I was struck by this neon on my way home from a newly allowed jaunt in town – made bright to shout out – but muffled by its own habitual shutters. Metaphor for current self? Imperative to broken world?
I’ve been so grateful to be back at live events these last few weeks, the Poetry London 100th issue celebration, and the following night, a real buzz at the Forward Prize readings. Both these were held at the Southbank Centre. It felt great to be back in that quintessentially public space and share the sensations zipping off language, reforged and flying about in the London air.
Last night more treats, as I sat mesmerised listening to Marcia Farquhar read from her new book Pushing 60 at iconic venue The Horse Hospital, another treasured space. She’s a born performer, funny and serious at the same time.
It’s also been epic to work in real rooms with other people again. I wheeled my trolley of art making gear to Walthamstow, where I was part of two inspiring projects that support refugees and asylum seekers: Stories and Supper & Stories in Transit which had teamed up on a couple of Saturdays for some creative collaborations. We worked together to create new songs and banners to welcome Little Amal to London. I learnt a lot from everyone there and loved working with Debsey Wykes who swiftly made everything into a song as if it was no trouble at all.
Also I’ve been teaching some of my classes live again at The Royal Drawing School, though most remain online. I have been lucky to work with some life models who can act. The two IRL ‘Drawing a Story’ classes I ran over the last weeks involved a lot of speedy costume and character changes, as Lidia became a frog, a king, three brothers and various other characters… – and Richard became Sita, Rama, Ravanna, Hanuman and a great variety of demons, in the section I told of the Ramayana. I used this book as a springboard: Rama and Sita, Path of Flames, one of the four books I’ve collaborated on with good friend & storyteller Sally Pomme Clayton. We would love support with our next collaboration, which is a book called The Mighty Goddess, coming out next year with the The History Press. We have a Kickstarter campaign waiting in the wings.
Other areas of watch & repair have stretched to me patching my parka, replacing the pins with stitches in a sweet old patchwork quilt, and getting to the next stage of studio sort out – which is being masterminded by young artist Joe Hill. His eyes light up spookily at the prospect of creating an organised HQ from my mayhem.
I’ll be escaping both home & studio this Sunday, in Manchester, where I’ll be reading upstairs at The Peer Hat . I get to share the bill with two fabulous poets, Nell Osborne and Sarah-Clare Conlon – so I’m looking forward to meeting them and hearing them read. It’s free and doors open at 6:30pm. It’s been put together by Tom Jenks of zimZalla, publisher (as perhaps you know by now) of INDEX. This is Index’s northern launch. Do come if you can.
Going to poetry readings is a high risk activity, even outside of pandemic conditions. There’s a good chance of getting badly bored, as well as the daintier hope of having one’s entire being revivified by the power of language in its most indisputable finery.
Two of the biggest ones: The Forward Prizes and now the TSEliot prize, have had to move online recently, like everything else.
I watched the latter last night and the night before in manageable chunks. Having a seven day window to watch and listen to ten poets read for five minutes each, on a prerecorded video, is a very different experience to the old fluster of catching the 59 bus from Brixton Hill to Waterloo, and stampeding around with fellow poets at the Festival Hall.
Those were fun and unpredictable capers of catching up and talking shop, laying bets, exchanging views and verdicts on books, performances, (outfits) and the shortlist in general. Who had read what, who had been overlooked, and what a load of nonsense prizes are!
Because even mainstream poetry has less pull for a wide audience than other artforms, the hierarchies in it seem less extreme. So it’s easy to have a chat with a big prize winner who is also off on the bus afterwards, and stopping in at a supermarket for a cheese sandwich on the way home.
Poetry is magic, on the page and in the air, but the completion of the magic is in the reader, and how difficult it is not to catch or share that energy as it is cast into the collective space. The futility of this put me off attending the Forward readings online, though I’d read and loved many of the shortlisted works. But I decided to be brave and try with the TSEliots this time, even at the risk of the screen flattening my responses.
The word reassuring could have been coined for Ian McMillan, who is the regular compère of this ceremony in its live form. He is an expert in both poetry and audience handling and can hold the most incongruous gaggle of poets together. His unpretentious introductions to each gives space to any voice or content that may follow.
We only heard five minutes of work from each of the shortlisted poets, as compared to eight when it’s a live event. This made it almost impossible to arrive at boredom, (I was a little disappointed.) I took a special pride in those I knew or had read with. Poetry is nothing if not subjective.
For me, hearing Sasha Dugdale was a highlight. In her book Deformations, she questions power between men and women, artist and subject. Pain is trapped and inspected in her concision. Her renaming of Odysseus as Pitysad – with that conscious sounding of PTSD within it – made the poem she read from that sequence: Stripclub, extra layered. Words fluttered in a demimonde of desire & loss and the cumulative inhabiting of both. Whose skin we occupy in relationship, who performs and who feels. I looked at the book again later that night, and read a prose poem in the voice of Penelope. Always waiting. Still waiting now. It reminded me of Molly Bloom’s parallel monologue that ends Ulysses, but Sasha Dugdale inhabits the voice of a female lover in a very different key from the one James Joyce created.
I enjoyed the helter skelter wit and delight in language of Natalie Diaz– in which she piled on layer after layer of celebratory metaphors for her lover’s hips.
Ella Frears has a talent for the unsettling. She pulls horror from beneath the pretty, with a twisted aplomb. I read with her a couple of years ago and this adds to my feeling of connection with her, and the tornado of her poetry and mind. I also loved how she began, by saying: ‘I wish we were all in a room together.’
Wayne Holloway Smith, with his oversized glasses and funky green sofa makes poetry refreshing. There’s no stodge or pomp in his poems, but pictures. The boy, the man, the town, the scene – emerge visceral, visible: blazing in city rhythms. He sat in my kitchen once, when such things were allowed, as I was asked to draw his portrait for the cover of Poetry London.
Daisy Lafarge is a poet whose work I didn’t know. I really enjoyed the textures and delicacies she created in the work she read. Musicality, muscularity. A book I look forward to reading.
I don’t have Rendang by Will Harris yet, (my reading life has narrowed horribly since the libraries have been shut) I enjoyed his poems too. The work is subtle and imaginative: images open out and expand, reappear in different guises, places and objects are conjured vividly.
I admired the assurance & surprises in all the works laid out before my eyes and ears as I wandered through the dismally flat carpet emporium of my laptop.
So, prizes for poetry! Absurd! It all seems counterintuitive in some ways (like how can a consensus be reached on what is good quality poetry, or god forbid, the best!)
But listening to these poets who’d thought so richly about which words they’d arrange in what order, did somehow re kindle my somewhat pandemic-crushed writing arm – and make it re-member – that a voice is an instrument of power, one worth using & raising – more than ever in a muted period of admonishing slogans, and their accompanying blanket of nightly death statistics.
So thanks – for reading, and for continuing with the exhausting work of being a three dimensional human person with limbs & not just a flat zoom shaped head, for being… ALIVE!
My story collecting live in ink process took me to Greenwich last week, where the impressive edifice of the National Maritime Museum, its doorway flanked by huge anchors, made me feel both excited and nervous, with my wheelie suitcase full of cartridge paper and crumpled studio get up – a bit like arriving somewhere new for the first time…
The atmosphere inside was buzzy and friendly, and I loved listening to stories of home and migration from a bunch of local year 5 children, drawing and writing down a small sampling of their great variety of experiences.
We were in the Re:Think space which for now is the borrowed terrain of the Migration Museum Project, set up three years ago to consider our ever changing flow – people and their movement, in and out of the UK and the ocean of complicated facts and feelings that accompany this.
A bonus was that I also had a lunch break with fellow traveller on the poetry seas, Karen McCarthy Woolf, whose stunning book An Aviary of Small Birds has just been nominated for the Forward Prize for best first collection. Karen currently has a writing residency with the National Maritime Museum, and took the photo below, of me drawing the story of her own small but huge migration: from north to south London. (Such a good move, we’re very welcoming in the south!)
We were both made to feel at home in the museum by being allowed to choose and make things to put in our own allocated glass cases, what a dream!
I will be there again on July 7th and 31st, and on August 23rd, which is also slavery memorial day. Come along if you’re free!
If that’s too far along the river I’ll be on hand to help any visitors to the Festival Hall create poetry pages from wherever they might have come from… we’ll be making a new London poetry book from all the contributions as part of Poetry International. That’s on 25th July, all kinds of art materials will be on hand, so bring your most properly colourful language!
When I took up ‘residence’ under the imagined light of a cut-out paper chandelier in an allotment shed in 2004, on a project called FEAST (curated by Clare Patey and Cathy Wren, for London International Festival of Theatre) I didn’t imagine that this was the beginning of such a long and fruitful path, story collecting and drawing in conversation with so many people.
There is too much to say about this process, which has evolved into a systemised practise that combines my favourite work zones: words and images – with content that fascinates me: people – and the apparently ordinary stuff we do, like peel the potatoes, go for a walk, have a baby…
People queue up to tell me of their experiences, and every single one has qualities both unique and universal. I take between 10 and 15 minutes to listen to and then write and draw each story. Enough time to laugh, cry and draw, but not to judge or even to ‘think’.
Each narrator gets a same size copy of their story to take away and savour later.
I keep the originals, I have a very full archive box, over 1200 drawings at last count.
When I work on this for several hours I go into an altered state, this listening and drawing put me into a kind of trance, and it takes a few days to recover. It is meditative and intense, and even if sometimes the stories themselves seem trivial or anecdotal, they usually contain a metaphor of great value. Often the story the narrator chooses to tell is a metaphor for themselves, and as such operates on other levels besides the literal. Certainly the capturing of the sense of the story and rapidly finding the accompanying image have pushed me into new territory, fuelled my love of poetry and set off in me the committed wish to write.
I’ve had a few story collecting gigs in the last couple of weeks: at Southbank Centre’s Festival of Love, I was allocated the type of love called Philautia, or self respect.
I was very busy both days of the weekend at the Festival Hall, and collected 70 new stories, all wonderful to hear and to draw.
Then as part of a project called The Edible Garden, put together by Project Phakama, in which I was one of a team – artists, actors, musicians, chefs and dancers, we worked together to create a musical in an old peoples’ home, devised and performed by BTEC performing arts students from a sixth form college.
Stories collected by me from the different generations of participants helped form the core of the piece, and I once again took up residence in a shed to collect more stories from residents and audience members at the end of the show.
The next of these adventures for my ear and brush, will be in Actual Nature!
I have a residency from now till late autumn with the wonderful Fermynwoods Contemporary Art, where I will be looking at how people in their local region (Northamptonshire), think about and use their woodlands. Corby is unusual in that it has a great big tract of forest right in the middle of town! I am looking forward to hearing… about what? Imaginary bears, real fungi, foraged delights and secret assignations? The plan is for this hike into the wilderness to emerge at the end in the form of a book. A semi fictional guide to the forest. Rustling and whistling with leaves and voices, burnt out cars, charcoal drawing and birdsong!
Also, following on from a limited edition book made in 2011 as part of a residency in Margate; Pie Days and Holidays (in collaboration with Marine Studios), a book of the London food stories is next in the pipeline, to be published in collaboration with the Bookartbookshop, for that I’m looking forward to an excuse to plumb the depths of that archive box, and choose maybe a 100 favourites for deluxe production.