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.
Yesterday I was invited to bring my ink and brush along the tracks eastward out of London, to Chelmsford in Essex, where next to a car park in the grandly named Marconi Plaza – I’d been allocated a table in a domed tent – as one practitioner among several sharing ideas at the British Science Festival.
I was to work at a table with two women, Alice and Kayleigh, who run a project called Snapping the Stiletto, which aims to debunk the stereotypes around the much mythologised Essex Girl and engage with the stories and lives of real women from or living in the county. My remit was to collect lockdown stories from visitors to the festival.
As this was a science based event – most of the other tables had really interesting ideas to explore, and were offering demonstrations of research based findings from Archeology to Zero impact food production. The helpers and volunteers were mostly science students, and I collected a couple of stories from them. Both these ones, from Allegra and Fatima, had little twists that I didn’t see coming!
After Gina, I had a constant flow of people, some alone, some with other family members, all taking the seats opposite mine and ready to talk to me about their experiences over the course of the pandemic, and the varying effects it had had on their lives. I listened, asked questions, drew. I encountered people full of reflections, humour, will to connect, contribute, mend the world.
My final storyteller of the day was a woman named Jacqui Mulville, from Guerilla Archeology, I started by admiring her perfect pale pink hair and then really enjoyed and related to her stories of family life under lockdown. Being a mother and having a mother. Sigh.
Usually I have a photocopier whisperer who can make a copy for each narrator to take home, but in these times it’s extra hard to get an A3 copier & my heavy old machine has bitten the dust. So copies will be made this week and go out in the post to all who shared a story.
Thanks to Anna Woolman of the British Science Association, who found me and had the notion to get me along. A delight to exchange stories with inspiring Essex Girls.
Last week I was the other side of the zoom screen as a student at The Royal Drawing School, as opposed to teaching there as I usually do.
I’ve always dreamed of making a graphic novel ever since I first read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. And who better to learn from than my lovely friend and teaching colleague, the prize winning writer/drawer Emily Haworth Booth? When she tipped me off that there were places available on her summer school, I dropped everything and signed up!
We began by drawing four panels about our mornings activities. We changed the sense of these by writing a series of alternative captions. A revelation. We also had chances to collaborate with another student and make a comic strip about how they’d ended up on the course. I was listened to and drawn by a young man called Tom – who’d captured me with psychic accuracy – taking a poetry book off a shelf. This is just one of the eight little pics he made.
On Tuesday we were able to draw from a model, the amazing Lidia. Emily had us draw without looking at the page, flip the pose onto our paper, draw poses from memory, all kinds of playful ideas and approaches.
The sensation of working from observation all day using an ordinary pencil was strangely Proustian – it scribbled me back to a time last century, when my ability to reproduce a complicated corridor full of plaster cast gods using line alone, was enough to earn me gratifying astonishment from the teacher-gods on my foundation course.
I’d practiced drawing continuously as a teenager, in the then flourishing local authority subsidised adult education classes of the late 70s. Life drawing evening classes were my self inflicted ritual transition to adulthood. The eventual realization that being able to describe in pencil the distance between a shoulder and a toe wasn’t actually a job, sunk me into a depression that put me off the HB line more than I knew. Then here was Emily, gaily suggesting that we drew familiar locations from life as we walked around our areas. Stopping and drawing the endless wheelie bins, hedges, kerbs and parked cars on scraps of paper, made me both swear and dream of moving house. But it was a good reminder as well as triggering! It made me think about the paths I’d taken, and how learning to draw really has served me quite well as the backbone to my strange career, even four decades on. Proper drawing can’t help but convey emotion – just the raw immediacy of hand to paper, applying different pressures, frustrations, textures, variety of line.
The next exercise showed us how to slow the reader right down by looking at some simple Jeffrey Brown comic images, choosing one & extending it across several panels.
I loved doing this. This blue pencil and a spot of invention took the edge off my graphite pain.
By Wednesday we were looking intently at story structure, with Emily’s great selection of clips from rom coms and classic movies. We began work on our own stories, encouraged by sharing bits of them with fellow students in breakout rooms.
We were to think about a problem in our lives and consider the ups and downs of its narrative arc. The ‘problem’ I told my fellow student in our breakdown room more like, was about my son. He is not a problem, he is a beloved child, now aged 22. But learning to parent him when he has a range of disabilities under the general banner of learning difficulties and autism has been a major challenge. Raising him has shaped me, as a person and as an artist, but I doubted I’d get to a place where it would feel okay to write and share this story – yet I’ve always wanted to, partly in the hope that some of what we learnt along the way might be interesting and useful to other people who face similar situations.
By the time the week was over I was firmly into this project. I have been drawing panels ever since, and a book seems to be on its way. Hopefully it will find a publisher when the time comes, so I won’t put too much up here yet. I will leave you with my thanks for reading – and a wave from a puppet called Party Pig, who narrates much of what is to come.
My usual methods of teaching are often materials based. I give people assorted random bits of writing to bounce off, and I tip up huge bags of assorted hoarded scraps, and ask them to choose colours, respond and make things. ‘Use your greedy eyes!’ is one of my favourite invitations at the outset.
I love to watch the action. There’s collective energy in the room and it crackles over all our tables as we search for the right thing, to make a thing we don’t even know about yet.
I wander around, as the hum of concentration settles over students/artists. Arms stretch up into space to tear escape hatches from red paper, cautious scissors snip new shapes from crumpled old gossip, eyes are lowered as poems are read and read again, pencils are sharpened to their holiest purpose: underlining.
The last two Tuesdays however, I had to get 22 students through a day of collage and poetry where we were just an assortment of disembodied heads, and where each person had been asked to muster their own scraps.
For a totally 2020 sentence, what about: ‘Sophie, my broadband went, could you assign me a new breakout room?’ (My tight lipped answer – straight from the 80s: ‘hmm, I’ll see what I can do’)
Yes, a new language to learn, and alien teaching devices: being made ‘the host’, creating breakout rooms for tutorials, uploading resources to Padlet, checking the chat column for questions, screen sharing, speaker view, muting myself at lunch!
I liked that we could make every aspect of the course into a virtual collage. The resources & reading lists which went on the Padlet page could be put on by Rosie and I, in a free formation of video attachments and web links and other handy references, built up according to whim as well as theme. Just the teaching itself: a base support of exercises suggested by Rosie, followed by additional thought-shapes from me, layered with ideas manifested by the students, more input from Rosie, the world, me…
The students could upload their work onto an adjacent gallery page, and share the interesting techniques they were discovering, separate and far flung across this collaged world. Also on the plus side, we had a wonderfully wide reach, with students in Ireland, South Africa, France and Germany, as well as all over the UK. All of us were stuck indoors somewhere, and glued, with the PVA of learning, to our screens.
What pleased me in the end, was that concentration and the desire to make analogue creative experiments – did manage to transcend the dreary flatness of the screen, and that between us, there was a very real, if temporary, community built, just by sharing poetry, ideas, work.
One morning between my Tuesdays I walked over to Clapham with my daughter & went to get a takeaway coffee in my mask. ‘You’re my teacher!’ said the barista. ‘Really?!’ I said, ‘but look at you. You’re so… so… three dimensional! Arms legs, everything!’ – ‘you too!’ she rejoindered. Had being online excessively dulled my imagination or fostered it?
Either way, it’s a different way of looking and engaging, and hopefully learning like this will enrich the process, for when we come back to the physical, as well as imaginary, spaces we use and create by making and teaching art.
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!