Poetry 101

I’m three quarters of the way through a really interesting and sustaining commission: The Poetry Foundation in Chicago have asked me to make a series of portraits of some of the most essential poets of the English language.

This is for their education resource called poetry 101, which is a web based series, consisting of a multi angled look at each poet, including a portrait, a critical essay, a sampling of poems, some analysis of their work and ideas about their context and influence.

The approach I’ve taken was partly provoked by the work being required to be landscape format, for masthead purposes. This meant that a head only drawing was never going to fit. This led me to thinking poetically around each poet! What might you see ‘with’ them? Not literally of course, but if they were to be accompanied by rhythmic echoes of who they were or are, their themes, colours, types of language, texture, imagery, tone/intonation…

Eg. background collage for Langston Hughes 

I began to experiment with two textures or types of drawing: the mainly naturalistic, painterly observed likeness – pitted against a more abstract collage technique in which a graphic approach could dominate, creating a tension like poetic or musical counterpoint.

For this I wanted to further emphasise the poets as language wielding icons, so I’ve been making them big initials to go each side of their heads, cutting the letter forms out of paper, card or cloth that seemed to me redolent of their own voices…

Martín Espada’s giant M & E cut from corrugated cardboard that I bashed & sullied with marks: to look like hoardings round a building site, or other semi industrial markers one might see and ignore walking round a city… this felt right in the context of his poetry which champions workers, particularly the often invisible immigrant worker. The ripped bits of newpaper, paper bags from corner shops and maps of New York outskirts augmented this urban, everyday aspect of Espada’s political poetry and human subject matter. He wasn’t a poet whose work I knew before I saw his name on the list, so I was glad to discover him. He has just been awarded the Ruth Lilly award for lifetime achievement in poetry.

I’ve always believed that drawing people is best done by meeting them, and with these subjects I meet them all first and mainly, in their poems. This project has been a great way to extend and challenge my reading. The act of imagination is helped by the reading, but it still doesn’t tell me how wide apart their eyes were, or demonstrate relationship of nose to mouth to chin. For that of course, I scrabble about in books and the internet – but then I try to imagine really meeting and talking with the person…

With Shakespeare and Dickinson, for whom there are such well known singular images, I was nervous, but it turned out that the familiarity of ‘listening’ to their poetry made them rather more willing to appear in the studio for ghost sittings!

img_9583

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.

img_8756

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:

 

img_9471

In portraying Sylvia Plath I wanted to capture her wit and colourful aliveness, and show it as being as essential a part of her as her famous destructiveness and depression: the combination having made her a poet of clout, fire, originality. I used these joyful colours in high contrast, as I find spookiness abounds in the extra bright, and I wanted to present her in the context of both the dream and the oppressiveness of a 1950s England and America, and how it must have been to be a woman in that. Anyway, she eluded me, and I respected her for it! It seems a bit hysterical, but the days I was trying to draw her were hard, I felt myself sliding on her thin ice, sometimes sinking, and I longed to get to the safer shores of some plodding old poet who did not negotiate such extremes. One thing I did find comforting was that I could summon Plath up in my city: I imagined her wandering along the Thames embankment arm in arm with Shakespeare, here’s a little joke I drew on that theme…

I was relieved to listen to the kind, flat tones of Chicago’s own Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize and a woman who did everything in her considerable power to encourage young people towards poetry. She just marched in and sat down in my messy studio with no fuss at all and smiled.

The portraits up online and not already linked to are in the list below.  I hope you find time to get to read and hear their different voices – it’s been an amazing whistle stop tour for me so far, and on and on I go – through more pastel dust and scrap bags, more mind blowing and interesting reading, more surprising knocks on the literal and metaphorical studio-library door!

Robert Frost

Audre Lorde

E. E. Cummings

Maya Angelou

Walt Whitman

Elizabeth Bishop

Juan Felipe Herrera

Muriel Rukeyser

With thanks to Cassie Mayer and Don Share at The Poetry Foundation, and also the 101 essay writers, particularly Benjamin Voigt, whose voices I also feel I’m getting to know!

Tate Modern

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!

Your Candle Accompanies the Sun

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.

The book is available at £20 from Henningham Family Press. 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.

residencies round up: last Arvon October

u

the hurst

Last autumn I was a guinea pig artist-in-residence for The Arvon Foundation  at their Shropshire centre, The Hurst.

The brief was for me to spend a week in The Clockhouse, neighbour building to John Osborne’s grand and gothic former home The Hurst, and make visual art in response to the place, as well as on any themes I was preoccupied with already.

I was invited because Arvon, working with Jo King at Ludlow Open, was looking for an artist for whom image and text are inextricably intertwined. With the Arvon Foundations expertise at generating all kinds of text, with their incredible year round programme of writers and courses, it was felt that fostering visual art alongside could build in yet more inspiration.

Part of the arrangement was that I’d donate a piece from what I made, which could then contribute to the development of a contemporary art collection for the house.

It was bliss to stay at the newly refurbished Clockhouse, which is run as an untutored retreat space, with four tranquil apartments, and homecooked meals in one-person sized portions to heat up on whim.

It happened that three Ukrainian writers: Halyna Shyyan, Volodymyr Rafieienko and Lyubko Deresh were my excellent housemates, over at the invitation of the British Council and Writing West Midlands. Having already toured and read in Birmingham, they were on the second, ‘now you have time to write stuff’ leg of their tour.

We shared the big kitchen and sitting room for breaks, and traded ideas about poetry, vegetable preparation and the world. Halya’s English was brilliant and we worked on translating a piece of her punky writing together, which we then read from in turn at a presentation later in the week.

I covered my nice carpet and desk with dust-sheets in case of paint, and made the study into a studio. I walked in the redwoods and got lost in the enveloping fern/oak/cloudscapes of the Shropshire Hills. Away from domestics, my mind flickered over into making things mode. Into the emptiness jumped my dead parents, as well as all my living relationships. There’s nothing quite as welcome: engulfing, freaky, disorientating – as some peaceful, paid for nothing.

shropshire hills

studio desk at the Clockhouse

dead bloom everywhere

never get a job

Getting lost in those luminous hills set me off too, and I have yet to edit the small clutch of poems it inspired, especially as in visual artist capacity I was trying to steer my imagination mainly into paint.

Here’s a chat that I couldn’t resist documenting though,  in both types of inky line: me trying to encourage Lyubko to set foot outside, though I knew I’d only seen him in dainty fawn loafers…

Lyubko and the London Boots

At The Hurst next door a group of 16 writers were hard at creating Young Adult fiction. We ate with them and their tutors a couple of the nights, an entertaining bunch. It was interesting to listen to talk of plotting, pace and character, the practicalities of narrative… how they were (and weren’t) progressing.

After myself and the Ukrainian writers had given our talk/readings on the Thursday evening, introduced by Natasha Carlish, who runs the Hurst, it seemed a fun and connective addition to offer myself in story collecting capacity the next day, and collect ‘young adult/teenage stories’ from all who wished to share one.

I brought my ink and paper through on Friday, and lots of people came. One by one they told me about rites of passage: times of shame, triumph, love, discovery, rebellion – from their adolescent years. Jo though, the Arvon gardener, wanted to tell me a much younger formative story, (I grudgingly allowed this!) Having heard and drawn it, I too will go and pay my respects to the snakes first, whenever the chance arises.

Jo's Black MambaOf course I loved all the stories. Me and this Clapham Rachael laughed so much together I could hardly operate my brush.

Good, I’m glad I told you that, she said. I’m going to frame it and put it up in my loo.

tucked in kilt story

Most of the week I worked in ink or gouache, and on the Friday drew about twenty of these teenage stories, I collected some from myself too, as a friend helpfully suggested that for every twenty I hear I should draw at least three of my own!

french exchange

I particularly enjoyed Natasha’s swirling plumes of fuggy cafe steam. With my many stranded brush those flourishes pretty much draw themselves. It’s a great tool for corduroy trousers and heavy rain as well.

natashas patisserieIt was hard to tear myself away on the Friday, surely I will return! For now, I will let the chosen painting hover in Shropshire on my behalf, also feeling glad that the label (and the name) for the new enterprise of THursty home grown apple juice from the Hursts  orchards bears the stamp of my inky paw. Thanks to everyone at Arvon for really knowing how to look after people, and to Jo King and Natasha Carlish for giving me such a dreamy opportunity.

juice label

 

 

 

VOYAGE and other journeys

Over the last couple of years, my story collecting project has been expanding into the rich theme of migration: and I’ve had the chance to hear people tell me about what makes them feel at home: whether it’s a kitchen, a hobby – their body, or a poem…

Londons diversity has always made me relieved to return to it, but many people don’t experience the city as friendly. How do we live in our communities, connect with neighbours, make ourselves heard? These questions seem more urgent than ever, post brexit, where polarities have been amplified, in and outside of our various bubbles.

In Hounslow I was working with Creative People and Places encouraging residents to develop their own modes of story collecting, which we practised by listening, drawing and writing poems together, after initial inky story collecting sessions with me.

IMG_2658

Over at the National Maritime Museum I’d also been listening and collecting, from visitors to the RE*THINK space there, as part of work with The Migration Museum Project. Poet and friend, Karen McCarthy Woolf was writer in residence on this theme. We hatched a plan to collaborate, and make a piece of work to show our findings. This is now manifest as a 36 page book: Voyage, and contains an essay and new poems by Karen, with stories collected and drawn live by me.

As we were addressing the subject of migration, I wanted to supplement the narratives I’d heard at the museum, with some from more recently arrived people, people who might not yet be at the museum visiting stage… so I approached South London Refugee Association, who welcomed me to their drop in. I met and spoke with people there, who shared some of their moving stories with me. Karen and I selected a range of drawings and poems from the work we’d made, the book was supported and introduced by Joanna Salter at the museum, and we in turn were listened to, re paper stock, layout and printing by old friends at Aldgate Press.

We’ve had a lovely article and review of the book, by Bidisha, on the BBC arts website.

VOYAGE reviewed on BBC Arts

There are lots more of the drawings to look at via this link, and a short film of me, made by Chocolate Films where I’m collecting one of the Hounslow stories.

Voyage readings and launch at The European Commission in London:

Europe House, 32 Smith Square SW1

6:30 -8:30 September 15th. Please come along.

the freedom of the ghetto

IMG_1469.jpgIn October I was one of a group of eight artist printmakers engaged in making a new piece of work to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the founding of the world’s first ghetto.

This was a space established in Venice in 1516, on the site of the old foundry there, (making it one of the few campos without a church) that was created as a concession to Jews, permitting them residence in the city.

IMG_1997
photo by Barbara del Mercato, the Ashkenazy synagogue, Ghetto Nuovo.

Originally the word would have had a soft ‘g’ as it was where the metal was thrown (or jettisoned,) a ‘getto’, but as the first wave of incumbents were Ashkenazy Jews, and strangers to the soft ‘g’, they pronounced it like get, and thus introduced the world to the ‘ghetto’!

The commission was to make a New Venice Haggadah, deriving inspiration from a beautiful edition published in Venice in 1609, as well as with reference to the contemporary community, and of course our own personal responses and processes.

The haggadah is the Passover text, and is like a script for use at the Seder table. It conducts all the members of the family through the story of the Exodus, with ritual foods, questions, songs and wine. It is a chance to think about oppression and slavery, and wish freedom to all who remain oppressed. There may be nearly as many haggadot and interpretations of the story as there are families who mark the festival.

IMG_1540

We were invited to do this work by Beit Venezia, headed up by Shaul Bassi, (far left, above) and as well as us artists, Vassar professor Marc Michael Epstein, (far right, above) joined our group to show us some of the vast history of illustrated haggadot. We were also lucky to be shown many intriguing aspects of Venice and its workings by our events coordinator Barbara del Mercato.

IMG_1745

Right to left (like Hebrew) we are Barbara, Shaul, Frances Katz Levine (a supporter of the project),  Kyra Matustik, Josh Baum, then on the sofa, also right to left: Andi LaVine Arnovitz, Nathan Gotlib, Jacqueline Nicholls (lead artist)  Hillel Smith, Yael David-Cohen and me.

Our group of eight artists came from the UK , the US, Belgium, Israel, the Czech Republic – and with varying degrees of knowledge and experience in both etching and Jewishness!

Our base for the three week residency was the  Scuola Grafica Internazionale di Venezia, a gorgeous and well equipped printmaking studio in Cannaregio. We stayed in apartments about a half hour walk away. My room made a nifty temporary studio.

IMG_1564

A peal of bells came echoing out from this jaunty corner tower to wake us promptly at 7:00 each morning.IMG_1246

We read and thought about the text together in detail over the first week, as well as looking at significant treasures in Venice, such as the first printed Talmud there, which I was pleased to discover looks quite a lot like concrete poetry.

IMG_1259.jpg

At the end of the first week Jacqueline allocated each of us two sections of the text to respond to visually. Mine were both densely emotional passages, one of suffering, one of joy.  IMG_1526.jpg This was re: We cried out and the one below represents praise (very necessary Hebrew help came from my fellow artists Josh  and Jacqueline )

IMG_1524

During the second week, we drew and prepared, then etched our copper plates… as well as exploring the city, getting lost and looking at as much art as we could possibly squeeze in around the coffees.

It is such a sensational city: light zipping off the water to illuminate everything from the intricate and wonky palaces to the vegetable delivery boats, and the bridges; more of which seemed to appear daily, like a baffling dream.

Week three saw us unite and print: 6oo sheets of dampened Fabriano paper, many inky rags, many ragged but mainly undampened spirits!

The original copper plates and the editions of 25 prints per etching per artist (we each made 3 plates, that’s why we were editioning 600 prints in week 3!) remain in Venice for now and will be exhibited as part of the ghetto quincentery events. A beautiful version of our New Venice Hagaddah is also in production in Jerusalem, and will be for sale in time for Passover 2016.

You can read more about the project in the current (January 2016) issue of  Jewish Rennaisance magazine, or watch us and laugh as we are dubbed in Italian on TV  – and see the studio, the ghetto and the other artists.

Thanks to all members of our group, who were wonderful to work with, to Jacqueline Nicholls in particular for inviting me, to Shaul Bassi of Beit Venezia and Lorenzo de Castro and Alan Rogers at the Scuola Grafica for hosting us, and to Barbara del Mercato for showing us Venice from the inside.

I have also written a small stack of new Venice poems, hopefully these will find a home one day, in or out of the poetry ghetto…

Meanwhile, here’s to 2016: ink, friendship and freedom!

IMG_1691

 

 

 

 

clothes that speak, an indoor forest: autumn flurries.

The Listening Forest is to take root in Covent Garden, at the Poetry Cafe.

Please saunter under its inky boughs, as they spread into the wintery world of a London November.

performing in the woods

I’ll be showing original work from the residency/ project undertaken with Fermynwoods Contemporary as well as new screen prints I’ve developed. Drawings and prints will be for sale, as will the book in both A5 and A3 concertina incarnations. I’ll also be running some events alongside the show, so watch this space.

Private view:  Thursday 4th November with readings, drawing, cake and wine.

IMG_0126

If you want to experiment and make a book where image and text cohabit, however cosily or haughtily, there are still places left on my course at Morley College, starting on September 21st for nine weeks: BOOK IMAGE TEXT and also in the spring and summer terms.

Here’s an example of sheer image text mastery by a small citizen of Brent, from a holiday session in Willesden library.

childs' collage: summer

A page inspired by each item in this sunlit window would make a nice fancy poem sequence!

charity shop

Talking of which, I have three visual poems featured in a lovely online journal called wardrobe, find them and wear them straightway, they are in drawer five, and are written from the point of views of a skirt, a mans jumper and a slip.

Decent Skirt

Also in textile mode, my screen printed cotton Disaster hankie appeared in the glorious new volume from Hayward Gallery Publications THE NEW CONCRETE, where I’m proud to be in company with poets and artists I’ve long admired, like John Furnival and Edwin Morgan.

The launch at The Whitechapel was epic, with brilliant readings from many contributors.

Last week also saw the launch of another genre-busting book. Over the Line has over 70 pages of brand new poetry comics, including a collaborative spread by me and Chris McCabe, called The Practical Application of Colour. It was fun reading the piece which has very few words in it, (unlike this palaver.)

A good place to buy the book is at Free Verse book fair which takes place at Conway Hall on 26th September, and is a great treat for those interested in alternative publishing and new poetry.

Or at launch number 2, coming up at Gosh Comics!

Some unLondon things coming up: I’ll have a couple of works in 50 artist strong new show: a wide interpretation of still life, this autumn at The Art Stable, Dorset. I took this still life at the farm adjacent to the gallery on a visit, but my actual pieces are painted and feature words again.

spent sunflower head

I’m also excited to be reading at the famously fabulous Swindon Poetry Festival on Sunday 4th October. There will be all kinds of top poetry and related capers going on in town for a few days, so have a look at the programme and come along.

For the remainder of October I’ll be in residence in Venice at the Scuola Grafica Venezia. One of eight invited artists, I’ll be working in their beautiful printmaking studio, on a project to make a new and contemporary Haggadah to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the worlds first ghetto, set up there in 1516. Fascinating stuff.

Any quality work that comes from this will be added to the forest show forthwith.

Looking forward to plenty of real tea under imaginary trees at the Poetry Cafe, see you up there.

IMG_0036