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).


Monday, 3 November 2014

Time and Tide

I'm involved in a WWI project, using archival coroner's reports to explore the effect of the war on the people of Morecambe Bay: Time and Tide. The reports I've read register the deaths of munition factory workers, drowned sailors, suicides and far more domestic accidents that could and do still happen now. 

I was invited on board after the project had secured funding, so had no part in its creation. When I first read the reports I felt very uncertain at the prospect of using these tragedies as inspiration for new writing. These were people's lives and deaths, not simply writing exercises or discussion points. It felt extremely important to hold these reports (that are public, available for anyone to read) with huge compassion and an attempt of understanding lives that are, in some ways so different from ours today and yet are wrapped up with the same concerns: love, pride, friendship, loyalty... 

They lived at the whim of their time: war thundering on hundreds of miles away and yet shaking their communities and daily lives. Without the immediate horror of the battlefields the impact felt in Morecambe Bay (and anywhere on the home front) would have been somehow more shocking - impinging on, what seemed, almost normality: at least the backdrop was familiar. It is this infringement upon people adapting to a necessarily new situation: new jobs, changes of roles, rations... adapting as well as humans do - that feels so shocking. Of course it reverberates now, as ever, as people the world over have to subsume the shock and outrage of war to be able to feed themselves, their families, to survive. 

Looking out my window onto the blue waters of the Bay, at the reflected sky in the muddy sands, it feels as though the landscape can't do anything but hold what has come before: the horror and the mundane, big and small, near and distant. Sometimes we see it, sometimes not. And that's what makes this project valuable: we're looking.

Friday, 24 October 2014

A Narrow Stage

The Tales from the Towpath performance was a marathon - all thirty three feet of the narrowboat's aisle: three shows in one evening. The first was still in daylight, the second two after dark, which was when the show really came alive. We had the most minimum of lighting, and as we read the story of Tib, Dan and ... (best not spoil the story as caches and zap codes are up until the end of the year at least), I was reminded of reading under bedcovers at night, and how totally absorbing and encompassing that was for my imagination.
Whatever I was told, or, in this case, was telling, seemed totally believable. And so it seemed to our audiences. They all entered into the spirit of building the possibilities of what and who could evolve from the original premise.
IMG_0081We had one rehearsal in situ although had the boat's dimensions taped out for a day previously. Add people dotted up and down the stage and we were really dancing in the crowd. Making the most of the boat's length was always central to our performance (arff arff), to bring the intimacy of the spoken voice close to everyone there, which may be uncomfortable for some, but I am sure they'll all have left with certain phrases and images spinning in their heads.
Inevitably the lighting emphasized this, focusing on our IMG_0048mouths in the main, freeing me, at least, to forget the external, my physical presentation, and pour all energy and focus into the voice and its delivery. The contained space of the narrowboat added to this aural dynamic, as well as providing a challenging screen for Helen to project images and text on to. Wood everywhere - what a wonderful acoustic.
Each performance had a very distinctive character - perhaps created by the audience's personality, aided by the start time. This difference really altered the peaks and curves of the story, where the humour or sorrow emerged, and, perhaps most crucially, how much detail we got on opening a lock. One day. Next project.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Everything We Have Ever Missed


The above, a collaboration between photographer Alastair Cook and poet John Glenday, arrived over the weekend. It is one of a series of work made by Absent Voices - an artist-led project. I like artist-led projects. They suggest energy, freedom, collaboration, all things I think can lead to beautiful, important work

This book is quiet, layered and insistent. The photos are double exposures, close-framed abstract pieces. They glimmer with alternative ways of seeing simple views. They are fixed and fluid, shadowy and concrete, of nature, of industry. I love the geometry of them. I love the snatches of light, the hinting at preciousness and life, at where humans stand next to or inside nature. I love the in-focus out-of-focus of them. I run my hand over them (printed on thick weighted, matt paper) expecting textures. Somehow feeling texture.

For every three photos there is a poem, each without a title - why have numerous titles when the book title is so achingly beautiful?  The poems may be regularly placed on the right hand page but there is nothing else regular about them. Form is played with. Sometimes informative, almost conversational in tone, in others I hear liturgies, a surefooted trail, even-fingered playing, real stories, mythic people. The poems find the gaps in the pictures and prise them wider. They speak literally to the image and then slide away, into that white space of their pages, taking me with them to my own world, to see the microscopic, the patterns, the abstract symbolism within how things layer upon each other, how they cast shadows, new life upon each other,

Absent Voices has been devised to explore and preserve in words, picture, song and sound, the legacy of Greenock's once mighty sugar industry. I only know Greenock as a standard port in the almanac, for calculating tides in the SW Scotland, This book brings that place, its history, to me, and in doing so shows me another way of seeing my place, its history, my history. What a gift!



Sunday, 5 October 2014

Counting fifty millionths of a nanosecond...

flotilla
I'm involved in a wonderful project for Manchester Literature Festival: Tales from the Towpath. It is based around the waterways of Manchester, and, unsurprisingly, the story is all about water... I don't mean water simply as environment, but the threat that is facing water. The biggest issue I think is that no one knows what the consequence is. Yes, we know seas are warming, becoming more acidic, and that obviously threatens the marine life already balanced to the chemical make up of the sea, but what actually will happen is really anyone's guess.
Our story is not concerned with the sea, per se, but the water in the canals and rivers of Manchester. (Although you could argue, that just as all oceans are the same body of water, the cycle is delicate and connected) There is a prophetic element in our story, dealing with the various possibilities of what will happen to our water in the future.
We found research about water memory suggesting that water is more fragile than we'd suspected, to the point where the hydrogen bonds within its molecular structure can be broken down within fifty millionths of a nanosecond. This has potentially disastrous outcomes when you consider the ongoing degradation of plastics - what generally ends up in the water: be it canals, drains, the sea. All the plastics that have been made are still in existence in some form. Plastic breaks down and breaks down to microscopic particles, but as yet it has not completely disappeared. Water, fragile as some suggest, is vulnerable to this morphing of plastic. In some, possibly not too distant, future it may no longer be written as the familiar H2O compound but a new unfamiliar descendant. Cue mythological creatures that have adapted to such an environment....
The story trail opens tomorrow, Monday 6th October and runs, for free self-guided tours, for the duration of the festival, until 19th October. There is a performance on Friday 17th October, at Castlefield Basin on a traditional narrowboat, which will be a first for me 

Monday, 22 September 2014

Wide-Eyed and other Risks

A Pilgrimage to San Isidro. Francisco Goya

As friends will attest, I'm a pretty private person. A statement which,  perhaps ironically,  I find exposing.

We all are, in some way. I was thinking about how I try to avoid presenting my vulnerability this weekend, as I'd been invited to a party to celebrate 30 years of Wasafiri. I was planning to be in London as it happened, so accepted the invitation.

I suspected I wouldn't know anyone there, with the exception of deputy editor Sharmilla Bezmohun. How would that be? How would I be? The image of my wandering around, glass in hand, looking at art instead of talking to people, loomed large as I traveled to the October Gallery, absorbing myself in being of the atmosphere rather than simply being. Feeling detached, self-conscious... those attributes to exposure that when I considered it I had mainly felt when I'd been alone or in known company in nature: lost cycling in Spain, uncertain how to read the sea on the boat.

Those experiences and others arose from exhaustion often, a couple of times from the sense of the sublime perception that probably I was susceptible to because of exhaustion. Certainly this trip to London I had found particularly wearing. Work has been pretty full on - lots of different projects to juggle without enough slow time to work on my own poetry - which I think did not form a sound, solid basis for a trip to our hectic, stimulating, polluted capital.

I read the Female Eunuch when I was 15/16 and the only thing I carry from it - consciously - is Greer's declaration that 'there is no such thing as security'. Yet I am forever shrouding myself in something that feels like it: a veneer of purpose, understanding, connection.

The images of models that bombard us in public spaces or pages of magazines are, predominantly, images of women looking vulnerable: eyes wide, lips soft. Vulnerable, in this idealised state, is considered attractive. Of course they aren't vulnerable. They are made up, posed and studied, which means they don't make that emotional connection to me that true vulnerability might.

Yet to accept that state, hold it in a public place, be without the armour of social confidence and knowledge is an altogether different proposition. I had experienced that recently, perhaps only once before. In Goya's Black Paintings gallery in the Prado in Madrid I couldn't stop crying. I didn't care who watched me. We were here for the paintings rather than each other. And I had the paintings as a reason I could cite for the tears if anyone pointed or looked at me in horror or kindness.

I've been reappraising some poems recently. Looking at where I mask the vulnerability within them, as if suddenly fearful or doubtful of presenting this 'naive', 'simple', 'honest' perspective. And cutting these masks off to see how the poem stands. The poem below is an example of one. The first version (three verses) appeared in the latest version of The North. The second has the mocking adolescent voice removed. I find the second far more risky to me as the poet, but also far more moving as a poem. Since the poem is about itself and not me, then surely I ought to let it move without the corset/plating that is its social costume.



(As for the party: I did know one other person - who I hadn't seen in yonks, so had a great conversation with her. And met someone else who was a joy to discover. I also found Owusu Ankomah's enormous canvases perfectly absorbing...)