I’m charmed by a new book that recently arrived in the post: The Camden Town Hoard is a catalogue of detritus that’s been given a new spin.
It’s creator and curator, Natalia Zagorska-Thomas, has published, with the consistently fabulous small press C B Editions, a collection of images of incomprehensible objects dredged from the Grand Union Canal as it galumphs through Camden, and beside each one is a learned label, elucidating the object. Natalia invited a group of writers to choose an object to write about. I was late to the party, as I had been too deadline-hectic to notice the project’s beginnings. But she kindly roped me in and sent me a picture of this horrible thing.
I didn’t write and I didn’t write. But after some nudging from Natalia, I pulled myself together and wrote something, (which of course I really enjoyed, just like making myself go for a walk) despite my initial blood-out-of -a-stone resistance. It’s lovely to be asked. I expect all these weird lumps and barnacled pipelets are metaphorical portraits of the people whose words accompany them. There are some spectacular writers being inventive in here, and the book is a tenner.
I have also been savouring a new anthology: Living With Other People , (another tenner well spent) edited by a small team of poets under the banner Corrupted Poetry. They are Fiona Larkin, Nic Stringer and Michelle Penn. This book modestly contains no poetry by them, but pulls together a kind of gritty survey with work by so many poets I admire, and interwoven with original drawings and other visual experiments by people (like me) who are not pure advocates of one medium only.
I have two quite personal, and very slowly written, poems in the book: ‘Cold Buffet’, marks an abrubtly ended friendship, and ‘Some Mirrors Held up to the Child’ is a poem I’ve worked on on and off for about 15 years, a kind of cubist portrait of my autistic/learning disabled son, made of language used by him, by us his family, and by many of the professionals that step in and out of our lives: culled from reports from teachers, occupational therapists, psychologists. I am grateful to be cushioned by a chorus of other voices who hit different notes and angles on the pain and delight that come from living with other people! Look out for a launch in London in mid March where some of the featured poets (including me) will be reading.
Two more by me in the latest edition of Cyphers – a long established literary journal based in Ireland. The underlying theme for this issue was ‘heritage’. One of my poems is a prose poem called South London Jew, and the other contains a story. SeekingArtemisia recounts an interail pilgrimage I made in my art school twenties, to see the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi. Both poems put a solitary woman in a world that might or might not be her own and leave her there. Cyphers is a beautiful magazine and its editor, legend Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, was part of the original group that set it up in 1975. It was exciting to connect with some brilliant Irish poets at Belfast Book Festival last summer, and this feels like a nice way to continue that conversation.
Huge thanks to all the editors mentioned, for giving me the opportunities to get my work into the world. Thanks too, for reading my blog – about which please read on! It has now mostly migrated to its own page on my evolving new website.
Because of my work spiralling off in so many media I have tried to limit the section headers – I resist putting different strands of my practice in separate categories, everything is just ‘the work’.
The website design is being ingeniously devised by artist Joe Bradley Hill who has done a revolutionary job of helping me get organised and sort out my long built up layers of studio activity – do take a look: new website in progress – sign up for the newsletter, and have a rummage. Many pages are still empty or in their early stages – but if you do go to the embryonic poetry page & click on the word INDEX – at least you’ll find a brand new prophesy at the top to add its seasoning to your day. (If you don’t like the first one, click refresh!)
Over 2022 I was back on the live story collecting and drawing road, taking my ink and brushes both round the corner in south London – and all over the UK.
To recap: this process is one I’ve written about before. It usually involves me sitting with a person and having a conversation, often on a theme, (like food) which I then draw and write live in front of them, using ink and brush and a distilled selection of their own words. Each narrator gets a copy of their story to keep, either on the day if we have a helper and access to an A3 copier, or later, by post.
Early in the year I worked with a group of women from across the African diaspora, who are meeting to cook together and share stories with Brixton chef and teacher Marie Mingle, and doctoral researcher Natasha Dyer. We spent a day in Marie’s kitchen, and as well as doing one to one story drawing, I was invited to cook and eat with the group. I learned about some fantastic spice mixtures and recipes, as well as hearing of many tough situations that the women I met are dealing with, both here and back home. The food and company were delicious, also, bittersweet. I took home a jar of Marie’s green sauce which gives everything a lift.
Still in London and still with the African diaspora, the people at UK book HQ – ie The British Library, are in the middle of a major project to connect their Sound Archive back with some of the communities the recordings represent. Chandan Mahal and Emma Brinkhurst from the BL team got in touch to see if I could do some listening with a group of Somali Londoners, together with Mancunian East African poet, Elmi, and a bunch of recordings from the 1980s – collected by ethnomusicologist John Low.
To begin with, we all listened to the magnificent voice and music of iconic Somali singer Maryam Mursal . I drew her from a video clip and wrote down some of what she said, as well as what was said about her, by the people gathered for the session. Over subsequent weeks we listened together to lullabies, house building songs, herding songs and other examples of Somali music.
A high spot for me was listening to the women sing and ululate live in the room where we gathered. Their voices animated the air – a spell to mend post-lockdown hearts.
As a thank you to the group and for continuity, the library produced this booklet based on the project, with pictures by me, a new poem by Elmi – many quotations and insights from the participants and a QR link to the music recordings. I think you can request one from the British Library as they have a few.
In September, I travelled to Glasgow, where the university, along with those of St Andrew’s and Edinburgh, is working with a newly set up body called the Scottish Council on Global Affairs. The SCGA has been set up to ‘deepen the debate’ around migration and citizenship, amongst other things. I was very proud to participate in such conversations, invited by two enterprising doctors of History: Rachel Chin and Sarah Dunstan. There were speakers from the worlds of law, local and international politics, grassroots migrant organisations – and many practical and potent ideas were expressed to challenge ongoing Brexit rhetoric.
After the talks I listened to and drew stories from some of the participants. Every story was a glimpse into the hidden worlds we all carry, of family, memory, home.
I heard more treasures of inherited language at a recent gig at JW3 . As the event was to thank people who had supported the charity – I was asking narrators to tell me stories of things they’d been given, or learned from their parents, or things they would hope to pass on… Debby’s rather roguish dad had a family whistle, her mother: a Yiddish lullaby.
Marcel didn’t know his parents, but became surprisingly conversant with the glamour of the Folies Bergère, aged four. He still speaks, with an almost indiscernible French accent, and great pride, of his astonishing rescuers.
Here are a couple more stories from London Jews: I heard these in the summer and include them here for their thematic resonance. Language: lost and found.
On another type of story jaunt – project Phakama was participating in a brand new festival in Brighton, and so myself and fellow associate artist (and dear pal) Charlie Folorunsho headed to Wildfest, in glorious Stanmer Park.
Charlie and I were trying out an IRL version of a project initiated by him, with support from a Phakama Digital bursary in 2021. Called The LORE, which stands for Language Of Resilient Expression, it started online as part of an artistic response to the pandemic. We’ve been joint facilitators: getting together with small groups of people online, sharing stories of the ways we have managed to cope and keep going through the challenge of covid and austerity and difficulties with health. This was our first go at presenting the workshop face to face. People came and practiced listening to and drawing each other’s stories. Charlie asked participants to reinvent the LORE, and try alternative R words that might help us survive – we heard ‘revolutionary’, ‘rebellious,’ ‘resourceful’ – please add your own, however ‘regrettable’ & join us. We hope to make a book of the LORE one day, in which we collate all we have heard and drawn from and with participants. A kind of survival kit.
Her talk followed a guided meditation to begin the event in calm, led by poet Ros Goddard.
Jacqueline gave an inspiring talk on rhyme, which she packed with dazzling examples from some of her favourite poems. I drew what I could catch – trying not to get so absorbed that I forgot to move my brush across the paper.
Jacqueline’s talk was followed by a presentation from Debris Stevenson who got us all to shake, and talked about what had provoked her towards her path of poetry and performance.
The last speaker was current TS Eliot prize shortlistee Victoria Adukwei Bulley who gave a talk on the practicalities of getting funded to make work, and showed us clips from her fascinating film, Mother Tongue, which explores language in exile and the poetry born from and inherent in that. Notice a theme?
There was a great buffet lunch and a fallow period to follow, in which I ran a kind of rolling collage studio – and also read peoples’ fortunes from INDEX.
The last part of the day heralded the grand announcements of who had won this years Women Poets’ Prize. There were three winners chosen from a shortlist of thirty. You can read more about the judges, all the poets and their brilliant work, on the Rebecca Swift Foundation website, as well as on social media.
The huge and ancient wood-beamed hall fell silent. Intimate worlds were spilled by the poets into the room from the stage and even from the video screens. Suddenly after all the busy whir of chat, meeting friends and jotting down ideas, we were in a different space. A mirror to the morning meditation we’d begun with – a contemplative zone.
I had made over 35 drawings, and was pleased to see that many of the assembled poets had also made fabulous collage poems and zines in my portable studio. It was a truly creative day.
Huge thanks to all those who have shared stories with me, and all those who have found the imagination, space and funding to commission me to do this ongoing work which means so much to me.
And of course, thanks for reading my blog. Wishing you peace and poetry in 2023.
Besides a lot of scooting about lately, and the heat, I’ve been staying grounded with some focused paper-cutting in the cool vaults of mythology.
I’ve been laying into sheets of black paper with scissors and scalpel, and summoning a great variety of goddesses, and their assorted props and consorts for the next book. The Mighty Goddess – a collection of 52 myths and stories for adults, gathered over many years with intrepid care and respect, and written in her own inimitable style by old friend and collaborator Pomme Clayton. This is to be published next spring by The History Press. We raised extra funds to create the book via our Kickstarter campaign. Thanks to all who supported that.
Some of the stories are very familiar to me. Pomme and I have had four of our children’s fairy tale and myth collections published over the years. I’ve painted Durga, Ama Terasu, Demeter… Our first book together: Tales of Amazing Maidens, came out with Orchard Books in 1995. It featured Inuit goddess Sedna on the front cover. So I enjoyed revisiting her (as an Arctic elder must inevitably also do – or she will be in discomfort under the sea with her tangled hair. ) Richard Price has dived into this material too, in his beautiful collection The Owner of the Sea. Sedna provides fish and poetic inspiration in equal measure.
As with previous projects, like INDEX, & 60 Lovers to Make and Do, I have branched out from using only plain papers, to finding tone and texture in old black and white photographic images, which I use as collage material.
I like the playfulness of scale between the objects in the photographs (spoons, cakes, shrubs) and the grandeur of a deity – a being so large it cannot be seen or comprehended, let alone fit on a page.
Then again – some goddesses are known through their small scale manifestations, St Bridget is in the snowdrops, Persephone sparkles on in every pomegranate seed –
Other stories were familiar in another way: Artemis/Diana the huntress, turning Actaeon into a stag for spying on her naked beauty as she bathed… I remember copying Titian’s version of this, that hangs here in London at the National Gallery.
We Camberwell foundation students of 1982 were each set a painting to study as an exercise in composition. We were instructed to make three versions: reducing it further in each incarnation – eventually making it into a 3 colour abstraction. I recall that laborious absorbing afternoon.
I returned to Titian for help with my papercut, loving how he caught Actaeon’s bodily astonishment at the moment of transformation.
There’s another Artemis story in the book too – of the young girls apprenticed to the goddess – who dressed as bears to play hunting games in the forest.
Other stories were a total revelation. The violence and incest, sex and torment in many of the tales – from Māori creation myth to ancient Egypt. Stories to make even the most jaded Twitter user gasp.
I felt nervous about making images of Isis and Sekhmet, partly because I so love and admire Egyptian art – and did not feel I could add anything to the perfect depictions we know so well from the tombs and the looted beauties I grew up staring at in the British Museum. Of course that made snipping these goddesses and their head dresses all the more exciting in the end. ‘Only do something that you know you CANNOT do’ – as I’m fond of telling my students.
Reading and rereading these ancient myths was a balm in these times. These stories remind us of our own impermanence and solidity at the same time, always useful. Thank Goddess for the power of imagination.
Those bad lilies sure got a nose for a poem. One they published last summer in their second issue: Pollen, by the amazing Clare Pollard has been nominated for best single flower in the Forward Prizes.
Congrats to the wondrous Chrissy Williams too, poet and editor of online journal Perverse. Two poems first published there have made the same auspicious list – one by Louisa Campbell and one by Cecelia Knapp. No shortage of goddesses in this post as it turns out.
And nobody creates new work entirely alone. We only get good by reading/looking/listening to/rubbing shoulders with other people who read and make, so this goes out to all those who aren’t on a shortlist either… and who are slogging away anyway! May Lakshmi’s elephants cool you & may Athena’s owl toot wisdom instead of war!
Here is a non prize winning wasp poem I made from phrases clipped from a child’s encyclopaedia I found on a wall near my house. I made it for my poet friend Alison Winch who inspired me with her wasp poems. They’re not published yet, but watch out! Thanks for reading my blog & strength to all creative resisters in the long hot jam of now.
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!
Tonight is the prelaunch reading for my new collection INDEX !
The Kickstarter campaign set up by brilliant Tom Jenks at zimZalla, has met its target – so the printing can go ahead. There’s still time to register for a pack of prophetic cards at a 40% discount. And there are strange extra rewards for anyone who is inclined or able to pay extra!
I’ll be reading alongside the amazing poet Philip Terry whose newest publication, TURNS, is an Oulipian box of surprises also made by poetry object press zimZalla. Do sign up!
Over the last year I’ve been making little cut up poems and pasting them onto pastel coloured index cards. Like a lot of things I do this began as a mild diversion creeping out from the side of a couple of big projects that were claiming my daylight attention.
It continued in this way – every few days I’d find a couple of hours to pore over the collage stash I’d been hacking to bits for my last book: 60 Lovers to Make and Do, and I’d skim the prose for phrases that seemed particularly pointed or musical or visually charged.
I love the drama in old fashioned phrases from the Biggles Annual or Girl: any 1960s & 70s books and journals from the decades when I was a child, full of advice, morality, implicit and occasionally overt -isms of every sort. Favourites that also inspired 60 Lovers, were activity books including craft and recipe books.
I couldn’t use text by named authors – nothing where the notion of authorship vaunts loftiness or self consciousness – this wouldn’t be raw material for my own authorship and would feel more like stealing than repurposing.
When I got to that dream residency studio in Berkeley last December – I had the fun of assembling a transatlantic collage stash – which I wrote about at the time. I found a good selection of index cards and boxes to stack them as well, at the wonderful Elmwood Stationers on my local parade.
When I was finding my big paintings heavygoing – I would just put the colours to one side, and get snipping through the treasures I’d accumulated – with extra delight at the different language opening up from this American material.
Dan Schifrin, the residency manager, asked me a good question: What’s it like to inhabit the body of the person who makes these big gestural paintings and the person who makes these tiny cut up collage poems?
I found this impossible to answer, so I wrote a short play in which two very different women have to share a studio. They don’t get on, although they do respect each other’s processes. Gloria, the painter, is full of exclamations about the wonder of nature. She gets on Edith’s nerves. Edith, the misunderstood poet, is introverted and terse. She can sometimes be soothed with a nice coffee and home made cookie from Gloria. I sent the play to Dan, and for fun added this photograph taken of Gloria and Edith on one of the rare occasions when they were in the studio together.
For now, I, London Sophie, have a few things to sort out between now and the reading. Hope to see you there.
Well 60 Lovers to Make and Do came out, and we had a great time launching it at the charismatic Cinema Museum, which occupies the site of Lambeths former workhouse, and still maintains an atmosphere in which the word poetry is allowed to blink out like imaginary dodgy neon from the word poverty.
I impulsively printed myself 4 metres of gold satin with collages from the book, at 3rd Rail screen printing studio in Peckham.
My good friend and former studio neighbour, incredible dress designer and maker, Linda Brooker, cut from it enough to make this dress, and trim it with red pompoms for good measure.
The book contains 65 poems in which women create their own lovers from things they find lying around at home or at work. These are accompanied by collages in which hidden lovers are cut from unlikely and unpeopled pages from magazines or broken books. When I’ve read from the book people seem to find it funny.
Who knows, perhaps they recognise something about the absurdity of love and relationship. The wildness of our projections… Could this make the book quite a nice present for the lover who doesn’t even know that it’s poetry they love? Just saying.
You can get hold of a copy direct from the publishers here: https://www.henninghamfamilypress.co.uk/product/60-lovers-to-make-and-do/, or please order it from your local bookshop. It’s already being stocked by one of my personal favourites, the Bookartbookshop near Old Street tube, as well as Herne Hill Books. Also, soon it will be available at The Second Shelf in Soho, and Circus in Brixton Market.
I’m proud to be a ‘distinguished friend’ of The Migration Museum Project and was recently invited to hang 100 of my drawings collected live in ink on the theme of home, in their current premises on Lambeth High Street.
If you’d like to see them fluttering along the high walkway like inky washing, they’ll be up until September 2nd. I’ll be at a special late opening there on Thursday 26th July. Please come.
I was invited to make an installation for a unique space in the lovely town of Lewes.
Come to a private view and reading of three massive collage poems that are hanging in the window of this sweet ex sweetshop. I’ll read the windows and there’ll be milling and chatting under the sherbet lemon sun… right round the corner from Lewes Station, you’ll find the Lansdown Sweet Shop and opposite that is the Symposium Wine Emporium where there will be a table and a glass of something chilled…