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.

European in America, continued.

I’ve been slowly getting the hang of where things are in Berkeley. I have a borrowed bicycle to skidaddle downtown to get gouache and oranges, or raid the library. What a library! A huge poetry section for a start (I haven’t even set foot in Fiction yet.) ‘How many books can one borrow at a time?’ I asked ‘Up to 85’ the man said… I opted for a cautious four.

American poetry section in Berkeley Public Library Library

There are also tiny box libraries out on peoples’ front yards, a great idea where neighbours get to exchange books. I’ve been helping myself. Back in the studio I rearrange fragments of these texts to create newly voiced poems, guessing my way to more index card text collages. I’m pleased to say that amazing poet Tom Jenks is going to publish 56 of them as a pack of cards with his innovative press/project Zimzalla this summer.

A couple of ‘American’ index card poems
One of Berkeleys ‘little free libraries’
A selection of my index card poems.

It’s a booky region. I went to San Francisco earlier this month to hear poet DS Marriott read at legendary bookstore, City Lights. I’d been impressed by his work before, having been asked to draw him for the cover of Poetry London in 2018. This time I could draw and listen to him live. He read poems re Grime music and the Grenfell tragedy, amongst other things, his poems glittered: images, musicality, truth impeccably spliced. A thread of humour lit up the afro-pessimism, a theory he talked about in the Q and A at the end. Haunting poems and ideas, appropriately, I bought his newest book: Duppies.

David Marriott reading poems at City Lights, San Francisco

Back at HQ last week it was my turn to read poems and show some of my work in progress. I put up new paintings in the studio, and Dan Schifrin, who manages the residency locally, organised the party. We had borscht & a reading, and a rainy night was enlivened by art, poetry and plenty of interesting people.

At my first salon in the residency studio

The chance to develop further as a painter is perhaps the chief thrill of this residency. I haven’t had such a luxury combination of time and space to myself for a few decades. I like working at night in the studio. Feelings and sensations are amplified by solitude and the novelty of being in this new place. I stare and stare out walking in the day: lemons on trees, house sized cacti, purple houses with pink camellias, capricious typography neoned on corners.

I try to lock down the sensations as they hurtle past my eyeballs & into my head.

Eg – this blue, this magenta
and what about this pairing of neons, Judaica then LIQUORS, a daily spell to chant on my local parade.

I’m trying as usual, to find a correspondence between what I see and what I think and feel, but trying is not an effective way to paint. I have to screw myself up like a scrap of paper and twist myself through the keyhole, then hurl myself at the wall using only my materials. Here’s a picture of how that’s going.

Current studio wall with five new paintings, more detail of the latest one below
Working title: River of Impossible Relationships

Here I have added rain in the form of strips cut from sacrificial book waste, and last night the orange ribbon edges.

I hold on to the idea that creative work is resistance. Today I mark what I hope is a temporary severance of the UK from Europe, by carrying on with my very European painting & dedicating what I do to the spirit of unity, neighbourliness & internationalism.

working title: The Grower The Radical and the Dreamer Murmur Dissent over many Time Zones

Thanks for reading my blog!

Autumns remembered Lambeth gold

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.

Photo by Andrea Reece

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.

Sixty Lovers to Make and Do

Cut out lettering for book cover (but not actual book cover.)
First cover rough

One of my favourite things to do on holiday is to drift about in secondhand bookshops.

Single author collections (alphabetical! detail!)

There’s often good contemporary poetry in charity shops which is heartening and disheartening at the same time, great for fixing holes in my spookily well organised poetry book case though.

Other books I collect are often more elusive, being older, usually early and mid twentieth century publications, fairy tales and activity books.

A few from my fairy tale collections collection

Old activity books, with their dry yet perky instructions for practical creativity also speak of magic and transformation, with a resourceful kind of innocence.

some of my wonderful 20th century activity books

The combined inspiration of these three types of book is behind my new collection of poems that’s about to go to press.

Called 60 Lovers To Make and Do, it is a sequence of poems in which women characters create their own lovers from stuff they find lying about at home or at work. The sixty women all have different jobs which give the poems their titles, and sometimes the lovers they manifest connect with these.

A sneak preview of a few of the poems from 60 Lovers to Make and Do

It’s a homage to the female artist in all of us, as well as to the imagination and to loneliness.

I was delighted that David and Ping Henningham, of Henningham Family Press, wanted to publish the sequence, as they are artists like me, and always design their books as if each one is a new invention.

I have been making a new type of collage/papercut to accompany the poems, but not illustrate them. For these I have been concentrating on finding and releasing invisible lovers from pages in old magazines and books.

Lovers in a minimal interior
verily a floating knave

There are also images made with collaged words in addition to the salvaged images – some works with just found words and no image, there’s even a bit of drawing.

Mystery female hat prop collage

Working with the Henninghams has been brilliant, they helped think of how to structure the book – suggesting a seasonal approach, like a book of hours.

We all spent a day in the V and A looking in the library as well as at the collection, riffing off the many exquisite and surprising objects, and marvelling at how medieval people made pages with so many dimensions, what we could take from their inventive text handling…

I cut out another type of newspaper collage for the seasonal dividers – here’s an example of one: winter.

Winter lovers cut from mourners

This picture is cut from a newspaper photo of the crowds of mourners at George V’s funeral in 1936.

Henningham Family Press ran a very successful Kickstarter campaign to supplement some Arts Council funding for the book, which means there can be really beautiful duotone reproductions of the collages, as well as an additional colour within its pages. I’d like to thank Gemma Seltzer at Kickstarter, and everyone who supported the book, and preordered a copy through this.

If you would like to order a copy of the book, it will be easy to buy direct from henninghamfamilypress.co.uk from September, as well as by ordering it at your local bookshop. Do please come to the launch party –

Tuesday 17th September at the Cinema Museum 6:30-9, with a reading at 8.

hopefully there’ll be enough room for lots of us, even with our real or imaginary friends and lovers.

The Electric Nothing

Blake manifests on his own local station

Poet Anna Robinson hosts a monthly programme on Soho Radio called The Poetry Parlour, in which guests are invited to read work and discuss interesting poetic questions live on air.

I spent a very fun hour in the bijou radio studio on Great Windmill Street on Friday, with Anna and Blake scholar Dr David Worrall, talking about William Blake – as a child of Soho, visionary Londoner and all round majestic influence.

We also each got to pick a song to go with the subject, and read a couple of pieces of work. You’ll have to listen via the link below if you’re curious, but here’s a clue, one poem I read was from The Practical Visionary , and the other was a brand new one written over the last month when I lived in a castle, as a lucky recipient of a Hawthornden Fellowship.

Listen here:  William Blake in the Poetry Parlour

Thanks so much for having me Anna, for the pretend studio tea (in real pretend cracked floral teacups) and the real hardcore coffee to follow, needed to propel me to a necessary browse at wonderful new bookshop The Second Shelf, in nearby Smiths Court.

As a comedown from the fully catered Scottish castle life, I recommend chatting about Blake & books with nice people in Soho as a good first step!

Poets in Colour

William Blake was happy to sit for me in Lambeth

I have finished this phase of the poetry 101 commission for The Poetry Foundation in Chicago – and now all my portraits of the essential poets they asked me to draw are up online.

If you search the names below with 101 next to them, you’ll find a brand new picture of them by me, a biography and essay about their work and context, and at least five sample poems with a critical analysis.

Here are the poets I’ve drawn since I last wrote about this.

June Jordan

W B Yeats

James Wright

Nikki Giovanni

William Blake

William Carlos Williams

John Donne

Joy Harjo

William Wordsworth

John Ashbery

Edward Thomas

Robert Duncan

John Ashbery, himself a fantastic collagist.

Its been wonderful to have been able to contribute to this free and inspired educational resource. This last batch included several poets whose work I already knew and loved – and a few whose poetry was new to me and gave me a chance to extend my reading and put in research time, which in turn has really fed my writing.

Trying to forge connections between the poets own use of language and themes, and the colours, textures and materiality of the scraps in their collage backgrounds- has been exciting – a good excuse to get lost in the space between pictures and words.

I’ve also relished a return to observational drawing and this work has led me to other commissions and reinvigorated my love for thinking in and about colour.

I hope to exhibit all 30 original portraits one day in the USA or here, meanwhile they’re out there on one of the most informative and interesting websites in the universe! Do subscribe, you’ll have fresh poems in your inbox daily!

Thanks for the gig The Poetry Foundation.

James Wright
Joy Harjo