Friday, 15 May 2015

The Shopbox is Open

Finally I have made my own shop: an old Windsor and Newton paintcase. It only needed minor modifications: the addition of a couple of cardboard strips to give compartments for each pamphlet. It's one of those ridiculously simple jobs that sat on the shelf for months while I considered all the possible complexities, that weren't actually relevant.

This is actually the reverse of what I usually experience: having a 'brilliant' idea that I mentally elaborate on for days, perhaps weeks and then settle down to execute it, only to discover it's not so fabulous. The most recent of these was to make a skull and crossbones out of q-tips.

I've been developing an interest in plastics, reading and [attempting] writing about their presence in the sea and on coastlines. So a pair of crossbones from q-tips seemed a brilliant image to capture the fact the these little shafts are one of the most populous pieces of plastic found in the sea. Yes, people must flush them down the toilet...  Crossbones: simple - strong - easy to make...

All of which were true. The missing x factor was the image. I tried making the skull with cotton wadding, drawing an outline of it, using a gull's skull I'd found. None really hit that transcendent image I had formulated in my imagination. One just looked naff. Another just looked naff and the third I'm still chewing over.

Because I'm making this next pamphlet differently: designing the pamphlet as I write the poems to see how that grows the piece, all this faffing about stalled the writing. I've put visuals aside, apart from making a tear-out font for one title to see how that was going to work, and refocused myself on the words. Which are also proving hard to pin down.

In the back of my head a new idea has formed. It'll be even better. Still simple, but will take longer to trial than hustling a couple of q-tips. I reckon I need at least 40 odd photos, all staged and slightly different. Yes, I'm going to try a flickbook... I just don't know quite when I'm going to face the harsh truth of making it.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015


I made this box recently. Part of the instructions were to use tissue paper as a base material between cardboard and the papier mache covering. Because my mother has just moved I had recently acquired all the letters I have ever sent her, which she had kept as she does as self appointed keeper of stories. These letters seemed like the idea material - being that wonderful tissue thin airmail paper. And it would mean I was doing something useful with these letters.

The first bag I had dared to open was full of letters from me as a twenty year old heading to New Zealand - on the one way ticket I had secured with a guarantee from a NZ friend. I decided I owed it to my mother to read these letters she'd kept for so long before sealing them away.

Agony. I hadn't realised how successfully I'd managed to edit out the naive ignorance of my twenty year old self: the vague pronouncements on what I had seen or experienced read as a litany of almost meaningless events to my parents (and that's not considering the appalling handwriting on such thin paper the loops and crosses cutting through to each side making the act of reading ridiculously hard work). The idealised aspirations for what I was going to do and how it was all going to fall into place were astonishing to read. I do remember being far more confident than I am now, but honestly, really? had I ever been that person?

I have diaries from the time, but there is a substantial difference in tone between those and the addresses to my parents. There are suggestions on books for Mum to read that I can't believe ever considered her interests and tastes. It was as if I had the aspiration for improvement people can show for their children but was pushing it on my parents, as if our roles were reversed. And I had wiped it from my memory, replacing it with the naive enthusiasm I read in my diaries. Still cringeingly ignorant, but at least I wasn't imposing myself upon anyone. (Although amongst these letters was one from my mother telling me how much she enjoyed reading mine - some consolation at least)

I suppose it is good to have this other perspective of myself. A reality check of who I am, as long I don't spiral into a mire of self criticism. I have to embrace her because she is part of what made me who I am now. It's also about accepting the truth of my younger self and her relationship with my parents - expectant and demanding (urg), a rather pompous supposition that I know best, or more...

In the end the box only took five or six letters before it was covered. I used the envvelopes and stamps and some maps from the time for the papier mache, so it has become a box of my younger self. I have no idea what I'll put in it. It was an experiment which has become an odd memorial. I still have four or five bags of them. I know I ought to read them but really I just want more boxes to cover with them and then hide them, like the layers of skin and callouses that have covered the original experiences... But until I find a use for the first box I can't bring myself to make more and be surrounded by these empty totems to the past self.

This all reminds me of a cartoon I once saw of a youngster with backpack etc, climbing a mountain, encountering a besuited man of the same age and appearance. The caption read: Peter went to Nepal to find himself.

Who we find is not always who we expect...

Monday, 30 March 2015

The Metaphysics of Rhythm

I was introduced to this phrase and underlying idea on Saturday at another one of our Collaboration days. Steve went on to explain the relationship between length and shape of space between the sound (which makes the rhythm) and our sense of safety or uncertainty. The regular rhythm, when you know what's going to happen next, creates a safe listening experience - in the main. The irregular (I immediately thought Theolonious Monk) sets the listener on edge. And while I'm not sure I agree in its entirety as I find the 'safe' experience often boring, I know I need it as something to come back to - and outside of music, liken the irregular rhythm to cluster bombing.

I was particularly switched on by the idea and the significance of space over the sound (if the sound is one simple note or word, say). It reminded me of a book I recently read, I Live I See by Vsevolod Nekrasov. And what can be achieved by the space in a poem: between words, line endings and stanza breaks and shapes. And what I love about performing with Steve - the permission for space between words and the extension of the words themselves. How working as a poet within music offers the chance to really stretch into rhythms and push against what I would normally feel comfortable with.

It makes the experience - for the listener as well as for performers - so much more precipitous, which in this context means uncertain, which in the safety of theatre creates work that is alert and active in the listening. It is this vivacity of performance that ensures I am wholly embedded in the delivery of my work - the uncertainty becomes anxiety before the performance, suspension during performance and excitement post performance.

It also makes me think of the push/pull dynamic that Steve and I have in the composition of our work: Steve's draw to irregularity extends to his enjoyment of dischordance and its effect on the listener, what I would call a unscratchable itch. While I, overarchingly, am pulled to harmony, despite my delight in regularity I need something comforting in both what I listen to and make.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

StAnza 2015

StAnza coasters... miniature poetry books ... poetry scrolls ... mug shots of all the contributing artists on a wall ... comfy seating ,.. giant beach ... weeny harbour ... I enjoyed all of the inbetween delights of the festival. And to cap it all, we were blessed with gorgeous weather.

Of course the reason for going is the poetry. And I fell on my feet with what I heard (only being there for one and a half days). My highlight was the double bill of Ilya Kaminsky and Ian Duhig. They both gave extraordinary readings, for every different reasons, and so the dynamic between their readings that reverberated in me filled not just my mind but nerves and limbs too. This was in part because of Kaminsky's extraordinary style. He read one long poem: 'Musica Humana': part singing, part chant, part vocal rollercoaster, part straight reading which pulled me inside the poem, experiencing it as if I was one of its inhabitants pressing against the images and line lengths, partly in claustrophobia, partly in horror,
laughter at the surreality. As one of the sections says

I escape and am caught, escape again
and am caught, escape
                      and am caught: in this song,

The poem took me through despair, tenderness, love, innocence, while Ilya's rendition had me captivated. His voice rolled with emotion, with lyric, with a deeply held conviction of the importance of lineage. I shrank smaller and smaller as I listened, as the poem swept through the room and everyone was listening and reading (he'd given handouts of the poem so we would not struggle with his Russian accent) rapt with experience.

How to follow that? Good job it fell to Ian Duhig, who, while not known for a flamboyant reading style, is a poet whose linguistic dexterity holds me in awe at our language and what is possible to do with it. Listening to Ian read is like being driven along narrow lanes with 90° corners that open out onto huge citiscapes and then twist away on another 90° and to another view that twists back in tandem to the first lane. It's a thrilling ride. His knowledge is legion. A legion of softly spoken, leather-soled acrobats who only want to share their world with you. 

When I was digging into Digressions, the book her read from, to find lines I'd particularly loved to quote here, I found the following epigraph from Wittgenstein: 'Our language can be seen as an old city: a maze of little streets and squares ... In the actual use of expressions we make detours.' As I had no idea of this thought before writing my analogy of the above, I can only give credit to Ian for wholly embodying this premise in his work and conveying it so convincingly to me. Told you he's a star.

If you stretch out this writing
into one long, thin, single line,
draw it to an invisible thread,

you can make its information
your own material...
                              (from 'The White Page', from Digressions)

I was there, not just to enjoy myself hearing amazing poets, with Steve Lewis to perform Sealegs on the Sunday. For which we received some very enthusiastic responses as well as plenty of disbelief that the story parts were true. Oh sadly, yes they are... Here's a snippet

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Money Makes My Head go Round and Round

Receiving payment from the bookartbookshop last week for all the Sea-creatures and one In Good Weather...  I’d left with them last time I was in London was initially heart-warming news. People had walked into a shop, full of beautifully crafted, intelligently written short run books and bought some of mine. And what’s more, they had paid twice as much for them as I sell online or at readings. The bookshop sells them at this mark up so I get my full asking price for them, and they take their cut.

When I first started to sell my booklets I was told that nobody would pay more than £5 for a poetry pamphlet. Certainly when the bookstall at a readings have pamphlets on sale at £2 or thereabouts it is bound to have a devaluing effect on all the work for sale.

These books took designing then making - not including the time on the writing in the first place. I wanted some reflection of that in the price. It is how we lay value onto things in our society ... but, as all artists know, to tally up an hourly rate is unfeasible, so how do you land on a price that reflects 'worth', especially on something that has no predecessor? I haven't kept a true and accurate account of hours spent on writing, editing, rereading, thinking, prototyping, making... the only thing I have a real account of is the material cost... So, in one way the pricing is completely arbitrary, using other pamphlets/booklets as benchmarks, even if they bear little relation to my work. So it comes down to gut feeling, which is no way to commercial success.

As it happened I was in London at the end of the week so took another batch of Sea-creatures for their stock and a few of the newbies, There is no Night. There was no hesitation that they were also 'worth' twice the price I sell them for. 

I've stuck to my guns, however, and the booklets do sell. Obviously it is a different customer who goes into a specialist bookshop - that stocks books that range from £1 to £100 - to one who pays £3 to go to a poetry reading.

Later the same day I was loitering off Marylebone High Street, checking out the estate agents windows. Three bedroom apartments were for rent at £6000 per week. We pay that (almost) for a year in our place. Admittedly it does't have a bathroom for both its bedrooms, but it does have a good sized piece of land attached, views of the sea and no other house around.

I mention this because even though I understand the economics of scarcity (and the myth of scarcity), and that there is a whole world of the superwealthy who do not inhabit my world, and that art is not valued in our society, I never fail to be gobsmaked by notions of 'value' - ever since fifteen years ago in Whitby when I bought a 300000 year old ammonite for a fiver.

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