, find them and wear them straightway, they are in drawer five, and are written from the point of views of a skirt, a mans jumper and a slip.
Also in textile mode, my screen printed cotton Disaster hankie appeared in the glorious new volume from Hayward Gallery Publications THE NEW CONCRETE, where I’m proud to be in company with poets and artists I’ve long admired, like John Furnival and Edwin Morgan.
The launch at The Whitechapel was epic, with brilliant readings from many contributors.
Last week also saw the launch of another genre-busting book. Over the Line has over 70 pages of brand new poetry comics, including a collaborative spread by me and Chris McCabe, called The Practical Application of Colour. It was fun reading the piece which has very few words in it, (unlike this palaver.)
A good place to buy the book is at Free Verse book fair which takes place at Conway Hall on 26th September, and is a great treat for those interested in alternative publishing and new poetry.
Some unLondon things coming up: I’ll have a couple of works in 50 artist strong new show: a wide interpretation of still life, this autumn at The Art Stable, Dorset. I took this still life at the farm adjacent to the gallery on a visit, but my actual pieces are painted and feature words again.
I’m also excited to be reading at the famously fabulous Swindon Poetry Festival on Sunday 4th October. There will be all kinds of top poetry and related capers going on in town for a few days, so have a look at the programme and come along.
For the remainder of October I’ll be in residence in Venice at the Scuola Grafica Venezia. One of eight invited artists, I’ll be working in their beautiful printmaking studio, on a project to make a new and contemporary Haggadah to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the worlds first ghetto, set up there in 1516. Fascinating stuff.
Any quality work that comes from this will be added to the forest show forthwith.
Looking forward to plenty of real tea under imaginary trees at the Poetry Cafe, see you up there.