Poet & collaborator Chris McCabe and I have been sharing and exchanging ideas about one of our favourite genii, William Blake for a few years now, including teaching creative courses on him for The Poetry School.
These have involved reading, writing, walking Blake’s Lambeth (including the amazing Southbank mosaics, e.g. above) drawing and collage and also a printmaking component, for which we were lucky enough to get to use Slaughterhaus Print Studios in Stockwell, where students could try the heavy wheel of an etching press, and immerse themselves in some of that engraver’s back to front thinking that was such an essential part of Blake’s process.
This September sees the publication of Chris and I’s book in response to William B: The PracticalVisionary, as well as an exhibition at the Poetry Cafe of some of the original work that this has generated.
Our publisher, the small but heroic Hercules Editions, run by poet Tamar Yoseloff, was named for the road Blake and his wife Catherine lived on in their most productive 10 years, making illuminated books in Lambeth, the borough I was born and raised in and live in still, and the borough Chris is in during his working week, as the librarian of the National Poetry Library at the Southbank.
Do look at The Practical VisionaryKickstarter campaign – there’s more here about the way we created the content and the pages, starting with quite a funny spontaneous video, made at the end of a publishing meeting. Though I say so myself, there are some amazing art bargains available in the list of rewards for supporters.
We’ll be launching the book officially at the Poetry Cafe on October 17th, but the week before, there’s a chance to come and do some Blakean responding of your own at our evening workshop at The Poetry Society.
Whoever your Blake turns out to be, I hope you catch a glimpse of his colour and fire somewhere in the pages of The Practical Visionary.
Golgonooza the spiritual Four-fold London eternal In immense labours & sorrows, ever building, ever falling, Thro Albions four Forests which overspread all the Earth, From London Stone to Blackheath east: to Hounslow west: To Finchley north: to Norwood south
So thrilling when personal obsessions are given the chance to expand into real projects, real objects.
This has happened twice in recent months with two of my sequences making their way into books and exhibitions.
Here’s an account of the the first to appear: Your Candle Accompanies the Sun.
In the spring I had a bout of terrible Mondays, when my teenage son, who has learning difficulties and autism, decided he was never going to school again. He’d take off around the neighbourhood, and nothing (believe me) would get him on the road to his school, (a lovely place btw, he was fine once he was there.)*
While he was out wandering, I was obliged to stay at home and wait, as when he would eventually find his way back, he needed me to be there.
During these times, I really was stuck indoors, quite anxious, unable to do much. In an attempt to ‘do something useful’ I began clearing out some of our excess junk. I came upon a small 1930s book of duotone tourist photos of Switzerland that I’d forgotten I’d picked up at a flea market years before. ‘Why! This is collage gold.’ I gasped. ‘In fact, it’s the inner landscape of Emily Dickinson!’
I’d seen a Poetry School competition callout on instagram re Emily D – provoked in turn by the new Terence Davies’ biopic: A Quiet Passion.
I began, at the kitchen table, to make one collage after another, glueing and stitching flat turquoise Alps to scraps of photographed kitchenware… and finding my own words to add, after rereading the energetic, mysterious and spiky poems Emily Dickinson wrote so urgently in her many years stuck indoors.
She made some sacrifices in order to develop her revolutionary work. Being a female artist was never a picnic.
This summer I showed a selection of the collages in an exhibition at The Art Stable, Dorset. The work remains up and viewable by appointment, until September 15th. Curator Kelly Ross had had the idea to set me up with brilliant painter Gigi Sudbury, so we could potentially collaborate, and show our work together. This was an added delight, as we share a passion for colour and narrative, the domestic and surreal combined.
We met and looked at exhibitions and forged a valuable exchange. I’d like to write about this more, but for now, here is one of her paintings from the show. We encouraged each other’s image text tendencies.
To co ordinate with the exhibition I again called upon the book producing genius of the Henningham Family Press. They devised a beautiful new binding for a book of the Emily Dickinson collages.
I tried to write an introduction to the work, but ended up writing a little poem instead, which felt less cumbersome.
To accompany the collages I picked out a handful of Dickinson’s poems, a few old favourites and some more obscure ones. It was fun to choose poems that showed her wit and her visual acuity, her skill in collaging language, her games of scale.
E.g. one starting: ‘I’ll tell you how the Sun rose – A Ribbon at a time – ‘ And another that begins: ‘The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants – ‘ which made Gigi and I laugh our heads off when we met to compare art notes in my kitchen.
The book is available at £20 from Henningham Family Press. Each copy contains 28 collages impeccably reproduced at actual size, my poem and ten by Emily Dickinson.
Each book is cleverly hand-bound to allow for two different sized pamphlets in one set of covers, reflecting our two voices.
Henningham Family Press will be showing the book, amongst many others of their inventive works, at FREE VERSE: The Poetry Book Fair on September 30th. I will be reading along with David Henningham – times to be confirmed.
It’s a great event in any case, for anyone interested in poetry, and the variety of publications being made by presses on every scale. Take cash and be prepared to wave goodbye to it.
And if you too get stuck indoors – solidarity. All I can say is – poetry can sometimes unstick a person with its odd letter shaped keys!
And happy National Poetry Day on September 28th, for which the theme, as I’ve said before, and cut out of black paper and white… is Freedom.
*My son now has the offer of a college place where his independence can be fostered and encouraged, so less stuckness for all of us hopefully.
A Pilot Poetry project in Four Hull Schools: May 2017
This year, 2017, National Poetry Day will be launched from Hull, in honour of its status as city of culture. Hull, with its proud abolitionist history, via celebrated son William Wilberforce, is also behind this years NPD theme: Freedom.
I was invited by Susannah Herbert of National Poetry Day, to assemble a team of poets, and work with NPD manager Andrea Reece, to roll out a four day poetry extravaganza in Hull for primary children, ahead of the day itself in late September.
The idea being that the children of Hull could lead the way in showing how freeing it might be to work with poets, and find poetry of their own to explore and document their ideas and feelings, and the world around them. We prioritised getting a wide cross section of voices and styles so that the students would discover that there are all kinds of poets, and many different ways to work creatively with language.
Schools and children up and down the land could then follow suit, and be inspired and empowered by the poetic imagination revealed in Hull!
Ian Reed and Roisha Wardlaw of the Hull 2017 No Limits education programme helped us set this up and with their support we rolled into town.
In April we made a trip to meet and work with teachers from the schools that had elected to take part. Andrea and I spent a great day with them where they found themselves unselfconsciously writing poems, playing a game of poetry lucky dip, practicing choosing and reading newly discovered poets work aloud to each other, and arranging image and text together in their own spontaneously evolving artists’ books.
Before the teachers workshops we had a day to look around Hull, meet some young artists and poets from an organisation called Ground and also go to a book launch at the university where we met tutors and students of creative writing, and heard two poets read, one of whom, Sarah Stutt, seemed like a good fit for our schools programme, so we invited her to join us.
Some of the teachers/schools had proposed themes for our workshops as well as the overarching theme of freedom, and all had made plans as to how to best deploy each poet to the right year groups and classrooms. It was interesting to note which workshops were most effective, and not surprisingly, there’s a lot to be said for spending a whole morning or a day with pupils on reading and making poems, rather than zipping through at speed. Assemblies were a good way to gather everyone in school under the poetry umbrella, we all did whole school assemblies which were an important part of the week, and allowed for introductions… below I’ll just give a few examples of workshops that I was part of.
At Alderman Cogan School, year 5 were looking at the Vikings and Anglo Saxons, and I joined Chris McCabe who had devised an inspired class on sound poetry, playing the children recordings of Old English, Dada poetry, and Edwin Morgan reading his Loch Ness Monster’s Song. (‘Yes, you are definitely allowed to laugh!’) Everyone had a great inventive time making up a script for Beowulf and Grendel in contrasting modern English and monster sound poetry… this scroll was made by a girl called Georgie after school, she came and showed me the following day, what a star.
Another brilliant child made a whole sound poem book, also in his own time, and not only came to show me, but read from it with real flair at the childrens public poetry performance held in Hulls Jubilee Hall on the Friday.
It felt like poetry luxury for me to work for three whole hours with one class at Saint Mary Queen of Martyrs. Year 5 wrote Oulipian anagram poems and made their own books. First we looked at all the words we could get from SAINT MARY QUEEN OF MARTYRS, and pooled our findings on the whiteboard. The students discovered rafts, serenity, men, mountains, nutters, mum, sun, rain, tents, roses, a sister… and much more.
I then taught them how to make a little foldy book from an A4 piece of paper, and we each made one, using precise folding and crisp, black paper. Black pages are hard to write on, so we had to use collage papers and light coloured pencils to make our words appear. I was blown away by the concentration, the sheer enjoyment of the challenge, the use of colour and language, and also the enthusiasm of the teacher, Mr Herman, who expected wonderful work from his class, and got it!
This double page spread seemed to offer profound insight on the domestic scene! It definitely struck a chord with me.
My Wednesday was insanely busy running six sessions with foundation stage at AC school; a high spot was the spontaneous creation of a commemorative frieze poem with a Reception class to celebrate the bike/scooter ride they’d just completed before my appearance.
When I asked them to tell me how proud they were, how sweaty they got, how tired – they came up with original similes that were pure poetry. I wrote 15 of these out in my swirly ink calligraphy on long strips of paper, and ran these underneath wider strips, on which I’d asked the children to draw self portraits on the vehicles they’d ridden.
Examples of what the children told me: “as sweaty as the sun,” “as tired as a tired horse,” “as proud as a bee that had stung 109 people and then died,” and a wonderful image from a boy who hadn’t found a bike or scooter, but had done the circuit on his legs: “I want to go to sleep as cosy as a basket of eggs.” For the full effect please imagine that distinct Hull accent shaping the words. I was totally charmed.
With the smiling help of their teacher, Ms Hodgeson, we displayed the poem as a frieze all the way round the walls, recreating that cycling round the playground look for indoors.
Shazea, Joseph, Chris, Sarah and Kate all told me great stories: of young poets finding their voices, children that normally avoided writing suddenly joining in, and other inestimably valuable responses. Us poets really enjoyed having colleagues for the week, and getting to read as well as eat together, and compare notes about workshops, school dinners and POETRY! Our reading in town on the Tuesday night at The Kardomah was a blast, we were joined by Joe Hakim, a Hull poet, and others who contributed via the open mic slot. One of the teachers who’d been most involved and helpful with our visit, Mike Goode, is also a poet, he got up and read that night, inspiring.
What an intense week: thinking, planning, teaching, reading, listening, performing. It seemed like everyone we met was excited to be a part of this, and to consider poetry as a vital part of everyday life. As this was now over a month ago I’m hoping that the ideas are still filtering through the minds of the children we met and wrote with… I know they’ll be buzzing around my head on a permanent basis now!
The brief was for me to spend a week in The Clockhouse, neighbour building to John Osborne’s grand and gothic former home The Hurst, and make visual art in response to the place, as well as on any themes I was preoccupied with already.
I was invited because Arvon, working with Jo King at Ludlow Open, was looking for an artist for whom image and text are inextricably intertwined. With the Arvon Foundations expertise at generating all kinds of text, with their incredible year round programme of writers and courses, it was felt that fostering visual art alongside could build in yet more inspiration.
Part of the arrangement was that I’d donate a piece from what I made, which could then contribute to the development of a contemporary art collection for the house.
It was bliss to stay at the newly refurbished Clockhouse, which is run as an untutored retreat space, with four tranquil apartments, and homecooked meals in one-person sized portions to heat up on whim.
We shared the big kitchen and sitting room for breaks, and traded ideas about poetry, vegetable preparation and the world. Halya’s English was brilliant and we worked on translating a piece of her punky writing together, which we then read from in turn at a presentation later in the week.
I covered my nice carpet and desk with dust-sheets in case of paint, and made the study into a studio. I walked in the redwoods and got lost in the enveloping fern/oak/cloudscapes of the Shropshire Hills. Away from domestics, my mind flickered over into making things mode. Into the emptiness jumped my dead parents, as well as all my living relationships. There’s nothing quite as welcome: engulfing, freaky, disorientating – as some peaceful, paid for nothing.
Getting lost in those luminous hills set me off too, and I have yet to edit the small clutch of poems it inspired, especially as in visual artist capacity I was trying to steer my imagination mainly into paint.
Here’s a chat that I couldn’t resist documenting though, in both types of inky line: me trying to encourage Lyubko to set foot outside, though I knew I’d only seen him in dainty fawn loafers…
At The Hurst next door a group of 16 writers were hard at creating Young Adult fiction. We ate with them and their tutors a couple of the nights, an entertaining bunch. It was interesting to listen to talk of plotting, pace and character, the practicalities of narrative… how they were (and weren’t) progressing.
After myself and the Ukrainian writers had given our talk/readings on the Thursday evening, introduced by Natasha Carlish, who runs the Hurst, it seemed a fun and connective addition to offer myself in story collecting capacity the next day, and collect ‘young adult/teenage stories’ from all who wished to share one.
I brought my ink and paper through on Friday, and lots of people came. One by one they told me about rites of passage: times of shame, triumph, love, discovery, rebellion – from their adolescent years. Jo though, the Arvon gardener, wanted to tell me a much younger formative story, (I grudgingly allowed this!) Having heard and drawn it, I too will go and pay my respects to the snakes first, whenever the chance arises.
Of course I loved all the stories. Me and this Clapham Rachael laughed so much together I could hardly operate my brush.
Good, I’m glad I told you that, she said. I’m going to frame it and put it up in my loo.
Most of the week I worked in ink or gouache, and on the Friday drew about twenty of these teenage stories, I collected some from myself too, as a friend helpfully suggested that for every twenty I hear I should draw at least three of my own!
I particularly enjoyed Natasha’s swirling plumes of fuggy cafe steam. With my many stranded brush those flourishes pretty much draw themselves. It’s a great tool for corduroy trousers and heavy rain as well.
It was hard to tear myself away on the Friday, surely I will return! For now, I will let the chosen painting hover in Shropshire on my behalf, also feeling glad that the label (and the name) for the new enterprise of THursty home grown apple juice from the Hursts orchards bears the stamp of my inky paw. Thanks to everyone at Arvon for really knowing how to look after people, and to Jo King and Natasha Carlish for giving me such a dreamy opportunity.
Thank you to Gemma Seltzer, for inviting me to jump aboard this ink stained tour bus and spill some beans about projects and process.
This tour is easy to catch: if you paste the title of this post into a search engine, all kinds of writing carriage operators will fall into line and chug you through their notebook strewn scenery.
I also get to invite some people whose ideas I find interesting, to answer the same four questions the following week. You’ll find them at the end of my post. I have a call out to some other writers – watch this space, in case another writing process revealer gets back to me…
I first came across Gemma Seltzer’s name when her book Speak to Strangers (Penned in the Margins, 2011) was being excitedly passed around a pub table one Wednesday night after poetry class. Like everything I’ve seen by her since, this work spins out from a strong concept – and connects in a deeply human way, encompassing deft scale changes (vast cityscape, close up on shiny hair…) She is brilliant at using live interaction, feeding off the energy of conversation, chance, urban buzz; and pulling this into crisp vignettes that are perfect containers to be contemplated calmly in the silent hum of reading later.
Gain clues about how she manages this: her answers to the writing process blog tour are here:
I like a few projects on the go, then when I get stuck with one I can give it a break from my gaze, in the hope that on my return both me and it will be refreshed and ready for the next grapple, or possibly: clarity. Work has the chance to move on when you stop hassling it.
At the moment:
1. I’m writing a series of dramatic monologues in a phonetic and exaggerated German accent, all from the point of view of a female immigrant to London in 1938, I’m up to twenty two poems – I’m aiming to stop at 26, as I have it on good authority that 26 is where it’s at.
Vot a Vurlt! Zo much to zay! Oont zo hentdy to hef ziss borrote pairzonellity to heit behinte!
2. The Edible Garden/project Phakama
I am part of a team working with an old peoples home in Deptford. Together with musicians, a dancer, student performers and a chef, we are creating a performance based on the stories we find there: I’m writing lyrics with the residents: we will cook up a home made musical and lunch!
3. With a group led by Chris McCabe at the Poetry School, I’ve spent a year of Thursday evenings reading and writing in response to James Joyce’s Ulysses.
We’ll perform a version of our writings on Bloomsday/June 16th, so reworking and learning content by heart, listening to ideas from each other and theatre director Matthew Lloyd, is a rich process of transforming raw poems into living, breathing 3D.
Studio based projects include collaborating on a poetic artist’s book, and four portrait painting commissions. These are in my twin universe of paint, colour, mark.
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
Oh how delicious is the word genre! I like it its r at the end specially, and will roll that ‘r’ with bravura, whilst eating grilled fromage du chevre, beneath my candelabra latre, mon frere.
If my main genre in writing terms is poetry: then I’d like to think I differ just by coming from the particular angle I come from: visual arts, playfulness, spontaneity. My content which is often about the dark in the domestic – and the tightrope I like to hang out on: suspended between humour and gloom. I love a combination of apparent ease and lightness with a core of shocking nerve-blasting truth, and a European sense of the all pervasive absurd. Poems as scale-changing, logic-fighting, anti-naturalistic word towers. Poets, artists and filmmakers I admire tend to pull these breath-taking stunts – refreshing the world with their own flavour of unblinking stare, I don’t care if it’s deadpan or flouncy!!!! I’d list them, but lists always leave people out, so I will resist. Let’s discuss influences another day.
Why do I write what I do?
Because I have a short attention span/no time, and like to get out into the metaphorical landscape in little bursts on wordy skates?
Also, it’s personal: One of my kids is autistic and learning disabled. Raising him has made communication into a religion for me, and expression seem urgent, as I have been squished into a carer’s biscuit tin for a long time, and now I need to let myself and my ideas get freshly aired.
The oppressiveness of his rigidities has had a paradoxical effect of freeing me to say whatever the hell I want! Good poetry and painting operate a similar magic, for me anyway: parades of images/metaphors, a palette of observation and emotion, integrity in putting whatever colours can be scraped together into a work that flashes reflected light on human experience, that kind of thing.
I’ve also found new comradeship in a section of the poetry world, people here seem to enjoy intensity and awkwardness: marvellous!
How does my writing process work?
I get out my notebook, (on a bus, a train, in bed, in the pub, in the café, at the kitchen table, up the Glass Mountain, beyond thrice kingdoms thrice removed) and I write.
I do like an easy flowing ink pen (type: lamy, cartridge colour: black, ) and an unlined notebook (Rymans A5 sketchbook with an elastic pinger to close it) I write and draw and do not censor myself. I write all the time, except when I have to be doing other stuff, making money or dinner. Sometimes the thoughts or games turn into poems. At the end of each notebook (a sad feeling, they become such friends) I go through, find all the things that might be poems, type them up onto the computer, title and save them. Later I go back, look again – either work on them a bit, or a lot, or delete the little buggers. I value dreams, listening, and letting things turn up. I have great faith in my unconscious, having worked with it for years. Planning I find impossible. I’m not organised. Though like all ‘makers’ I find restraints liberating, eg oulipian rules, a limited palette, an exercise suggested. I have attended some brilliant classes, which have helped me to steer through my own material and Poetry at large. Although my general chaos makes finding things tricky, it also keeps ideas churning in an alive way. For me, ideas come and go quite easily. Reading poetry aloud (other peoples’ as well as mine of course) really helps. Language: like nature and one’s own flesh, there it is – every day, for us to inhabit how we choose. It’s a cure for practically anything. Practicality even!
My castaways next week are:
poet and playwright Shazea Quraishi: whose pamphlet: The Courtesan’s Reply was a lucky find for me in my local bookshop. The poems are taut, erotic and wise, and have been built as responses to a Sanskrit text written in 300 BC in which the courtesans glimpsed have been reimagined, and given their own voices. I will be interested to read about how Shazea has discovered and connected to these characters via her writing process. http://shazea.wordpress.com/
and poet and editor Amy Key: Her sparkling debut poetry collection Luxe was published by Salt in November 2013. With the poet Nia Davies, she co-edits the online journal Poems in Which and is currently editing a new anthology of poems on friendship among women Best Friends Forever, due to be published by The Emma Press late 2014. http://amyvkey.com/
Confirmation of my last invited tourer: Paul Stephenson. All the poems I’ve read by him are wonderful. Others agree and he’s won a raft of prizes. He lives in Paris currently and has that European thing I mentioned, a zest for experiment, which combined with his humour makes for exciting poetry. Find out more about him and look out for his responses to the four questions on his blog over the coming weeks. http://paulstephensonpoet.wordpress.com/about/