I’d been looking forward to a recap and recce back in Berkeley for some weeks in February and March. Peleh Residency manager and fellow writer Dan Schifrin and I had been talking about a possible book collaboration over the years since I left mid pandemic in 2020. Sadly the visit has proved impossible – so I am still in Inklandt. It is challenging to progress this book idea at a distance – but a lot of what we are addressing in the book is challenging, so this not-visit may end up being useful material.
When it comes to Esthers I have done okay with the queenly variety, as a new deck of playing cards by four women artists including me, that tell her story, is now available from publishers Print-o-Craft in Philadelphia.
Esther is one of the only putative female writers of the bible – and her book famously doesn’t mention god. It’s mostly about power, sex, and parties, with quite a lot of slaughter thrown in. The festival of Purim which commemorates her story, is all about chance and reversals of fortune. It’s the season, beginning now, where the commandment is to get drunk and party till you don’t know good from bad, or right from wrong.
This project was initiated by artist Jacqueline Nicholls in conversation with Shaul Bassi of Beit Venezia – it was originally going to involve us all traveling to Venice to work together on setting the story in that city: HQ of dressing up and casinos.
But covid struck – so as in the opening story – we convened online. We inhabited a virtual Venice and began thinking about the story and how to picture it afresh. Making a deck of cards seemed a great match for the content, tied as cards are, to gambling and chance.
We each had our own suit, I was allocated hearts – which represents the first section of the story, where we first meet the characters. Over zoom we made close readings of the text, sometimes joined by invited scholars, who shed new light on aspects of Venice or the text/context. Our uniting constraint was to make the artwork A4 portrait format and limit our palette to black and red. Like all my experiences of working with Jacqueline, there was a lot of learning and a lot of fun.
Mirta Kupferminc painted the clubs, Tilla Crowne was on diamonds – and Jacqueline dealt herself the spades. We launched the deck at JW3 where you can see the exhibition of giant cards in the foyer and shuffle over and purchase your own deck. Happy Purim – here’s my brand new poem to help celebrate the festival.
May you wash it down with pastries & whatever hard liquor you favour. Tea I recommend.
If you are also trapped in London this spring, why not exacerbate that feeling by coming to an IRL poetry reading? Next Sunday – March 5th I’ll be reading a good handful of poems at Jewish Book Week. As will Jill Abram & Adam Kammerling. We are part of an afternoon of free literary events being hosted by Tsitsit Fringe. Our section starts at 3pm.
Then back in the south at Chener Books, one of my favourite local bookshops, I’ll be at the launch of brand new anthology called LivingWith Other People. It’s edited by three women poets who go under the banner Corrupted Poetry – I wrote about it in the previous post. I am one of several of the contributors who will be reading – on the spring equinox – March 21st.
Also big book news for March – Sally Pomme Clayton and I are getting very excited about The Mighty Goddess, our new collaboration and our fifth book together, the first one for adults. We look forward to launching it later in the spring. Pomme has written 52 diverse and fascinating myths that she’s gathered over many years of storytelling and research – I have snipped 52 original paper cuts. More details to follow – but meanwhile here are some snowdrops from the book – for Brigid – as it is the season. If you’d like us to do a performance/reading/ in conversation – invitations and suggestions of dates and venues are most welcome.
And may your path be all shades of daff and primrose as we move into the longer days at last.
I’m charmed by a new book that recently arrived in the post: The Camden Town Hoard is a catalogue of detritus that’s been given a new spin.
It’s creator and curator, Natalia Zagorska-Thomas, has published, with the consistently fabulous small press C B Editions, a collection of images of incomprehensible objects dredged from the Grand Union Canal as it galumphs through Camden, and beside each one is a learned label, elucidating the object. Natalia invited a group of writers to choose an object to write about. I was late to the party, as I had been too deadline-hectic to notice the project’s beginnings. But she kindly roped me in and sent me a picture of this horrible thing.
I didn’t write and I didn’t write. But after some nudging from Natalia, I pulled myself together and wrote something, (which of course I really enjoyed, just like making myself go for a walk) despite my initial blood-out-of -a-stone resistance. It’s lovely to be asked. I expect all these weird lumps and barnacled pipelets are metaphorical portraits of the people whose words accompany them. There are some spectacular writers being inventive in here, and the book is a tenner.
I have also been savouring a new anthology: Living With Other People , (another tenner well spent) edited by a small team of poets under the banner Corrupted Poetry. They are Fiona Larkin, Nic Stringer and Michelle Penn. This book modestly contains no poetry by them, but pulls together a kind of gritty survey with work by so many poets I admire, and interwoven with original drawings and other visual experiments by people (like me) who are not pure advocates of one medium only.
I have two quite personal, and very slowly written, poems in the book: ‘Cold Buffet’, marks an abrubtly ended friendship, and ‘Some Mirrors Held up to the Child’ is a poem I’ve worked on on and off for about 15 years, a kind of cubist portrait of my autistic/learning disabled son, made of language used by him, by us his family, and by many of the professionals that step in and out of our lives: culled from reports from teachers, occupational therapists, psychologists. I am grateful to be cushioned by a chorus of other voices who hit different notes and angles on the pain and delight that come from living with other people! Look out for a launch in London in mid March where some of the featured poets (including me) will be reading.
Two more by me in the latest edition of Cyphers – a long established literary journal based in Ireland. The underlying theme for this issue was ‘heritage’. One of my poems is a prose poem called South London Jew, and the other contains a story. SeekingArtemisia recounts an interail pilgrimage I made in my art school twenties, to see the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi. Both poems put a solitary woman in a world that might or might not be her own and leave her there. Cyphers is a beautiful magazine and its editor, legend Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, was part of the original group that set it up in 1975. It was exciting to connect with some brilliant Irish poets at Belfast Book Festival last summer, and this feels like a nice way to continue that conversation.
Huge thanks to all the editors mentioned, for giving me the opportunities to get my work into the world. Thanks too, for reading my blog – about which please read on! It has now mostly migrated to its own page on my evolving new website.
Because of my work spiralling off in so many media I have tried to limit the section headers – I resist putting different strands of my practice in separate categories, everything is just ‘the work’.
The website design is being ingeniously devised by artist Joe Bradley Hill who has done a revolutionary job of helping me get organised and sort out my long built up layers of studio activity – do take a look: new website in progress – sign up for the newsletter, and have a rummage. Many pages are still empty or in their early stages – but if you do go to the embryonic poetry page & click on the word INDEX – at least you’ll find a brand new prophesy at the top to add its seasoning to your day. (If you don’t like the first one, click refresh!)
Over 2022 I was back on the live story collecting and drawing road, taking my ink and brushes both round the corner in south London – and all over the UK.
To recap: this process is one I’ve written about before. It usually involves me sitting with a person and having a conversation, often on a theme, (like food) which I then draw and write live in front of them, using ink and brush and a distilled selection of their own words. Each narrator gets a copy of their story to keep, either on the day if we have a helper and access to an A3 copier, or later, by post.
Early in the year I worked with a group of women from across the African diaspora, who are meeting to cook together and share stories with Brixton chef and teacher Marie Mingle, and doctoral researcher Natasha Dyer. We spent a day in Marie’s kitchen, and as well as doing one to one story drawing, I was invited to cook and eat with the group. I learned about some fantastic spice mixtures and recipes, as well as hearing of many tough situations that the women I met are dealing with, both here and back home. The food and company were delicious, also, bittersweet. I took home a jar of Marie’s green sauce which gives everything a lift.
Still in London and still with the African diaspora, the people at UK book HQ – ie The British Library, are in the middle of a major project to connect their Sound Archive back with some of the communities the recordings represent. Chandan Mahal and Emma Brinkhurst from the BL team got in touch to see if I could do some listening with a group of Somali Londoners, together with Mancunian East African poet, Elmi, and a bunch of recordings from the 1980s – collected by ethnomusicologist John Low.
To begin with, we all listened to the magnificent voice and music of iconic Somali singer Maryam Mursal . I drew her from a video clip and wrote down some of what she said, as well as what was said about her, by the people gathered for the session. Over subsequent weeks we listened together to lullabies, house building songs, herding songs and other examples of Somali music.
A high spot for me was listening to the women sing and ululate live in the room where we gathered. Their voices animated the air – a spell to mend post-lockdown hearts.
As a thank you to the group and for continuity, the library produced this booklet based on the project, with pictures by me, a new poem by Elmi – many quotations and insights from the participants and a QR link to the music recordings. I think you can request one from the British Library as they have a few.
In September, I travelled to Glasgow, where the university, along with those of St Andrew’s and Edinburgh, is working with a newly set up body called the Scottish Council on Global Affairs. The SCGA has been set up to ‘deepen the debate’ around migration and citizenship, amongst other things. I was very proud to participate in such conversations, invited by two enterprising doctors of History: Rachel Chin and Sarah Dunstan. There were speakers from the worlds of law, local and international politics, grassroots migrant organisations – and many practical and potent ideas were expressed to challenge ongoing Brexit rhetoric.
After the talks I listened to and drew stories from some of the participants. Every story was a glimpse into the hidden worlds we all carry, of family, memory, home.
I heard more treasures of inherited language at a recent gig at JW3 . As the event was to thank people who had supported the charity – I was asking narrators to tell me stories of things they’d been given, or learned from their parents, or things they would hope to pass on… Debby’s rather roguish dad had a family whistle, her mother: a Yiddish lullaby.
Marcel didn’t know his parents, but became surprisingly conversant with the glamour of the Folies Bergère, aged four. He still speaks, with an almost indiscernible French accent, and great pride, of his astonishing rescuers.
Here are a couple more stories from London Jews: I heard these in the summer and include them here for their thematic resonance. Language: lost and found.
On another type of story jaunt – project Phakama was participating in a brand new festival in Brighton, and so myself and fellow associate artist (and dear pal) Charlie Folorunsho headed to Wildfest, in glorious Stanmer Park.
Charlie and I were trying out an IRL version of a project initiated by him, with support from a Phakama Digital bursary in 2021. Called The LORE, which stands for Language Of Resilient Expression, it started online as part of an artistic response to the pandemic. We’ve been joint facilitators: getting together with small groups of people online, sharing stories of the ways we have managed to cope and keep going through the challenge of covid and austerity and difficulties with health. This was our first go at presenting the workshop face to face. People came and practiced listening to and drawing each other’s stories. Charlie asked participants to reinvent the LORE, and try alternative R words that might help us survive – we heard ‘revolutionary’, ‘rebellious,’ ‘resourceful’ – please add your own, however ‘regrettable’ & join us. We hope to make a book of the LORE one day, in which we collate all we have heard and drawn from and with participants. A kind of survival kit.
Her talk followed a guided meditation to begin the event in calm, led by poet Ros Goddard.
Jacqueline gave an inspiring talk on rhyme, which she packed with dazzling examples from some of her favourite poems. I drew what I could catch – trying not to get so absorbed that I forgot to move my brush across the paper.
Jacqueline’s talk was followed by a presentation from Debris Stevenson who got us all to shake, and talked about what had provoked her towards her path of poetry and performance.
The last speaker was current TS Eliot prize shortlistee Victoria Adukwei Bulley who gave a talk on the practicalities of getting funded to make work, and showed us clips from her fascinating film, Mother Tongue, which explores language in exile and the poetry born from and inherent in that. Notice a theme?
There was a great buffet lunch and a fallow period to follow, in which I ran a kind of rolling collage studio – and also read peoples’ fortunes from INDEX.
The last part of the day heralded the grand announcements of who had won this years Women Poets’ Prize. There were three winners chosen from a shortlist of thirty. You can read more about the judges, all the poets and their brilliant work, on the Rebecca Swift Foundation website, as well as on social media.
The huge and ancient wood-beamed hall fell silent. Intimate worlds were spilled by the poets into the room from the stage and even from the video screens. Suddenly after all the busy whir of chat, meeting friends and jotting down ideas, we were in a different space. A mirror to the morning meditation we’d begun with – a contemplative zone.
I had made over 35 drawings, and was pleased to see that many of the assembled poets had also made fabulous collage poems and zines in my portable studio. It was a truly creative day.
Huge thanks to all those who have shared stories with me, and all those who have found the imagination, space and funding to commission me to do this ongoing work which means so much to me.
And of course, thanks for reading my blog. Wishing you peace and poetry in 2023.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you’d like to book tickets to see VelkomtoInklandt, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Then again – some goddesses are known through their small scale manifestations, St Bridget is in the snowdrops, Persephone sparkles on in every pomegranate seed –
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Like a lot of Londoners of my era, all I knew of Northern Ireland was from the relentless news of the Troubles throughout my youth. Luckily I’d met people from there over the years who’d also shaped my imaginings. It was the good influence of one of them, the painter Patricia Doherty, that made me extra curious to go and visit the city that had produced my funny and talented friend. So it was great to be invited to read and run a workshop as one of several poets at the book festival this June.
I arrived the day before I was due to read, and was taken aback to find that the hotel room I’d been booked into was painted dark grey. Comfy & all, but like, almost black.
I walked into town & bought myself peonies and a scroll of Chinese paper and when I got back made the first of two backdrops, ostensibly for the reading, as I like to have something painted in a room, but also to vanquish the gloom. I was glad to find an amazing bookshop run for Self Help Africa and relieve them of some old volumes that got pressed into action at my workshop as well as in my emergency backdrops.
The first event I went to was that night, about Belfast poet, the late Padraic Fiacc. Poets Tara McEvoy and Joelle Taylor were there to read some of his work and lead a discussion of it – following a screening of a grainy and great 1970s German documentary about him, unearthed by the festivals intrepid poetry curator Natasha Cuddington. It was a revelation to hear him and his powerful writing of conflict, inner and outer. Many people in the audience had known him and were engaged with his work. He’d read and anthologised poetry across the sectarian divide, and often feared for his life in doing so, but made it to 94 in the end.
The next day Christodoulos Makris arrived and we got talking about our shared reading which was to be hosted by Natasha that night. I attended Christodoulos’ workshop in the afternoon, where we constructed poems from that days newspaper, before rushing back and making another emergency backdrop, & changing into my poetry dress for the evening.
Both Christodoulos and myself invited the audience to read poems with us at points during the evening, which was fun. We talked about instinct and spontaneity and some of the poetry projects we have been working on. I read some fortunes from INDEX as well as other poems and Christodoulos read from his book this is no longer entertainment (a total must-read) as well as his collaboration with the brilliant Kimberley Campanello – an online work called sorry that you were not moved.
We spoke of poet Tom Jenks of course, bold publisher of poetry objects by Christodoulos, Kimberley and myself amongst many others, with his press zimZalla. It was so enlivening to be live with a live audience.
After we’d recovered with a large dinner at The Woodworkers – I wandered back to the hotel and was spared immediate re entombment in the charcoal interior by friendly shouts from the pavement.
Joelle Taylor and Cathy Rentzenbrink – both amazing people, writers and festival headliners, were having a chat at the outdoor tables in the balmy Belfast night & invited me to join them. I read their cards from INDEX (‘spookily accurate!’ said Joelle) and we had a wonderful conversation.
There were still ace chats to come. Gail McConnell & Julie Morrissy read at a hybrid event the next night, Gail in person – Julie by zoom from the USA. Natasha again asking the questions.
Gail’s book: The Sun is Open is a moving, questioning, elegiac work – using archive material from her father’s life. It’s incredible, and currently a fiver in the Penned in the Margins July sale!
I don’t know Julie’s work yet, it sounds powerful, connecting the threads of close family with political histories via feminism. I liked drawing both of them in my notebook.
Back at the Woodworkers there was more illuminating chat, I sensed a very alive poetry community in Belfast, the layering of centuries of Irish and English, not just as languages. It was refreshing to be far from home and find people arguing, laughing and sharing poetry as a home.
A bunch of excellent women turned up to my own workshop session. I tipped my cornucopia of scraps onto the table – and the room hummed with industry, as book manufacture took hold of those who love to rummage, snip & glue.
The collage game in Belfast is strong, and I’m glad to say I found a willing recipient of my scrap bag – which saved me lugging it to my next destination.
Poet Bebe Ashley had a residency at the festival, with a 3D printer, with which she was recycling plastic food packaging into braille poetry. Here she is with her poem Tom Daley dives for David Hockney and David Hockney paints Tom Daley.
I had a go at translating it just from its spacing and the colours used. If you’d like to try this – look carefully at the picture and try to read what you see! Bebe kindly let me take two of her little chips of braille – they spell the words alive and heartbeat and I keep them in my wallet.
In between readings and chats I walked in the city. Two favourite discoveries were the Botanic Gardens – very nearby, free and stunning, and independent bookshop No Alibis, where David the bookseller told me about his late friend, choreographer and dancer Helen Lewis, an extraordinary woman who survived Terezín and Auschwitz to pioneer modern dance in Belfast. She taught dance for years at the Crescent Arts Centre where the book festival was taking place. I was glad to read her memoir, A Time to Speak , a beautifully written book and more fuel for my Terezín project.
Thanks as ever for reading my blog. Thanks to Sophie Hayles, Natasha Cuddington and the whole team at Belfast Book Festival for their warm welcome and their tireless and good natured running of the many incredible events.
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.
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. TheMighty 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.
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!
As ever, thanks for reading, and hope to cross paths on the poetry road before long.
A tool I love to use is a scalpel. I don’t like the word scalpel, with its whiff of surgery and pain, but for operating on paper, there’s nothing quite like one.
These last few months I’ve been through a lot of blades. My priority job once back in London from America wasn’t really a backyard mosaic. It was an immense new book by Marina Warner, called Inventory of a Life Mislaid .
She’d contacted me about creating vignettes for this memoir whilst I was still away, and sent me the manuscript then. The book recounts her parents’ life and her own early life in Cairo, after World War II and before the Egyptian Revolution. It is full of sharp eyed detail and emotionally rich detective work, alongside scholarly wonderings that emerge from her interrogation of personal memory, real archive material, language and collective myth. Packed with history, it is affectionate, erudite and atmospheric. I loved reading it, and responding to the world it conjures, with sheaves of black paper and my scalpel and cutting mat.
I made over 90 vignettes including five full page section dividers. I will write about it some more when it comes out with William Collins in the spring.
Marina Warner and I will be ‘in conversation’ at the University of East Anglia Literary Festival, UEA LIVE , so do book if you’d like to be part of the event.
This work really sharpened me into new intricacies with my blades, and after the boosting time I’d had in California, working with colour, I decided as well as making very graphic black and white images – I could experiment with distinct colour palettes for some of my projects.
I was pleased to be commissioned by friend and fellow writer Gemma Seltzer , who runs an early morning writers’ organisation called Write and Shine, to make an artwork for her winter programme.
For this I devised a palette, and thought about the ideas she’d mentioned: mystery, mischief, and winter, with its long nights and festivities that counter and also celebrate the dark and the cold. I included six types of steam and a soft red to warm the scene, and I cut some mountains from the last page of an old atlas that I found on my street. So lots of place names beginning with z are built into the landscape to take the reader and writer on a zig zag journey through their imagination.
If you are an early riser, I really recommend Write and Shine with its welcoming workshops and retreats. An inspiring way to start the day.
I was back in black and white after that, to make a book cover for Nine Arches Press. Poet and publisher Jane Commane had decided to publish an amazing one hundred daily sonnets written by Jacqueline Saphra during the first lockdown, as a special non-profit, limited edition book, to raise money for The Trussell Trust, (as well as raise spirits via its poetry.) I made a papercut cover that will be embossed on the clothbound hardback in an edition of one hundred. I’m proud to be part of this beautiful enterprise.
Gemma then also wanted a second image for her Write and Shine January- February programme, something to reflect workshops on the theme of the path ahead, drawing on moonlight and sunrise. I enjoyed creating a new palette around these times of day, using papers that I painted specially to cut, and reimagining the city as a place built of books, pens, pencils and crayons, again with the mind-focusing magic of a hot drink on the horizon to symbolise the waking hour. I’m only sharing a close up detail of this as Gemma is yet to launch the full image on the waiting world!
Working within these strict yet flexible palettes, I was reminded of a time long ago when I worked mixing colours for my mum, Susan Collier, in her textiles studio. I’d just left art college and had no work or idea how to begin, so she took me on as a lowly painter of tints or backgrounds. I had to get these right with a precision I could barely grasp. A tiny drop of Naples Yellow to grey a mauve, no more than a wink of Burnt Sienna or Bengal Rose to nudge warmth into a white. My mother was meticulous about these things, and would shriek if I added great globs of excess gouache in her presence. My paint mixing really lacked subtlety, a quality that often eludes me still.
As this month approached, I was contacted by Laura Seddon, creative producer at Manchester Jewish Museum. She wondered if I could make a piece of artwork to give out to subscribers for a Hannukah gift. This was to accompany a series of video conversations with five talented contemporary female musicians, all working with klezmer music.
All five are asking questions about tradition and innovation and Jewishness too. This music programme, brought together by cellist Francesca Ter Berg, is part of the museums current trailblazers season.
I made a playlist of their music and tried to let my scalpel dance in sync with the sharp turns and inventive rhythms I could hear coming through my speakers.
Working closely with my own parallel inner dialogues re tradition, innovation and Jewishness, seemed to dovetail with the ideas in the music – its timeless weave of gaiety and melancholy.
Paper cutting, like fiddle playing, is a strong traditional form across much of northern and central Europe. I have been inspired by visits to Chateau d’Oex in the mountains above Geneva, where a creaky wooden museum groans with old paper cut treasures made locally by deft scissored Alpine folk. Even my German Jewish grandmother, who was not ‘artistic’, used to snip little heart shaped paper baskets and boxes to put sweets in at this time of year. And thinking of presents, I had a whim to cut some of my papercuts further, so had a couple of them made into jigsaw puzzles online.
Scalpels and scissors are potentially scary – maybe symbolically adjacent to Brexit and social isolation. But before I rest my implements in the name of peace & the imminent cushions of some holiday collapse, here’s one more papercut I made last night.
We have some amazing & lovely neighbours on our road in Brixton, and during this year we have been so grateful for their friendliness and local community spirit.
Like on quite a few streets in recent years, our more organised inhabitants decided to plan an advent window display, and though I sighed inwardly in a grinch like way, I took on yesterday’s date, the 17th, to ‘do’, as part of it. I remembered how much I’d liked the all embracing ‘happy holidays’ decorations in Berkeley. With the help of our pets, Zippy & Morris, I managed to get over myself & cut out some fun for our window.
Thanks for reading my blog. May your inner light keep you warm and safe from sharp troubles in this turning sharp-blunt world! Happy Holidays!
My usual methods of teaching are often materials based. I give people assorted random bits of writing to bounce off, and I tip up huge bags of assorted hoarded scraps, and ask them to choose colours, respond and make things. ‘Use your greedy eyes!’ is one of my favourite invitations at the outset.
I love to watch the action. There’s collective energy in the room and it crackles over all our tables as we search for the right thing, to make a thing we don’t even know about yet.
I wander around, as the hum of concentration settles over students/artists. Arms stretch up into space to tear escape hatches from red paper, cautious scissors snip new shapes from crumpled old gossip, eyes are lowered as poems are read and read again, pencils are sharpened to their holiest purpose: underlining.
The last two Tuesdays however, I had to get 22 students through a day of collage and poetry where we were just an assortment of disembodied heads, and where each person had been asked to muster their own scraps.
For a totally 2020 sentence, what about: ‘Sophie, my broadband went, could you assign me a new breakout room?’ (My tight lipped answer – straight from the 80s: ‘hmm, I’ll see what I can do’)
Yes, a new language to learn, and alien teaching devices: being made ‘the host’, creating breakout rooms for tutorials, uploading resources to Padlet, checking the chat column for questions, screen sharing, speaker view, muting myself at lunch!
I liked that we could make every aspect of the course into a virtual collage. The resources & reading lists which went on the Padlet page could be put on by Rosie and I, in a free formation of video attachments and web links and other handy references, built up according to whim as well as theme. Just the teaching itself: a base support of exercises suggested by Rosie, followed by additional thought-shapes from me, layered with ideas manifested by the students, more input from Rosie, the world, me…
The students could upload their work onto an adjacent gallery page, and share the interesting techniques they were discovering, separate and far flung across this collaged world. Also on the plus side, we had a wonderfully wide reach, with students in Ireland, South Africa, France and Germany, as well as all over the UK. All of us were stuck indoors somewhere, and glued, with the PVA of learning, to our screens.
What pleased me in the end, was that concentration and the desire to make analogue creative experiments – did manage to transcend the dreary flatness of the screen, and that between us, there was a very real, if temporary, community built, just by sharing poetry, ideas, work.
One morning between my Tuesdays I walked over to Clapham with my daughter & went to get a takeaway coffee in my mask. ‘You’re my teacher!’ said the barista. ‘Really?!’ I said, ‘but look at you. You’re so… so… three dimensional! Arms legs, everything!’ – ‘you too!’ she rejoindered. Had being online excessively dulled my imagination or fostered it?
Either way, it’s a different way of looking and engaging, and hopefully learning like this will enrich the process, for when we come back to the physical, as well as imaginary, spaces we use and create by making and teaching art.
Since I last wrote, the world has joined me in retreat. My residency has changed, from having been a rare opportunity for me to make work away from my usual roles and pressures: family and projects, it has now become a space in which I am marooned from these, and must consider what my distance means from another perspective.
I can still paint and draw and write. In fact, I must. This is the first time I’ve been paid a regular stipend to just inhabit a studio and make work. But I’m necessarily encountering new themes, with the world in pandemic mode. How to be locked down & yet remain open enough to respond- how to not actually shut down?
‘Stay there! Stay well!’ Insists our wise daughter, ‘London is chaos!’ She is socially isolating at home in Brixton with a cousin, a friend and our dog and cat. Although I really, really miss her, and our son, who remains at his special college with an incredible care and support team, practically, if we came back now it would be a greater risk to our health and theirs.
We speak to the kids every day, so thank god for technology. We were really happy when our son rushed off FaceTime to see a goat give birth on the farm where he lives.
I say ‘our’ because Adam is here too. He took study leave from work so that he could base himself here for a bit, and the corona virus has meant that it is safer for him to stay until the risks of travel begin to abate.
Obviously the social side of the residency has been curtailed. The libraries are closed, the salons crossed from the diary, readings cancelled. Efforts are being made to still engage with other artists here online, credit to residency manager Dan Schifrin again for being patient & setting up interesting conversations on zoom.
London poet friend Amy Key found her trip to the AWP in Texas was no longer viable due to the first wave of cancellations over the virus. Luckily for us she diverted to Berkeley for a few days which included making the most delicious aubergine parmigiana I’ve ever tasted. Here’s a painting I did of her on her last night here.
Also before shut down, I had a great meeting and conversation with Peter Maravelis from City Lights , about the possibility of doing a book and an event with them, which would be, will be, a great thrill. He had many innovative ideas about the way forward for books and booksellers in a changing world. It looks like I might have to come back!
Incidentally, Lawrence Ferlenghetti, who set up City Lights, was 101 this week. May poetry, art, books and ideas keep us all in such excellent nick.
Berkeley in spring is not a bad place to be stuck. Leggy freesias spill across sidewalks, camellias simmer in crimson and pink, tossing their crumpled silk hankies to the ground, wisteria knots itself up with jasmine all over clapboard houses floating perfume harmonies onto the empty air. There’s hardly anyone around. The architecture makes me sigh.
The sense of scale that’s always interested me has taken on new meaning here, this huge country, this global illness, the distance home, how can I accommodate these big things in my little eyes?
So I try and ‘see a world in a grain of sand’, or magnify the prehistoric looking succulents that cover front yards here, until their bold structures tower over the straggling pedestrians in my paintings.
Or I cut tiny phrases from broken and discarded books and release these onto airy pastel coloured cards where they can tap-dance away from their cramped former paragraphs.
Two of the index card poems may soon be available as limited edition screen prints via a supportive initiative called The Off Cut Project set up by brilliant Suki Hayes Watkins at The Print Block, her studio in Whitstable.
Talking of scale, here I am in a redwood forest. These trees are the very emblem of survival, literally encompassing the scars of fires they’ve withstood, and growing steadily upwards forever. This one is over a thousand years old. Breathing in their scented stillness I felt that perhaps we humans really might be able to create a sounder future.
Some books I’ve found here are much too wonderful to cut up. One of these is a kid’s book from 1952 called Let’s Look atthe Sky! by Marie Neurath. It’s printed in stunning pre digital luminosity with spot colour. It engages with the scale of the universe – and like the redwoods, it makes plain the paradox we must live with: that we are both tiny and monumental. And how, tiny as we are, what we choose to do from one moment to the next, has a tangible effect on each other and the world.
On that note, redwood-sized solidarity & kindest wishes, especially to anyone struggling with health, cash flow, isolation or all three. Thanks for reading this, and for all your actions that contribute to the planet mending that needs to happen next.