Yesterday I was invited to bring my ink and brush along the tracks eastward out of London, to Chelmsford in Essex, where next to a car park in the grandly named Marconi Plaza – I’d been allocated a table in a domed tent – as one practitioner among several sharing ideas at the British Science Festival.
I was to work at a table with two women, Alice and Kayleigh, who run a project called Snapping the Stiletto, which aims to debunk the stereotypes around the much mythologised Essex Girl and engage with the stories and lives of real women from or living in the county. My remit was to collect lockdown stories from visitors to the festival.
As this was a science based event – most of the other tables had really interesting ideas to explore, and were offering demonstrations of research based findings from Archeology to Zero impact food production. The helpers and volunteers were mostly science students, and I collected a couple of stories from them. Both these ones, from Allegra and Fatima, had little twists that I didn’t see coming!
After Gina, I had a constant flow of people, some alone, some with other family members, all taking the seats opposite mine and ready to talk to me about their experiences over the course of the pandemic, and the varying effects it had had on their lives. I listened, asked questions, drew. I encountered people full of reflections, humour, will to connect, contribute, mend the world.
My final storyteller of the day was a woman named Jacqui Mulville, from Guerilla Archeology, I started by admiring her perfect pale pink hair and then really enjoyed and related to her stories of family life under lockdown. Being a mother and having a mother. Sigh.
Usually I have a photocopier whisperer who can make a copy for each narrator to take home, but in these times it’s extra hard to get an A3 copier & my heavy old machine has bitten the dust. So copies will be made this week and go out in the post to all who shared a story.
Thanks to Anna Woolman of the British Science Association, who found me and had the notion to get me along. A delight to exchange stories with inspiring Essex Girls.
St James’ is an inclusive church, full of ideas, people and action coming together to address contemporary issues – and as it’s the place where Blake was baptised in 1757, and home to The Blake Society, this poetry project was focused on how Blake’s radicalism could still speak to us today, and encourage creative forms of activism.
When it came to it, I was the only one who could get to the west end in a COVID safe manner by the date in March agreed for filming. I put on my poetry dress and best jewels and tubed it to Green Park in my matching gold mask.
In the courtyard in front of the church a magnolia was shedding its furred khaki buds as the blossoms burst & raised their pink glazed teacups to beneficent blue sky. Piccadilly was hungry for footsteps, but was quieter than a backstreet in suburbia. Mr Fortnum and Mr Mason came out of their clock to nod and bow the hour to nobody. It was a strange dream to be abroad in the loaded yet familiar grandeur of my native city after over a year of absence.
Christopher Wren designed St James’, and the buildings exterior leans on the sheer quantity of its tiny warm coloured bricks, which mass to enormity like an epic congregation, contrasting with the vast transparencies of its glittering windows.
Inside there are miraculous carvings in lime wood and marble by Grinling Gibbons, including the font in which Blake was baptised. (I’d like to meet the mother who looked at her newborn and decided to call him Grinling Gibbons as well, a poem there surely!)
So enough with the gold dress and fancy schmancy carvings! Where are the poems? You can watch the movie on YouTube at this link: Blake Now – and if you’d rather have a quiet read: here is my poem.
Look out for all the commissioned poems, those by Joseph Coelho, Ruth Awolola, Natalie Lin Bolderston, Ankita Saxena and myself will all be available via the Poetry Society website and on St James’ site too in coming weeks. Meanwhile, thank you so much to both organisations for this golden opportunity, and to you dear reader, for reading!
Going to poetry readings is a high risk activity, even outside of pandemic conditions. There’s a good chance of getting badly bored, as well as the daintier hope of having one’s entire being revivified by the power of language in its most indisputable finery.
Two of the biggest ones: The Forward Prizes and now the TSEliot prize, have had to move online recently, like everything else.
I watched the latter last night and the night before in manageable chunks. Having a seven day window to watch and listen to ten poets read for five minutes each, on a prerecorded video, is a very different experience to the old fluster of catching the 59 bus from Brixton Hill to Waterloo, and stampeding around with fellow poets at the Festival Hall.
Those were fun and unpredictable capers of catching up and talking shop, laying bets, exchanging views and verdicts on books, performances, (outfits) and the shortlist in general. Who had read what, who had been overlooked, and what a load of nonsense prizes are!
Because even mainstream poetry has less pull for a wide audience than other artforms, the hierarchies in it seem less extreme. So it’s easy to have a chat with a big prize winner who is also off on the bus afterwards, and stopping in at a supermarket for a cheese sandwich on the way home.
Poetry is magic, on the page and in the air, but the completion of the magic is in the reader, and how difficult it is not to catch or share that energy as it is cast into the collective space. The futility of this put me off attending the Forward readings online, though I’d read and loved many of the shortlisted works. But I decided to be brave and try with the TSEliots this time, even at the risk of the screen flattening my responses.
The word reassuring could have been coined for Ian McMillan, who is the regular compère of this ceremony in its live form. He is an expert in both poetry and audience handling and can hold the most incongruous gaggle of poets together. His unpretentious introductions to each gives space to any voice or content that may follow.
We only heard five minutes of work from each of the shortlisted poets, as compared to eight when it’s a live event. This made it almost impossible to arrive at boredom, (I was a little disappointed.) I took a special pride in those I knew or had read with. Poetry is nothing if not subjective.
For me, hearing Sasha Dugdale was a highlight. In her book Deformations, she questions power between men and women, artist and subject. Pain is trapped and inspected in her concision. Her renaming of Odysseus as Pitysad – with that conscious sounding of PTSD within it – made the poem she read from that sequence: Stripclub, extra layered. Words fluttered in a demimonde of desire & loss and the cumulative inhabiting of both. Whose skin we occupy in relationship, who performs and who feels. I looked at the book again later that night, and read a prose poem in the voice of Penelope. Always waiting. Still waiting now. It reminded me of Molly Bloom’s parallel monologue that ends Ulysses, but Sasha Dugdale inhabits the voice of a female lover in a very different key from the one James Joyce created.
I enjoyed the helter skelter wit and delight in language of Natalie Diaz– in which she piled on layer after layer of celebratory metaphors for her lover’s hips.
Ella Frears has a talent for the unsettling. She pulls horror from beneath the pretty, with a twisted aplomb. I read with her a couple of years ago and this adds to my feeling of connection with her, and the tornado of her poetry and mind. I also loved how she began, by saying: ‘I wish we were all in a room together.’
Wayne Holloway Smith, with his oversized glasses and funky green sofa makes poetry refreshing. There’s no stodge or pomp in his poems, but pictures. The boy, the man, the town, the scene – emerge visceral, visible: blazing in city rhythms. He sat in my kitchen once, when such things were allowed, as I was asked to draw his portrait for the cover of Poetry London.
Daisy Lafarge is a poet whose work I didn’t know. I really enjoyed the textures and delicacies she created in the work she read. Musicality, muscularity. A book I look forward to reading.
I don’t have Rendang by Will Harris yet, (my reading life has narrowed horribly since the libraries have been shut) I enjoyed his poems too. The work is subtle and imaginative: images open out and expand, reappear in different guises, places and objects are conjured vividly.
I admired the assurance & surprises in all the works laid out before my eyes and ears as I wandered through the dismally flat carpet emporium of my laptop.
So, prizes for poetry! Absurd! It all seems counterintuitive in some ways (like how can a consensus be reached on what is good quality poetry, or god forbid, the best!)
But listening to these poets who’d thought so richly about which words they’d arrange in what order, did somehow re kindle my somewhat pandemic-crushed writing arm – and make it re-member – that a voice is an instrument of power, one worth using & raising – more than ever in a muted period of admonishing slogans, and their accompanying blanket of nightly death statistics.
So thanks – for reading, and for continuing with the exhausting work of being a three dimensional human person with limbs & not just a flat zoom shaped head, for being… ALIVE!
Poet Tamar Yoseloff, who in her publishing hat published The PracticalVisionary, a book made collaboratively by myself and poet/artist Chris McCabe in response to William Blake in 2018, invited me to write a guest post for her press Hercules Editions.
I wrote this, about my return from California, and how making a mosaic in my back garden helped me get my feet back on the ground.
I took Blake to Berkeley where he was glad to walk around hand in hand with Allen Ginsberg.
The residency I’d been invited to take up there was for six months from early December last year. During the first three I monopolised the monster of a library, raided the art shop, scoured and scampered in San Francisco, its devil-may-care book palace City Lights and sparkling vintage stores. I invited half the locality to my gorgeous residency house and studio for a reading, showed off my new Californian paintings, served up my best borscht and baked goods — and mostly, had my mind blown by living in a new place, where birds were process blue, Chanukah was as popular as Christmas, and winter lasted two weeks.
The following three months, well, you know the score. No salons, no visitors, no galleries, no bookshops, libraries or museums, no restaurants: LOCKDOWN. Even Blake went paler than usual, though my husband Adam had arrived by then, so things began to domesticate. A game of two halves. What a fearful symmetry.
It’s almost two months ago now that we returned to Brixton, and were shocked by the loose crowds in Brockwell park wandering round mask-free and wild. ‘William,’ I implored, ‘are we Lambethans really so unruly’? He laughed. He’d acquired a west coast accent. ‘Don’t sweat it honey,’ he quoth, ‘you ain’t sick so quit protesting, Rose’. I put the kettle on and tried to stay indoors.
The kids had been minding the house, and our small back garden had become sheer overbearing weeds. My studio at home was similarly overgrown, but with bits of my pre-Berkeley project-mad ink-scrawled paper.
How could I land from such a life-changing experience?
William advised I build on the work I’d made in California, the great connection that I’d felt whilst there, to nature and her colours.
He helped me clear the garden and drag out crates of hoarded broken china from underneath the deck. For twenty years I’d kidded myself that I’d make a broken china mosaic on the back wall. In poetry there are some word that poets snigger at, words forbidden in poems, like ‘shimmer,’‘soul’ and ‘shard’. These were the very things I found in the crates of long forgotten jaunty crockery: plates I ate off as a child, a gold teapot, blue lustreware saucers bargained for in Brick Lane, green plates moulded like cabbage leaves from hefty porcelain, all waiting in chipped and cobwebbed oblivion. ‘Nothing from the famous Lambeth potteries though?’ William sighed. ‘Come on, I said, you never even liked that Doulton mashing clay in your Jerusalem! You’re like me Will and you know it, you need the colour!’
He fetched an old bucket and we mixed up sand and cement.’I like to haunt the tunnels near St Thomas’ he said, ‘those mosaics made in honour of my songs, I’m taking Allen there tomorrow’. ‘Yes yes, I know,’ I said, ‘well stick with me, and we will make a brand new cosmos for you in this very yard, then we’ll say kaddish for you and Allen, the nurses and the unnamed Covid thousands’
The china needed whacking into flattish pieces. Then I made a palette, using trays and washing up bowls for shards of different groups, the greens and blues, the tiles and cups, raised textures and bits of spout… More ghosts were gratified by my restitution of their glorious works, including the unsung painters of the Staffordshire potteries, often women, like those who even rose to fame, such as Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper, glimmers of both these genii found places in my new arrangements.
Friends came by with extra bits of cracked yet lovely china too,
Welcome familiars, despite the impossibility of hugs. Something about this, and the rehabilitation of the broken stuff of the past, together with that gritty sensation of earth under my fingernails, helped settle me back into my neighbourhood for real.
‘What if we can never go anywhere again’? sulked William. ‘Oh you of all people!’ I snapped. ‘You, who persuaded me that Poetry was the only type of transport that I’d ever need, and that through printmaking one could visit all the Realms Imaginable! In these times of downgraded A-levels and economic collapse, letting our souls fly where they will on the shimmering shards of broken promises is the nearest thing we have to hope!’
The garden was quiet, gold china fragments glowed in the dusk of an English heatwave. Emily Dickinson floated through the lack of French windows carrying a round of beers. She winked as she lay down the tray of tinkling beverages, international queen of strange weather and seclusion, ‘Back to normal then?’ She said, her sense of irony shimmering like the real butterflies fooled into landing on a glazed art deco flower. ‘Back to normal,’ we nodded, doing our best to dwell, as poets must, in possibility, a fairer house than prose.
With thanks to Rachel Osorio, for extra incentivising and cement encouragement, as well as all who brought me extra china.
My usual methods of teaching are often materials based. I give people assorted random bits of writing to bounce off, and I tip up huge bags of assorted hoarded scraps, and ask them to choose colours, respond and make things. ‘Use your greedy eyes!’ is one of my favourite invitations at the outset.
I love to watch the action. There’s collective energy in the room and it crackles over all our tables as we search for the right thing, to make a thing we don’t even know about yet.
I wander around, as the hum of concentration settles over students/artists. Arms stretch up into space to tear escape hatches from red paper, cautious scissors snip new shapes from crumpled old gossip, eyes are lowered as poems are read and read again, pencils are sharpened to their holiest purpose: underlining.
The last two Tuesdays however, I had to get 22 students through a day of collage and poetry where we were just an assortment of disembodied heads, and where each person had been asked to muster their own scraps.
For a totally 2020 sentence, what about: ‘Sophie, my broadband went, could you assign me a new breakout room?’ (My tight lipped answer – straight from the 80s: ‘hmm, I’ll see what I can do’)
Yes, a new language to learn, and alien teaching devices: being made ‘the host’, creating breakout rooms for tutorials, uploading resources to Padlet, checking the chat column for questions, screen sharing, speaker view, muting myself at lunch!
I liked that we could make every aspect of the course into a virtual collage. The resources & reading lists which went on the Padlet page could be put on by Rosie and I, in a free formation of video attachments and web links and other handy references, built up according to whim as well as theme. Just the teaching itself: a base support of exercises suggested by Rosie, followed by additional thought-shapes from me, layered with ideas manifested by the students, more input from Rosie, the world, me…
The students could upload their work onto an adjacent gallery page, and share the interesting techniques they were discovering, separate and far flung across this collaged world. Also on the plus side, we had a wonderfully wide reach, with students in Ireland, South Africa, France and Germany, as well as all over the UK. All of us were stuck indoors somewhere, and glued, with the PVA of learning, to our screens.
What pleased me in the end, was that concentration and the desire to make analogue creative experiments – did manage to transcend the dreary flatness of the screen, and that between us, there was a very real, if temporary, community built, just by sharing poetry, ideas, work.
One morning between my Tuesdays I walked over to Clapham with my daughter & went to get a takeaway coffee in my mask. ‘You’re my teacher!’ said the barista. ‘Really?!’ I said, ‘but look at you. You’re so… so… three dimensional! Arms legs, everything!’ – ‘you too!’ she rejoindered. Had being online excessively dulled my imagination or fostered it?
Either way, it’s a different way of looking and engaging, and hopefully learning like this will enrich the process, for when we come back to the physical, as well as imaginary, spaces we use and create by making and teaching art.
You don’t need me to say how the world is. There are huge pressures currently on our collective heart, our collective lungs. Whose air is this? How are we to breathe?
On a personal level I am in flux – having had six flights cancelled, we now have tickets for Monday, and hopefully we will be back in Brixton a week today. There’s a lot of packing to do. Quarantine awaits.
There are many things I’ll miss about Berkeley. Over the last five weekends I’ve been hosting a socially distant art club. Jane Gottesman and Geoffrey Biddle, who set up the nonprofit Working Assumptions, that supports this residency, their 3 teenage daughters, and their 3 rescue dogs, come over– and we all draw and make things in the garden till darkness falls.
For the last two weeks I’ve been surprised to find myself painting flowers.
It’s been decades since I put myself at the humble mercy of a still life, to try to copy what I see. Even working towards a representation of beauty feels quite ‘counter’. I’ve been so occupied with mixing from an emotional palette, making pictures and poems from the inside out.
But with so much to contend with in the human world, I’m leaning heavily on the flowers, to lend me their grounding version of reality.
I’m hoping they can help with the next uprooting, and make me a magic carpet to get home on, as they sprout in fresh conviction from the dirt. They’re shining extra under these less polluted lockdown skies.
Painting them is a spell that conjures home, and memories of a childhood where getting lost in colour was one of the main lullabies.
Social isolation has facilitated a new kind of close up mode, where time seems to have both slowed down and speeded up, and looking very hard at something small and tangible feels like a secret door to the eternal.
Though I often find my shoulders tense, and breath held, as I try to honour some leaf edge or petal convolution with the best flicked salute my brush can manage.
Flowers! Vortices of nectar, proliferation & reproduction, working in groups, taking turns to bud or droop, emanating energy and attraction. In this warm climate they often dress to the nines, in fancy lingerie, tight Lycra, statement jewellery.
Sitting in direct dialogue with them helps me contemplate my own ageing – I love seeing what new colours come through as time lays into their matter in front of my very eyes, bright pink mutates to yellow ochre, violet fades to hazy blues and greys. We are transforming together in the studio, part of a cycle we can only dimly grasp.
They lead me to colour investigations, I think of Josef Albers and his experiments, what precise shade might I mix to set nature’s colours against? How can I translate the colours of these shadowed dots of pollen into paint?
These flower paintings are small as the weeds that burst from paving stone cracks, they can stowaway in my suitcase. Compact curled fists of resilience to travel with. This is a great help towards the awful packing up process.
Also working towards the observation and locking down of a moment, I offered to join in with the portrait project Portraits For NHS Heroes, initiated by artist Tom Croft. Three health care workers got in touch with me via Instagram, and so far I’ve drawn two nurses, Alexandra Crisp and Lucy Quarman. Both wrote me warm and interesting emails describing their lives in the pandemic. They each spoke of the exhaustion and the grim realities of confronting grief daily, of suspended family life, and also their passion for the NHS and for doing this important work with supportive colleagues.
For centuries portraits have mainly been made to record rich or high status people. With this project key workers are painted, and given the original artwork free of charge by the artist, as an appreciation of their contribution at this time. I drew these two from photos they sent me. I used soft pastels and I put my best colours around their faces as added energy and protection.
I have seen many stunning portraits emerge from this project, including new work by old friend Martin Grover.
A large bouquet and good health to you dear reader, solidarity, and thanks for accompanying me via this blog, on my California journey this year.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The two most recent paintings I’ve been making, edge towards themes of home.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By home time perhaps I’ll have enough potpourri 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.
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?
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 atthe 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.
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.