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!
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?
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 atthe 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.
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.
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.
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