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

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.

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.

Poets in Colour

William Blake was happy to sit for me in Lambeth

I have finished this phase of the poetry 101 commission for The Poetry Foundation in Chicago – and now all my portraits of the essential poets they asked me to draw are up online.

If you search the names below with 101 next to them, you’ll find a brand new picture of them by me, a biography and essay about their work and context, and at least five sample poems with a critical analysis.

Here are the poets I’ve drawn since I last wrote about this.

June Jordan

W B Yeats

James Wright

Nikki Giovanni

William Blake

William Carlos Williams

John Donne

Joy Harjo

William Wordsworth

John Ashbery

Edward Thomas

Robert Duncan

John Ashbery, himself a fantastic collagist.

Its been wonderful to have been able to contribute to this free and inspired educational resource. This last batch included several poets whose work I already knew and loved – and a few whose poetry was new to me and gave me a chance to extend my reading and put in research time, which in turn has really fed my writing.

Trying to forge connections between the poets own use of language and themes, and the colours, textures and materiality of the scraps in their collage backgrounds- has been exciting – a good excuse to get lost in the space between pictures and words.

I’ve also relished a return to observational drawing and this work has led me to other commissions and reinvigorated my love for thinking in and about colour.

I hope to exhibit all 30 original portraits one day in the USA or here, meanwhile they’re out there on one of the most informative and interesting websites in the universe! Do subscribe, you’ll have fresh poems in your inbox daily!

Thanks for the gig The Poetry Foundation.

James Wright
Joy Harjo

Poetry 101

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…

Eg. background collage for Langston Hughes 

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!

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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.

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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:

 

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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!

Robert Frost

Audre Lorde

E. E. Cummings

Maya Angelou

Walt Whitman

Elizabeth Bishop

Juan Felipe Herrera

Muriel Rukeyser

With thanks to Cassie Mayer and Don Share at The Poetry Foundation, and also the 101 essay writers, particularly Benjamin Voigt, whose voices I also feel I’m getting to know!