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

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!