Velkom to Inklandt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cake in the Forest

The project that catapulted me into Nature and away from my habitual London scenery: The Listening Forest, is now up in another form, as an exhibition at the HQ of the Poetry Society at 22 Betterton Street Covent Garden: The Poetry Cafe.

chichis forest cover pic

About thirty of the original drawings are on the walls, chosen from the hundred or so that make up the book, which in turn, were chosen from perhaps twice that that I made whilst in residence for Fermynwoods Contemporary Art in Northamptonshire.

P1000990.jpgMany of the drawings on show are those I drew live from local people recounting to me what they get up to in the woods; others are ones that I made away from company, on my own in the cottage I was put up in.


There are also the six paper cuts I made as a structural device to tailor the book into its shape as a mirror to the forest, filing stories as appropriate under section headings: noticings and changes of direction in path, strange sightings and confessions in  undergrowth, the ordinary and everyday in shrub layer, revelations and insights in clearing, lofty thoughts in canopy, base material in floor

undergrowth RRH


New for the space in Covent Garden, I replaced Ralph Steadman’s Byron scribed lampshades with new ones of my own, some written on in loose ink with excerpts from my forest poem sequence, some coloured with streaks of Nepalese paper cut into leaf-spiders, moth-women, crow-huts.


flophouse pic (chichi)

The show opened on my Dad’s 90th birthday, so he came along, and after I’d read some poems, the audience sang to him and we all shared cake!

me and dad po caf

The same week it was the  The Poetry Library open day at the Festival Hall, which took as its theme: The End of the Poem. It was exciting to see the library’s copy of the limited edtion huge version of The Listening Forest in its thirty metre incarnation, laid out on one of the tables, near another recent collaborative work: Collective City, the book we assembled from visual poem collages made by visitors to the Southbank Centre’s Poetry International Festival and made into an inventive street shaped book by the same team who bound the forest book: the inimitable Henningham Family Press

library open day

The Listening Forest exhibition runs until February 4th and is open most days and evenings, but please do check the Poetry Cafe website.

Another evening viewing is scheduled for Thursday December 17th, with mulled wine, a chance to buy screen prints, books and original drawings, and a short reading of some forest and city poems by me and some surprise guest poets!

I will also be running a day workshop in conjunction with The Poetry School, called Hide and Seek in the Ideas Forest, on Saturday January 30th. We’ll be working on how to set traps for the unconscious, and turn what we find into art and poetry.

So many people have been involved with this project, big thanks to all who joined me on the path: including Yasmin Canvin and the team at Fermynwoods Contemporary Arts, Kate Dyer and Lorraine Dziarkowska of Corby Community Arts – and everyone who told me a story or listened to a poem or idea. Particular London thanks to Tanya Peixoto of The Bookartbookshop and Mike Simms of the Poetry Society.

Here’s a poem.

Forest Of Experience

It’s a flophouse for moths

they flail in beige stupor

all eyes and faintings

Victorian ladies with the vapours


I tune my ear

to their sighs

floating up in snatches

from hazy gilded blades.


Car salesman newt zips

in and out of his slovenly

basketwork: rotted black twigs

laced with bark ribbons.


A glowing toadstool

in coral polyester

sponges me

her beauty tips.


My forest of experience cracks

under the books I’ve read

the words I’ve spilt

and pictures that I’ve made


so badly, so laboriously.

My painting arm remembers

Prussian Blue, Chrome yellow –

squeezed from tubes


crude globs, unlike this life

where ferny fountainheads

prise lids off every shade

from eau-de-nil to sludge


and nodding fronds of fronds

swish me like a sap

into their losing green.

Nouveau pines


rise smooth as vaulting

in my restless cinema

and up in the spaghetti

canopy, sinuous capillaries


make grids for clouds

and trap me in a silence test.

Strain, for what?

Your ghost? A hare?


But only midges jitter

provincial, repetitious

have they not seen lipstick before?

Their dots itch every inch


of me, tiny tireless clubbers

mobbing the street.

Through tough foliage

glimpse bolts of deer


shaded in private fur

impervious to sting

or stinging remark –

every day there’s carnage.


Bird spangled branches

trumpet fat green notes

filling all imagined spaces

in between parked stars.


A tiny dandelion bud

sucks in its yellow cheeks –

I’m the jam and you’re

the butter dripping sun


it’s easy to lie down

in blackthorn studded mud.