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

Drawing Challenges

Last week I was the other side of the zoom screen as a student at The Royal Drawing School, as opposed to teaching there as I usually do.

I’ve always dreamed of making a graphic novel ever since I first read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. And who better to learn from than my lovely friend and teaching colleague, the prize winning writer/drawer Emily Haworth Booth? When she tipped me off that there were places available on her summer school, I dropped everything and signed up!

The last bunch of captions added to a four panel ‘this morning’ prompt

We began by drawing four panels about our mornings activities. We changed the sense of these by writing a series of alternative captions. A revelation. We also had chances to collaborate with another student and make a comic strip about how they’d ended up on the course. I was listened to and drawn by a young man called Tom – who’d captured me with psychic accuracy – taking a poetry book off a shelf. This is just one of the eight little pics he made.

On Tuesday we were able to draw from a model, the amazing Lidia. Emily had us draw without looking at the page, flip the pose onto our paper, draw poses from memory, all kinds of playful ideas and approaches.

Drawing Lidia with the paper covered up

The sensation of working from observation all day using an ordinary pencil was strangely Proustian – it scribbled me back to a time last century, when my ability to reproduce a complicated corridor full of plaster cast gods using line alone, was enough to earn me gratifying astonishment from the teacher-gods on my foundation course.

Lidia, modelling as woman in café

I’d practiced drawing continuously as a teenager, in the then flourishing local authority subsidised adult education classes of the late 70s. Life drawing evening classes were my self inflicted ritual transition to adulthood. The eventual realization that being able to describe in pencil the distance between a shoulder and a toe wasn’t actually a job, sunk me into a depression that put me off the HB line more than I knew. Then here was Emily, gaily suggesting that we drew familiar locations from life as we walked around our areas. Stopping and drawing the endless wheelie bins, hedges, kerbs and parked cars on scraps of paper, made me both swear and dream of moving house. But it was a good reminder as well as triggering! It made me think about the paths I’d taken, and how learning to draw really has served me quite well as the backbone to my strange career, even four decades on. Proper drawing can’t help but convey emotion – just the raw immediacy of hand to paper, applying different pressures, frustrations, textures, variety of line.

The next exercise showed us how to slow the reader right down by looking at some simple Jeffrey Brown comic images, choosing one & extending it across several panels.

Extending a moment over several panels to generate real time awkwardness and silence.

I loved doing this. This blue pencil and a spot of invention took the edge off my graphite pain.

By Wednesday we were looking intently at story structure, with Emily’s great selection of clips from rom coms and classic movies. We began work on our own stories, encouraged by sharing bits of them with fellow students in breakout rooms.

We were to think about a problem in our lives and consider the ups and downs of its narrative arc. The ‘problem’ I told my fellow student in our breakdown room more like, was about my son. He is not a problem, he is a beloved child, now aged 22. But learning to parent him when he has a range of disabilities under the general banner of learning difficulties and autism has been a major challenge. Raising him has shaped me, as a person and as an artist, but I doubted I’d get to a place where it would feel okay to write and share this story – yet I’ve always wanted to, partly in the hope that some of what we learnt along the way might be interesting and useful to other people who face similar situations.

Diagnostics
One or two of the many trials

By the time the week was over I was firmly into this project. I have been drawing panels ever since, and a book seems to be on its way. Hopefully it will find a publisher when the time comes, so I won’t put too much up here yet. I will leave you with my thanks for reading – and a wave from a puppet called Party Pig, who narrates much of what is to come.

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

What’s the difference between an Artist’s Residency and Social Isolation?

Newest painting, in which flowers multiply at a greater speed even than viral droplets.

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?

In a Casual Voice, a new COVID-19 related index card poem.

‘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.

A blizzard like this – from the COVID-19 series

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.

Amy with Anemones

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.

Freesias growing in profusion, previously only known to me as sparse treats in cellophane.

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.

Camellia scrunchies

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.

New painting: Museum of Mistakes and Ideas
Detail from: Museum of Mistakes and Ideas
Painting: Old Europe takes a walk in the New World

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.

Garnish calamities – from the COVID-19 series.

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 at the 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.

The final page in ‘Let’s Look at the Sky!’ By Marie Neurath, (1952)

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.

Velkom to Inklandt

On October 2nd, Short Books published Velkom to Inklandt, a seekventz of 30 poems I’ve written phonetically in the borrowed voice of my German Jewish grandmother, who came to live in London in 1938.

My grandparents were rescued by a scientist called A.V. Hill , instigator of the Council for Academic Refugees, which saved over 900 German Jewish scientists. (It still exists, I was touched to read with a wonderful poet and university lecturer from Baghdad, Nadia Fayidh Mohammed, who’d arrived here two years ago via the same organisation.)

I’ve changed/fictionalised all the family names throughout the poems. My late father, who saw the beginning of this project, felt reassured by this idea. This also freed me up to create a voice that could play with the facts and the character, and elasticate and blur the narratives around them.

It was a total bonus and surprise that Short Books wanted to publish this work, they have not published much poetry before and as they are a small company they need to be careful about what books they can take on. They have a great track record on biography and other practical books…

They came across the poems via my visual art – Aurea Carpenter, one of the partners, had followed her nose and eye to my studio, having liked some drawings I’d hung in the window of the LRB Book Shop last National Poetry Day.

She made her way to South London and I left her to rummage in the plan chest and browser while I made us lunch. What IS this? She asked, having found one of my enormous photocopied Inklisch poems draped over a canvas. I use the giant photocopies at readings so people can get the phonetics….

I explained and she said: Would you read it to me? Of course I refused. (Nonsenz Reeter! I LUFF reading zem! If ennyvun asks me to, reet zem I must!) Have you any more? Would you email some to me?

Aurea went off with a drawing about Balzac and screen prints for her daughter and niece… I emailed her a couple of Inklisch poems and she wrote back saying: our youngest employee, William, is the best at reading them aloud. That sounds like a nice place to work, I thought.

About a month later we arranged to meet again as Aurea needed a different screen print. We were chatting about books and suddenly she said: could WE publish your granny poems? Wow! Of course! I said. What pictures would you do to go with them? I became rather puritanical and replied: Well they’re already visual poems, they don’t need any pictures. She looked a bit disappointed but we soldiered through our cake. I saw that this was a rubbish answer, and offered an idea about using black and white pattern to accompany the poems based on the guinea fowl continental old lady clothes my great granny used to wear… like fabric swatches? asked Aurea, brightening a bit.

A couple of weeks later I went to see Rebecca Nicolson, the other half of Short Books. I showed her the things I’d been doing over the years and we talked business. She too rather insisted that the putative book should have pictures. I loved how she and Aurea had obviously conferred and got me in a pincer movement. When you decide how you’re going to illustrate it, just let us know, she smiled, firm but fair.

Luckily I awoke the next morning to a dream in which the words ‘cut out domestic objects’ were floating in large black cut out letters in front of me. ‘That’s it! I thought. No pictures of people, just hatstands and colanders: the stuff of an ordinary (displaced, European ) life in the London suburbs in the twentieth century.

I started by cutting out a bread basket and a loaf of rye bread.

Then I remembered some scratchy upholstered chairs and the standard lamp. I gradually got used to memorys half light, and cautiously wandered around that interior that had been so familiar to me as a child, amazed to notice the house plants, bedspreads, side tables… I could feel the breeze filling out the gauzy curtains as ghosts came and went, benign and oblivious. The picture below was my first attempt to catch this. Later I developed a version of how I imagined their former apartment in Berlin, in its just left emptiness.

We used that as sekschon header for Ze After Leif – (I always like the pun inherent in ‘curtains’.)

We all had to work as fast as possible to get the book out by this years National Poetry Day, so that we could harness that annual gust to push its small craft out from the harbour of obscurity!

My editor, William Pimlott, the one who’d been so good at reading the poems from the first email,  who is half my age and twice as clever, made several useful suggestions. He’s a Yiddish speaking gentile and knows a lot more about Jewishness than I do. We’d meet with Aurea and Rebecca and the designer Georgia Vaux, and have long but whizzy meetings to work out the title, the cover, typefaces, images. Here are some earlier versions!

I wrote some extra poems to help fill out some of the gaps in the story, enjoying a chance to meet with some less familiar cousins, who kindly shared their stories, again over pastries. Of course I’ve made free with these as well, and can only offer poppy seed apologies for what may seem to be frenkly, a Vepp off Lyze, in which something recognisable may lurk.

We tried to get the spelling consistent, and we argued over the order and what went into each Sekschon. It was an extremely fun and funny process.

Although I’ve been writing these poems for some years, only a few months have passed since Aurea first came round, and I am so surprised to see the book out, and already in Waterstones and Hatchards.

A proper hardback, set with crisp modernist type and my brand new papercuts, it’s a dream: bringing my modest and determinedly ordinary grandmother back to the city we loved and shared.

The Sunday following the books publication I was delighted to get this lovely review in The Observer.

Come and hear some of the poems, and celebrate with me on November 15th at The Poetry Café 7pm with a reading at 8pm.

Why it was helpful to paint their coffins!

Coffin painting – an inspiring story

 

This link is to a guest blog post I wrote for Claire Turnham, the funeral director who took on my dad’s funeral in the spring. If you want to find out more about alternative and holistic approaches to death and dying, she is one of the good hearted pioneers. I’m posting it here with a few extra pictures, today on dad’s birthday. I’m so glad he was with us to celebrate his 90th at The Poetry Cafe last year with cake and singing.

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me and dad po caf