Velkom to ze Staich, olt Frentz

New papercuts: Kaddish for ze Tvince

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

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

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

Transformations in progress – Sarah Malin rehearsing at The Nightingale.

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

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

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

Violins ‘for ze Tvince’

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

Eppels, Kewkumpers, Ekks, Kepbejjis.

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

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

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

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

Late last night in the snipping saloon

Leaning on the Goddess

Flying & landing – book collaborators!

Besides a lot of scooting about lately, and the heat, I’ve been staying grounded with some focused paper-cutting in the cool vaults of mythology.

I’ve been laying into sheets of black paper with scissors and scalpel, and summoning a great variety of goddesses, and their assorted props and consorts for the next book. The Mighty Goddess – a collection of 52 myths and stories for adults, gathered over many years with intrepid care and respect, and written in her own inimitable style by old friend and collaborator Pomme Clayton. This is to be published next spring by The History Press. We raised extra funds to create the book via our Kickstarter campaign. Thanks to all who supported that.

Laying out the stories with their pictures and post it notes on the floor.

Some of the stories are very familiar to me. Pomme and I have had four of our children’s fairy tale and myth collections published over the years. I’ve painted Durga, Ama Terasu, Demeter… Our first book together: Tales of Amazing Maidens, came out with Orchard Books in 1995. It featured Inuit goddess Sedna on the front cover. So I enjoyed revisiting her (as an Arctic elder must inevitably also do – or she will be in discomfort under the sea with her tangled hair. ) Richard Price has dived into this material too, in his beautiful collection The Owner of the Sea. Sedna provides fish and poetic inspiration in equal measure.

I was glad to discover a creature called the ribbon seal, lolling about on the internet, graphic as a papercut. And Sedna. Without her, no plenty more fish in the sea!

As with previous projects, like INDEX, & 60 Lovers to Make and Do, I have branched out from using only plain papers, to finding tone and texture in old black and white photographic images, which I use as collage material.

Green Tara – a goddess/saint from the Buddhist pantheon – cut from a book called Collectible Spoons.

I like the playfulness of scale between the objects in the photographs (spoons, cakes, shrubs) and the grandeur of a deity – a being so large it cannot be seen or comprehended, let alone fit on a page.

Hekate – she looks three ways at once. I cut her from a page in an old cookbook and was gratified to see her turn the puddings into timeless stone.

Then again – some goddesses are known through their small scale manifestations, St Bridget is in the snowdrops, Persephone sparkles on in every pomegranate seed –

Snowdrops for Bridget
The crowned majesty of madam pomegranate

Other stories were familiar in another way: Artemis/Diana the huntress, turning Actaeon into a stag for spying on her naked beauty as she bathed… I remember copying Titian’s version of this, that hangs here in London at the National Gallery.

Diana and Actaeon, by Titian.

We Camberwell foundation students of 1982 were each set a painting to study as an exercise in composition. We were instructed to make three versions: reducing it further in each incarnation – eventually making it into a 3 colour abstraction. I recall that laborious absorbing afternoon.

I returned to Titian for help with my papercut, loving how he caught Actaeon’s bodily astonishment at the moment of transformation.

Actaeon as papercut – turned into a stag and devoured by his own dogs.

There’s another Artemis story in the book too – of the young girls apprenticed to the goddess – who dressed as bears to play hunting games in the forest.

Bear faced chic! A papercut I made for the story of Artemis, whose apprentices accompany the goddess, learn to hunt.

Other stories were a total revelation. The violence and incest, sex and torment in many of the tales – from Māori creation myth to ancient Egypt. Stories to make even the most jaded Twitter user gasp.

Sekhmet. Lion headed goddess loves to eat awful human law breakers.

I felt nervous about making images of Isis and Sekhmet, partly because I so love and admire Egyptian art – and did not feel I could add anything to the perfect depictions we know so well from the tombs and the looted beauties I grew up staring at in the British Museum. Of course that made snipping these goddesses and their head dresses all the more exciting in the end. ‘Only do something that you know you CANNOT do’ – as I’m fond of telling my students.

Isis and her brother/husband Osiris – Lord of the Underworld. Again, I found them in the spoon book.
On the road: I was at some different tables over June, luckily paper, blades and goddesses are portable entities

Reading and rereading these ancient myths was a balm in these times. These stories remind us of our own impermanence and solidity at the same time, always useful. Thank Goddess for the power of imagination.

Lilith becoming a snake, giving birth to demons

In other news, I was grateful to poets Kathryn Gray and Andrew Neilson, the editors of online poetry journal Bad Lilies for including my poem Eggs and Bacon in their latest issue. A poem that also skirts around power.

I grew these ones. Amazing colours, quite weird smell!

Those bad lilies sure got a nose for a poem. One they published last summer in their second issue: Pollen, by the amazing Clare Pollard has been nominated for best single flower in the Forward Prizes.

Athena: paradoxical and mighty goddess of wisdom and war.

Congrats to the wondrous Chrissy Williams too, poet and editor of online journal Perverse. Two poems first published there have made the same auspicious list – one by Louisa Campbell and one by Cecelia Knapp. No shortage of goddesses in this post as it turns out.

Hindu goddess Lakshmi has elephants to splash her with water in the heat.

And nobody creates new work entirely alone. We only get good by reading/looking/listening to/rubbing shoulders with other people who read and make, so this goes out to all those who aren’t on a shortlist either… and who are slogging away anyway! May Lakshmi’s elephants cool you & may Athena’s owl toot wisdom instead of war!

Poem for Alison & her wasps nest

Here is a non prize winning wasp poem I made from phrases clipped from a child’s encyclopaedia I found on a wall near my house. I made it for my poet friend Alison Winch who inspired me with her wasp poems. They’re not published yet, but watch out! Thanks for reading my blog & strength to all creative resisters in the long hot jam of now.

Belfast – what a blast

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.

Needed colour dabs to save me from decline

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.

Emergency backdrop nervously begun in hotel room

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.

some of the works we read from

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.

I incorporated words from my ‘newspaper poem’ written in Christodoulos’ workshop on backdrop no. 2

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 & Cathy Rentzenbrink – lighting up the Belfast night – the perks of a book festival- great writers & readers.

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.

Poet Gail McConnell reading in Belfast June 2022, ink pen in notebook.

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.

Poet Julie Morrissy on zoom, drawn with my ink pen – June 2022

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.

Made by Hannah Wilks
By a wonderful poet called Paula
by Natasha Cuddington in a ballet and battenberg palette
Rama & Sita find themselves in a new book made by a participant called Ruth ‘I’m never going to an ordinary poetry workshop again!’ she said.

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.

I hope to see what gets made next as the scraps are given their next meanings – I left this in the hotel bar & Liza picked it up…

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.

Bebe Ashley with a poem 3D printed in braille.

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.

Coded amulets for my travels, slid into my Mongolian 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.

In the hothouse at Belfast Botanic Garden
The Crescent Arts Centre. Home to Belfast Book Festival as well as a thriving arts and education programme for the city. Squint & see the plaque honouring Helen Lewis between door & window on the left.

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.

A friendly stranger took this snap
of me in my poetry dress as I was walking past – so I made them air drop it to me!

On the Poetry Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Etching & kvetching with Blake in Lambeth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Box of Tricks in Red & Gold

So, on Thursday a heavy delivery arrived from the north! I was very excited to rip it open and survey the repeated rhythm of upper case INDEX, foiled in Elvis Vegas gold on that poppy red cardboard, and know that here were poems!

Emptied out! Photo by Mike Sims

Each box contains 78 cards, fronted with a poem I’ve assembled from found text, and backed with an anyway up collage made from found images. Also included are instructions, which outline how to play or read the cards, printed on a small strip of vellum. Published with incredible collaborative attention to detail by zimZalla, an experimental press based in Manchester, which is essentially a one-man side-hustle set up and run by inventive fellow poet Tom Jenks.

Some of the cards – photo by Suki Hayes Watkins
Some of the backs of the cards – photo by Suki Hayes Watkins

The last couple of days I’ve been back at my cutting mat, rifling through the already dessicated sources of these poems, wishing I still had the shreds of law books & westerns I left in my hastily assembled and then abandoned collage box in Berkeley.

Phrases trimmed and ready to bag.

I’ve been combing phrases from my London stash: the instructional, the moral, the romantic, to clip and put in sachets for Kickstarter supporters.

Behind the scenes at the House of Phrases

I find the process funny and painful. Despite having made all these poems from them, cutting up books still goes against every fibre of my being, and I have to reassure myself on a kind of loop that books are replaceable, and that these are cheap tattered ephemera that have usually cost me nothing, and anyway a lot of them are full of terrible old ideas that badly need rearranging! Inspite of this, I have so much affection for the author of the book on period furniture and his scathing words on mass-produced cupboards, or for the female authorities on flower arranging and cookery, or the well meaning hack in fever of empire, writing for children about their peers in ‘other lands’. Snip snip!

I had sixteen backers who’d signed up for the ‘bag of choice phrases’ reward option, and this is how my allocations looked in the kitchen last night, (how many phrases would each bag need? Should I weigh them?) I enjoyed folding A2 layout paper into 16 and dividing the spoils into piles. They became creatures: the animal ghosts of old texts, and I was surprised by their aliveness – their soft pelts of faded paper, their little lettery markings.

Other subscribers qualified for DIY collage kits. These have been really fun to make and feature lots of one-off favourite scraps from my messy studio. I’ll be sending these rewards out as soon as I can.

Meanwhile if you’re kicking yourself that you missed the Kickstarter, (so easily done) and feel moved to get hold of zimZalla object number 60: INDEX, then please don’t fight the impulse to order one. Details here: zimZalla

Thanks for reading, thanks to all who’ve bought or might yet buy a deck. Big thanks to Tom Jenks for publishing them, and also to Andy Jackson and Bill Herbert who featured them on their ‘Dr Malthusia pandemic poetry blog. If you do succumb and get a box of these poems – I hope they bring you much bonus magic of the right sort.

unlocking with Blake in ultramarine

Earlier this spring, I was excited to get a commission to write a new poem inspired by William Blake. I jumped up and down like a song of innocence whose experience has been recognised!

A new stone commissioned by The Blake Society and carved by Lida Cardozo was laid in 2018, and marks Blake’s actual burial spot.

Myself and four other poets, Joseph Coelho, Natalie Linh Bolderston, Ankita Saxena, and Ruth Awolola were each asked to write something new for St James’ Church, Piccadilly, as a joint project with The Poetry Society.

Poets on zoom (screenshot from the St James’ Blake Now film) top row: Julia Bird, me, Natalie Linh Bolderston, bottom row: Ruth Awolola, Joseph Coelho, Ankita Saxena.

St James’ is an inclusive church, full of ideas, people and action coming together to address contemporary issues – and as it’s the place where Blake was baptised in 1757, and home to The Blake Society, this poetry project was focused on how Blake’s radicalism could still speak to us today, and encourage creative forms of activism.

When it came to it, I was the only one who could get to the west end in a COVID safe manner by the date in March agreed for filming. I put on my poetry dress and best jewels and tubed it to Green Park in my matching gold mask.

In the courtyard in front of the church a magnolia was shedding its furred khaki buds as the blossoms burst & raised their pink glazed teacups to beneficent blue sky. Piccadilly was hungry for footsteps, but was quieter than a backstreet in suburbia. Mr Fortnum and Mr Mason came out of their clock to nod and bow the hour to nobody. It was a strange dream to be abroad in the loaded yet familiar grandeur of my native city after over a year of absence.

I was allowed to climb up and preach some Blake subversion from the outdoor pulpit.
Photo by Julia Bird.

Christopher Wren designed St James’, and the buildings exterior leans on the sheer quantity of its tiny warm coloured bricks, which mass to enormity like an epic congregation, contrasting with the vast transparencies of its glittering windows.

Carved from lime wood, this Grinling Gibbons reredos has been restored to its original 17th century brightness after some centuries of deadening varnish.

Inside there are miraculous carvings in lime wood and marble by Grinling Gibbons, including the font in which Blake was baptised. (I’d like to meet the mother who looked at her newborn and decided to call him Grinling Gibbons as well, a poem there surely!)

So grateful that I have a poetry dress for an occasion such as this! I screen printed the satin myself in Peckham , with poems and collages from my book 60 Lovers to Make and Do and my great friend, dress designer and maker extraordinaire, Linda Brooker whipped it into this wrap dress & trimmed it with pompoms. Photo: Sam Allen

So enough with the gold dress and fancy schmancy carvings! Where are the poems? You can watch the movie on YouTube at this link: Blake Now – and if you’d rather have a quiet read: here is my poem.

Look out for all the commissioned poems, those by Joseph Coelho, Ruth Awolola, Natalie Lin Bolderston, Ankita Saxena and myself will all be available via the Poetry Society website and on St James’ site too in coming weeks. Meanwhile, thank you so much to both organisations for this golden opportunity, and to you dear reader, for reading!

Flowers to fly me home

You don’t need me to say how the world is. There are huge pressures currently on our collective heart, our collective lungs. Whose air is this? How are we to breathe?

Californian tree poppy – Matilija poppy

On a personal level I am in flux – having had six flights cancelled, we now have tickets for Monday, and hopefully we will be back in Brixton a week today. There’s a lot of packing to do. Quarantine awaits.

There are many things I’ll miss about Berkeley. Over the last five weekends I’ve been hosting a socially distant art club. Jane Gottesman and Geoffrey Biddle, who set up the nonprofit Working Assumptions, that supports this residency, their 3 teenage daughters, and their 3 rescue dogs, come over– and we all draw and make things in the garden till darkness falls.

P & P
make collage books at art club

For the last two weeks I’ve been surprised to find myself painting flowers.

Sunflower on red

It’s been decades since I put myself at the humble mercy of a still life, to try to copy what I see. Even working towards a representation of beauty feels quite ‘counter’. I’ve been so occupied with mixing from an emotional palette, making pictures and poems from the inside out.

Sad hat face (detail from virus painting)

But with so much to contend with in the human world, I’m leaning heavily on the flowers, to lend me their grounding version of reality.

Marigolds on gold

I’m hoping they can help with the next uprooting, and make me a magic carpet to get home on, as they sprout in fresh conviction from the dirt. They’re shining extra under these less polluted lockdown skies.

clarkia on pale turquoise wash

Painting them is a spell that conjures home, and memories of a childhood where getting lost in colour was one of the main lullabies.

velvet hum of blue delphinium on lime

Social isolation has facilitated a new kind of close up mode, where time seems to have both slowed down and speeded up, and looking very hard at something small and tangible feels like a secret door to the eternal.

Abutilon from over the neighbour’s wall

Though I often find my shoulders tense, and breath held, as I try to honour some leaf edge or petal convolution with the best flicked salute my brush can manage.

fading delphinium on gold

Flowers! Vortices of nectar, proliferation & reproduction, working in groups, taking turns to bud or droop, emanating energy and attraction. In this warm climate they often dress to the nines, in fancy lingerie, tight Lycra, statement jewellery.

Full blown peony on ultramarine ink ground

Sitting in direct dialogue with them helps me contemplate my own ageing – I love seeing what new colours come through as time lays into their matter in front of my very eyes, bright pink mutates to yellow ochre, violet fades to hazy blues and greys. We are transforming together in the studio, part of a cycle we can only dimly grasp.

Peonies on bottle green

They lead me to colour investigations, I think of Josef Albers and his experiments, what precise shade might I mix to set nature’s colours against? How can I translate the colours of these shadowed dots of pollen into paint?

Peony, detail
Peony

These flower paintings are small as the weeds that burst from paving stone cracks, they can stowaway in my suitcase. Compact curled fists of resilience to travel with. This is a great help towards the awful packing up process.

Marigolds on blue

Also working towards the observation and locking down of a moment, I offered to join in with the portrait project Portraits For NHS Heroes, initiated by artist Tom Croft. Three health care workers got in touch with me via Instagram, and so far I’ve drawn two nurses, Alexandra Crisp and Lucy Quarman. Both wrote me warm and interesting emails describing their lives in the pandemic. They each spoke of the exhaustion and the grim realities of confronting grief daily, of suspended family life, and also their passion for the NHS and for doing this important work with supportive colleagues.

Alexandra Crisp, NHS nurse

For centuries portraits have mainly been made to record rich or high status people. With this project key workers are painted, and given the original artwork free of charge by the artist, as an appreciation of their contribution at this time. I drew these two from photos they sent me. I used soft pastels and I put my best colours around their faces as added energy and protection.

Lucy Quarman, NHS nurse

I have seen many stunning portraits emerge from this project, including new work by old friend Martin Grover.

Sunflower with delphiniums

A large bouquet and good health to you dear reader, solidarity, and thanks for accompanying me via this blog, on my California journey this year.

A Sombre Luminosity

It’s now just a month till my residency officially finishes, and I’m trying to accommodate both my anticipated homesickness for this place, and a current one for my actual home.

The residency studio, Berkeley

In a parallel twin arrangement, I carry on with the two main prongs of work I’ve been developing here: cut up poems, and the series of gouache paintings.

Gin sodden gabble

I’m happy to say that poets WN Herbert and Andy Jackson are publishing one of my index card poems re the pandemic each weekend, on their current iteration of political poetry blog New Boots and Pantisocracies, this time under the heading Postcards from Malthusia.

Keepers from the asylum

Do follow the blog for a variety of quality poetry dealing with COVID-19. There’s a fresh post daily, a great help in lockdown.

Cheer to the dead

The two most recent paintings I’ve been making, edge towards themes of home.

All the Houses that Bloom Between us

In this painting, versions of family members appear – together, connected and also apart. Houses grow on trees and our parallel weather drips on everything.

The residency house here is intentionally pale and neutral, and in a way I’m finding this to be an unexpected stimulus.

In these Berkeley paintings I seem to be manifesting my colour-saturated London home, whereas over recent Brixton years I’ve made a lot of work in black and white.

Load the patterns onto each other’s backs and wear them as warnings like bugs do

I’m looking for the sad song in the brights, I love how joyful colours can sometimes be played for their sobriety, becoming more subtly dark even than monochrome, especially as this might run counter to a first look, might create a vibrant source of jolt or layering.

At a distance from my textile-rich background, I’m also finding a new freedom to play with pattern. I let the paint itself dictate. The paint knows so much that I don’t. When I go along with its drive to spill, drip, splodge and fret the surface – I find myself nodding to the capacity it has to be properly complicated, like the tangled density of thought, of the world.

Nature is a disciplined but messy painter

Another bright/melancholy side project has sprung from my walks. Each day I look for a rose that’s on the point of collapse as it’s petals splay groundwards. I cup the silky chosen head-sized, hand-sized, heart-sized bloom, knock then stash the fallen petals in a pocket. The scent and texture are at the delicious melting point between ripeness and decay.

The first set of such petals I helped myself to, I laid out on my blue notebook as a fleeting shrine to ‘the fallen’. It had been an extra sad day as a close friend of a friend, an NHS nurse, and mother of three daughters, Aimee O’ Rourke had died from COVID-19. One of the many dedicated and under protected key workers whose death seems so unbearable and untimely.

I let my eyes sink into the luminous heart-shaped petals laid on the stiff forget-me-not blue of my notebook and I breathed in the comfort of these colours.

A fleeting monument to the fallen

Since then I’ve been making more of these transient monuments, spreading the days dying rose in a fresh layer over yesterdays, in an aluminium saucepan I found on the street (and thought I’d make ink in.) Again, I like the contrast in colour/texture: organic matter placed on manufactured shine. An evolving shrine.

Ring a ring o’roses, & other plague inspired tunes.

By home time perhaps I’ll have enough pot pourri to sew into a Berkeley pillow, with a scent to transport me between cities.

The pandemic makes it tricky to think about the future, so I’ve been reading old books, writing about the past, and stomping about in the present. Yesterday I wandered down an empty side street and couldn’t work out what the weird noise was, not exactly deafening, but insistent. I realised it was a street full of bees humming.

Nature has turned the volume up – I hope it is keeping you going too, and thanks for reading.

Detail from new painting: All the Houses that Bloom Between Us

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!