Connections in Storyland.

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.

Fresh ink drawings pegged up under a mulberry tree in Mecklenburgh Square at a story collecting gig this summer at a party for Jewish Renaissance magazine.

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.

Drawing at Marie’s house in Brixton

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.

Violeta’s wonderful mother
Building a house on a nurse’s wages: a topical story from Vimbai.

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.

Maryam Mursal, Somali star.

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.

This is Ubah, from the Camden community group.
There were parts of conversation that were so poetic no pictures were needed.

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.

‘ it’s like confetti!’
I’d brought coloured pencils along as well as ink, in case there would be kids there who might like to draw too. As it happened only the grown ups came that day, but I was glad to attempt to catch the colour in Hinda and Halima’s aleendi (woven scarves.)

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.

Booklet produced by the British Library Sound Archive. The painting on the cover is an attempt by me to translate the sound of a particular song into colour and form.
Elmi Ali, making me wish I’d paid attention as a child to my friend Navyn, who turned up at my primary school in 1972 from Tanzania, and tried to teach me Swahili.
From Elmi, whose grandmother was the survivor of a shocking and wild tale.

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.

Members of the morning panel at the Citizen Witness Seminar L to R: Joseph Brady, Dr Sarah Kyambi, Jennifer Todd, Dr Rachel Chin

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.

Here I am with PhD candidate Pinar Aksu, who gave a talk about the work she does with refugees and asylum seekers, helping them to raise their own voices to campaign for rights and opportunities to education and work.
A story collected from Pinar. She is a marigold too! Bright, bold and energising.
A feast to hear about the sequin runner and golden rice pudding.
Now I am referring to all blankets as kavatourts. A great word coined by Nathalie’s gran, whose own language was spurned. The day I returned from Glasgow, my train sped along under a grey kavatourt of rain.

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.

Dad, uh, how embarrassing!

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.

What Marcel didn’t tell me, but another guest did, is that having become a successful dentist in the UK, he was able to pay for Olga and Esther’s care in their old age.

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.

I heard these two in the summer at the party in Mecklenburgh Square. Like Daisy below, part of what settled Fozi into her sense of self was the comfort of a half remembered language.
The surprise of understanding Arabic!

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 myself at the end of our LORE workshop, photo by poet Pauline Sewards.

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.

Yet a different variety of live drawing was called for by poet Kirsten Luckins, who asked me to record the goings on at an inaugural Women Poets’ Festival, which she was organising with The Rebecca Swift Foundation, to be held at The National Centre for Writing in Norwich, in their epic Tudor Dragon Hall, as well as online. I travelled up with the day’s first speaker, ace poet and friend Jacqueline Saphra.

Her talk followed a guided meditation to begin the event in calm, led by poet Ros Goddard.

As my participation in the guided meditation I also let my ink and water slowly sink into the quiet moment.

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.

After a sonnet by American poet Jericho Brown
Some of Anne Sexton’s groundbreaking boldness

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.

Debris was fired up by grime music and her dyslexia, among other things.
Can’t argue with that.

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?

Shaping one’s thinking through pertinent questions, with Victoria Adukwei Bulley
Translations: A mother is a kind of gold you can’t buy in the market.

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.

My scraps find a page of their own in Norwich

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 first winner to be announced was Prerana Kumar – a natural performer with a glowing poem.

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.

Winner Dillon Jaxx read their poem via the video link. A fearless piece moving between family dinners to mountain and sea.

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.

One of the three winners, Jennifer Lee Tsai created a beautiful, distilled atmosphere with this poem inspired by her grandfather

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.

Essex: a short inky epic.

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.

Setting out my stall in a tent beside a car park in Chelmsford. That’s poetry for you.

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!

The first narrator of the day was eminent scientist Gina Rippon, author of The Gendered Brain and herself originally from Essex. Here she is.

Talking books with Gina Rippon, behind us you can see the warm & funny author & comedian Rosie Wilby who was offering spoof relationship counselling, including time based kiss graphs & other scientific notations!
“Suddenly everyone wanted to listen to scientists” Gina Rippon

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.

Holly & I had a great conversation about textiles & sustainability.
Pic by Holly of me with her story.
Work in progress
Leanne works with Rothamsted Research and loves to communicate scientific ideas in schools and other educational settings. She taught me something new about ants & aphids!
One of the thoughtful Essex teenagers I spoke with yesterday.
And another… brave girl dealing with disrupted schooling and health challenges.
This mother and daughter helped each other find new ways through strange times. I found what Myk said about working with homeless people really interesting and touching.
Natasha’s adorable babies
Three more lovely kids on the path of learning (via drawing, of course,) they stared at me & I stared back!
Three teachers talk about work and life.

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.

Anyone who makes narwhals from tissue paper is alright with me.

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.

Alice, from Snapping the Stiletto, unpegging the days drawings at 5 o’clock.

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.

Zoom Collage Industry

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.

Some of my collage scrap bags, snapped from above

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.

From a circus art workshop last summer at the V & A Museum

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.

One of the classes from before times at the Royal Drawing Schools studios in Shoreditch.

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.

This was a short course in which myself and fellow painter Rosie Vohra, taught two days each, called Drawing, Poetry and Collage, at a virtual version of The Royal Drawing School.

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!

Physical consideration & collaboration: Children in Hull, during our National Poetry Day mini residency there in 2017.

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?

Teachers in Hull practice writing & collage exercises ahead of National Poetry Day 2017

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.

 

A Sombre Luminosity

It’s now just a month till my residency officially finishes, and I’m trying to accommodate both my anticipated homesickness for this place, and a current one for my actual home.

The residency studio, Berkeley

In a parallel twin arrangement, I carry on with the two main prongs of work I’ve been developing here: cut up poems, and the series of gouache paintings.

Gin sodden gabble

I’m happy to say that poets WN Herbert and Andy Jackson are publishing one of my index card poems re the pandemic each weekend, on their current iteration of political poetry blog New Boots and Pantisocracies, this time under the heading Postcards from Malthusia.

Keepers from the asylum

Do follow the blog for a variety of quality poetry dealing with COVID-19. There’s a fresh post daily, a great help in lockdown.

Cheer to the dead

The two most recent paintings I’ve been making, edge towards themes of home.

All the Houses that Bloom Between us

In this painting, versions of family members appear – together, connected and also apart. Houses grow on trees and our parallel weather drips on everything.

The residency house here is intentionally pale and neutral, and in a way I’m finding this to be an unexpected stimulus.

In these Berkeley paintings I seem to be manifesting my colour-saturated London home, whereas over recent Brixton years I’ve made a lot of work in black and white.

Load the patterns onto each other’s backs and wear them as warnings like bugs do

I’m looking for the sad song in the brights, I love how joyful colours can sometimes be played for their sobriety, becoming more subtly dark even than monochrome, especially as this might run counter to a first look, might create a vibrant source of jolt or layering.

At a distance from my textile-rich background, I’m also finding a new freedom to play with pattern. I let the paint itself dictate. The paint knows so much that I don’t. When I go along with its drive to spill, drip, splodge and fret the surface – I find myself nodding to the capacity it has to be properly complicated, like the tangled density of thought, of the world.

Nature is a disciplined but messy painter

Another bright/melancholy side project has sprung from my walks. Each day I look for a rose that’s on the point of collapse as it’s petals splay groundwards. I cup the silky chosen head-sized, hand-sized, heart-sized bloom, knock then stash the fallen petals in a pocket. The scent and texture are at the delicious melting point between ripeness and decay.

The first set of such petals I helped myself to, I laid out on my blue notebook as a fleeting shrine to ‘the fallen’. It had been an extra sad day as a close friend of a friend, an NHS nurse, and mother of three daughters, Aimee O’ Rourke had died from COVID-19. One of the many dedicated and under protected key workers whose death seems so unbearable and untimely.

I let my eyes sink into the luminous heart-shaped petals laid on the stiff forget-me-not blue of my notebook and I breathed in the comfort of these colours.

A fleeting monument to the fallen

Since then I’ve been making more of these transient monuments, spreading the days dying rose in a fresh layer over yesterdays, in an aluminium saucepan I found on the street (and thought I’d make ink in.) Again, I like the contrast in colour/texture: organic matter placed on manufactured shine. An evolving shrine.

Ring a ring o’roses, & other plague inspired tunes.

By home time perhaps I’ll have enough pot pourri to sew into a Berkeley pillow, with a scent to transport me between cities.

The pandemic makes it tricky to think about the future, so I’ve been reading old books, writing about the past, and stomping about in the present. Yesterday I wandered down an empty side street and couldn’t work out what the weird noise was, not exactly deafening, but insistent. I realised it was a street full of bees humming.

Nature has turned the volume up – I hope it is keeping you going too, and thanks for reading.

Detail from new painting: All the Houses that Bloom Between Us

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

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

Since I last wrote, the world has joined me in retreat. My residency has changed, from having been a rare opportunity for me to make work away from my usual roles and pressures: family and projects, it has now become a space in which I am marooned from these, and must consider what my distance means from another perspective.

I can still paint and draw and write. In fact, I must. This is the first time I’ve been paid a regular stipend to just inhabit a studio and make work. But I’m necessarily encountering new themes, with the world in pandemic mode. How to be locked down & yet remain open enough to respond- how to not actually shut down?

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

‘Stay there! Stay well!’ Insists our wise daughter, ‘London is chaos!’ She is socially isolating at home in Brixton with a cousin, a friend and our dog and cat. Although I really, really miss her, and our son, who remains at his special college with an incredible care and support team, practically, if we came back now it would be a greater risk to our health and theirs.

We speak to the kids every day, so thank god for technology. We were really happy when our son rushed off FaceTime to see a goat give birth on the farm where he lives.

I say ‘our’ because Adam is here too. He took study leave from work so that he could base himself here for a bit, and the corona virus has meant that it is safer for him to stay until the risks of travel begin to abate.

Obviously the social side of the residency has been curtailed. The libraries are closed, the salons crossed from the diary, readings cancelled. Efforts are being made to still engage with other artists here online, credit to residency manager Dan Schifrin again for being patient & setting up interesting conversations on zoom.

A blizzard like this – from the COVID-19 series

London poet friend Amy Key found her trip to the AWP in Texas was no longer viable due to the first wave of cancellations over the virus. Luckily for us she diverted to Berkeley for a few days which included making the most delicious aubergine parmigiana I’ve ever tasted. Here’s a painting I did of her on her last night here.

Amy with Anemones

Also before shut down, I had a great meeting and conversation with Peter Maravelis from City Lights , about the possibility of doing a book and an event with them, which would be, will be, a great thrill. He had many innovative ideas about the way forward for books and booksellers in a changing world. It looks like I might have to come back!

Incidentally, Lawrence Ferlenghetti, who set up City Lights, was 101 this week. May poetry, art, books and ideas keep us all in such excellent nick.

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

Berkeley in spring is not a bad place to be stuck. Leggy freesias spill across sidewalks, camellias simmer in crimson and pink, tossing their crumpled silk hankies to the ground, wisteria knots itself up with jasmine all over clapboard houses floating perfume harmonies onto the empty air. There’s hardly anyone around. The architecture makes me sigh.

Camellia scrunchies

The sense of scale that’s always interested me has taken on new meaning here, this huge country, this global illness, the distance home, how can I accommodate these big things in my little eyes?

So I try and ‘see a world in a grain of sand’, or magnify the prehistoric looking succulents that cover front yards here, until their bold structures tower over the straggling pedestrians in my paintings.

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

Or I cut tiny phrases from broken and discarded books and release these onto airy pastel coloured cards where they can tap-dance away from their cramped former paragraphs.

Garnish calamities – from the COVID-19 series.

Two of the index card poems may soon be available as limited edition screen prints via a supportive initiative called The Off Cut Project set up by brilliant Suki Hayes Watkins at The Print Block, her studio in Whitstable.

Talking of scale, here I am in a redwood forest. These trees are the very emblem of survival, literally encompassing the scars of fires they’ve withstood, and growing steadily upwards forever. This one is over a thousand years old. Breathing in their scented stillness I felt that perhaps we humans really might be able to create a sounder future.

Some books I’ve found here are much too wonderful to cut up. One of these is a kid’s book from 1952 called Let’s Look at the Sky! by Marie Neurath. It’s printed in stunning pre digital luminosity with spot colour. It engages with the scale of the universe – and like the redwoods, it makes plain the paradox we must live with: that we are both tiny and monumental. And how, tiny as we are, what we choose to do from one moment to the next, has a tangible effect on each other and the world.

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

On that note, redwood-sized solidarity & kindest wishes, especially to anyone struggling with health, cash flow, isolation or all three. Thanks for reading this, and for all your actions that contribute to the planet mending that needs to happen next.