Tuesday, 28 June 2016

That which is not already shaped

I took an old printer to a pc fixit friend at the weekend and left it with him, saying, "Fingers crossed, we need something good to happen...".
      "Sounds like something bad has happened." He looked blank.
      "Thursday?" I prompted.
      Still blank.
      "Come on, surely, the referendum..."
      "Oh, that," he said and spread his hands out, indicating the street. "What's changed?"
      And sure enough the street was quiet, the sun shining, cars parked, house stones in place. "I always felt European. I am European." I struggled to articulate the loss I felt.
      "Sarah, you know you are more than your identity, don't you?" Beatific smile.
      And, of course, on one level of course I do.

Way back, when I was young and still forming, I realised I needed to write, to sew, to cook, to grow vegetables, to make creatures from shells, stones and beads and all those other things I made to allow what part of me expanded beyond the parameters of my body to become manifest, to be held in another form, for me to shape that which was not shaped by flesh. Creating things has become second nature now, to the extent I am rarely aware of that -- let's call it consciousness -- which seems to be at the root of my need to create.

I heard Greta Stoddart read for the first time this weekend at the inaugral Kendal Poetry Festival. A synchronicity that allowed me to sit and latch onto images and her voice and slip out into the wider swirl of emotions, memories, senses that blew with the poems. It seemed to me that Greta's poems were communicating to me, beyond me, attaching me to that which is beyond us while also connecting us. They allowed me to walk alongside her experience, see what she saw, feel that and then open a side door through which something else was happening, something I may not have experienced, but the glimpse of, or sound of, enabled me to engage with something that was both deeply familiar and totally new. Perhaps her subject - the dead - was partly responsible for this. It came at a time of deep grief; for so much I cannot articulate - that identity, that sense of country and community - that I also understand to be superficial and meaningless.

This morning I sat and focused on this consciousness that is held by and seeps beyond my skin, that can be spoken to and touched by others, that goes off and does its own thing. The trees outside were swaying, a greenfinch settled briefly on a branch, sunbeams broke through cloud to disappear again.

Whatever is beyond also has to co-exist in this material world of trees, weather, climate, cars, their drivers, home owners and their neighbours, their colleagues, loved ones, their dead and those they admire or hate. This balancing of the transcendental and material, the integration of both in experience, memory and understanding is something I am only partly aware of very very occasionally. The distractions around me - radio, news, political fall out - ensure my daily focus is grounded, ground down into seeing distinction and manipulating fear from that. This fear turns to imbalance so I need to hang onto something solid to prevent myself from falling - a solidity that is either material - the softness of my sofa, say - or that is opinion that has been sculpted already, or it might be something else that already exists, because fear washes over so quickly it is difficult to counter it with creativity. Creativity needs space for its expansion.

Politics is not given space, which is why we have art as a parallel communicator. Which is why art gives me the ability to transcend and cross those boundaries politics says is fixed, such as identity. Through reading, listening, making and responding to art - at least that art which hits my target - I am reminded of that which is beyond us all, that which we have the ability to shape and hold as it passes through. Which of course all sounds flaky as I write it, so I'll leave this post to Wallace Stevens, who can generally be relied upon to nail what I can only fleetingly experience, but know as essential:

[the mind] is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality ... [where] reality is not that external scene but the life that is lived in it.


Friday, 17 June 2016

Self-portrait in plastic


I have a reading tonight. I was planning to read a reasonably new sequence of poems about rubbish found on the beach. Now, after the shooting of Jo Cox, in the midst of an aggressive yet petty campaign focused on blame, alongside the violence of young men who proudly call themselves 'hooligans' and seek out conflict in the name of revenge, I am wondering about the context of such poems.

At the end of 'Lune' I write of "half-recognisable fragments of one world / to be washed up by another." I see the plastic detritus as this and more. I see it as a marker of a civilised culture - after all, how amazing a thing is plastic - how durable, how malleable - that has lost sight of its inherent value - that such a wonderful product had to be transformed into something disposal, throw-away to make 'economic sense' for its manufacturers. And I see the fractured pieces of insulation, squashed drinks bottles, plastic lids, torn bags, shredded food cartons and so on as the result of this nonsensical regard for economy, its roughshod influence over other fundamental elements of life, such as our environment, the air we breathe, the sharing of a small planet with other life forms ... I'm sure you would name others.

Of course I'm not saying money isn't important; it is in our culture. But the debilitating emphasis on it has made us lose sight of the value of other forms of exchange: the reciprocity between people that doesn't have monetary worth, that is far more intangible, more subtle and perhaps more fitting for our own complexities. After all, we don't know the half of it: how our brain functions, what's in the sea, where the universe ends, if it ends, hiccups...

Plastic waste, barely recognisable fragments of our everyday lives, represents to me the futility of trying to solidify, fix, the uncertainty and unknowableness of the world in a world that has no regard for such rigidity. It can't, it needs the flexibility to mitigate against change. And change seems to be something that terrifies us, to the point of resistance, xenophobia, murder. The only way most plastics change is either by the pounding of wind and wave action or through extreme temperature for recycling (and even then, not all plastics can 'survive' that transformation to continue to be of use). And so it washes up on beaches, at riverbanks, blown into corners of building sites and edgelands, in dangerous and ugly pieces, our very own Picture of Dorian Grey, peeling and splintered, a long from the bright shiny material of consumer promise.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Imagining an Imaginarium


Back in March I ran a workshop in the Storey Gallery, Lancaster, writing in response to Catriona Stamp’s explorations into migration. It was a whirlwind, stimulating two hours, during which someone asked me (in response to my showing them a piece from Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation) what I thought the difference was between poetry and prose. My heart sank, probably my shoulders too, and I said, That’d have to wait for the twelve week masterclass. A number of people asked, What twelve week masterclass? A joke, I said. Just a joke.

It was at the time, and yet it also got me thinking. What kind of “masterclass” would I like to run if I were to run one? The next day, a fortuitous meeting with one of the participants, meant my thoughts, with questions of how, where, when, what, were focused in a more practical direction.

I’ve been thinking about my own imagination for months, on and off, about how being short-sighted affected my development, how not being able to see clearly-defined edges meant things grew beyond themselves, were not contained. I’ve always felt I could not be contained by skin, or my physical self, which is one of my reasons for writing: I cannot hold myself in. Imagination does not know physical boundaries.

The following week I had some days away in the dark park of Northumberland. What better place to be to consider the imagination and how I might apply that thinking to a longer term series of workshops for writers? Jupiter rising, a full moon, and the possibility of a glimpse of Andromeda, our nearest galaxy…

There’s a great poem by Wallace Stevens I think probably forms the basis of my current thinking about imagination, ‘Somnabulisma’, which I can’t reprint here, nor find it online, but wanted to acknowledge it, as what follows arises from the poem’s central image of imagination being the gull that flies free from a wave. Imagination needs experience to grow from – either primary or secondary experience, the experience of a place, or event; that it involves a stepping out of time as we live it – a stretching of time, a creative futuring or unravelling; it entails incongruity, or at the least a layering of two or more things at once; and, perhaps most importantly for a rich and detailed imaginative experience, the need for emotional care. To care for something, to be invested in it feeds our intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual response to it, enables all the previous states.

I knew I didn’t want the workshops series to be a “masterclass”. I don’t like the inherent exclusivity of the term. Some of the best writing I’ve encountered in workshop settings was written by inmates of Lancashire HMPs who had written little and most likely wouldn’t have called themselves “masters” – their commitment to expression and need to be heard drove some fantastically powerful work.

I wanted to encourage a loosening of thought, a space in which people trust each other, are open to discussion, to where their own imaginations might take them; where they might explore the relationship between imagination and inspiration, imagination and memory, imagination and language. What does language do for the imagination? And what happens in a space where imaginations meet? My imagination thrives when I pick up a book, turn on the telly, look at paintings, film, art. This engagement with other people’s imaginations opens a new sense of possibility, a fission, a galaxy upon galaxy of unexpected life.

So to be part of a physical space where actual people actually meet with the purpose to explore their imaginations for their own work and to see how this develops from its interaction with others feels like a real treat.

I decided, too, as well as inviting people who have a commitment to writing (if only to a single project), if these projects crossed genres there would be a chance for more unexpected fertilisation, how would the narrative of prose be affected by rubbing up along side an imagist poem? How would fiction influence memoir? What are the processes that bring us to these genres, what is the thinking? How do they differ? Where do they overlap? I’m hoping that this aligning of difference will enable us all to see our own work more clearly, and so work out how best to express what it is that we must share with others.

It seemed the best way to pull a cohesive yet diverse group of writers together was to ask people to submit work so I can attempt to bring as much of this thinking to bear on a compatible bunch of writers. I hope, too, filling in a few questions will get people thinking about what they want to work on for six months, what they want to bring to the project, how they want to develop. Most of all I just hope there are eight writers out there who are as excited by this as I am…

If you are curious to find out more about the practical details, have a look here

Sunday, 28 February 2016

I play because...


These are the nine cellos I'm playing with as part of the Hear me Roar Festival in Lancaster. Obviously I'm not playing a cello, I'm playing my voice. Maja Brugge, composer of the piece and initiator of the performance, asked me if I'd be interested in delivering the words of her cello students about why and how they play the cellos in accompaniment to nine cellos. I had met her once before - at a gig where she played alongside Steve Lewis and I'd read. We'd liked each other's style, delivery but knew nothing more about each other. I say nothing, but I enjoy how much we are able to pick up about people by such simple things. Besides who could say no to the chance of performing with nine cellos?

We met once to talk over the text, she sent me clips of the music we would have one rehearsal with all celloists and me - which was today. The text is a seemingly simple arrangement of words from her students about their thoughts towards the cello, why they play, what they find difficult about playing and what they love about playing. While the register is the same for all the voices, they are clearly from different people and I enjoy slipping in and out of all those viewpoints personas, trying to ensure they sound distinct, that they are not me, that they are real voices.

Some of the piece I speak solo, at other times with Maja on solo and at others in dialogue with each player. While Maja wanted a non-actor to deliver the work - to ensure a low key delivery to the words - she also wanted some sympathy and rhythmic accordance between voice and cello. Today we spent what little time we had feeling that space and pulse that exists between each of us, exploring how much space we can give to the cello, to the voice and to the piece as a whole. There is a lot of information in the piece: verbal, musical and rhythmical and how to convey all that in a gentle yet absolute way was both fun and intense.

What I love about the cello is its depth of sound. I don't know if it is because it is larger, and yet contained by. the torso that its music seems to resonant in mine, swell my ribs, heave breath and impress its rhythm upon me. It felt absolutely impossible not to respond to the music in my own intonations, to feel the strings, the bow and wood in my diaphragm and work them accordingly to the music and text.

It is a fragile piece, as Maja beautifully described. One that has been made from the experience of all these players and is still being made and will be made further next week. There are simple refrains, improvisations, ensemble sections, discordance and sublimity. It was a delight to be part of it today and I'm really looking forward to making it again next week. I know it'll be over too quickly and will relish every draw of bow and breath and thrum of strings and fingers for the performance.



The ensemble is Maja Bugge, Anna Brigham, Ella Cornwall, Emily Dale, Veronica Dunne, Caroline Lovett, Rosie Lyon, Bev Paddon, Whitney Rawlins and Angie Whitaker. The performance is in the Music Room, Storey Institute, Meeting House Lane, Lancaster, Wednesday 9th March, 7pm.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Oops upside your head



A gorgeous morning today so I decided to ignore the large influx of rubbish - chocolate wrappers, torn bags and bottle tops in the main - and just walk the beach, watching the geese and lapwings overhead. It took me five minutes to find this. We think it's a guillemot, which isn't a regular visitor to the bay. They like cliffs, so roost further north on the Cumbrian coast or in North Wales. 

There's no obvious evidence for its cause of death, and it doesn't look as though it's been in the water for long, barely decomposed. 

Of course it's nothing so dramatic or horrific as the recent surge of whale strandings on the east coast but holds a similar mystery. All these deaths seem to be a perfect image for the huge unknowableness that is the ocean. 

It covers two thirds of our planet; a constantly changing environment, affected by and affecting the weather; containing more species than on land, many of which remain unidentified; the sea bed is uncharted territory: only 15% of it has been mapped to a 100m resolution. 

The PCBs we poured into the ocean until they were banned in the 1970s are still evident in the top feeders, and are given as the reason why orcas are not expanding in population in the North Eastern Atlantic*. They have such slow metabolism toxins sit in their fat layer, although lactating mothers get rid of it through their milk - to their young. When pods are stressed (through toxins or lack of food) females have been known to give birth aged 8 and finish at 43 - usually their breeding age is 12 - 40 yo.

In fact all the pollution in the ocean affects the top feeders the most - in these I include humans. The plankton is extremely efficient at recycling water, its food and gas, and they recycle the chemicals with it, over and over, so they build up in those that predate on them and those that predate on those and so on until we reach the 'top' of the chain.

I put top in inverted commas. In fact we're so dependent on the plankton and filter feeders for our existence it seems almost comical that we consider ourselves at the top. Sure our body plans may be more complex, but without them the future would be extremely bleak. A friend asked me the other day how would we behave if we were to invert the traditional triangle of the food chain and place ourselves at the bottom?

* MCS 
** and for the story - once I'd found the guillemot I felt obliged to go back pick up all the crap on the strandline

Saturday, 30 January 2016

It is a Blurry World


I'm extremely shortsighted. You know those eye test displays to check your sight? I can't even see the largest letter. I can't really see the box I'm meant to be reading,hanging on the other side of the room. To read pretty much anything without my glasses I have to hold it a centimeter from my nose.

I started wearing glasses in year two at primary school -  ahh, look at me, I've lost my teeth too - when it became obvious I couldn't see, because of not responding to the blackboard. I was moved to the front of the class, directly beneath the board, until I got my specs. I'm not sure how I managed in year one, perhaps there was less distance-activity work. Perhaps I relied on other mechanisms for picking up what was going on, what I had to do: copying, watching, making it up...

What I do remember of year one: cartoon animal stickers on our coat hooks; the brightly painted empty playhouse; and a large square. wooden boarded sandbox in the classroom. What I remember from playschool, the year before, is a shimmery sequinned dress in the dressing up box that I coveted every day.

I don't remember the effect of being able to see things clearly once I had my glasses. I do remember becoming very very weary of the kids at school wanting to try my glasses on then falling about, arms outstretched, like some blind drunk, exclaiming in wonder how I could see anything through them.

It's only recently, in the last year or so, I've been thinking about how the lack of clear sight in my early years may have affected my way of seeing the world, and, more interestingly to me as a writer, the way it affected how I communicated what I saw.

I remember hearing the novelist David Mitchell talk of his stammer and how he credited it for his wide vocabulary: learning multiple words enabled him to avoid the ones he struggled saying. I've not come to any similar conclusion about my sight, but I like his story.

I was reading Anne Truitt's Daybook last night; she spoke of a similar start to my myopia in life:
It must have operated to make me self-centered in the literal sense. I could only operate confidently within a short radius ... What I feel, I feel intensely, but it has to come to me, within my ken, under my hand, for me to truly grapple with it ... I remember squatting down as a child, examining everything close up. I remember feeling more at home inside my mind than outside it ... When my mother read to my sisters and me in the evening, the words made pictures that, now when I think of it, must have been clearer than what I actually saw with my eyes.
I also remember this living at close quarters, and the intense pleasure of making small things, tiny worlds out of stuff near me: shells and beads, rock and string. I remember relishing when I took my specs off at night. In fact I still do love that moment when the fuzz takes over. More and more I remove them in day time too - letting the world recede, so it becomes something other than what it is. When I was a child and lived with patterned wallpaper - it was the seventies - I used to stare at the design, the repeated whatever, and extend new shapes and images from the walls of my room, dream up snatches of fragmented worlds around me.

I still have this habit of close operation. My writing flies when I get into small detail on small detail, and struggles when I have to add it up to a larger sequential thing. My reception of the world outside, my primary absorption of it, is of its light, movement, sounds: how it impacts my body.

The crouching down, the detailed examination of things, Truitt talks of, comes later to me; often days later, when my mind is recalling the experience and I'm pulled back outside, or to the cache of what I've collected, to inspect it.

I've always been grateful to have lived at a time when glasses were freely available - even if it did mean wearing those nhs frames for years - I didn't realise how uncool they were until my development had truly fixed and then they became cool again and I had moved on to fancy-shaped frames. I still phantasize over what I'd do for work if I had no glasses. So far I've chosen to be a seamstress, or tailor. As such my world would fit comfortably in the cloth and stitches on my lap.

It seems inordinately comfortable to find myself hand-stitching and binding my artist books. Pleasurable to be back making small discrete worlds from what's around me: those charts I don't use now, the waxed thread I loved to slick my fingers along, fish through the needle's eye, that knot I know.

Such delight in making forces me to ask, why write? Why not make more things, sculpt, use my hands and body to translate the world?

Writing is a close operation - as is reading, which is my first love in communion. Both are safe in that they don't require large scale movement, any precarious outdoor (for which, read vertiginous ledges) exploration, or daily, hourly, interaction with others to complete the task, chomp on the reward, understand why who did what.

Performing suits me well. With lighting, the audience is generally an indistinct body, with or without my specs, and I'm well attuned to picking up people's responses - somehow - though the body. I get to speak, standing in my own body, and deliver the words I've spend my brain and heat laying out.

Some time ago a friend showed me a photo I can no longer find. It was a blurred image of a snowy scape with what looked like a woman and child, holding hands, in the centre of the whiteness. When I saw it I burst into tears. It was exactly how I saw the world pre glasses. I wonder if the subject (adult/child) connected me to that time, when I was living in the world without clear sight. I felt, and still feel, such gratitude for this artist to have made such an image. It validated the first five or so years of my life - I can't have suddenly lost 20/20 vision aged five and a half. Just like that. I probably had never seen the world as I did once I had acquired specs. Anne Truitt writes powerfully of this transition.

I'm currently exploring how I might write without the lens of this standard vision. Ruth Wiggins talks about the influence of having 2D sight on her writing here.

I certainly make my best first edit when I'm not looking at the work close to. Rather I re-imagine it in my head, let it settle in a blurry kind of way, so it makes - perhaps a more authentic - sense to me.

How I can convey how I see the world in a first draft, without the fear of the words being vague, sequentially unfocused. How I might manifest this very short depth of field I have? How I might celebrate it, invert what Anne Truitt claims is 'a whole world ... formed on the basis of faulty information'. What if I take away the 'faulty', make it simply 'other' information?

Sunday, 10 January 2016

The watery business of art and craft


This picture came from Megan Fizell's Twitterstream and got me thinking about the difference between art and craft and how it diminishes craft when I'm not sure that's entirely fair. I've asked a few people this past week their thoughts of the difference. On a thread in the Facebook group 'Handmade Books and Artist Books'  I was told 'The philosopher and art historian Arthur Danto wrote a whole book on the subject, and his conclusion was that there is no consistent set of criteria that would enable you to distinguish art from not-art, so the question is not really worth asking.' 

Surely everything is worth asking? Over and over? The same premise (as in the need to repeating yourself in your art) about people not listening the first time, surely applies?

Someone else mentioned 'manufacturing'. Craft, to me, seems rooted in the practical nature of something coming into being. And I do like art executed by the artist. There is an implicit, perhaps invisible, integrity to the unification of idea and execution that enables the final piece to have that transcendent quality (a little like the fifth taste, umami? I heard a discussion around this taste on the radio and it seemed no one, from this western panel, could really describe it satisfactorily). 

The same person suggested this transcendent element perhaps came from the motivation: ''art' is not just about the doing and making, but about why its done, made with feeling, born from an emotion or experience, not from a skill alone.' And perhaps others are right, art does not need an object at all. It is an idea that attaches itself to the made, crafted, manufactured thing.

Does this emotion or skill, this intention, or idea, mean the finished object, a book in my case, become something more than a book? And if so, what does it become? I think A Dock is not a Solid Thing is also a puzzle, a game, an experience of precariousness as well as a sequence of poems.

What has also been suggested to me is the importance of time - which perhaps evokes scarcity. Does a woven cushion cover, once it is over several centuries over, tip into being an object of art - rather than one for use? GP has interesting things to say on time, in a reverse sense, in this gem. I like the idea of painting becoming a craft, even if I'm not convinced I agree with him.

I didn't hear the talk that accompanied the slide, although his 2013 Reith Lectures are still online, I am interested that he used the image of water for the slide - a fluid thing if ever there was one - to set the comparison upon. Again on the FB thread was 'art and craft are part of a continuing scale and it's very hard to place anything completely in one or the other.' It seems the metaphor of water sets this up perfectly. 

Contributors to this post:
Paul Garcia
Eleanor Hynd
Chris Hardy
David Judd
Annie Lee
Catherine Sadler

Thank you, all.