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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Thanks for revisiting this city of image and text in which we citizens continually collaborate. And for reading my blog.
So thrilling when personal obsessions are given the chance to expand into real projects, real objects.
This has happened twice in recent months with two of my sequences making their way into books and exhibitions.
Here’s an account of the the first to appear: Your Candle Accompanies the Sun.
In the spring I had a bout of terrible Mondays, when my teenage son, who has learning difficulties and autism, decided he was never going to school again.
He’d take off around the neighbourhood, and nothing (believe me) would get him on the road to his school, (a lovely place btw, he was fine once he was there.)*
While he was out wandering, I was obliged to stay at home and wait, as when he would eventually find his way back, he needed me to be there.
During these times, I really was stuck indoors, quite anxious, unable to do much. In an attempt to ‘do something useful’ I began clearing out some of our excess junk. I came upon a small 1930s book of duotone tourist photos of Switzerland that I’d forgotten I’d picked up at a flea market years before. ‘Why! This is collage gold.’ I gasped. ‘In fact, it’s the inner landscape of Emily Dickinson!’
I’d seen a Poetry School competition callout on instagram re Emily D – provoked in turn by the new Terence Davies’ biopic: A Quiet Passion.
I began, at the kitchen table, to make one collage after another, glueing and stitching flat turquoise Alps to scraps of photographed kitchenware… and finding my own words to add, after rereading the energetic, mysterious and spiky poems Emily Dickinson wrote so urgently in her many years stuck indoors.
She made some sacrifices in order to develop her revolutionary work. Being a female artist was never a picnic.
This summer I showed a selection of the collages in an exhibition at The Art Stable, Dorset. The work remains up and viewable by appointment, until September 15th. Curator Kelly Ross had had the idea to set me up with brilliant painter Gigi Sudbury, so we could potentially collaborate, and show our work together. This was an added delight, as we share a passion for colour and narrative, the domestic and surreal combined.
We met and looked at exhibitions and forged a valuable exchange. I’d like to write about this more, but for now, here is one of her paintings from the show. We encouraged each other’s image text tendencies.
To co ordinate with the exhibition I again called upon the book producing genius of the Henningham Family Press. They devised a beautiful new binding for a book of the Emily Dickinson collages.
I tried to write an introduction to the work, but ended up writing a little poem instead, which felt less cumbersome.
To accompany the collages I picked out a handful of Dickinson’s poems, a few old favourites and some more obscure ones.
It was fun to choose poems that showed her wit and her visual acuity, her skill in collaging language, her games of scale.
E.g. one starting:
‘I’ll tell you how the Sun rose –
A Ribbon at a time – ‘
And another that begins:
‘The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants – ‘
which made Gigi and I laugh our heads off when we met to compare art notes in my kitchen.
Update: unfortunately the book is no longer available, as it sold out.
Each copy contains 28 collages impeccably reproduced at actual size, my poem and ten by Emily Dickinson.
Each book is cleverly hand-bound to allow for two different sized pamphlets in one set of covers, reflecting our two voices.
Henningham Family Press will be showing the book, amongst many others of their inventive works, at FREE VERSE: The Poetry Book Fair on September 30th. I will be reading along with David Henningham – times to be confirmed.
It’s a great event in any case, for anyone interested in poetry, and the variety of publications being made by presses on every scale. Take cash and be prepared to wave goodbye to it.
And if you too get stuck indoors – solidarity. All I can say is – poetry can sometimes unstick a person with its odd letter shaped keys!
And happy National Poetry Day on September 28th, for which the theme, as I’ve said before, and cut out of black paper and white… is Freedom.
*My son now has the offer of a college place where his independence can be fostered and encouraged, so less stuckness for all of us hopefully.
Finishing projects is nearly as hard as starting them. This current one is one I’ll be sad to see the back of. I’m in the grip of editing the book I’ve been gathering firewood and acorns for since last July, sifting through about a hundred stories collected from members of the public around Corby in the East Midlands.
Stories about nature and what happens in the local woodlands, what thoughts and feelings lurk amongst the oaks and hawthorns.
As a born and bred inner city Londoner, I’ve found the residency with Fermynwoods Contemporary Art a thrill and a revelation. I’ve spent many, many days alone in the forest, where the arts organisation have a little house that visiting artists can stay in for the duration of their research. In order to write the poems that are going to be at the core of the book, nestling in their own section between the inky stories, I gave myself an agenda: to get properly lost. Witness my unsuitable shoes and handbag.
This was easy really, as I have a very poor sense of direction and there is no signal there for map apps to work! I am not a camper or scout and can barely tell the time, let alone use a compass. The woods in the area are vast.
Arriving lateish one evening, I’d stopped at the coop in Brigstock, the nearest village, before driving the slow two and a half miles up the rough track to the cottage, and bought supplies, including a piece of ‘stickered’ meat that needed urgent cooking. Next morning I put it in a very low oven with apples from the trees and a load of onions, spuds, garlic and woody herbs. I’ll go out and get lost, I said to myself. When I find this place again, that will be delicious!
I walked all over England: to Lyveden New Bield and Fermynwoods Country Park (again and again) and looped through a million trees, trying to learn their names and admiring their astonishing variety, was startled by sudden birds and laughed at my default veering towards the sound of traffic. Occasionally I’d stop and write in my notebook, or record sounds and observations on my phone. Lost though? Certainly! For hours, for all time…
Eventually I saw a young man in a Forestry Commission shirt, Hurray! A fellow human! I greeted him to his alarm. We had a chat, reluctantly he let me see the beautiful buck he’d just despatched as part of his daily rounds, (you wont like it…) then he picked up a twig and traced me a top quality short cut through the forest on the ordnance survey map I’d been carrying, hitherto pointlessly.
I’ve learnt to really love the trees, but people, well – they’re the cats pyjamas!
I will post more details nearer the time – but there will be a launch party in the woods in Corby on May 2nd, with mushroom soup and nettle pie, drawings hanging in the trees, a chance to hear the poems, and, touchwood-tree of knowledge, a finished book.
Thank you to Gemma Seltzer, for inviting me to jump aboard this ink stained tour bus and spill some beans about projects and process.
This tour is easy to catch: if you paste the title of this post into a search engine, all kinds of writing carriage operators will fall into line and chug you through their notebook strewn scenery.
I also get to invite some people whose ideas I find interesting, to answer the same four questions the following week. You’ll find them at the end of my post. I have a call out to some other writers – watch this space, in case another writing process revealer gets back to me…
I first came across Gemma Seltzer’s name when her book Speak to Strangers (Penned in the Margins, 2011) was being excitedly passed around a pub table one Wednesday night after poetry class. Like everything I’ve seen by her since, this work spins out from a strong concept – and connects in a deeply human way, encompassing deft scale changes (vast cityscape, close up on shiny hair…) She is brilliant at using live interaction, feeding off the energy of conversation, chance, urban buzz; and pulling this into crisp vignettes that are perfect containers to be contemplated calmly in the silent hum of reading later.
Gain clues about how she manages this: her answers to the writing process blog tour are here:
I like a few projects on the go, then when I get stuck with one I can give it a break from my gaze, in the hope that on my return both me and it will be refreshed and ready for the next grapple, or possibly: clarity. Work has the chance to move on when you stop hassling it.
At the moment:
1. I’m writing a series of dramatic monologues in a phonetic and exaggerated German accent, all from the point of view of a female immigrant to London in 1938, I’m up to twenty two poems – I’m aiming to stop at 26, as I have it on good authority that 26 is where it’s at.
Vot a Vurlt! Zo much to zay! Oont zo hentdy to hef ziss borrote pairzonellity to heit behinte!
2. The Edible Garden/project Phakama
I am part of a team working with an old peoples home in Deptford. Together with musicians, a dancer, student performers and a chef, we are creating a performance based on the stories we find there: I’m writing lyrics with the residents: we will cook up a home made musical and lunch!
3. With a group led by Chris McCabe at the Poetry School, I’ve spent a year of Thursday evenings reading and writing in response to James Joyce’s Ulysses.
We’ll perform a version of our writings on Bloomsday/June 16th, so reworking and learning content by heart, listening to ideas from each other and theatre director Matthew Lloyd, is a rich process of transforming raw poems into living, breathing 3D.
Studio based projects include collaborating on a poetic artist’s book, and four portrait painting commissions. These are in my twin universe of paint, colour, mark.
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
Oh how delicious is the word genre! I like it its r at the end specially, and will roll that ‘r’ with bravura, whilst eating grilled fromage du chevre, beneath my candelabra latre, mon frere.
If my main genre in writing terms is poetry: then I’d like to think I differ just by coming from the particular angle I come from: visual arts, playfulness, spontaneity. My content which is often about the dark in the domestic – and the tightrope I like to hang out on: suspended between humour and gloom. I love a combination of apparent ease and lightness with a core of shocking nerve-blasting truth, and a European sense of the all pervasive absurd. Poems as scale-changing, logic-fighting, anti-naturalistic word towers. Poets, artists and filmmakers I admire tend to pull these breath-taking stunts – refreshing the world with their own flavour of unblinking stare, I don’t care if it’s deadpan or flouncy!!!! I’d list them, but lists always leave people out, so I will resist. Let’s discuss influences another day.
Why do I write what I do?
Because I have a short attention span/no time, and like to get out into the metaphorical landscape in little bursts on wordy skates?
Also, it’s personal: One of my kids is autistic and learning disabled. Raising him has made communication into a religion for me, and expression seem urgent, as I have been squished into a carer’s biscuit tin for a long time, and now I need to let myself and my ideas get freshly aired.
The oppressiveness of his rigidities has had a paradoxical effect of freeing me to say whatever the hell I want! Good poetry and painting operate a similar magic, for me anyway: parades of images/metaphors, a palette of observation and emotion, integrity in putting whatever colours can be scraped together into a work that flashes reflected light on human experience, that kind of thing.
I’ve also found new comradeship in a section of the poetry world, people here seem to enjoy intensity and awkwardness: marvellous!
How does my writing process work?
I get out my notebook, (on a bus, a train, in bed, in the pub, in the café, at the kitchen table, up the Glass Mountain, beyond thrice kingdoms thrice removed) and I write.
I do like an easy flowing ink pen (type: lamy, cartridge colour: black, ) and an unlined notebook (Rymans A5 sketchbook with an elastic pinger to close it) I write and draw and do not censor myself. I write all the time, except when I have to be doing other stuff, making money or dinner. Sometimes the thoughts or games turn into poems. At the end of each notebook (a sad feeling, they become such friends) I go through, find all the things that might be poems, type them up onto the computer, title and save them. Later I go back, look again – either work on them a bit, or a lot, or delete the little buggers. I value dreams, listening, and letting things turn up. I have great faith in my unconscious, having worked with it for years. Planning I find impossible. I’m not organised. Though like all ‘makers’ I find restraints liberating, eg oulipian rules, a limited palette, an exercise suggested. I have attended some brilliant classes, which have helped me to steer through my own material and Poetry at large. Although my general chaos makes finding things tricky, it also keeps ideas churning in an alive way. For me, ideas come and go quite easily. Reading poetry aloud (other peoples’ as well as mine of course) really helps. Language: like nature and one’s own flesh, there it is – every day, for us to inhabit how we choose. It’s a cure for practically anything. Practicality even!
My castaways next week are:
poet and playwright Shazea Quraishi: whose pamphlet: The Courtesan’s Reply was a lucky find for me in my local bookshop. The poems are taut, erotic and wise, and have been built as responses to a Sanskrit text written in 300 BC in which the courtesans glimpsed have been reimagined, and given their own voices. I will be interested to read about how Shazea has discovered and connected to these characters via her writing process. http://shazea.wordpress.com/
and poet and editor Amy Key: Her sparkling debut poetry collection Luxe was published by Salt in November 2013. With the poet Nia Davies, she co-edits the online journal Poems in Which and is currently editing a new anthology of poems on friendship among women Best Friends Forever, due to be published by The Emma Press late 2014. http://amyvkey.com/
Confirmation of my last invited tourer: Paul Stephenson. All the poems I’ve read by him are wonderful. Others agree and he’s won a raft of prizes. He lives in Paris currently and has that European thing I mentioned, a zest for experiment, which combined with his humour makes for exciting poetry. Find out more about him and look out for his responses to the four questions on his blog over the coming weeks. http://paulstephensonpoet.wordpress.com/about/