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...

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Lune Rising

I've had a cracking time this past month writing a new commission for Lancaster Arts City. Lune Rising is a self-guided audio tour around Lancaster Castle, set after a freak tidal surge that has wiped out most of the buildings in Lancaster...

Set in the future, it pulls details from Lancaster's past. With the rising water, boundaries have blurred: now there is no time except tidal time. The last boat to be built at Glasson Dock, The Rylands, is still out there, somewhere, a possible landfall impending. Old recipes for curlew stew float against practical uses for polycarbonate.

Underlying these details are the notions of remembering and forgetting: what would we remember in such a situation? What would you want to forget? How much would we really accept what had happened? There is a suggestion that everything is an echo of its former self, a self imposed creation for a sense of security.

Throughout the writing I kept thinking of Bangladesh, of Sri Lanka, of Nepal... places that have undergone catastrophic natural disasters for real. I didn't want to belittle what they have experienced, are still experiencing. I didn't want it to become a kind of voyeuristic imaginary tourism... from which the listener could just walk away after 20 minutes of titillation and get on with their relatively luxurious life... Obviously I have little control over that, but the intention is to create a slow layering of real and imagined experience that encourages a different way of seeing a familiar landscape and to perhaps hold that for a while, to see it again when next there...

We recorded it last night under the most tempestous skies June has seen for forty years, apparently - gusts of 43mph and buckets and buckets of rain. Which all felt rather appropriate and unsettling

If you take the tour I'd love to know what you thought of it. Send me a message in a bottle through a comment here or tweet #Lune Rising @sarahhymas

You can listen to it all, or download it, here

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.