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.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

An Internal Spectacle

These are retinal images of my eyes. The white is the optic nerve and you can just about see the gloomy dark pinpoint of my pupil (I think). This post is nothing to do with eyes, rather what goes on inside us that is an invisible spectacle. Although they're beautiful, aren't they? I'm sure I'm not just saying that cos they're mine...

I've been thinking about this for a while, ever since after the two shows I gave at the end of October I went to see the NT encore screening of Frankenstein and came away full of awe at the high end production of the show: the sprawling ceiling of lightbulbs that flashed on at various points. The dazzle and different shapes were so simple and yet clearly so very expensive. 

And then at the Sympoetry at the Scottish Poetry Library Thomas Lux was forecasting poetry will become as popular as opera... I don't agree. Poetry will always be the poor cousin, have the perfect face for radio etc etc

Poetry doesn't have the budget for big spectacle. Often it can barely hire a small upstairs room for a reading. Even the TS Eliot awards, however plush the Queen Elizabeth Hall is and good the lighting and amplification, comprise of people walking up, reading and leaving the stage. There are live literature performances but I've yet to see or hear of one that has displayed a 'spectacle'.

My shows, one on a narrowboat and one in a black box, felt obviously inadequate buy comparison to Frankenstein, not even the sequinned jacket I wore for Sealegs lifted that sense from my shoulders after the event. Until I realised - of course! - the spectacle is the combustion that happens to the individual. The absorption of words perdings our emotional or sensory or intellectual bullseye. This doesn't even happen that often, to me: the target is so precise. 

That's not to say the production and performance of poetry needn't be given an elegance or beauty or style that is integral to the poetry. There needs to be an acknowledgement the poetry is being held in a physical space rather than a book, that the words have a different entry point to the listener, a different relationship (fleeting for one). 

I was saying elsewhere how my confidence in my work is so much greater when I stand behind it and speak it to people rather than read it off the page to myself, or imagine others reading it. I think it's because then it occupies me, the space between me and the listeners as well as them. As if I'm hearing the words for the first time, enjoying their sound, amongst the other listeners. 

As ee cummings said, it's as if I'm hearing with 'the ears of my ears awake'. And if that's happening, I'm not looking for external lightbulbs. 

Thursday, 13 November 2014

There is no Night

Constant daylight creates its own mystery –
the moon is up there somewhere.
At the end of the jetty it’s impossible
to gauge how deep the water. 
A child's lifejacket hangs on the dinghy’s oars. 

Obviously there is plenty of night as we hurtle towards the winter solstice. It's as good as dark at five o'clock. All the more reason to construct a new pamphlet set in the Finnish summer, where there is no escape from light. The earth turns. We spin with it.

It's a simply stitched booklet, blue card, grey font, illustrated with a wandering moose and a sliver of birch bark. Birch was the Finnish stuff of everything back in the day: caps, boxes and shoes, nudging me to use it somehow in the construction. It burns hot, so is the wood of preference for saunas.

The pamphlet came together reasonably quickly over a couple of days of faddling with shape, layout and illustrations. It's absorbing work, trying to translate the mood and themes of a poem into the vessel that will carry it into the world. The final version is the most simple. I had beads, more pages and illustrations in previous attempts, none of which sat right with the text. This clean, sparse feel holds the poem perfectly.

It's a long poem, in two sections, exploring love, of another and of the self, and how that plays with union and independence, absence and presence. It's melancholic, tender and hopeful.

Because it all came together rather unexpectedly I've made five to take with me to Hebden Bridge where I'm reading next week - 7pm Wednesday 19th November at The Bookcase, now the unofficial launch night. If you'd like to pre-order a copy let me know. I can get more made and a paypal button sorted next week.

There is no Night. Illustrated card, Tracing paper sleeve cover with silver birch bark detail. Handstitched binding. £5 each (+50p p&p) here