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.
The project that catapulted me into Nature and away from my habitual London scenery: The Listening Forest, is now up in another form, as an exhibition at the HQ of the Poetry Society at 22 Betterton Street Covent Garden: The Poetry Cafe.
About thirty of the original drawings are on the walls, chosen from the hundred or so that make up the book, which in turn, were chosen from perhaps twice that that I made whilst in residence for Fermynwoods Contemporary Art in Northamptonshire.
Many of the drawings on show are those I drew live from local people recounting to me what they get up to in the woods; others are ones that I made away from company, on my own in the cottage I was put up in.
There are also the six paper cuts I made as a structural device to tailor the book into its shape as a mirror to the forest, filing stories as appropriate under section headings: noticings and changes of direction in path, strange sightings and confessions in undergrowth, the ordinary and everyday in shrub layer, revelations and insights in clearing, lofty thoughts in canopy, base material in floor…
New for the space in Covent Garden, I replaced Ralph Steadman’s Byron scribed lampshades with new ones of my own, some written on in loose ink with excerpts from my forest poem sequence, some coloured with streaks of Nepalese paper cut into leaf-spiders, moth-women, crow-huts.
The show opened on my Dad’s 90th birthday, so he came along, and after I’d read some poems, the audience sang to him and we all shared cake!
The same week it was the The Poetry Library open day at the Festival Hall, which took as its theme: The End of the Poem. It was exciting to see the library’s copy of the limited edtion huge version of The Listening Forest in its thirty metre incarnation, laid out on one of the tables, near another recent collaborative work: Collective City, the book we assembled from visual poem collages made by visitors to the Southbank Centre’s Poetry International Festival and made into an inventive street shaped book by the same team who bound the forest book: the inimitable Henningham Family Press
The Listening Forest exhibition runs until February 4th and is open most days and evenings, but please do check the Poetry Cafe website.
Another evening viewing is scheduled for Thursday December 17th, with mulled wine, a chance to buy screen prints, books and original drawings, and a short reading of some forest and city poems by me and some surprise guest poets!
I will also be running a day workshop in conjunction with The Poetry School, called Hide and Seek in the Ideas Forest, on Saturday January 30th. We’ll be working on how to set traps for the unconscious, and turn what we find into art and poetry.
So many people have been involved with this project, big thanks to all who joined me on the path: including Yasmin Canvin and the team at Fermynwoods Contemporary Arts, Kate Dyer and Lorraine Dziarkowska of Corby Community Arts – and everyone who told me a story or listened to a poem or idea. Particular London thanks to Tanya Peixoto of The Bookartbookshop and Mike Simms of the Poetry Society.
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/