Connections in Storyland.

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.

Fresh ink drawings pegged up under a mulberry tree in Mecklenburgh Square at a story collecting gig this summer at a party for Jewish Renaissance magazine.

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.

Drawing at Marie’s house in Brixton

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.

Violeta’s wonderful mother
Building a house on a nurse’s wages: a topical story from Vimbai.

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.

Maryam Mursal, Somali star.

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.

This is Ubah, from the Camden community group.
There were parts of conversation that were so poetic no pictures were needed.

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.

‘ it’s like confetti!’
I’d brought coloured pencils along as well as ink, in case there would be kids there who might like to draw too. As it happened only the grown ups came that day, but I was glad to attempt to catch the colour in Hinda and Halima’s aleendi (woven scarves.)

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.

Booklet produced by the British Library Sound Archive. The painting on the cover is an attempt by me to translate the sound of a particular song into colour and form.
Elmi Ali, making me wish I’d paid attention as a child to my friend Navyn, who turned up at my primary school in 1972 from Tanzania, and tried to teach me Swahili.
From Elmi, whose grandmother was the survivor of a shocking and wild tale.

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.

Members of the morning panel at the Citizen Witness Seminar L to R: Joseph Brady, Dr Sarah Kyambi, Jennifer Todd, Dr Rachel Chin

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.

Here I am with PhD candidate Pinar Aksu, who gave a talk about the work she does with refugees and asylum seekers, helping them to raise their own voices to campaign for rights and opportunities to education and work.
A story collected from Pinar. She is a marigold too! Bright, bold and energising.
A feast to hear about the sequin runner and golden rice pudding.
Now I am referring to all blankets as kavatourts. A great word coined by Nathalie’s gran, whose own language was spurned. The day I returned from Glasgow, my train sped along under a grey kavatourt of rain.

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.

Dad, uh, how embarrassing!

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.

What Marcel didn’t tell me, but another guest did, is that having become a successful dentist in the UK, he was able to pay for Olga and Esther’s care in their old age.

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.

I heard these two in the summer at the party in Mecklenburgh Square. Like Daisy below, part of what settled Fozi into her sense of self was the comfort of a half remembered language.
The surprise of understanding Arabic!

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 myself at the end of our LORE workshop, photo by poet Pauline Sewards.

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.

Yet a different variety of live drawing was called for by poet Kirsten Luckins, who asked me to record the goings on at an inaugural Women Poets’ Festival, which she was organising with The Rebecca Swift Foundation, to be held at The National Centre for Writing in Norwich, in their epic Tudor Dragon Hall, as well as online. I travelled up with the day’s first speaker, ace poet and friend Jacqueline Saphra.

Her talk followed a guided meditation to begin the event in calm, led by poet Ros Goddard.

As my participation in the guided meditation I also let my ink and water slowly sink into the quiet moment.

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.

After a sonnet by American poet Jericho Brown
Some of Anne Sexton’s groundbreaking boldness

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.

Debris was fired up by grime music and her dyslexia, among other things.
Can’t argue with that.

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?

Shaping one’s thinking through pertinent questions, with Victoria Adukwei Bulley
Translations: A mother is a kind of gold you can’t buy in the market.

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.

My scraps find a page of their own in Norwich

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 first winner to be announced was Prerana Kumar – a natural performer with a glowing poem.

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.

Winner Dillon Jaxx read their poem via the video link. A fearless piece moving between family dinners to mountain and sea.

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.

One of the three winners, Jennifer Lee Tsai created a beautiful, distilled atmosphere with this poem inspired by her grandfather

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.

Poetry at a safe distance, with added snaps.

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.

A great kid who lives on our street. He hasn’t been to school in nearly a year. A granny from an upstairs flat lowered him down her old party balloons. Pop pop!

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!

Hanging out with fellow poets at the Festival Hall after the Forward Prizes, 2016. L to R, Jill Abram, John Clegg, Katrina Naomi, Malika Booker & me. Pic by Richard Skinner.

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.

collections on the T S Eliot prize shortlist 2021

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.

Trying to access the texture of real life through a distancing screen.

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.

This tree obviously knows what it’s doing & has done all its life.

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.

A window alights on a set of shut doors.

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.’

My local playground: not just empty, but what an impossible swamp to zip across.

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.

A version of Wayne by me.

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.

Images reappear & sometimes seem to flow or flood the readers imagination, doubling up like the river in the sky.

There’s tons to read – about the poets I have and haven’t covered. Shane McCrae, Bhanu Kapil (who won the £25000!) Glyn Maxwell and J.O. Morgan….

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.

Lockdown life with Zippy. Basket made by my son Conrad, photo by my daughter Rosa.

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.

Space on the narrow path & some rocks worth contemplating.

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!

Puddle the size of England, but better at catching the sun.