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.

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...