I’d been looking forward to a recap and recce back in Berkeley for some weeks in February and March. Peleh Residency manager and fellow writer Dan Schifrin and I had been talking about a possible book collaboration over the years since I left mid pandemic in 2020. Sadly the visit has proved impossible – so I am still in Inklandt. It is challenging to progress this book idea at a distance – but a lot of what we are addressing in the book is challenging, so this not-visit may end up being useful material.
When it comes to Esthers I have done okay with the queenly variety, as a new deck of playing cards by four women artists including me, that tell her story, is now available from publishers Print-o-Craft in Philadelphia.
Esther is one of the only putative female writers of the bible – and her book famously doesn’t mention god. It’s mostly about power, sex, and parties, with quite a lot of slaughter thrown in. The festival of Purim which commemorates her story, is all about chance and reversals of fortune. It’s the season, beginning now, where the commandment is to get drunk and party till you don’t know good from bad, or right from wrong.
This project was initiated by artist Jacqueline Nicholls in conversation with Shaul Bassi of Beit Venezia – it was originally going to involve us all traveling to Venice to work together on setting the story in that city: HQ of dressing up and casinos.
But covid struck – so as in the opening story – we convened online. We inhabited a virtual Venice and began thinking about the story and how to picture it afresh. Making a deck of cards seemed a great match for the content, tied as cards are, to gambling and chance.
We each had our own suit, I was allocated hearts – which represents the first section of the story, where we first meet the characters. Over zoom we made close readings of the text, sometimes joined by invited scholars, who shed new light on aspects of Venice or the text/context. Our uniting constraint was to make the artwork A4 portrait format and limit our palette to black and red. Like all my experiences of working with Jacqueline, there was a lot of learning and a lot of fun.
Mirta Kupferminc painted the clubs, Tilla Crowne was on diamonds – and Jacqueline dealt herself the spades. We launched the deck at JW3 where you can see the exhibition of giant cards in the foyer and shuffle over and purchase your own deck. Happy Purim – here’s my brand new poem to help celebrate the festival.
May you wash it down with pastries & whatever hard liquor you favour. Tea I recommend.
If you are also trapped in London this spring, why not exacerbate that feeling by coming to an IRL poetry reading? Next Sunday – March 5th I’ll be reading a good handful of poems at Jewish Book Week. As will Jill Abram & Adam Kammerling. We are part of an afternoon of free literary events being hosted by Tsitsit Fringe. Our section starts at 3pm.
Then back in the south at Chener Books, one of my favourite local bookshops, I’ll be at the launch of brand new anthology called LivingWith Other People. It’s edited by three women poets who go under the banner Corrupted Poetry – I wrote about it in the previous post. I am one of several of the contributors who will be reading – on the spring equinox – March 21st.
Also big book news for March – Sally Pomme Clayton and I are getting very excited about The Mighty Goddess, our new collaboration and our fifth book together, the first one for adults. We look forward to launching it later in the spring. Pomme has written 52 diverse and fascinating myths that she’s gathered over many years of storytelling and research – I have snipped 52 original paper cuts. More details to follow – but meanwhile here are some snowdrops from the book – for Brigid – as it is the season. If you’d like us to do a performance/reading/ in conversation – invitations and suggestions of dates and venues are most welcome.
And may your path be all shades of daff and primrose as we move into the longer days at last.
I’m charmed by a new book that recently arrived in the post: The Camden Town Hoard is a catalogue of detritus that’s been given a new spin.
It’s creator and curator, Natalia Zagorska-Thomas, has published, with the consistently fabulous small press C B Editions, a collection of images of incomprehensible objects dredged from the Grand Union Canal as it galumphs through Camden, and beside each one is a learned label, elucidating the object. Natalia invited a group of writers to choose an object to write about. I was late to the party, as I had been too deadline-hectic to notice the project’s beginnings. But she kindly roped me in and sent me a picture of this horrible thing.
I didn’t write and I didn’t write. But after some nudging from Natalia, I pulled myself together and wrote something, (which of course I really enjoyed, just like making myself go for a walk) despite my initial blood-out-of -a-stone resistance. It’s lovely to be asked. I expect all these weird lumps and barnacled pipelets are metaphorical portraits of the people whose words accompany them. There are some spectacular writers being inventive in here, and the book is a tenner.
I have also been savouring a new anthology: Living With Other People , (another tenner well spent) edited by a small team of poets under the banner Corrupted Poetry. They are Fiona Larkin, Nic Stringer and Michelle Penn. This book modestly contains no poetry by them, but pulls together a kind of gritty survey with work by so many poets I admire, and interwoven with original drawings and other visual experiments by people (like me) who are not pure advocates of one medium only.
I have two quite personal, and very slowly written, poems in the book: ‘Cold Buffet’, marks an abrubtly ended friendship, and ‘Some Mirrors Held up to the Child’ is a poem I’ve worked on on and off for about 15 years, a kind of cubist portrait of my autistic/learning disabled son, made of language used by him, by us his family, and by many of the professionals that step in and out of our lives: culled from reports from teachers, occupational therapists, psychologists. I am grateful to be cushioned by a chorus of other voices who hit different notes and angles on the pain and delight that come from living with other people! Look out for a launch in London in mid March where some of the featured poets (including me) will be reading.
Two more by me in the latest edition of Cyphers – a long established literary journal based in Ireland. The underlying theme for this issue was ‘heritage’. One of my poems is a prose poem called South London Jew, and the other contains a story. SeekingArtemisia recounts an interail pilgrimage I made in my art school twenties, to see the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi. Both poems put a solitary woman in a world that might or might not be her own and leave her there. Cyphers is a beautiful magazine and its editor, legend Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, was part of the original group that set it up in 1975. It was exciting to connect with some brilliant Irish poets at Belfast Book Festival last summer, and this feels like a nice way to continue that conversation.
Huge thanks to all the editors mentioned, for giving me the opportunities to get my work into the world. Thanks too, for reading my blog – about which please read on! It has now mostly migrated to its own page on my evolving new website.
Because of my work spiralling off in so many media I have tried to limit the section headers – I resist putting different strands of my practice in separate categories, everything is just ‘the work’.
The website design is being ingeniously devised by artist Joe Bradley Hill who has done a revolutionary job of helping me get organised and sort out my long built up layers of studio activity – do take a look: new website in progress – sign up for the newsletter, and have a rummage. Many pages are still empty or in their early stages – but if you do go to the embryonic poetry page & click on the word INDEX – at least you’ll find a brand new prophesy at the top to add its seasoning to your day. (If you don’t like the first one, click refresh!)
Over 2022 I was back on the live story collecting and drawing road, taking my ink and brushes both round the corner in south London – and all over the UK.
To recap: this process is one I’ve written about before. It usually involves me sitting with a person and having a conversation, often on a theme, (like food) which I then draw and write live in front of them, using ink and brush and a distilled selection of their own words. Each narrator gets a copy of their story to keep, either on the day if we have a helper and access to an A3 copier, or later, by post.
Early in the year I worked with a group of women from across the African diaspora, who are meeting to cook together and share stories with Brixton chef and teacher Marie Mingle, and doctoral researcher Natasha Dyer. We spent a day in Marie’s kitchen, and as well as doing one to one story drawing, I was invited to cook and eat with the group. I learned about some fantastic spice mixtures and recipes, as well as hearing of many tough situations that the women I met are dealing with, both here and back home. The food and company were delicious, also, bittersweet. I took home a jar of Marie’s green sauce which gives everything a lift.
Still in London and still with the African diaspora, the people at UK book HQ – ie The British Library, are in the middle of a major project to connect their Sound Archive back with some of the communities the recordings represent. Chandan Mahal and Emma Brinkhurst from the BL team got in touch to see if I could do some listening with a group of Somali Londoners, together with Mancunian East African poet, Elmi, and a bunch of recordings from the 1980s – collected by ethnomusicologist John Low.
To begin with, we all listened to the magnificent voice and music of iconic Somali singer Maryam Mursal . I drew her from a video clip and wrote down some of what she said, as well as what was said about her, by the people gathered for the session. Over subsequent weeks we listened together to lullabies, house building songs, herding songs and other examples of Somali music.
A high spot for me was listening to the women sing and ululate live in the room where we gathered. Their voices animated the air – a spell to mend post-lockdown hearts.
As a thank you to the group and for continuity, the library produced this booklet based on the project, with pictures by me, a new poem by Elmi – many quotations and insights from the participants and a QR link to the music recordings. I think you can request one from the British Library as they have a few.
In September, I travelled to Glasgow, where the university, along with those of St Andrew’s and Edinburgh, is working with a newly set up body called the Scottish Council on Global Affairs. The SCGA has been set up to ‘deepen the debate’ around migration and citizenship, amongst other things. I was very proud to participate in such conversations, invited by two enterprising doctors of History: Rachel Chin and Sarah Dunstan. There were speakers from the worlds of law, local and international politics, grassroots migrant organisations – and many practical and potent ideas were expressed to challenge ongoing Brexit rhetoric.
After the talks I listened to and drew stories from some of the participants. Every story was a glimpse into the hidden worlds we all carry, of family, memory, home.
I heard more treasures of inherited language at a recent gig at JW3 . As the event was to thank people who had supported the charity – I was asking narrators to tell me stories of things they’d been given, or learned from their parents, or things they would hope to pass on… Debby’s rather roguish dad had a family whistle, her mother: a Yiddish lullaby.
Marcel didn’t know his parents, but became surprisingly conversant with the glamour of the Folies Bergère, aged four. He still speaks, with an almost indiscernible French accent, and great pride, of his astonishing rescuers.
Here are a couple more stories from London Jews: I heard these in the summer and include them here for their thematic resonance. Language: lost and found.
On another type of story jaunt – project Phakama was participating in a brand new festival in Brighton, and so myself and fellow associate artist (and dear pal) Charlie Folorunsho headed to Wildfest, in glorious Stanmer Park.
Charlie and I were trying out an IRL version of a project initiated by him, with support from a Phakama Digital bursary in 2021. Called The LORE, which stands for Language Of Resilient Expression, it started online as part of an artistic response to the pandemic. We’ve been joint facilitators: getting together with small groups of people online, sharing stories of the ways we have managed to cope and keep going through the challenge of covid and austerity and difficulties with health. This was our first go at presenting the workshop face to face. People came and practiced listening to and drawing each other’s stories. Charlie asked participants to reinvent the LORE, and try alternative R words that might help us survive – we heard ‘revolutionary’, ‘rebellious,’ ‘resourceful’ – please add your own, however ‘regrettable’ & join us. We hope to make a book of the LORE one day, in which we collate all we have heard and drawn from and with participants. A kind of survival kit.
Her talk followed a guided meditation to begin the event in calm, led by poet Ros Goddard.
Jacqueline gave an inspiring talk on rhyme, which she packed with dazzling examples from some of her favourite poems. I drew what I could catch – trying not to get so absorbed that I forgot to move my brush across the paper.
Jacqueline’s talk was followed by a presentation from Debris Stevenson who got us all to shake, and talked about what had provoked her towards her path of poetry and performance.
The last speaker was current TS Eliot prize shortlistee Victoria Adukwei Bulley who gave a talk on the practicalities of getting funded to make work, and showed us clips from her fascinating film, Mother Tongue, which explores language in exile and the poetry born from and inherent in that. Notice a theme?
There was a great buffet lunch and a fallow period to follow, in which I ran a kind of rolling collage studio – and also read peoples’ fortunes from INDEX.
The last part of the day heralded the grand announcements of who had won this years Women Poets’ Prize. There were three winners chosen from a shortlist of thirty. You can read more about the judges, all the poets and their brilliant work, on the Rebecca Swift Foundation website, as well as on social media.
The huge and ancient wood-beamed hall fell silent. Intimate worlds were spilled by the poets into the room from the stage and even from the video screens. Suddenly after all the busy whir of chat, meeting friends and jotting down ideas, we were in a different space. A mirror to the morning meditation we’d begun with – a contemplative zone.
I had made over 35 drawings, and was pleased to see that many of the assembled poets had also made fabulous collage poems and zines in my portable studio. It was a truly creative day.
Huge thanks to all those who have shared stories with me, and all those who have found the imagination, space and funding to commission me to do this ongoing work which means so much to me.
And of course, thanks for reading my blog. Wishing you peace and poetry in 2023.
Besides a lot of scooting about lately, and the heat, I’ve been staying grounded with some focused paper-cutting in the cool vaults of mythology.
I’ve been laying into sheets of black paper with scissors and scalpel, and summoning a great variety of goddesses, and their assorted props and consorts for the next book. The Mighty Goddess – a collection of 52 myths and stories for adults, gathered over many years with intrepid care and respect, and written in her own inimitable style by old friend and collaborator Pomme Clayton. This is to be published next spring by The History Press. We raised extra funds to create the book via our Kickstarter campaign. Thanks to all who supported that.
Some of the stories are very familiar to me. Pomme and I have had four of our children’s fairy tale and myth collections published over the years. I’ve painted Durga, Ama Terasu, Demeter… Our first book together: Tales of Amazing Maidens, came out with Orchard Books in 1995. It featured Inuit goddess Sedna on the front cover. So I enjoyed revisiting her (as an Arctic elder must inevitably also do – or she will be in discomfort under the sea with her tangled hair. ) Richard Price has dived into this material too, in his beautiful collection The Owner of the Sea. Sedna provides fish and poetic inspiration in equal measure.
As with previous projects, like INDEX, & 60 Lovers to Make and Do, I have branched out from using only plain papers, to finding tone and texture in old black and white photographic images, which I use as collage material.
I like the playfulness of scale between the objects in the photographs (spoons, cakes, shrubs) and the grandeur of a deity – a being so large it cannot be seen or comprehended, let alone fit on a page.
Then again – some goddesses are known through their small scale manifestations, St Bridget is in the snowdrops, Persephone sparkles on in every pomegranate seed –
Other stories were familiar in another way: Artemis/Diana the huntress, turning Actaeon into a stag for spying on her naked beauty as she bathed… I remember copying Titian’s version of this, that hangs here in London at the National Gallery.
We Camberwell foundation students of 1982 were each set a painting to study as an exercise in composition. We were instructed to make three versions: reducing it further in each incarnation – eventually making it into a 3 colour abstraction. I recall that laborious absorbing afternoon.
I returned to Titian for help with my papercut, loving how he caught Actaeon’s bodily astonishment at the moment of transformation.
There’s another Artemis story in the book too – of the young girls apprenticed to the goddess – who dressed as bears to play hunting games in the forest.
Other stories were a total revelation. The violence and incest, sex and torment in many of the tales – from Māori creation myth to ancient Egypt. Stories to make even the most jaded Twitter user gasp.
I felt nervous about making images of Isis and Sekhmet, partly because I so love and admire Egyptian art – and did not feel I could add anything to the perfect depictions we know so well from the tombs and the looted beauties I grew up staring at in the British Museum. Of course that made snipping these goddesses and their head dresses all the more exciting in the end. ‘Only do something that you know you CANNOT do’ – as I’m fond of telling my students.
Reading and rereading these ancient myths was a balm in these times. These stories remind us of our own impermanence and solidity at the same time, always useful. Thank Goddess for the power of imagination.
Those bad lilies sure got a nose for a poem. One they published last summer in their second issue: Pollen, by the amazing Clare Pollard has been nominated for best single flower in the Forward Prizes.
Congrats to the wondrous Chrissy Williams too, poet and editor of online journal Perverse. Two poems first published there have made the same auspicious list – one by Louisa Campbell and one by Cecelia Knapp. No shortage of goddesses in this post as it turns out.
And nobody creates new work entirely alone. We only get good by reading/looking/listening to/rubbing shoulders with other people who read and make, so this goes out to all those who aren’t on a shortlist either… and who are slogging away anyway! May Lakshmi’s elephants cool you & may Athena’s owl toot wisdom instead of war!
Here is a non prize winning wasp poem I made from phrases clipped from a child’s encyclopaedia I found on a wall near my house. I made it for my poet friend Alison Winch who inspired me with her wasp poems. They’re not published yet, but watch out! Thanks for reading my blog & strength to all creative resisters in the long hot jam of now.
Like a lot of Londoners of my era, all I knew of Northern Ireland was from the relentless news of the Troubles throughout my youth. Luckily I’d met people from there over the years who’d also shaped my imaginings. It was the good influence of one of them, the painter Patricia Doherty, that made me extra curious to go and visit the city that had produced my funny and talented friend. So it was great to be invited to read and run a workshop as one of several poets at the book festival this June.
I arrived the day before I was due to read, and was taken aback to find that the hotel room I’d been booked into was painted dark grey. Comfy & all, but like, almost black.
I walked into town & bought myself peonies and a scroll of Chinese paper and when I got back made the first of two backdrops, ostensibly for the reading, as I like to have something painted in a room, but also to vanquish the gloom. I was glad to find an amazing bookshop run for Self Help Africa and relieve them of some old volumes that got pressed into action at my workshop as well as in my emergency backdrops.
The first event I went to was that night, about Belfast poet, the late Padraic Fiacc. Poets Tara McEvoy and Joelle Taylor were there to read some of his work and lead a discussion of it – following a screening of a grainy and great 1970s German documentary about him, unearthed by the festivals intrepid poetry curator Natasha Cuddington. It was a revelation to hear him and his powerful writing of conflict, inner and outer. Many people in the audience had known him and were engaged with his work. He’d read and anthologised poetry across the sectarian divide, and often feared for his life in doing so, but made it to 94 in the end.
The next day Christodoulos Makris arrived and we got talking about our shared reading which was to be hosted by Natasha that night. I attended Christodoulos’ workshop in the afternoon, where we constructed poems from that days newspaper, before rushing back and making another emergency backdrop, & changing into my poetry dress for the evening.
Both Christodoulos and myself invited the audience to read poems with us at points during the evening, which was fun. We talked about instinct and spontaneity and some of the poetry projects we have been working on. I read some fortunes from INDEX as well as other poems and Christodoulos read from his book this is no longer entertainment (a total must-read) as well as his collaboration with the brilliant Kimberley Campanello – an online work called sorry that you were not moved.
We spoke of poet Tom Jenks of course, bold publisher of poetry objects by Christodoulos, Kimberley and myself amongst many others, with his press zimZalla. It was so enlivening to be live with a live audience.
After we’d recovered with a large dinner at The Woodworkers – I wandered back to the hotel and was spared immediate re entombment in the charcoal interior by friendly shouts from the pavement.
Joelle Taylor and Cathy Rentzenbrink – both amazing people, writers and festival headliners, were having a chat at the outdoor tables in the balmy Belfast night & invited me to join them. I read their cards from INDEX (‘spookily accurate!’ said Joelle) and we had a wonderful conversation.
There were still ace chats to come. Gail McConnell & Julie Morrissy read at a hybrid event the next night, Gail in person – Julie by zoom from the USA. Natasha again asking the questions.
Gail’s book: The Sun is Open is a moving, questioning, elegiac work – using archive material from her father’s life. It’s incredible, and currently a fiver in the Penned in the Margins July sale!
I don’t know Julie’s work yet, it sounds powerful, connecting the threads of close family with political histories via feminism. I liked drawing both of them in my notebook.
Back at the Woodworkers there was more illuminating chat, I sensed a very alive poetry community in Belfast, the layering of centuries of Irish and English, not just as languages. It was refreshing to be far from home and find people arguing, laughing and sharing poetry as a home.
A bunch of excellent women turned up to my own workshop session. I tipped my cornucopia of scraps onto the table – and the room hummed with industry, as book manufacture took hold of those who love to rummage, snip & glue.
The collage game in Belfast is strong, and I’m glad to say I found a willing recipient of my scrap bag – which saved me lugging it to my next destination.
Poet Bebe Ashley had a residency at the festival, with a 3D printer, with which she was recycling plastic food packaging into braille poetry. Here she is with her poem Tom Daley dives for David Hockney and David Hockney paints Tom Daley.
I had a go at translating it just from its spacing and the colours used. If you’d like to try this – look carefully at the picture and try to read what you see! Bebe kindly let me take two of her little chips of braille – they spell the words alive and heartbeat and I keep them in my wallet.
In between readings and chats I walked in the city. Two favourite discoveries were the Botanic Gardens – very nearby, free and stunning, and independent bookshop No Alibis, where David the bookseller told me about his late friend, choreographer and dancer Helen Lewis, an extraordinary woman who survived Terezín and Auschwitz to pioneer modern dance in Belfast. She taught dance for years at the Crescent Arts Centre where the book festival was taking place. I was glad to read her memoir, A Time to Speak , a beautifully written book and more fuel for my Terezín project.
Thanks as ever for reading my blog. Thanks to Sophie Hayles, Natasha Cuddington and the whole team at Belfast Book Festival for their warm welcome and their tireless and good natured running of the many incredible events.
On 29th May it is being guest presented by the wonderful poet Fiona Benson, and I look forward to my poem being part of her selection, as well as hearing her poems, and others requested by listeners to the programme.
I’ll be there reading and discussing found text and experimental poetry construction with poet Christodoulos Makris – including some light prophesies from INDEX no doubt. You can read more about that event or book a ticket here. I’ll be running a collage-poetry workshop too on the Thursday.
I’d heard that my local cool literary rag had reviewed INDEX, but only got my hands on last autumns copy of Brixton Review of Books the other day at Lambeth Readers & Writers Festival zine fair. A relief to see it was pretty favourable. Thanks to the mysterious PJ Carnehan, nice work making a new three line poem and following the instructions!
I had a great day at the zine fair reading the poetry fortunes of fellow subversive citizens in our main library. Here is Pat who was quite freaked out by the accuracy of the card she picked for her day. She had just come back from Jamaica and said the first line was very relevant.
There were lots of people who’d made comics, books and zines and what’s more the big hall we all sat in was full of brilliant paintings & prints by friend & neighbour artist Martin Grover. A day full of ideas and exchanges. Fun to hang out at the table with Tamar Yoseloff too, who was selling her latest Hercules Editions chap books, two beauties by Costa winner Hannah Lowe.
Meanwhile, most of this month and definitely next, I am cutting out images for a new book project. A collaboration with storyteller, writer and friend Sally Pomme Clayton it is a collection of amazing goddess stories from everywhere, that has taken Pomme years to research and write. TheMighty Goddess is for an adult audience and honours divine female power in all its glory. Here is work in progress building up on the studio floor. The book will be published by the History Press next spring.
Yesterday I enjoyed making a set for a Sally Pomme & I to perform some storytelling and poetry – which we are doing together over zoom tomorrow – it’s for a birthday treat for a generous friend/supporter in the USA. She pledged for this on our crowdfunding campaign for The Mighty Goddess, so we have devised a brand new show, which we hope may reach wider audiences one day. Here’s me in front of the set, photo by the talented Joe Hill, who helped me change the room and its fireplace so radically!
As ever, thanks for reading, and hope to cross paths on the poetry road before long.
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.
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…
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!
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.
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:
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!
Today is the final day of a surreal and wonderful week in my life as an artist.
100 of my ink drawings are up at Tate Modern.
They are part of a residency/take over at Tate Exchange , a public engagement area set aside on level 5 of the Blavatnik building.
A selection of my project ‘Stories collected live in ink’ is there thanks to Wasafiri Magazine in which I’m featured artist this issue.
Wasafiri is a journal of international contemporary writing and is based at Queen Mary University London.
Queen Mary was offered the weeks residency to showcase some of the many cultural programmes that are based there.
This current issue of Wasafiri explores the theme of refuge, with essays, fiction and poetry from global voices on the subject. It’s been guest edited by Bidisha, and I was honoured to read at the launch at Tate on Friday, and participate in a panel with Bidisha and fellow poets Olumide Popoola and Lisa Luxx.
Part of the remit for artists taking part in activities at Tate is that we should do a 10 minute talk in front of a work we choose in the collection.
This really exercised me, so many incredible paintings that I love and grew up on. But for the sheer bravado of it I chose Interior Scroll by Carolee Schneemann
I also did a two hour story collecting session – which was a blast: intense yet joyful as ever.
One of the great thrills of this opportunity has been to put the voices of all kinds of people into a space where they might not normally be heard, and to create a new set of ‘neighbours’ in displaying the drawings made with people from Southall, Liverpool, Northamptonshire, Devon, Brixton, and many other places next to each other.
I chose these 100 stories from my big archive boxes in the studio in which I have about 1200 drawings collected over the last decade. I decided on home as my theme, so that I could include very ‘settled’ narrations as well as the sometimes difficult stories of people more recently arrived. I wanted to reflect the cosy ways in which we create home for ourselves even perhaps fleetingly, on the road, or the impossibility of that comfort sometimes in long term situations!
Above all I love the collective of recognition such an exhibition creates, I’ve been touched to see people look at the drawings and cry. And amazing feedback such as this!
These pictures are records of real subjective feeling, often described as metaphor or fact to me, who subjectively aims to honour and depict them. It’s all true! Subjectively true.
And of all the extraordinary twists: I find myself (like Marcia the security guard below, I never thought I would) ‘at home’ in Tate Modern!
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.