Belfast – what a blast

Like a lot of Londoners of my era, all I knew of Northern Ireland was from the relentless news of the Troubles throughout my youth. Luckily I’d met people from there over the years who’d also shaped my imaginings. It was the good influence of one of them, the painter Patricia Doherty, that made me extra curious to go and visit the city that had produced my funny and talented friend. So it was great to be invited to read and run a workshop as one of several poets at the book festival this June.

I arrived the day before I was due to read, and was taken aback to find that the hotel room I’d been booked into was painted dark grey. Comfy & all, but like, almost black.

Needed colour dabs to save me from decline

I walked into town & bought myself peonies and a scroll of Chinese paper and when I got back made the first of two backdrops, ostensibly for the reading, as I like to have something painted in a room, but also to vanquish the gloom. I was glad to find an amazing bookshop run for Self Help Africa and relieve them of some old volumes that got pressed into action at my workshop as well as in my emergency backdrops.

Emergency backdrop nervously begun in hotel room

The first event I went to was that night, about Belfast poet, the late Padraic Fiacc. Poets Tara McEvoy and Joelle Taylor were there to read some of his work and lead a discussion of it – following a screening of a grainy and great 1970s German documentary about him, unearthed by the festivals intrepid poetry curator Natasha Cuddington. It was a revelation to hear him and his powerful writing of conflict, inner and outer. Many people in the audience had known him and were engaged with his work. He’d read and anthologised poetry across the sectarian divide, and often feared for his life in doing so, but made it to 94 in the end.

some of the works we read from

The next day Christodoulos Makris arrived and we got talking about our shared reading which was to be hosted by Natasha that night. I attended Christodoulos’ workshop in the afternoon, where we constructed poems from that days newspaper, before rushing back and making another emergency backdrop, & changing into my poetry dress for the evening.

I incorporated words from my ‘newspaper poem’ written in Christodoulos’ workshop on backdrop no. 2

Both Christodoulos and myself invited the audience to read poems with us at points during the evening, which was fun. We talked about instinct and spontaneity and some of the poetry projects we have been working on. I read some fortunes from INDEX as well as other poems and Christodoulos read from his book this is no longer entertainment (a total must-read) as well as his collaboration with the brilliant Kimberley Campanello – an online work called sorry that you were not moved.

We spoke of poet Tom Jenks of course, bold publisher of poetry objects by Christodoulos, Kimberley and myself amongst many others, with his press zimZalla. It was so enlivening to be live with a live audience.

After we’d recovered with a large dinner at The Woodworkers – I wandered back to the hotel and was spared immediate re entombment in the charcoal interior by friendly shouts from the pavement.

Joelle Taylor & Cathy Rentzenbrink – lighting up the Belfast night – the perks of a book festival- great writers & readers.

Joelle Taylor and Cathy Rentzenbrink – both amazing people, writers and festival headliners, were having a chat at the outdoor tables in the balmy Belfast night & invited me to join them. I read their cards from INDEX (‘spookily accurate!’ said Joelle) and we had a wonderful conversation.

There were still ace chats to come. Gail McConnell & Julie Morrissy read at a hybrid event the next night, Gail in person – Julie by zoom from the USA. Natasha again asking the questions.

Poet Gail McConnell reading in Belfast June 2022, ink pen in notebook.

Gail’s book: The Sun is Open is a moving, questioning, elegiac work – using archive material from her father’s life. It’s incredible, and currently a fiver in the Penned in the Margins July sale!

I don’t know Julie’s work yet, it sounds powerful, connecting the threads of close family with political histories via feminism. I liked drawing both of them in my notebook.

Poet Julie Morrissy on zoom, drawn with my ink pen – June 2022

Back at the Woodworkers there was more illuminating chat, I sensed a very alive poetry community in Belfast, the layering of centuries of Irish and English, not just as languages. It was refreshing to be far from home and find people arguing, laughing and sharing poetry as a home.

A bunch of excellent women turned up to my own workshop session. I tipped my cornucopia of scraps onto the table – and the room hummed with industry, as book manufacture took hold of those who love to rummage, snip & glue.

Made by Hannah Wilks
By a wonderful poet called Paula
by Natasha Cuddington in a ballet and battenberg palette
Rama & Sita find themselves in a new book made by a participant called Ruth ‘I’m never going to an ordinary poetry workshop again!’ she said.

The collage game in Belfast is strong, and I’m glad to say I found a willing recipient of my scrap bag – which saved me lugging it to my next destination.

I hope to see what gets made next as the scraps are given their next meanings – I left this in the hotel bar & Liza picked it up…

Poet Bebe Ashley had a residency at the festival, with a 3D printer, with which she was recycling plastic food packaging into braille poetry. Here she is with her poem Tom Daley dives for David Hockney and David Hockney paints Tom Daley.

Bebe Ashley with a poem 3D printed in braille.

I had a go at translating it just from its spacing and the colours used. If you’d like to try this – look carefully at the picture and try to read what you see! Bebe kindly let me take two of her little chips of braille – they spell the words alive and heartbeat and I keep them in my wallet.

Coded amulets for my travels, slid into my Mongolian wallet

In between readings and chats I walked in the city. Two favourite discoveries were the Botanic Gardens – very nearby, free and stunning, and independent bookshop No Alibis, where David the bookseller told me about his late friend, choreographer and dancer Helen Lewis, an extraordinary woman who survived Terezín and Auschwitz to pioneer modern dance in Belfast. She taught dance for years at the Crescent Arts Centre where the book festival was taking place. I was glad to read her memoir, A Time to Speak , a beautifully written book and more fuel for my Terezín project.

In the hothouse at Belfast Botanic Garden
The Crescent Arts Centre. Home to Belfast Book Festival as well as a thriving arts and education programme for the city. Squint & see the plaque honouring Helen Lewis between door & window on the left.

Thanks as ever for reading my blog. Thanks to Sophie Hayles, Natasha Cuddington and the whole team at Belfast Book Festival for their warm welcome and their tireless and good natured running of the many incredible events.

A friendly stranger took this snap
of me in my poetry dress as I was walking past – so I made them air drop it to me!

Watch! Repair!

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.

Marcia Farquhar & friends launching her book Pushing 60 at the Horse Hospital

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.

Marina Warner and members of Stories and Supper making up lyrics for a welcome song
drawing nice food on welcome flags with a young participant, photos: Hannah Machover.
Little Amal on her long journey, seen here with Alf Dubs.

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.

Lidia as enchanted frog in a Russian Fairy Tale
Richard as Sita – in exile in the forest, from the Ramayana
Some drawings I began – this is Sita based on Richard

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.

A collage flyer by me, with torn pages from a pre internet address book…

Thanks in advance, and thanks for reading.

A Box of Tricks in Red & Gold

So, on Thursday a heavy delivery arrived from the north! I was very excited to rip it open and survey the repeated rhythm of upper case INDEX, foiled in Elvis Vegas gold on that poppy red cardboard, and know that here were poems!

Emptied out! Photo by Mike Sims

Each box contains 78 cards, fronted with a poem I’ve assembled from found text, and backed with an anyway up collage made from found images. Also included are instructions, which outline how to play or read the cards, printed on a small strip of vellum. Published with incredible collaborative attention to detail by zimZalla, an experimental press based in Manchester, which is essentially a one-man side-hustle set up and run by inventive fellow poet Tom Jenks.

Some of the cards – photo by Suki Hayes Watkins
Some of the backs of the cards – photo by Suki Hayes Watkins

The last couple of days I’ve been back at my cutting mat, rifling through the already dessicated sources of these poems, wishing I still had the shreds of law books & westerns I left in my hastily assembled and then abandoned collage box in Berkeley.

Phrases trimmed and ready to bag.

I’ve been combing phrases from my London stash: the instructional, the moral, the romantic, to clip and put in sachets for Kickstarter supporters.

Behind the scenes at the House of Phrases

I find the process funny and painful. Despite having made all these poems from them, cutting up books still goes against every fibre of my being, and I have to reassure myself on a kind of loop that books are replaceable, and that these are cheap tattered ephemera that have usually cost me nothing, and anyway a lot of them are full of terrible old ideas that badly need rearranging! Inspite of this, I have so much affection for the author of the book on period furniture and his scathing words on mass-produced cupboards, or for the female authorities on flower arranging and cookery, or the well meaning hack in fever of empire, writing for children about their peers in ‘other lands’. Snip snip!

I had sixteen backers who’d signed up for the ‘bag of choice phrases’ reward option, and this is how my allocations looked in the kitchen last night, (how many phrases would each bag need? Should I weigh them?) I enjoyed folding A2 layout paper into 16 and dividing the spoils into piles. They became creatures: the animal ghosts of old texts, and I was surprised by their aliveness – their soft pelts of faded paper, their little lettery markings.

Other subscribers qualified for DIY collage kits. These have been really fun to make and feature lots of one-off favourite scraps from my messy studio. I’ll be sending these rewards out as soon as I can.

Meanwhile if you’re kicking yourself that you missed the Kickstarter, (so easily done) and feel moved to get hold of zimZalla object number 60: INDEX, then please don’t fight the impulse to order one. Details here: zimZalla

Thanks for reading, thanks to all who’ve bought or might yet buy a deck. Big thanks to Tom Jenks for publishing them, and also to Andy Jackson and Bill Herbert who featured them on their ‘Dr Malthusia pandemic poetry blog. If you do succumb and get a box of these poems – I hope they bring you much bonus magic of the right sort.

Poetry is on the cards

With a wisp of grimy smoke

One way to knock the surprise back into making things is to turn them upside down. It’s a trick I learned in the painting studios at art school. It helps shake out the form and the colour, as well as to refresh tired eyes. A painting that’s spent a while the other way up, nearly always comes back in better shape for its next stint of back to the wall engagements.

Getting my Ancestors Practiced at a Different Landscape, gouache, ink and collage on paper, 2020 (upside down)

With INDEX, my new collection, I have puzzled over the form from several directions. Finding a last word or phrase for a poem before finding a theme or a thought. Laying whole sentences in little piles. Searching through yesterdays yellowing magazine banter for something to skewer the now.

This is one of the ways I write when I’m finding writing difficult. Leaning on words found or put together already by somebody else and re or decontextualising them.

Either way up perhaps menacing!

The results of these can also be read from the bottom up, and if this is done will give a different yield. Actually like a lot of poems, these can be read in any order you like!

Since the whole proof set of 78 cards in INDEX came back from the printers last week, I have been trialling them as daily prophesy, and this changes the way I hear them too. I pick three, from a morning shuffle, a yesterday, a today and a tomorrow.

Three from a reading a couple of days ago

Once I’ve tried to apply the poems, I choose one line or phrase from each card and make a new small poem, and if I remember, I let it set the tone of my day. Eg from the above I chose to imagine the strange pairs in the first card as parental figures: and from the second card I took my anxiety about ageing, and the third card made me think about decorating grief, cruelty or difficult things with flowers. A quick mantra poem for the day might go like this:

Numb shrubs wish for splendid vitality like a bee. Two owls forgive me. Decorate cold reality with calendulas.

I used the anywayup principle to create the backs of the poem cards. My challenge being to make these small collages readable whichever way up they fall.

One of the 39 index card back collages, featuring a girdled front, and an index.

I used black and white images from a lot of the same broken books and old magazines I’d been clipping phrases from for the fronts. I was only planning to make one image for all the card backs, but the process got a hold on me, so I ended up making thirty nine.

Thirty nine small anyway up collages on the kitchen table

That being half the pack, meant that each reverse could appear twice and allow those not interested in the poetry to play games of Dada snap instead. I also like the idea of these images working as poem prompts for readers or players.

It has been a treat to work with Tom Jenks who is publishing the deck of cards as poetry object number 60, from his experimental press zimZalla.

Tom and I first met in 2013, wearing some cardboard headdresses I’d made for me & him & Chris McCabe when I offered to help the two of them with their performance of a piece they’d collaborated on, that imagined Boris Johnson as Pere UBU . Sadly this also proved prophetic.

Making the back collages was like a strange game in itself: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral.

We wanted to make sure these poems were produced without plastic coatings or shrink wrap (who doesn’t want their poetry to rot down quietly with the cabbage stalks once the time comes?) So we were glad that a local printers in Sale, Manchester, Phoenix Press , had a very helpful Jack Russell and time over lockdown to make INDEX and print the poem cards on unvarnished stock.

The most exacting Phoenix – a poem I made in Berkeley on my residency last year.

Thanks to everybody who supported the Kickstarter campaign and preordered the box.

Is it too late to pre order a deck? You could try emailing mail@zimzalla.co.uk whilst the printing is still underway…

A prophesy: Soon a red box with gold letters full of pastel coloured cut up poems will be tipped upside down on my kitchen table – and people will be once more allowed inside the house, to drink together from the teapot of language in a fresh brew.

Ancestors settle in new landscape (the right way up ) Gouache, ink and collage, 2020
The proof pack of INDEX

Index

Tonight is the prelaunch reading for my new collection INDEX !

Pile of the original cards
Ideas for the reverse of the cards

The Kickstarter campaign set up by brilliant Tom Jenks at zimZalla, has met its target – so the printing can go ahead. There’s still time to register for a pack of prophetic cards at a 40% discount. And there are strange extra rewards for anyone who is inclined or able to pay extra!

Sachet of choice phrases

I’ll be reading alongside the amazing poet Philip Terry whose newest publication, TURNS, is an Oulipian box of surprises also made by poetry object press zimZalla. Do sign up!

Over the last year I’ve been making little cut up poems and pasting them onto pastel coloured index cards. Like a lot of things I do this began as a mild diversion creeping out from the side of a couple of big projects that were claiming my daylight attention.

It continued in this way – every few days I’d find a couple of hours to pore over the collage stash I’d been hacking to bits for my last book: 60 Lovers to Make and Do, and I’d skim the prose for phrases that seemed particularly pointed or musical or visually charged.

Source material on studio floor

I love the drama in old fashioned phrases from the Biggles Annual or Girl: any 1960s & 70s books and journals from the decades when I was a child, full of advice, morality, implicit and occasionally overt -isms of every sort. Favourites that also inspired 60 Lovers, were activity books including craft and recipe books.

I couldn’t use text by named authors – nothing where the notion of authorship vaunts loftiness or self consciousness – this wouldn’t be raw material for my own authorship and would feel more like stealing than repurposing.

When I got to that dream residency studio in Berkeley last December – I had the fun of assembling a transatlantic collage stash – which I wrote about at the time. I found a good selection of index cards and boxes to stack them as well, at the wonderful Elmwood Stationers on my local parade.

When I was finding my big paintings heavygoing – I would just put the colours to one side, and get snipping through the treasures I’d accumulated – with extra delight at the different language opening up from this American material.

I gotta tell you

Dan Schifrin, the residency manager, asked me a good question: What’s it like to inhabit the body of the person who makes these big gestural paintings and the person who makes these tiny cut up collage poems?

Studio with peonies, phrases, painting in progress

I found this impossible to answer, so I wrote a short play in which two very different women have to share a studio. They don’t get on, although they do respect each other’s processes. Gloria, the painter, is full of exclamations about the wonder of nature. She gets on Edith’s nerves. Edith, the misunderstood poet, is introverted and terse. She can sometimes be soothed with a nice coffee and home made cookie from Gloria. I sent the play to Dan, and for fun added this photograph taken of Gloria and Edith on one of the rare occasions when they were in the studio together.

Gloria the painter & Edith the poet

For now, I, London Sophie, have a few things to sort out between now and the reading. Hope to see you there.

European in America, continued.

I’ve been slowly getting the hang of where things are in Berkeley. I have a borrowed bicycle to skidaddle downtown to get gouache and oranges, or raid the library. What a library! A huge poetry section for a start (I haven’t even set foot in Fiction yet.) ‘How many books can one borrow at a time?’ I asked ‘Up to 85’ the man said… I opted for a cautious four.

American poetry section in Berkeley Public Library Library

There are also tiny box libraries out on peoples’ front yards, a great idea where neighbours get to exchange books. I’ve been helping myself. Back in the studio I rearrange fragments of these texts to create newly voiced poems, guessing my way to more index card text collages. I’m pleased to say that amazing poet Tom Jenks is going to publish 56 of them as a pack of cards with his innovative press/project Zimzalla this summer.

A couple of ‘American’ index card poems
One of Berkeleys ‘little free libraries’
A selection of my index card poems.

It’s a booky region. I went to San Francisco earlier this month to hear poet DS Marriott read at legendary bookstore, City Lights. I’d been impressed by his work before, having been asked to draw him for the cover of Poetry London in 2018. This time I could draw and listen to him live. He read poems re Grime music and the Grenfell tragedy, amongst other things, his poems glittered: images, musicality, truth impeccably spliced. A thread of humour lit up the afro-pessimism, a theory he talked about in the Q and A at the end. Haunting poems and ideas, appropriately, I bought his newest book: Duppies.

David Marriott reading poems at City Lights, San Francisco

Back at HQ last week it was my turn to read poems and show some of my work in progress. I put up new paintings in the studio, and Dan Schifrin, who manages the residency locally, organised the party. We had borscht & a reading, and a rainy night was enlivened by art, poetry and plenty of interesting people.

At my first salon in the residency studio

The chance to develop further as a painter is perhaps the chief thrill of this residency. I haven’t had such a luxury combination of time and space to myself for a few decades. I like working at night in the studio. Feelings and sensations are amplified by solitude and the novelty of being in this new place. I stare and stare out walking in the day: lemons on trees, house sized cacti, purple houses with pink camellias, capricious typography neoned on corners.

I try to lock down the sensations as they hurtle past my eyeballs & into my head.

Eg – this blue, this magenta
and what about this pairing of neons, Judaica then LIQUORS, a daily spell to chant on my local parade.

I’m trying as usual, to find a correspondence between what I see and what I think and feel, but trying is not an effective way to paint. I have to screw myself up like a scrap of paper and twist myself through the keyhole, then hurl myself at the wall using only my materials. Here’s a picture of how that’s going.

Current studio wall with five new paintings, more detail of the latest one below
Working title: River of Impossible Relationships

Here I have added rain in the form of strips cut from sacrificial book waste, and last night the orange ribbon edges.

I hold on to the idea that creative work is resistance. Today I mark what I hope is a temporary severance of the UK from Europe, by carrying on with my very European painting & dedicating what I do to the spirit of unity, neighbourliness & internationalism.

working title: The Grower The Radical and the Dreamer Murmur Dissent over many Time Zones

Thanks for reading my blog!