Monday, 23 November 2015

A Dock is not a Solid Thing

Is it a toy? A book?
Well, possibly both, possibly more. For me, it is an design of profound and simple engineering.

A Dock is Not a Solid Thing is a Jacob's Ladder format of two tone card (blue / white), ribbon and a steel fastener, comprising seven poems on docks, boat building, maritime trade and lighthouses. The binding, a delicate and ingenious design, conveys the movement of water and precarious nature of maritime industries. If you have played with a ladder before, you'll know just how absorbing flicking them one way and then another is...

At least I find it so. It reminds me of the magic wallet my dad had: a folded leather wallet bound with straps of elastic. He'd place a pound note under the side with two straps, close the book, open it and the note had miraculously moved to the side with one strap. Over and over he'd close and reopen the wallet, over and over the note moved.

What was it that held my wonder? I can't answer for my child self, but as an adult I love not completely understanding how the straps move - even after I've made thirty of these things. Unlike my dad's wallet this has five panels and if you hold them vertically, they make a slow collapse and silent laddering down, each flipping over the next. The panels are hinged and unhinged as they move downwards. Like the moving pound note, it relies on an optical illusion that begs for clarification but never reveals it.

I think I must have played with a wooden once as a child too. When I let the panels fall I can hear the clack of them, even though they are silent. It is like holding a shell to my ear

Thursday, 22 October 2015


Ripple ʃ Siachen Glacier

Ripple ʃ Butterfly Orchid

These are a couple of prototypes for Ripple - a triptych of three dimensional poetry pieces I'm making with Maya Chowdhry for an exhibition next month at the Menier Gallery as part of GFest. It's been a fascinating process so far.

Not least for the scale. I'm (once again) outside my comfort zone. Having become confident with small scale, miniature artist booklets combing poetry I had to say 'Yes' to Maya's invitation to work with her on this project that aims to present the impact of climate change on the Indian subcontinent. Each installation is an interactive poetic sculpture, using both the sculptural extension (the extension of my previous paper work) and augmented reality (bi-lingual audio poems accessed through Zappar). 

This sculpture, we hope, illustrates the imagination made solid, the creation of a space, a small world into which the listener is invited to stay and explore the poem, for the poem to have a physical presence.

Collaboration is a slow, rigorous way of working. Every decision takes twice as long, new ideas bubble up with the discussions. Which, for me, makes a perfect method for presenting poems: there is no one way of reading a poem, there is no one ‘translation’. There are compromises and unexpected outcomes, so the piece that is finally made surpasses what either creator could have achieved solo. And it is this that makes the sometimes frustrating process so thrilling. 

It is like learning a new language. It is an exploration into a new territory for which neither collaborator has a complete map, except for their experience and willingness to learn from the other. 

All the visual elements of this poem sculpture are only clues, tactile renderings of the written and spoken poem. We chose not to render too many of the images literally within the piece. That would be stealing from the poem, and the listener. 

Light and shadow fall onto each element in ways that could join the images in the spoken poem, or they could send the observer elsewhere. This poem may never be heard by some, it is the visual equivalent of simply looking at the poetic text on a page, lingering over that, considering it as a drawing, perhaps. Another way of regarding the sculpture is as the imprint of the poem, what may be left behind after the poem is heard or read. 

Ripple ʃ Heritage Carrot
So far so fascinating. As collaborators Maya and myself go way back and enjoy the bouncing of ideas and parallel thinking that we bring to a piece of work. This does take time, however. I've tallied thirty hours so far and I've only just begun to make the actual pieces. Then of course there is Maya's time - probably similar to mine and we've had translators and Bengali and Urdu readers involved, plus artist Laura Collins drew the stunning image of Siachen Glacier you can just see in the top pic. So when we were asked how much did we want to price them for the catalogue it became a tricky concept...

And once we have (including the gallery percentage) I'm now left with having to make pieces that are more expensive than any art piece I've bought. I've talked about money and value on this blog before and how it does my head in. I can't even bring myself to say how much they're going for. Maybe when they're made and in situ and have become separate from me it might seem more laughable than pressurizing.

To paraphrase Jorie Graham : the economic sense is not a very important stratum of reality, even though it is the most apparently influential one.

In this interview (from 1991) she goes on, "How amazing that the most advanced capitalist society on earth should have so many of its children turning towards an art form that is bound to make them overworked and underpaid. Could it be that they have intuited that poetry can put them in contact with some necessary mystery, or value (or set of values), or sense of reality, that this narcotizing culture has increasingly deprived them of? Maybe they just want to wake up."

For now I need to keep focused and a steady hand. Ripple is available to view (and buy) at the Menier Gallery from 10-14 November.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Cooking up a Banquet

photo by ClaireGriffiths

I've been lucky enough to document, with photographer Claire Griffiths, an amazing project underway in Blackpool this summer/ autumn - Banquet.  There are six creative strands all working towards a largescale community banquet on Saturday 24th October. These include building the table for the feast, embroidering the tablecloth, making and designing the plates, making and flavouring the salt, picking apples from neglected orchards and turning them into chutney, and infusing new teas inspired by the character of Blackpool and the Wyre.

I'm particularly struck by the sustainable and ecological nature of the work. The ethos of all the projects I've visited so far is to draw from the resources of the area - either literally - in terms of making salt from the Wyre or finding orchards for apples - or metaphorically in terms of inspiration that comes from the stories of the participants. While many of the participants were not necessarily aware of the other strands of the project when they first embarked on, say, designing their own slipware plates and bowls, the overlapping of the artistic drive of celebrating what we have where we are is reinforced every time I visit a project. 

This is perhaps most evident in the apple picking project, the salters and the people's pottery project - all three making space and time for the sheer creative joy of making things from the earth. Once time is made to work with and handle the most basic of elements, more value is inevitably placed on the element. The increased sense of wonder that comes from excavating the source of something, making connections between what we take for granted, is boundless. 

And nourishing. It adds the x-factor to any recipe, just as much as eating food you've grown yourself. In an era that mixes a cooking programme virtually every night on tv, spiraling food prices and increasing obesity, it feels imperative to have such community based projects that encourage this knowledge and build it into enjoyable and inclusive events. Beachcombing along the Fleetwood seafront, anyone? 

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Soul Poetry

We have soul music and soul food, but soul poetry is not a genre familiar to me. Soul is a tricky word. What is it? How is it different to spirit? Is it something you have to believe in?

I've decided the poetry that mattes to us, as readers or writers, is, by its impact, soul poetry. This is why I think with all the poems out there in the world I am only really struck by proportionally so few. The hit, the striking of that poem with me, has to be so precise for it to chime with me, with my soul - that intangible element of me that is a swirling mass of emotion, intellect and experience. It is that connection that makes a poem flare inside or fall by my feet.

It is that connection, which a friend recently called our soul connection, that makes me as a writer feel so impassioned, so vulnerable, so aligned, with the poems I write that work. I have a series of prose poems that I see as a pamphlet. They occupy a half-lit, smudgy world somewhere in the North, narrated by an unnamed inhabitant of a coastal village. I want them out in the world, rafted in a small publication. This desire is far greater than the impetus I feel for Colne Rising, my latest commission. Which, while focusing on matters close to my heart: sea levels and marine ecologies, has yet to emerge into a transcription of that intangible part of me.

Of course there's time for this to shape itself and naturally I hope and intend it will. But I wonder if the process of having to pitch for this commission, to have to explain the idea and (the nightmare of print deadlines) write a blurb about the unwritten piece as if it exists, forces it into presence. This makes me think it's like religions presenting the notion of soul to a congregation before they've had chance to discover what it might be for themselves.

Colne Rising is full of new challenges for me, which of course is fantastic as well as intimidating. I think the greatest is, having gathered the external details: location, histories, oceanographics, to step inside, breathe, and find its soul.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Walking a story into itself

And so, after much driving and walking around West Yorkshire, I think I might have found the route for my commissioned walk for the Bear Hunting Festival. Obviously the process of decision making can't be completely smooth: we're still waiting to hear if the final section will actually be open to walkers at the end of October...

I ended up having quite a stringent set of criteria for it: a wish list I couldn't really expect to be fulfilled, that seemed to get longer every time I thought about the walk and the accompanying narrative that was building in my head. And while I vaguely knew West Yorkshire from previous work - Poet in Residence for Calderdale Libraries and my stint at Arc in Todmorden - there's nothing like peering at the contour lines and dotted lines on a map and then walking them to really get to grips with a place, and an idea.

I don't want to give too much away at this point as I'm not quite certain how the narrative will be told. Possibly as a series of poems, or prose poems rather than a continuous story, possibly through found objects, possibly as small spoken word performances...

What I do know if that I'm going to have to walk the route many times to get a feel for it in all weathers and light, to feed the story idea, to embed the story in my footsteps and the landscape, so that for all its rather fanciful potential the piece gains authenticity, roots in the valley, becoming a possibility, a likelihood rather than a bonkers flight of fancy. I'm sure I've said it on here before, but I love the Tibetan view that what can be imagined can also be true...


Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Come, Sit and Investigate

Work is progressing on the Time and Tide exhibition piece: a bureau acting as a memorial to those who died on the home front in Morecambe during WW1.

There'll be copies of a coroner's report we used during the project, people's written and spoken responses to the reports, maps, objects from the archives, casts of other objects and a commissioned poem from me. All these things will be tucked into the nooks, drawers and cupboards of the bureau for people to explore and consider the lives of those a hundred years ago. I went round to see what Lisa (of Two am press) had done so far, with a degree of nervousness - we had talked a lot about the project and people's writing and what we wanted to capture from it, but this would be the first time I was going to see her thoughts manifest into objects.

What I was most taken by - beyond the intimacy of the bureau - were the casts she had made of the some of the objects detailed in the reports.

What I love about these pieces is the stillness and peace that they conjure. Amongst all the objects, creative thoughts, words, stories and fragments of lives are these solid blocks of whiteness, that will provide the space for the explorer of the bureau to come to their own thoughts and feelings alongside everyone else's.

We're launching the bureau (and accompanying chair for the full experience) at the West End Festival in Regent's Park, Morecambe, this Saturday, 18th July, 12 - 4pm at the back of the cafe. I don't know how we'll fit with the energy of the festival, but I hope we will provide a small space of respite and meditation as well as celebration of all the work and energy that has arisen from the project.  

If you can't make the West End Festival, the bureau goes on tour around Morecambe Bay until Christmas this year

Venues / Dates
Heysham Library: 20th July-26th AugustMorecambe Library: 27th Aug- 30th SeptemberHest Bank Memorial Hall: 1st - 15th OctoberLancaster Library, Local History Section: 15th October- 14th November
Lancashire Archives, Preston: 16th November - 20th December 

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Hitching and where people take you

St Raymond with Pexiora church in the background
This year at French House Party, we ran two writing weeks back to back - a workshop week followed by a retreat week. I was a little anxious as to how my energy levels would extend to match the ambition, but I hadn't appreciated this also gave me proper days off. This year was the first I managed to explore the area further afield than the Canal du Midi.

Because I had no vehicle (the bikes at St Raymond are fine for cycling the canal but not hills) I would have to hitch. Those of you who have seen Sealegs will know I used to hitch all over the place and love that sense of throwing myself into the arms of the world and finding for the most part it catches me.

I'd been recommended  Mirepoix market on Monday mornings - to see the medieval town alive with traders. It is 30km from St Raymond on a straightforward route. Sunday evening I inked up my sign for the outward and return journeys and then settled into a novel from that week's suggested reading list compiled by the group - Under the Skin (spoiler alert). Thanks Moira...

However not being a hunky young man in Scotland I felt safe enough... And I was. I walked over a bridge to a small layby on the road to Mirepoix to be immediately picked up by the second car that passed: a young couple also going to the market. We established pretty quickly my French wasn't up to much chat beyond the basics and settled into the ride.

Mirepoix is a beautifully preserved medieval market town, with astonishing gargoyles in the house beams, gorgeous wrought iron merchant signs and an embracing church in the middle of a market selling the fattest asparagus and beefiest tomatoes I had seen in a long while. It was full of lifestylers who followed the summer fetes with their craftwork of pottery, goats wool, instruments, crochet etc etc. I spent a happy few hours wandering round and round not worrying where I was, just drinking in the energy and life of a place so removed from the quiet of St Raymond.

When ready, I walked in what I thought was the direction we'd entered the town - to the river, past more workshops and studios, found a sign to Bram, where I needed to go, and headed across the bridge to where looked like a good spot. I didn't get that far. A shout from the other side of the road. It was the same couple who had brought me here. Did I want a lift back?

Of course I did. And this is one job of travelling - that sense of fellowship that comes from such coincidences, of being on the road together (if only for 30km). We stumbled through franglais for most of the journey back - what I was doing here, where I worked, what they lived: which was a book town, full of artist studios, bookshops, only a few km from where I worked. They couldn't believe I hadn't been there. Patrick Suskin had a house there... They ran the bakery. I should come.

So for my second day off I persuaded Moira to scout out Montolieu as a potential trip for one of the writing weeks next year. It sits on the side of a huge gorge and is populated with artist studios, bookshops, well-tended window boxes, vertiginous views, sculptures on street corners and a most deliciously stocked bakery. We stopped into say hello to my 'friends', who asked if we'd been to Apostrophe yet. We hadn't and were told it was at the bottom of the village: a hotel with artist studios we ought to see.

The sign took us through a tumbled down wall, under a crumbling arch, with hanging electric cables, down some broken and plaster-ridden steps. It felt wrong. It felt dilapidated. "But the sign," whispered Moira... It was true, I agreed, but hissed, "Be quick. Be careful. Be quiet."

At the bottom of the steps was an overgrown open courtyard with four walls, one was just a wall, with windows (all broken) that looked into more scrubland and tall grasses. Opposite that wall was the hotel, with walls that had rooms the other side of them, things in the window sills. Though some of its upstairs windows were broken. There was no one about. We tiptoed inside, to find a lavish, if seemingly unfinished hallway, with empty display cabinets - again some without glass - and a row of dark tall oiled art deco wooden doors, with armchairs either side of them, and a wide sweeping stairway with wrought iron banister curving upstairs and out of sight. The smell of food wafted down a corridor filled with sculptures and chess boards set up to play, wing-backed chairs and nobody. Through the far double doors, a bar was well stocked, and bread lay sliced on the the counter. Nobody. Large photos of people sporting Daliesque moustaches, ropes and tight leather straps hung about the walls. Blue and pink optics glowed in one corner. Next to that was a large lounge with parquet floor, ceiling-high windows, more photos and low leather settees all slightly worn. We felt like trespassers, as if the building was still being renovated, as if someone loved it, as if...

We were running out of time. We had people to pick up from Bram train station.For out final five minutes we headed to one of the studios across the grassy courtyard. More beautiful wood and metal sculptures, half animal, half brutal spikes and soft curves. And more. Paintings, prints, some figurative, some abstract. All hung in a labyrinth around this enormous room that looked out onto the courtyard one side and the scrubland the other. The artist said he'd been there two years, the hotel for six. Which shed new light on what we'd seen. I'd taken photos, but as often with these places they've come out perfectly normal, representing an almost plush looking, expensive hotel, no sign of the questioning air, the tickling weight of still settling plaster, the distant sense of inhabitants.

At least one thing is certain: we will be taking one of the groups there next year for an afternoon out...