Wednesday, 11 March 2015

StAnza 2015

StAnza coasters... miniature poetry books ... poetry scrolls ... mug shots of all the contributing artists on a wall ... comfy seating ,.. giant beach ... weeny harbour ... I enjoyed all of the inbetween delights of the festival. And to cap it all, we were blessed with gorgeous weather.

Of course the reason for going is the poetry. And I fell on my feet with what I heard (only being there for one and a half days). My highlight was the double bill of Ilya Kaminsky and Ian Duhig. They both gave extraordinary readings, for every different reasons, and so the dynamic between their readings that reverberated in me filled not just my mind but nerves and limbs too. This was in part because of Kaminsky's extraordinary style. He read one long poem: 'Musica Humana': part singing, part chant, part vocal rollercoaster, part straight reading which pulled me inside the poem, experiencing it as if I was one of its inhabitants pressing against the images and line lengths, partly in claustrophobia, partly in horror,
laughter at the surreality. As one of the sections says

I escape and am caught, escape again
and am caught, escape
                      and am caught: in this song,

The poem took me through despair, tenderness, love, innocence, while Ilya's rendition had me captivated. His voice rolled with emotion, with lyric, with a deeply held conviction of the importance of lineage. I shrank smaller and smaller as I listened, as the poem swept through the room and everyone was listening and reading (he'd given handouts of the poem so we would not struggle with his Russian accent) rapt with experience.

How to follow that? Good job it fell to Ian Duhig, who, while not known for a flamboyant reading style, is a poet whose linguistic dexterity holds me in awe at our language and what is possible to do with it. Listening to Ian read is like being driven along narrow lanes with 90° corners that open out onto huge citiscapes and then twist away on another 90° and to another view that twists back in tandem to the first lane. It's a thrilling ride. His knowledge is legion. A legion of softly spoken, leather-soled acrobats who only want to share their world with you. 

When I was digging into Digressions, the book her read from, to find lines I'd particularly loved to quote here, I found the following epigraph from Wittgenstein: 'Our language can be seen as an old city: a maze of little streets and squares ... In the actual use of expressions we make detours.' As I had no idea of this thought before writing my analogy of the above, I can only give credit to Ian for wholly embodying this premise in his work and conveying it so convincingly to me. Told you he's a star.

If you stretch out this writing
into one long, thin, single line,
draw it to an invisible thread,

you can make its information
your own material...
                              (from 'The White Page', from Digressions)

I was there, not just to enjoy myself hearing amazing poets, with Steve Lewis to perform Sealegs on the Sunday. For which we received some very enthusiastic responses as well as plenty of disbelief that the story parts were true. Oh sadly, yes they are... Here's a snippet

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Money Makes My Head go Round and Round

Receiving payment from the bookartbookshop last week for all the Sea-creatures and one In Good Weather...  I’d left with them last time I was in London was initially heart-warming news. People had walked into a shop, full of beautifully crafted, intelligently written short run books and bought some of mine. And what’s more, they had paid twice as much for them as I sell online or at readings. The bookshop sells them at this mark up so I get my full asking price for them, and they take their cut.

When I first started to sell my booklets I was told that nobody would pay more than £5 for a poetry pamphlet. Certainly when the bookstall at a readings have pamphlets on sale at £2 or thereabouts it is bound to have a devaluing effect on all the work for sale.

These books took designing then making - not including the time on the writing in the first place. I wanted some reflection of that in the price. It is how we lay value onto things in our society ... but, as all artists know, to tally up an hourly rate is unfeasible, so how do you land on a price that reflects 'worth', especially on something that has no predecessor? I haven't kept a true and accurate account of hours spent on writing, editing, rereading, thinking, prototyping, making... the only thing I have a real account of is the material cost... So, in one way the pricing is completely arbitrary, using other pamphlets/booklets as benchmarks, even if they bear little relation to my work. So it comes down to gut feeling, which is no way to commercial success.

As it happened I was in London at the end of the week so took another batch of Sea-creatures for their stock and a few of the newbies, There is no Night. There was no hesitation that they were also 'worth' twice the price I sell them for. 

I've stuck to my guns, however, and the booklets do sell. Obviously it is a different customer who goes into a specialist bookshop - that stocks books that range from £1 to £100 - to one who pays £3 to go to a poetry reading.

Later the same day I was loitering off Marylebone High Street, checking out the estate agents windows. Three bedroom apartments were for rent at £6000 per week. We pay that (almost) for a year in our place. Admittedly it does't have a bathroom for both its bedrooms, but it does have a good sized piece of land attached, views of the sea and no other house around.

I mention this because even though I understand the economics of scarcity (and the myth of scarcity), and that there is a whole world of the superwealthy who do not inhabit my world, and that art is not valued in our society, I never fail to be gobsmaked by notions of 'value' - ever since fifteen years ago in Whitby when I bought a 300000 year old ammonite for a fiver.

Monday, 16 February 2015

No Point but Fun

When I became freelance again my biggest fear was the isolation. So I asked a bunch of local artists if they fancied getting together to muck about in each other's disciplines, chat, share ideas and practices etc etc. I had no aim beyond the broach scope of everyone being involved in a different artform and having some fun.

Between us we are a writer, musician, visual artist, textile artist and a maker. We also have a dancer in the wings but she's been unable, so far to make our days... fingers crossed she'll join us at some point. We try to meet once a month.

The first day we spent out at mine, walking and talking and writing then cutting up that writing to make concertinas and read what happened to our linear thoughts. We talked a lot about the weight of words and meaning. And a week or so after the day a poem popped out of me and then it fell into a long concertina. I love it how it is very different from anything I would normally write.

Last week was our second day together and this one was hosted by the maker. She just happened to have a room that was about to be replastered so had covered it in brown parcel paper for us to use as a boxed canvas. Everyone was asked to bring their usual materials, including instruments from the musician. As she wanted to explore the overlay between sound and visuals...

And so we dived in and scribbled and splattered and smudged and sang and hit cymbals and laughed and had absolutely no idea what we were doing beyond covering the brown parcel paper with ink and paint and more paper. And that is the joy of these days. We don't have a plan. We are reminded of what we love about our practice, the play and experimentation that too easily gets shunted out of our precious creative time.

We talked about fear and shame of mark making and how we counter that, we talked of detail and meaning, of purpose and points, and made everything up as we went along so we ended up with a sheet of paper with bits set on. Even this (below) went through several edits as we discussed our decision making - movement, aesthetic, space, repetition, symbolism, until we arrived with something we could all look at and find pleasing. And this is what we decided we would use as the narrative to generate a new piece of work - for me a poem, for another a book, for another a piece of music, and ... well, I'll find out what else.
Working, and perhaps more pertinently playing, with artists from other disciplines is so rewarding. It's not just about what can be made together, it helps me articulate more clearly my own practice, makes me more aware of how I work. It extends my language.  

Monday, 9 February 2015

Becoming Flesh

Last week I went to Send and Receive, a day exploring how poetry, film and technology related to each other. It was one of those conferences where there were too many speakers saying too much, and the designated discussion times were shunted back to the end of the day. However what I like about that kind of backlog is the space it gives me to think stuff, being semi stimulated by what is being said and kept within my own silent bubble. I engage with the speaker, floating off into a creative space that I couldn't manifest alone.

It was while listening to Deryn Rees-Jones talk through her thoughts and questions around poetry and film that I had the most fertile concurrent thoughts. I loved her suggestion that a poetryfilm, or filmpoem poemfilm as she called them, was a poem becoming flesh. This chimed instantly with how I see my poetry pamphlets

They are not there to provide a literal 'translation' or interpretation of a poem, rather to offer a alternative/ possibly larger space for the reader (in the case of my pamphlets) to enter into and engage with the poems. Rather than a vessel, as I've called them before, to describe them as 'becoming flesh' gives them a stronger form, a more marked definition of a new creator, rather than simply being a receptacle to hold existing life. 

This form that grows around the poem has the poem (or poems) as its soul, its life force, its reason for being. It also echoes the 'becoming' that is the live nature of a poem. It attempts to hold but not restrain the poem's moment, suggesting the poem's intention to keep growing, layers or meanings. Words, slippery, evolutionary, unfixable things, become us and other at the same time.

I spent another talk - on semiotics - sketching out possible ideas for new pamphlet structures. Again what was being said fed into my scribbles and doodles. Possibly not what the organisers had in mind for the delegates, but influential and stimulating in an alternative way, for which I am grateful. Another pamphlet is creeping into view.
The stills are from Eduardo Katz's Reversed Mirror, from the PoetryFilm archive

Monday, 26 January 2015

Prize Winning

The Towpath project was shortlisted for the New Media Writing Prize this month, and two of us decided to head down to Bournemouth for the awards ceremony, to meet the judges and hear a little more about their thinking. (Our directions there: if you turn to the right, you'll see the red carpet)

I went with absolutely no expectation of winning. I have, what the trade calls, a self-limiting belief: I don't win things. Although I do.

When I was twenty five I won a trip to Mexico and a trip to India in the same year. The trip to India was one I so wanted to experience I entered the competition twice - once in my name and once in my mother's. Yep. She won. I still remember the phone call in which she told me she'd won this competition to India. What competition? I asked immediately suspicious. Oh, I don't know, she said. I enter all sorts of competitions. It will have been one of them. Is it an all expenses paid trip for two staying in Maharaja's palaces in the South? I pushed. Oh, err, maybe I'm not sure. Anyway, yes, it was the competition I had entered. Naturally my mother had to go - as the named winner (I'm still not sure why I didn't enter it with my middle name as the second entry...) and I decided since I had also won this trip to Mexico it would be a "good experience" for my dad who had never been out of Europe to go too.

Back in the days when you just submitted work to your regional council offices - around the same time as the India win - I won a South East Arts Bursary, for a short story. Which went on to become the title story of my short story collection.

More recently I won the Arvon Six Word Short Story Competition. I had forgotten I'd entered. So when I received an email telling me I'd won a short story competition I almost deleted it thinking it spam. Just before in time I caught sight of 'We buried...' in the email body and a little bell rang in my head. The story was We buried the whale at night.

Prize winning, I'm told by people who win greater prizes than I, can be a mixed blessing. It becomes the bar by which all your work is measured. Maybe because my wins have - so far - been quite small, I have thoroughly enjoyed them. Having someone you don't know tell you they really like your work is very gratifying. Getting some money for it a bonus.

The six word short story was two years ago. But something odd has happened to it. Last year a prose poem popped out from under the six words. Then another... and... until I have about twenty dark, mysterious and rather mournful prose poems exploring grief and regret. I read some out last year at a reading. They went down surprisingly well and I'm now ready to start sending some of them out. They're so different from what I have written I wonder if they ought to have a new writer (a pseudonym at least) as well as narrator. Either way I love where they've taken me. And suspect if I hadn't won the competition I would have forgotten all about those six words.

We didn't win the New Media Prize. Pry did. We still had a great evening, talking about micro publications and puppetry and the wide embrace of what constitutes 'new media' within literature.

Perhaps more importantly, because of the shortlisting, the Towpath team feels reinvigorated to propose the model elsewhere, buff up our new skills and develop the idea. That's the real win.

Monday, 22 December 2014

This Log is Reserved

This may look like a scummy high tide line, but for some of us it's the tide we've been waiting all year for - wood! Finally - after a 12 month hiatus - driftwood has returned to the beach. And we've been making merry with it. Some trunks too big for us to haul in, so we had to take the chainsaw out on to the saltmarsh to quarter one in situ to barrow it back to the house. Still it was ridiculously heavy - with calorific fuel and seawater. So smooth it must have been out there for weeks if not months... And it'll take months to dry out.

Our excitement was uncontainable as we spent both mornings, post high water, over the Solstice weekend spotting, chaining and carrying wood back home. So too for others. Towards the lighthouse and abbey were stacks of wood dotted along the seawall. And on one return trip, with two long branches balanced on either shoulder, I met Bob, whose chainsaw was one size up from ours which meant he was able to claim the humongous tree that lay, stripped of all bark, on the skear.

We grinned wildly at each other, bounty swaying in the 25mph of wind, acknowledging the dearth of wood all year. I asked if he'd heard of the biomass station further north that rumour claimed was snaffling all the driftwood - encouraging organised gangs to see the juicy wood as cash, turning another part of nature into a commodity. No, he hadn't. Besides, the north coast of Walney is littered with the stuff - it's just accessing it that's the problem...

Then he asked if the stacks at our feet were mine. No, but possibly Mary's, I said. They looked the kind of size she could carry, when she was down walking her dog. She was neat like that. I often find washed up buckets full of plastic tied down with rope on the skear that she'd collected and would slowly bring back to the bin at the car park. Well then, said Bob, we'd best leave them for her.

His chain had come loose so he'd had to leave the rest of the log until tomorrow, and if someone else got to it meanwhile, good luck to them. Then he dropped the long spindly branch he'd been holding and told me to add that to our pile.

I like this attitude of there being plenty for all. After all right now it does feel like that. Enough to be able to honour people's 'reserved' tag. I'm writing this at the point of another high tide, watching more branches wash in, biding my time for the water to recede so I can head out again, itching to get out there now, even though the water's too high and trying to accept that someone might get there before me, but from what I can see, nobody could carry all of that in one armload...

Monday, 8 December 2014


The skear is what we call the promontory where the lighthouse sits, the bank formed by the two rivers, Lune and Cocker, flowing into or out of the bay.

It is a name I accepted on my first hearing. I liked its sound and use it almost daily - to describe where I've seen birds, a particular colour of water, amount of seaweed... It has a Norse feel to the word. Then, while researching old maps relating to the Time and Tide project with a librarian, he mentioned Hall End Skear. I asked what he meant by skear. A causal island, formed by tides, he said without hesitation. There are three just off Morecambe in the bay. Although with the channel movements not all are visible now.

I felt knocked back. Our skear is not a skear. It is a spit of land that always remains attached. However, despite this information, I can't change what I call this section of the bay. It has a lovely harsh searing sound to it. A cut, a long slicing that could also be used to describe birds in flight: a skear of swans, perhaps.

As it's not in my Oxford dictionary, I googled skear. No mention of the tidal island, although between the images of cars, parties and heartbeats, there are images of coast. And, more interestingly, some old maps appear. When I look again, these are only of Morecambe Bay, and one in Cambodia.

So I'm now using a word that does not describe what I want it to, that does not seem to have the lineage I believed it had, that is so local it seems to have a random surfeit of meanings to everyone else - scroll down and you'll see a picture of Obama swearing!

But by continuing to use it I may embed this meaning further. You now know it, if you didn't before. Skear. Make of it what you will.

I received the following info through a work email: "It seems to me quite possible that the word comes from the Norwegian 'skjær', meaning small rocky coastal islets. The Shetland 'skerries' come from the same root.