Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Neither Up Nor Down

The marvellous Mr Beanphoto, who works at Litfest with me and does the photography for us, made this lovely photo for a writing workshop we're organising for the Bowland Arts Festival, using a poem of mine.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Rough Cut

Maya sent me a link to the rough cut of the film today. After having talked me through what a rough cut entails: no sound mixes, ungraded colour, a compressed file, and a bunch of other stuff I didn't really get my head around except not to expect a super slick production.

It's on Vimeo, but private so you'll have to wait. I switched on nervously. Maya had also told me she'd seen each shot so many times she'd lost sight of what they added up to and how they fitted together, but I was check for pacing or anything wierd visually.

I watched the film, approximately a minute and a half, about five consecutive times, gobsmacked. It was almost exactly as I'd envisioned, with some shots even more beautiful or striking than I'd imagined. Beth's voice is absolutely perfect, tying with and straining against the film, creating this hollowness that is curiously empathetic. (Hollowness is good. It's the essence of the poem)

Yes, there are some pacing tweaks needed. It does feel a bit fast - there's a lot to absorb with both audio and visual images not always sitting comfortably together (which is what we wanted), and it is a tightly wrought poem. But that's easily sorted. Especially since once again Maya and I are in agreement - the shots she felt needed more work, were the ones I felt were weaker.

I will now have to resist watching it over and over until satiated, and wait until after the holidays to come back to it with a more analytical eye and make notes scene by scene to pass on Maya.

Best to leave alone, then, and go make a snowman.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

In Conversation with Bernardine Evaristo

Another in my infrequent series of conversations.

This time, with dynamic writer, Bernardine Evaristo, who has recently reissued her verse novel Lara with Bloodaxe.

I love this novel for the deep exploration into family lineage. And the new edition spreads this theme even more widely.

Sarah Hymas: After slowly moving away from writing verse through verse-novels and novels with verse to a straight prose novel I wondered how you found the return to verse with this new edition of Lara?

Benardine Evaristo: I wasn't sure at first that I could get back into the spirit and craft of a verse novel having spent a few years writing prose fiction. But reading through the original text was a good way to get back into the flow of it. I did discover that my narrative voice is more cohesive and pronounced than it was in the original LARA. When I originally wrote LARA I was firmly rooted as a poet, now I see myself as a storyteller using whatever genre suits a particular book. It was also a bit of a challenge initially to not write sweeping great paragraphs instead of short, concise lines of poetry and to return to building up the story through small units.

SH: I imagine this return to writing poetry having an influence on how you tell your next story. How much does one idea develop as you're finishing the previous one?

BE: It varies. I'm working on a new novel now which will be a prose novel, but I love the idea of making it a very poetic prose novel. I do love writing the verse novel form and I enjoyed returning to the snapshot sequences of LARA having written my first prose novel BLONDE ROOTS. I don't usually know what I'm going to write next until I've finished a particular work and then, when the manuscript has been delivered, my head is clear to embark on the next project. Although, having said that, sometimes I do get a sense of the territory I'm going to explore next but I don't think too deeply about it.

SH: What prompted you to include the Irish side of the family in this new edition of Lara?

BE: I was never that curious about the Irish side of my family initially, my mother's relatives. I think that when I began writing LARA I was much more interested in discovering the unknown side of my family history, the Nigerian and Brazilian ancestry. An academic once approached me at a reading and asked me why I hadn't written more about my Irish heritage, especially because of the colonial experience of Ireland and how that would draw comparisons with, for example, the Nigerian colonial experience. I was shocked to realise that I hadn't really thought about it and decided then and there that should I ever re-issue LARA, I would add the Irish past. The German side of my family history, also on my mothers side, is also a new addition to the book. So whereas the novel initially spanned 150 years into my father's history, it now spans 150 years into my mother's history too.

SH: You switch narrators (including an omnisicient narrator) a lot. What is your starting point for finding the right voice for each character?

BE: It varies. Some of the characters are based on people I know well, like myself - so I just have to be true to my voice. Not as easy as it sounds, I think. Others are based on my parents and grandmother - all of whom I also knew/know well so I tried to hear their voices in my head - their vocabulary, intonation, the ways in which they expressed themselves verbally. It was a listening job - to my parents voices as they materialised inside my head, and to my grandmother's voice as she was when she was alive. It also helped that I interviewed both parents at length on tape recorder, so I could play their voices back and listen to them with some degree of objectivity. My father's English was quite broken and I was not aware of this until I heard him on tape. With the unknown characters - the family members I never knew - then I used photographs where possible to try and imagine character - once I got a sense of who they were I began to write and then magic takes over - they start to speak through me.....whooooo.....bit spooky, huh?

SH: And to end with, a short roll call of some of the people who influenced the writing of Lara:

Thank you, Bernardine, for your time and permssion to use the photos.

If you're interested in booking Bernardine for a reading then this where to go

Saturday, 12 December 2009

On Set

So we started the day's filming by getting up 7am. Neither Maya nor myself are particularly good in the mornings, so it was a slow and quiet ticking off of the check list: gaffer tape, lights, tripods, moss, coffee, cushion, pegs, still camera, moving camera, six packs of video tape and a thousand assorted elements into bags and boxes then loaded into Maya's car.

Impressively we got there on time. Unfortunately Mark (the Director of Photography/
cameraman) was stuck in traffic and almost an hour late. With my watch on - as production assistant - I'd switched into skipper mode and was counting seconds for each activity of moving furniture and unpacking the teaset etc etc until Maya told me to stop it. It had all felt amusing and lighthearted until Mark arrived. Then I got nervous.

This had nothing to do with Mark. He was all slippers and smiles. Very chilled out and friendly. No, I'd suddenly woken up (two supremo coffees later). This was it. We were now officially making a film of my poem and we had one day to get the shots right.

Mark had some massive (to my eye) kino lights which I'd have called florescent tubes, but obviously threw off a far better light than their glare, which while still took three quarters of an hour to set up, both he and Maya were seemingly pleased with the speed of progress. The gear's not in this shoot - but that lovely sunlight from the window is his fab lighting rig.

After an hour and ten minutes we had recorded five lines of poetry. I'm not used to wearing a watch and kept checking it. I was beginning to fret. We had another twenty lines to go, another four different locations and it was almost lunchtime.

I'd obviously had too much coffee. Fortunately Mark and Maya don't touch the stuff. Plus they'd discussed the storyboard its timings and had made films before. They nodded and hmmm occasionally to each other.

This is Maya pointing purposefully and Mark agreeing with her competance in angling. As you can see by the januty angle of the pic, it's a good job I wasn't being director of photography.

Of course the budget being what it was, we couldn't have the equivalent of fancy lighting gear for everything, and for the second stanza Maya demonstrated the 'towel cam'. This was for the tracking shot through three lines of the poem. And involved the camera set on a towel and slid across the floor for a single smooth motion. Nifty.

It was in the third stanza when I realised the strength of my vision and how it veered from both logistics and Maya's idea. I won't go into details of the particular shot but we couldn't get what we had originaly planned so were talking around alternatives. I was shocked at how strongly I wanted a different idea from theirs and how disappointed I felt when it became obvious I wasn't going to get it.

But this is collaboration. You have to get over the ego business pretty quickly, or you don't get anywhere. Besides we were moving into the hallway and into one of my fave sections of the film.
There's a clue in the picture to the right, but you'll just have to wait for the film to enjoy it. The difference in set up time in the bright hallway compared to the panneled room was incredible. Within minutes we were ready to go for the shot.

And suddenly by 1pm we were halfway through the poem and ready for lunch.

By 2.30 the light was already fading so we had to jump back to the opening shot, outside, and then forward to a line from stanza five. This all had the terribly satisfying feeling of filming everything backwards, like a proper film shedule.

Then my big moment. We needed a shadow. I had my off-screen walk-on part. Walking smoothly, not spookily, is much harder than it sounds. Seven takes later I was really getting into character. I know I'm not going to get an Oscar, or even a Bafta, but not since I was the Little Red Hen had I felt so stage struck.

Maybe it was all the chocckie bics I had for lunch, or doing the washing up, but I missed the filming at the top of the house and suddenly we were in stanza six. The last one. And the bathroom. It was all going to be over too soon and I'd barely got started.

Mark managed to squeeze himself, the lights, leads and camera into the tiny bathroom, as well as the crucial props. We had more mucking about with shadows and movement, but because of the size of the room I didn't get a chance to peek into the viewfinder. I think this was good. While it's my poem, it is ultimately Maya's film and will have her stamp over it.

With all the shots shot, Mark was off to Blackpool, leaving me and Maya to record some of the sounds of the house, the silence of each room we'd filmed in, as well other housie noises: door latches and branch scratchings. Again there was a sense of over larding the narrative, but then better to have stuff we don't use than wish we had it.

I was absoutely pooped. And I'm not too sure why. There was a huge amount of concentration into each shot, although of course worry eats up a lot of energy.

We had just short of an hour's worth of film to condense down into two minutes. I can only hope we got the right shots, or that Maya has a plan as to what to do with what she has got. I won't see the first edit until the new year now. But she kept assuring me that it'd be lush. Lush.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Nothing as Quiet as a House

This time last year I worked with poet Maya Chowdhry on her first collection, The Seamstress and the Global Garment. I had crossed paths with Maya for years, this being the north west and us both being literature passionistas, but it was when Flax published her work that I began to get to know her properly. She's fiercely ethical and open-minded and someone I find highly inspirational in how she views her work as a poet and artist. More about that another time.

The editing I undertook for The Seamstress was one side of a trade. It took me a while to work out what I'd like in return, but as Maya talked more and more about her work for a degree in art, I got to thinking how a film of a poem in Host might be a very lovely thing to have. I had seen a couple of Maya's film and liked their richness and simplicity. And I love the possibility of poetry films. Flax had commissioned one last year, Finding a Language, which was a great merging of two extremely different creative people and a joy (if a little frustrating) to be witness and manager of.

So I presented Maya with four different poems from my forthcoming book, and we talked about the images within them and which we'd be most excited to work with. We settled eventually with Nothing as Quiet as a House, which is a calmer version of a rant about an abandoned house, the first in a sequence of poems spanning a hundred years of a family, its home and business.

Last week we story-boarded the film (far more pleasant than waterboarding). And did I get excited. I did. I did.

Maya had located a house - offered to us by a kindred spirit - and taken some pics to show me. And after some playing about with completely unrelated images we started talking about the potential thrown up by her images. I love the geometric play in this one.

What was so great about our day was that as we worked and discussed the translation of the poem's narrative, we moved seamlessly and energetically from one idea to another, from one brain to another (although there were only the two in the room, it felt like more). There was no huge discrepancy of vision, or even of how we might go about structuring the day or the the film, and when plans were dropped or changed, I can't honestly remember who suggested to do so. It felt like a wonderful expansion of experience.

I was given blank squares in which to sketch (badly) what we decided to include in each scene, how the pace panned out, and how to evoke and suggest echoes rather than literally work off line by line or word by word.

This picture threw up the idea of entrances and exits, mirrors being portals (reminding me of Jonathan Strange and Mr Morrell), and since the poem is about ghosts, or at least memories, this seemed totally apt. I was running with it.

The trick will be to translate the still images of these pictures and others and my badly sketched storyboard into a pacy (or slow) motion picture. But I don't have to worry about that too much. That's Maya's job.

I just have to find all the props we've agreed on: moss, a tea set, a vase, an old chair, a custom molded cushion cover.

And remember to bring my watch next week. I've be given the grand title of Production Assistant. It sounds terribly responsible. Hope I'm up for the job and don't get too giddy.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Brewery Fun

My last gig of a surprisingly gig-ful year was at the Brewery Arts Centre in the refubished Warehouse - a long room lined with rows of sofas facing the velvet curtained stage. Very lush. A lovely vibe for a poetry night. Which was a great start since I felt pretty dire (for entirely self-inflicted reasons).

At least I knew what poems I was going to recite and felt confident I had a mixed set of light, lyrical and surreal stuff. I was also showcasing a hitchhiking poem for the first time. I was one of the headline acts, thanks to the invitation from the supremely energetic Ann Wilson, so had a fifteen/twenty minute slot.

There were fourteen open mics so I had plenty of time to settle into the space. They, as usual, ranged in voice and subject, mainly good - especially Kim Moore and Margaret Whyte, who both read absorbing poems, rich in atmosphere and imagery.

It was a mic'd do so I wasn't going to be dancing about physically, which let me off that hook. Just small gestures and voice. And as usual, an astonishingly attentive audience. I think I've gone on about the priviledge us poets have with our audiences so won't go on about it again.

Mybreathing wasn't the best, so didn't entirely relax but managed to hold attention and enjoy my delivery. But the best bit was after - I've never had so many people talk to me after a gig - mainly to share their hitching experiences (that poem was clearly a winner), but also to tell me how much they enjoyed what they heard - if not necesarily understood intellectually but had gone with the sounds of the poems. And that for me is really what a performance is about. My work isn't the most obvious performance work, being densely written and rather wrought in imagery, but if it can carry people elsewhere then I've done my job.

To an extent sound is sense, and mood can be conveyed through that.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Derwent Poetry Festival

I was down in Matlock Bath at the weekend for the Derwent Poetry Festival, run by Templar Poetry. I had come across their books before - beautifully produced jems - and since my friend Naomi Foyle had been invited to read as a contributor to their new anthology, Stripe, it seemed like a good opportunity to spend a weekend with her and discover some new poets.

It was held in Masson Mills, a water-powered cotton mill, which still produces some of it own electricity from the river. While we had nothing compared to the rainfall in Cumbria, the river was swollen and fast-flowing. An anology for the poetry on the top two floors.

Pat Winslow opened the festival on the Friday evening, with her blend of earthed and lyrical poetry. She's such a sparkly person that it felt impossible not to fall under her reading spell.

By contrast, Jane Weir introduced her book Walking the Block on the Saturday morning. An insightful and askance biography of textile designers Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher. I talk as if I'm hugely familiar with this women. I wasn't. I'd never heard of them. But after an hour of Jane reading and talking about them I was woven (excuse the pun) into their histories.

The book is illustrated with their textile designs, made, as theirs were, with organic dyes, and is a lush artifact of their lives. And Jane's knowledge of them and of the printing process (she is also a printer) was gripping. The hour was a great combination of passion, storytelling, transcendental language and poetry. The poetry echoed the process of block printing: rhymically especially, which illustrates for the benefit poetry has over prose for biographies: there is an opportunity to get inside the subject, to viscerally feel the themes, the emotions.

I love this form for biography (I loved Ruth Padel's reading of her Darwin sequence). The fragmented nature of time and action provides space for the reader to step into the life described, and can slice just one facet of the life. With Jane's book it was very much the work and its process, and yet each poem stood alone as a poem. There was a reverberation to it.

My top discovery was Dawn Wood who read from one of the winning pamphlets, Connoisseur. In it she introduced a new world of dead creatures that she'd sketched and become absorbed by in the Dundee museum. Her precision of phrase, slightly surreal imagery and sense of humour gave such new versions of these potentially familar creatures. I was hooked.

I was also blown away by David Morley, who read poems he'd adapted from Romany stories. But it was the language, like flint on flint, that got me so excited. And I clearly wasn't the only one. He read two long poems in his slot, which at 6.30pm after a long day (with no lunch break to speak of) could have fallen flat on deaf ears. But there was a tangible tremour once he'd finished. We'd all been channeling the energy of that story.

The Sunday morning schedule was cancelled - many people had
been unable to get there - and despite the near continual rainfall, we decided to wander the woods. After close to nine hours of poetry it was necessary to swab our brains with foliage.

I could sense that same charge in my body, both as a writer - ooh yes, I must consider that to write about, oh and that - and as reader - how I was seeing the shapes of leaves, the cut away of the cliffs and the force of the river Derwent in greater detail. There's such an invigorating force to poetry, a kind of born-again sensibility to hearing it, that despite the closing light, the damp air and bedding down of autumn I sat on my train home tingling and very very alive.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Something Lovely

Just found this while "researching"

from a blog by Thomas A Clark.

It really is quite amazing the research you have to do ...
in the name of procrastination.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Mr Puppet has Hair

It's a slow process being a puppet made by me, but he can now see and has hair to give him a more youthful look.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Oh my oh my - People!

I was so confident back in the good old days of the idea for John Denver. That's the danger of ideas - they seem so good. So feasible. So simple.

And then you have to act on them.

Yesterday was my first day for getting to real grips with the John Denver play. The director wants the synopsis by the end of November. And that's beyond "this fan and his mother meet the day or week after his death".

I realised I had become totally hooked on not having JD open his mouth and so pleased with the solution I'd forgotten I'd installed two new people in the play: fan and mother.

I used to write short stories. And back then I loved doing it. But that really was back then. I haven't created a character since 2002 when I wrote performance stories with two other writers. Yesterday was wake up day. I had to learn about these people before I could go any further, with plot, let alone know what they'd say and how they might say it.

What I discovered was that other buffer zone, the one comes after the blissful euphora of the 'idea': research. Oh what procrastinatory fun that is. The things you need to read and check out to get a sense of someone is truly time consuming.

So, once I got over the shock of people, yesterday turned into a fascinating day of sketching and reading and devising, what I hope is, an interesting, convincing and fully-fleshed woman.

One down, one more to go, before the next issue of plot ...

Sunday, 8 November 2009

A day of sing song, talk back and fiddle de dee

A few days/weeks ago me, Steve Lewis and Beth Allen finally managed to get ourselves together in the same room at the same time with the same purpose - to sing, sound and improvise.

While we'd managed a few hours back in September it had felt many many months since we'd last had productive play time together (April was the last posting I could find about our 'project' in this blog).

So we had to start with the usual routine of trying to remember what we'd done last time and what of what we'd done we'd enjoyed. This unfortunately comprises of us all bent over Steve's notebook and trying to decipher his writing and then what the word he'd scribbled, percussive or theme might allude to in terms of what we did.

Slow dawnings of memory: the stretching out of words; the creation of sound narratives - stories without meaningful words; improvising/riffing off the ideas of curse and bless.

As usual we'd had a fine old time of it but without a true sense of what next.

This time we wanted (well, Steve wanted, but me and Beth were happy to go along with him) to create some space to unpick what we'd done, specifically to explore previous ideas through overload and then through miminalism.

The beginnings of our sessions are always hard for me because suddenly I'm being asked to produce stuff - even if it's a meaningless sound - in front of people and my usual response is 'I can't'. A bit of arm swinging is usually a good start. And faith and trust in Steve and Beth, which I have in bucketloads, otherwise I wouldn't have even got involved in this in the first place.

The overload turned into a crazy cacophony of screeching, voice and dischordance, while the minimalist approach was altogether more interesting, more tense for us. So we pushed this idea further. Each of us came up with rules for us to follow (or break if you're Beth, she's so naughty): a word each over a minute, then two words each, and a sound, then repeating someone else's sound over two minutes, with the aim of creating a story or sense of 'something'.

While we never knew what the others were about to say or produce, or when, we were still trying to riff off each other and build up a palate of sound. It required intense listening to each other, ourselves and the wider space too.

Inevitably it became very poetic: sparse, chiming sounds, echoes and silence.

Inevitably I loved it.

Inevitably we didn't record it so have no real sense of how it might be for an audience. So we've made dates to have three whole days to build up to something that might be enjoyable for others.

We'd had such a good time we hadn't even invited Mr Puppet to join in, although Beth did find some superb hair for him. Maybe next time.

Monday, 26 October 2009

What is it all about?

I went down to the prize-giving of the Elmet Trust's prize on Saturday. A very wild night. After an hour and half of being blown about on the motorway, it was odd to be sitting inside a theatre listening to poems on the themes of the 'elements'. It added to the readings an their meanings. In one way or another.

I was left feeling rather confused, however.

Jackie Kay, the judge, talked after each poem on what she had liked in it. After mine she spoke of the family connections in it and how we have these unspoken similarities and separations. Oh? I thought. It's not about just family. It's about love. Or perhaps, if not love then it's about the ... errr ... err ... the boundaries between people, between things, between us and the environment. In the car on the way home, I read the poem again. I had read it out to the audience with such confidence that I knew what I was reading. And now I wasn't so sure. And I'm still not so sure.

It has been suggested to me that it was chosen because of all the lovely imagery in it rather than its meaning. Mmmm. I'm not sure I like this idea. Although I do quite like the idea I don't totally know what it means anymore. It's not a position I usually hold towards my poems so it's rather curious, ill-fitting in a way.

If you have any suggestions (the poem is here) I'd welcome interpretations.

Monday, 19 October 2009

The Strange World of Bed

Being a huge Bed fan - on good nights I can sleep for ten hours - I loved this project I stumbled upon googling for the artist Dominique Renson.

I met Dominique thirteen years ago on a residency in Spain. She painted my portrait as part of a series she was working on. I wrote a poem from it, which is in my forthcoming book and wanted to acknowledge its source. Trying to track down her surname was a long-winded process via the other artists on the residency ending in a book flap ... where I had tucked a piece of publicity for a show of hers.

I think something might come from this project too ... Archipelagos

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Things to do with John Denver when he's Dead

No, not the title for the John Denver play - or at least maybe not - but a working title nonetheless (thanks, Steve).

Yes, I have a plan. But first the parameters I was working to.

1. I met the guy who's going to play John Denver. And his singing put me at ease about the project. He has a beautiful voice. His Leaving on a Jet Plane was very moving. Bad news - he's not an actor.

2. Suzy, the director, tells me she wants the other actors to be two women - for the singing harmonies. No Dad then.

3. On reading JDs autobiography, I discover the man not only struggled to communicate in relationships but also in print with help from a writer. It was an unilluminating read that wound me up considerably. I had no compassion for him. Not a good starting point for writing words for him.

Solution (found in collaboration with a friend after seeing Faulty Optic. Thank you, Sandie) : The play's set the morning after JD dies in a plane crash. Two women - his mother and a life-long fan - meet to salvage what they knew of the man.

Auditions are being held on Sunday for the women. Then all that needs to happen is for me to write the thing.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Elmet Poetry Prize

I've just heard that I'm a runner up in the Elmet Poetry Prize.

A good news day

Especially since when I heard about the competition and its theme, elements, I thought, I'll have a go at writing for that. At the beginning of July I had been caught during a walk back from the pub by the sight of the clouds in a pond in the field we were crossing. Although a fairly normal reflection, it hooked into me and I couldn't shake it and knew the only way to let it go was to write about it. The poetry comp was the obvious channel.

I'm not one for entering competitions, mainly because my poems are not normally long enough. I have this theory that only poems of 25 lines plus win competitions. So I was going to have to make this poem 25 lines or more for it to be a contender.

Does this sound trivial? It's not meant to. The length is about sustaining an idea.

Nice too 'cos I get £50 for it. Always welcome.

Anyway, the rest is history.

Although not quite, since I'm going to the reading/prize giving in Mytholmroyd in W Yorkshire. It'll be interesting to hear the winners and Jackie Kay , who judged the competition, will hopefully be reading some of her work - always a pleasure. As long as I don't spend the evening beating myself up for not seeing this protrusion or that gap in my poem that could have improved it ...

But this is what won it (not the maths prize - it is only 20 lines long not 25!)

The Three of Us

The pitted stream smudges a version
of grey clouds hammering against anvils.
Its glass distorted by the air between.
Wind made visible by water. Held briefly.

Your grey eye stipples mine. In it I can see my face,
the colour of my iris. Flecked. Looming. Our love,
lying with us, defines our separateness.
Absence makes each heart.

The artist blinded by the portrait, no longer sees
its sitter, paints a mirror of themselves
in the body of another. If I painted you,
would it be child or adult staring back?

The division, thin as life and death. Take two
parents: one living, one dead. I’m daughter
to both. Separated only by physical distance.
They’re two sides of the same pebble. A skimmer.

Beached. A thousand greys bleach
under rain, the sky’s eyes. Heron stalks
the sunset. A second wades out of sight.
Our skin as slight as a feather.

Monday, 12 October 2009

puppet surgery

Spurred on by the workshop last week and my promise to myself that Skipton Puppet Fest would be a catalyst for action, I had Moonboy sanded and ready for surgery at the weekend.

By surgery I mean drilling. He was going to be strung. A friend of mine urged me to get him up and moving to prevent paralysis (on my part).

I bought the smallest drill bit I could find for him. The size of a needle. And screwed in the hooks on the frame for the strings, as I did so working out exactly where I wanted the strings to attach to his body. All going well so far and comfortably on the living room floor.

Then it was time for the drilling. I carried him downstairs to the workmate and laid him out. He looked so trusting and little melancholy (his usual expression, but perhaps more vivid than I had become used to). I couldn't drill into his head I realised.

I had to carefully twist the metal eyes behind his ears to tie the stings to. Not too painful. No screams from either of us and the finished effect was almost David Essex.

Next were his thighs. Being the size he is, he has rather lovely meaty quads - too big for the delicate bit I'd bought, so I was going to have to drill into his knee joint or rather behind it so making use of the narrowing wood. Soft muscle, I told myself. As if through butter.

It was the hands that were truly awful. All my latent Christainity came welling up. What on earth was I doing? Stigmata? Crucifiction? Zerrupp zerrup, and both hands drilled. He didn't flinch. I did. Some time ago I saw this fabulous show by Pickled Image - Houdini's Suitcase - that revolved around a circus show. One of the puppets - obviously a foam puppet - had to stick pins into his face. It was appalling to watch. I was reenacting this scene

But more to the point, I had embued him with his soul. I was treating him with the care he deserved, calling him love, and sweetheart. Stroking between the drilling.

So it was a joy to string him and have him dancing in the kitchen, swinging from a cupboard handle.

I haven't stuck his pearl eyes in place, but know how he's going to see. I also know he's to wear a navy felt blazer. This will give him a nice boxy definition, I think.

And what's more exciting is that I suddenly realised I could take him along to my next play session with improvisers Steve Lewis and Beth Allen and see what we come up with for him.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Faulty Optic Workshop

I had a workshop this afternoon with Faulty Optic - whose work I'm finally going to get to see (tonight) after years of having heard of them and liking the look of their puppets very much.

The first auspicious sign for the afternoon was the difficult morning I had which meant I was only too pleased to escape my desk for puppet play. (Not with my own)

The second - dry enough to cycle to the university.

So, the workshop. We walked into the Nuffield Theatre space to a table piled high of puppets for us to touch. Latex heads, foam heads, rubber bodies, wooden bodies. Although our first bodies were made from black bin bags.

This was so we could get the hang of breathing. Puppets breathing can cover a multitude of happenings. Slow focus, obvious intent and breathing.

Much much harder was wortking with a partner to manipulate a puppet - one on head and hands, one on feet. I think this was more to do with our unfamiliarity with each other than the actual manipulation. We were improvising a lot of the sequences and that needs an understanding of each other. Slow clear gestures. The more space around a puppet, the greater the balance the puppet has, the stronger the evident emotion.

Eye contact - between puppets (and audience) - was astonishingly strong. Effective. There is going to be no getting around the detail of eyes for Moonboy. The scariest element.

When we got to make our own rough puppet to manipulate I had an instinct for ears. Jessica Rabbit my partner said.

I liked the idea. Simple and we had a caricature straight away. And despite her having a scrunched up newspaper head and a bubblewrap bosom she was gorgeous.

And then the penny dropped. This is why I loved puppets so much. They work on simple exaggerated principles. They're made for melodrama.

And then another penny dropped. Our puppets were silent. All the shows I had absolutely loved at Skipton had been silent or at least wordless.

Was I shooting the puppet in its foot by wanting to write words for it?
Was I setting myself up for some overlarding wordy crass?
Would I be better off separating my poetry from the puppet?

I would have thought I needed strings to tie myself into these kind of knots.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Tables turned

It was my turn to be asked some questions the other day

You can read more on the Bookmunch blog here

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

In Conversation with George Szirtes

Another in my occasional series of conversations. I am talking with George Szirtes on the back of the publication of The Burning of The Books.

I first met George when he came to Lancaster to take part in an evening with me on European translations. We were launching the bilingual Flax pamphlet "No one else at home". I found him charming, generous and wickedly expansive. I hope you find something similar in his answers below.

Sarah: The first poem of the book, Chet Baker, speaks of the ground being “littered with broken phrases”, which preempts the fragmentary sense of your poetic sequences. In some of these sequences, you write explicitly about photographs and film. How much did music play a part in the writing of the poems?

George Szirtes: Music plays relatively little part in the making of the poems. I very much enjoy music but have rarely written about or out of it. Maybe it just seems somehow self-complete – ‘all art continually aspires to the condition of music’ is that Walter Pater? Chet Baker appealed to me as pathos, as something so frail it is hardly there, but when it breaks into pieces (Baker was thrown from one of the upper windows of a hotel by some drug dealer as far as I remember) it somehow survives all the more clearly.

Sarah: I was particularly caught by the sequences in the book. The Burning of the Books being especially revelatory and horrific in a surreal sense as well as very real. How do you approach structuring and pacing a sequence?

George: In the case of The Burning of the Books the structure is, to some degree, taken from the book to which it is a kind of companion piece, commentary, or marginalia – Elias Canetti’s Auto da Fe. It generally follows the episodes in Canetti but takes liberties. It doesn’t describe or replay the book: it floats in the world the book establishes and feeds off it. That, by the way, is simply the making overt of the symbiotic relationship that exists in all art.

Each sequence has its own structure. The Penig Film starts with the evocation of Clio, the muse of history, re-imagined as a film director moving from festival to festival. Penig was the second concentration camp in which my mother was incarcerated: film of the camp’s liberation exists in US army records. I found it on the web.

In Time of War was simply in the order the individual poems were written, but then it’s not so much a sequence as a set.

Northern Air, a poem commemorating the dead of 1956 in Hungary follows the central idea of Nova Zembla as a frozen region. History as something frozen.

The Wrestler poems are remnants or products of the novel I set out to write against the background of British Professional Wrestling from 1956-1979. The poems are chronological in the life of Szabo, my central character. The novel didn’t - and won’t - get written, but something will beside these poems.

The Storyteller (title borrowed from Walter Benjamin) deals partly with my mother’s life, but, essentially with the world of the senses. It’s not really a sequence more a series of essays in a potentially promising form.

The other sequence that could and should be considered as a sequence is The Birds, which is an attempt to understand the long-term love of a single person by thinking about the other person’s personhood.

Sarah: I love the line “the crowd passes unconscious of being a crowd”. This seems to reflect the energy poems create when they rub up against each other in a collection. What kind of crowd are you hoping this collection is?

George: It should be a miscellaneous energetic crowd that is busily exploring the extents of its own freedom to move. I saved these sequences precisely so that the various elements might mix and see what kind of choir they produced. Prose poems (I have never published such things except in magazines), free verse rhetorical narratives, also new for me (The Burning of the Book), the deeply intricate formal weaving the six Canzones (very few canzones exist in the English language and I think I have written more now than anyone else, now or in the past, beating Marilyn Hacker’s five without ever meaning to), even a few poems that play with page space (Pools) should mingle with forms that have become familiar to me: terza rima and sonnets. The exploration of form is, I think, a core aspect of the exploration of material. You have to seek a voice in a form to discover what else is lying there, never before touched.

Sarah: I’m assuming this is your motivation for rhyme throughout the book?

George: Hard to tell where motivation ends and excuse starts. It is, I suppose, my justification, an attempt at a reasonable justification, to answer a question where most of the possible answers are covered in cobwebs. If it has to be an excuse then let the excuse be sheer delight.

Sarah: It seems that you, like many writers, excavate the same themes and subject areas throughout your work. What is opened up as you excavate? And when, if ever, do you decide enough is enough?

George: We are limited beings but things sometimes become clearer as we go along. A poem doesn’t fully resolve a subject. It is only a testing ground for a provisional answer, but in the case of poems, as with all art I suspect, the testing is all. Our lives are formed and, to some degree determined, by our circumstances. Those circumstances do not leave us. For me the question of history is not an abstract question: it involves my parents, myself and my children to begin with but spreads out from there, first to all those I love and care for, and beyond them to the faces and figures I pass in the street. It is part of the enigma of human behaviour and the human mind. It is how that mind is formed in the context of the world. That is an endless subject because people will go on surprising us.

Enough being enough? If I must defend myself on that account I think you will find I have written poems on a considerable range of subjects from football and wrestling and pastoral through love, politics, colour, history, England and God. I have written children’s poems, librettos, scripts for musicals, songs for composers, and translated a considerable variety of material. There is little on nature, that is true. But I am an urban creature only recently inhabiting a semi-rural environment,

Nevertheless it is true that certain themes recur - and that is because they continue to invite exploration. Do you say to a poet: you have written a poem about death. That’s the subject covered, move on. Did anyone say to Dante (with whom I am not comparing myself of course): Must you go on and on about hell and stuff? All that Catholic baggage? Or to Rilke, We’ve had just about enough of transcendence from you! If one were writing the same poem over and over again one might possibly be growing dull or simply trying to get it right, more lifelike, more true. The poem is not in the subject: it is in the trying. Fail better!

Enough is enough? Of course readers may very well decide enough is enough. That is their choice. In that case, bye bye reader, ave atque vale.

Sarah: Well, I'm planning to stick around for the next collection. This one being an astonishing array of experiences that, as Boyd Tonkin says in The Independent, take your breath away, and yet demand rereading and reliving of a history not far past, nor far ahead.

Thank you, George, for your incisive and insightful comments.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Skipton Puppet Festival 2



1. The spring necks of the ducks and geese in Brodyachaya Sobachka's The Ugly Duckling. How each boinged and curled just as the living variety do.
2. the entire script being honks, gobbles and ark arks of the birds
3. the long neck, bent beak and limp wings of the 'duckling'

4. the manipulation of the swimmer in the The Seas of Organillo
5. the shoals of fish that darted in slow motion against red lighting
6. the astonishing musicality of the organillo (constructed from water pipes, rolls of wallpaper and bellows

7. the transformation of normal dolls into eggheads in Kamikaze, by Scopitone
8. The love scene between two of these dolls, feeling into each other's empy eggcups
9. the matador dancing with the train bull running round and round its track as the puppeteer danced above them both

So, what did I love, apart from the above? I loved how small and simple movements, well observed mannerisms (particularly of birds) pulled me into the world they inhabited.

I loved how each show was loveingly presented by the puppeteers. I love observing the delicate relationship between the two

I loved the bonkers-ness of each world.

I love how the most simple and inanimate object can be embued with life by our imagination and will

I loved how the audiences were full to capacity at each show and contained the most diverse range of people in them

I loved how I came away with a sense of joy, wonder and sensitivity blown through my fingertips by these beloved things.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Lancaster Literature Festival

It's festival season. And at Litfest in Lancaster we're gearing up for two weeks of literature readings and performances.

There's a few writer's I'm particulary looking forward to seeing/hearing. One is Jenn Ashworth. Whose work Flax has already published as a poster. She's coming to read from her novel, A Kind of Intimacy.

The main character of which is Annie. She is a strange woman, who sees the world through a very particular filter.

I like her. I like her vulnerability, her honesty (if deluded) and her total insensitivity. She does not collude with our PC obsessed world.

I know people who struggled with her as a central character. Who didn't like her. Who found her obsessive, nasty and way too much.

But what's so fabulous about reading someone like Annie is you can just close the book when you need a breather. She isn't my neighbour. She's not going to gatecrash my barbeque. And then, when you've remembered this and relaxed again, you can relocate the page and read on with wide-eye horror/delight/dismay. Oh the voyeuristic joys of books.

And, she isn't just as I describe her. What makes her such a great character and narrator (shortlisted for the Not The Booker Prize) is is all I've said, and more: unintentionally comic, sensitive, lonely and hopeful for starters.

A very different person from her creator Jenn, which is also a delight. Hearing and watching Jenn read from the novel gives an odd sensation of witnessing alien possession or as if you're looking through double glazing and seeing what's going on inside the window at the same time as catching the reflection of the external world.

Jenn's reading on Friday 23rd October.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Skipton Puppet Festival

I'm off to Skipton Puppet Festival at the weekend. And daily am adding more shows I want to see. I am also participating in a spot of informal audience development for them - gathering more and more people to come with me.

Naturally, I have a vested interest.

And have promised myself I'll tackle the next stage of dressing my MoonBoy after the festival when I'm buzzing with ideas. Maybe he'll revert back to being a girl. Maybe he'll not want to be dressed ... he wasn't meant to be a boy after all.

But I don't think I'm alone in my unbounded enthusiasm for puppets. I was talking with friends a wee while ago about theatre and it seemed there was a wariness and weariness to theatre, a reluctance to engage with straight performance. Then, up piped those who has seen puppet shows said that they'd found that the puppets delivered more emotional resonance and connection than human actors.

Oh yes! (sounding a little like the Churchill dog puppet).

Like poetry, puppets allow a space for the audience's imagination. We, as well as the puppeteer, have to animate the puppet. We bring our own emotional register to the animation process. We invest our heart/mind/soul to make believe the creature/person is what/who they act as they are.

I like too how this brings out the child in us. Oh yes it does! Behind you

And so why, if there is such a close correlation between the two forms, does it not feel so easy to write poetry for my puppet?

I realise I'm currently working through a backlog of ideas generated by the sailing trip (interestingly none have actually been to do with sailing so far), but I always have the puppet in mind when I approach the pen, and can't quite visualise or hear how the two will partner up.

I'm hoping for some shift in my thinking at the weekend. Oh yes, and some mesmerising shifts in reality too, oh and some delighful connections with small wood and foam and cloth creatures.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

John Denver

So - John Denver --

what springs to mind when you hear his name?

Honestly, I'm interested in knowing. He's no Marlene or Edith, but I've been asked to write a script on him.

I have a few ideas, but always interested in other people's views ...

John Denver - Drama

Is it possible?

Tuesday, 15 September 2009


A week since I've arrived back and I still haven't quite got my landlegs.

I'm going through the motions: emails, office, editorial meets, phone calls to schools, script meets; but my heart isn't quite in line with my head. My sightline is skewy. My va va is vacant.

Today is my first clear day for my own work, so I don't want to fritter it away.

Things I could do to reboot: go for a walk; write regardless; sort out my desk drawers; start my tax return; read George Szirtes's new collection; make a book of spells for my neice's birthday ...

If anyone has other solutions - on a postcard, please

Monday, 7 September 2009

more big small talk

I have a huge sail hanging over my banisters right now, drying out. It's doubled over and still covers the entire staircase and landing. Like a parachute. Odd how big it is considering life for the past three weeks has been crammed into a space comparable to my back room.

I know I've raised this idea before, a few times, but I think it's why I enjoy both poetry and sailing, although on the face of it they seems very different. The idea being the small/big dichotomy that is incapsulated in both. Here are some examples from my sailing in the past three weeks:

1. the big seas of long passages being reduced to the smallness of the boat I couldn't get off (we didn't do too badly - our longest passage was Larne in Northern Ireland to Ramsay, Isle of Man: 64 miles, but that was directly after two other forty milers, eight hours or so)
2. our constant answer to the big winds (we sailed in winds between 16-32 knots the past few weeks) was to reef our sails to their smallest possible surface for the wind to howl on and power
3. we only experienced the expanse that is the west coast of Scotland in tiny sheltered bays, coves of Aran, Kerrera, Seil, Luing and Jura
4. our focus shrank to listening to inshore forecasts broadcast on the VHF every three hours: detailing wind speed and direction; sea state; weather; visability
5. the infinitessimal slide of light across waters in Cuan Sound indicated the potential turbulence of overfalls or eddies below; there is nothing more menacing than the silence of water that carried us faster than our engine would do alone
6. small knots hold fast against F8 winds - we spent three nights of the three weeks attempting sleep attached to a variety of mooring bouys in these stupidly strong winds
7. slight tickles on the tiller enabled the boat to ride swells of a metre high - the forty mile passage home from Ramsay, IoM, was one long game of tickle and roll: too late and it's a huge struggle to right the boat to the correct course

If I was really clever, I could write a haiku encapsulating all of the above ...

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Sail Away Sail Away Sail Away

I'm heading up to Scotland tomorrow to pick up the boat for three weeks of wind, tides and decisions of what to cook for tea.

I feel absolutely ready to turn my back on emails, word documents, phone messages, solid floors and a jungle garden.

In some ways sailing is the epitome of making the ordinary extraordinary – living in a world dependant on weather forecasts, tidal streams, two other people I might not see from week to week, let alone minute to minute, ropes, knots, canvas and in-your-face-physics highlights everything we take for granted (or at least I take for granted) in ordinary life. It’s a magnification of what we live amongst without noticing.

And that’s when it’s going smoothly. We took the boat up to The Clyde at the beginning of July and met with a series of quite extraordinary events, more extraordinar than you'd expect for a 24 hour passage:

  1. The road bridge at Glasson broke (despite having three mechanisms for opening) so we were unable to to lock out of the dock until 12 hours later (the dock only opens at high water). This was 1am on the Saturday.
  2. At this point the Met Office was forecasting an occasional 6 (as it had been for the last 12 hours), 21-30 knots of wind. By 5pm Saturday afternoon, with Whitehaven on the Cumbrian Coast behind us, the Isle of Man clearly ahead and The Mull of Galloway - Scotland!! - to our right, this forecast had bumped up to steady 6 with occasional 9 (47-54 knots). Although they were saying it would be brief, over within six hours. Those are still pretty strong winds.
  3. This was followed quickly by news - securite - securite - of an abandoned mast with rigging and sail last seen in the southern area of the North Channel. Great. The tide would be taking it in the direction we were heading.
  4. We made the decision to divert to Belfast Lough, to give our relatively inexperienced crew a full night sleep post storm. This was the safest spot to head for - a marina rather than an anchorage (on which me and Anni, another owner would spend the night tossing with the boat, angsting anout anchor drag). At that point Belfast Lough was as close as Scotland. It would just mean a longer sail the following leg. But that would be after the storm, after sleep.
  5. As we entered the Lough the wind was gusting 9 from behind, the sea was rolling and twisting us, and we could smell burning. Our engine was fine. Then we noticed a fire, two fires, tens of fires scattered on the hills around the lough. Even in the gale winds and siling rain huge pyres lit the sky. It was the 11th July.
  6. Because of the unexpected diversion, we were working off a large scale chart. And this is when we made the classic mistake of enforcing our desire upon the landscape: we wanted to be in shelter so we decided the lights we could see were the lights of our marina. We made three attempts to enter a harbour, radioing the harbourmaster to ask why we couldn't see the red wall light. "Are you’re sure you’re here?" He asked.
  7. The Coastguard put out a call to us, after overhearing this radio conversation, to say a member of the public had seen a boat try to get into Groomsport three times. Was that us? Groomsport was not even marked on our chart. Rain lashing us. The boat (even in the calmer waters of the lough) was bouncing about like a child’s toy. And then pulling away from land for the third time we sawthe red light we’ve been looking for – probably another half miles down the lough. The marina. Our marina. Half an hour later we were tea and toasting it in the comfort of a marina.
  8. Marching bands played to our departure the following day.

So, naturally I’m hoping the more leisurely return trip (north from the Clyde to Oban before south to Mull, Colonsay, Islay, Northern Ireland, Isle of Man and Lancashire) will be extraordinary in the more mundane benign sense of nature: gannets, seals, basking sharks, secluded harbours and the odd Spar (as in your friendly local supermarket not piece of rigging from another boat).

If you want to know how it all is on a boat, then you can squizz through past posts on my myspace site

Friday, 7 August 2009

the real thing, honestly

Honestly, there are another ten odd people out of the picture.

And, yes, honestly, that is real sunshine.

And and, yes, yes, I'm holding papers with poems on them. As I said I was going to do, I read from my sequence of family poems. Being about Plymouth Brethren, they're quite subdued, which made reading my audience tricky. No dramatic rendition this time. But people semed to be listening; they were certainly attentive, and I can only hope to my words and not their skull cinema.

Also great to go paddling in Grasmere afterwards (if I'd thought I'd have brought my cossie) with the hilltops be sharply lined and crinkled in the light and shadow.

We are where we are.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The Wordsworth Trust

I'm reading at Dove Cottage this afternoon and the sun is shining (for real, not just metaphorically), so with any luck we'll be outside in their garden.

It's a lovely treat to be reading up there. I go up reasonably regularly for the Wordsworth Trust season of poetry readings which are a fabulous resource for us here in the North West. They have a fabulous range of poets come. Last week Ruth Padel and Tom Pow were reading from sequences of poems, which were equally absorbing and engaging.

Tom Pow read from a series of poems charting the inhabitants of the Crichton asylum, with such compassion and lyricism it was a delight to fall into what might have otherwise been discomforting surroundings. His charisma and passion for the subject linked the poems to other individual poems he also chose to read.

Ruth Padel's Darwin sequence was the reason I was there. Previously I've never got on with her work particularly although I had heard her talk about her tiger book and found her an easy and generous speaker. And so she was last week. She took us through Darwin's life, focusing mainly on his marriage rather than his work, punctuating the poems with historical links so building this overarching narrative through the evening. The poems were insightful, textured and touching, melding the emotional with the theoretical. Lovely lovely. And made even more enjoyable by her reading - very subtley she used tone, pace and volume to illuminate the poems.

And so I've been inspired to read from my sequence of poems, Bedrock, for this afternoon, to think about the narrative arc of the selection, how to link them and what I might say between each poem to help the audience gain entry to a slice of a largr body of work. This is exciting. All my recent readings have been far more 'performative' or perhaps dramatic is a more accurate word: more physical. This will be a variant storytelling.

And since I'm on the subject of Bedrock. Below are some possible images for my forthcoming book, Host. Any opinions much appreciated.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

My First Puppet

No strings, and not a girl, but last week, after forty odd hours that were punctuated by despair, frustration, a boiling brain, support from fellow benchers, and the occasional glimpse of joy ... I finally made my first puppet.

What was probably the hardest aspect of the week was the intensity of work and learning. 9-6 every day, till 8 on a couple. Iwas grateful I was familiar with a chisel, cos there was the whole land of design, band-saws and articulation to enter.

We were working in Horse and Bamboo's beautiful workshop and taught by John Roberts who displayed remarkable patience throughout the week - with 12 people irregularly calling Jawwwhnnn in a slightly higher pitched voice than their usual (I'm sure) to have some joint, porportion, or blade checked by the maestro (as he became to be called by day2).

As I said the puppet didn't turn out to be a girl. It's odd. I always start out with my carving/modelling to make female heads and always they turn out male. I think it's because I'm drawn to large features and am not (yet) skilled enough to make large features feminine.

The fingers turned out exactly as I envisioned. Long, and disprtportionally large.

What I also noticed through the week was my teenage temperament. I know puppets appeal to our childlike habit of animating everything, but what I wasn't expecting was the making of one was a sleek dive into regression.

I got so whingey (in my head, I hope) and frequently on the brink of throwing the limp, disjointed parts on the floor and stomping out of the workshop while announcng I never wanted a puppet anyway. But some self-control stopped me. And I got the joints made, stuck and soldered together.

I was terribly knackered by the end of the week and the trying nature of production was such that it took me a couple of days of doing absolutely nothing (except watching the last three dvds in the final series box set of Six Feet Under) before I could look at the moonboy with some sense of love and achievement.

Which is odd, since my usual tendency in making things, or writing poems is to swell with a huge sense of god-like creation at the end of a first draft, unable to see any of the huge (or small) faults with it, bursting with pride and struggling with myself to not send off the tacked lines to Poetry Review in the expectation of instant acceptance.

Now the hardwork is behind me (except for the stringing of his hands, head, legs etc etc) I am beginning to feel rather fond of the chappie and slow murmurings of anticipation at writing for him are tickling me.

Since that is the larger plan he is part of - to write things for him for me to perform with him as part of any poetry set I give. This is scuppered slightly by him not being a girl so I can't develop the whole auntie business that I was toying with - or at least not with him. But he is tall enough to hold his own on a stage - standing upright he comes up to my knee. And I'm thinking of some lovely hair and a costume for him. Although she doesn't know it yet, my mother's down for that job.

And since we've had all these recent celebrations of the lunar landing anniversary, I'm thinking maybe the moon isn't a bad alternative subject ...

Friday, 17 July 2009

I Wish You Love

So, they swanned, sang and screamed ... and did all three brilliantly.

For an hour and ten minutes Wendy Chalke and Clare Chandler held the stage in a way I couldn't have imagined from the rehearsals I attended.

Before the show, in fact before we left home I got my knickers into a right twist - first I thought we were going to be late, then I thought I had the wrong start time, then with those two worries rationalised, I focused on nobody showing up - nope, we had a lovely audience shuffle into Unity 1 - so then, I started to imagine how actually it was going to be total crap ...

I was too fidgety to start off with and am still not sure how the opening works in the first five or so minutes, but they'd created a lovely simple set of two tables, a mic and a lamppost.

The play covers a huge amount of material in the hour and ten minutes - two huge lives and twelve songs and a see-sawing relationshiop, but Wendy and Clare's dedication was astounding, their vocal range brilliant and the good fortune of their build: teeny and tall respectively meant they totally embodied the two women.

And what's more people laughed in all the right places.

Sure there were some lines that made me cringe that I wish I'd heard before and cut, but there were also lines I'd not fully recognised previously and the echoes resonated in a way I hadn't fully appreciated.

I went with two friends; one unreservedly loved it, laughed and cried her way through it; the other more reserved, enjoyed the lines, said it was 'clever' but also felt overwhelmed about the amount of material there was. Fair point. But the brief had been to portray their lives. And their lives were rollercoasters.

As we left the auditorium, I heard other audience members: "that was the best thing you've taken me to" one women was saying to her companion; "god how moving" the woman in front.

Suzy, the director, is pretty confident we'll get more gigs elsewhere, and I think she could be right - it's a marketable piece. Wow! I might have actually written something with general appeal, that my mother would enjoy, or at the very lest understand. I might even invite her to the next performance of it. I'm certainly looking forward to seeing it again, and watching the two grow further into their parts.

So, for a first attempt at playwriting, I'm pretty pleased. And am looking forward to the next crack. Gambolling Arena have already asked if I'm interested in writing another piece for them. I've said yes.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Burma VJ

A lot to talk about this week, but will put all on hold to mention a film I saw the other night - Burma VJ.

I noticed the poster for it as I walked past the cinema. It was on one night only. That night.

The picture was of a monk talking into a loudspeaker. I decided to go.

It was uplifting, painful, dispiriting and deeply moving.

It felt all the more pertinent because I'd just read Eyewear's blog about Afghanistan about an hour before I went.

The most lasting image of the film (for me) was of a dead monk, floating face down in a river. I couldn't tell what were robes and what was blood.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Waste not want not, as my mother still says

I Wish You Love, the Piaf/Dietrich play is premiering tomorrow at The Unity in Liverpool.

There was a small piece in The Echo about it the other week. I was asked to write a load of blurb about my involvement which I did which they didn't use. So not one to waste carrot tops and the inside of toilet rolls I thought I'd post it here:

"It’s such a treat to get a commission. I love being asked to write on a topic I never would have considered myself. I love the challenge of working out what is in the subject that I can engage with enough to write something worth reading or hearing.

I knew the songs of both Piaf and Dietrich before Gambolling Arena / Suzy Walker asked me to write the play, but not a lot about their lives. What sprang out at me after researching them and thinking about their friendship was the potential for a mutual mother/daughter relationship. So that's the nub of the play. I also wanted to convey how ambitious and hardworking they both were. Yes, they both had abilities and talents, but they wouldn’t have made it to where they did without the huge commitment to their work.

I hadn’t written a play before, so was a little anxious about structuring the story, sustaining the narrative was going to be a challenge. Although their lives were gifts in that regard, and once I’d read up about them how to sequence the story became quite obvious. What also gratified me was to find how easily their voices (or at least my interpretation of their voices) came to me. I’ve written many poetic monologues and enjoy that stepping into another skin, and Dietrich and Piaf were both so clear to me. I think this has meant the end result has an authenticity that holds the play together.

Being present at some of the rehearsals has been fascinating too. I tweaked parts of it as I heard Clare and Wendy respond to their parts as Dietrich and Piaf. I could instantly hear what needed to go. Although there wasn’t much. These two also seemed to slip into their new skins as simply I did. Maybe it’s something about the enduring characteristics of the two singers that we were able to relate to. While they were mega stars and to an extent ‘divas’, they experienced their lives as fully as anyone – perhaps with more than their fair share of pain. And, in the end, it is this suffering and inner conflict that makes for drama and for our empathy."

So come on down, Wednesday or Thursday...

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Monday, 6 July 2009

Conversation with Kate Pullinger

Another in the occasional series of conversations. This time, I branch out into the world of fiction, and talk with Kate Pullinger about her new novel, The Mistress of Nothing.

Sarah: One of the successes of the book is the tension created between historical fact and your imagination. How did you approach ficitonalising Lady Duff Gordon and her life? And how apprehensive were you in doing this?

Kate: I found writing this book tremendously difficult to write and, in fact, it took me nearly 14 years, and I had to abandon it several times in order to write different books. I once spent a year working on it and at the end of the year had one page. For me there were multiple problems. Lucie Duff Gordon was a writer, and so I found it very hard to figure out what to do about her 'voice' in the book; I did too much research, and if there's one thing I don't like about historical novels it is their tendency to show off the writer's research; Egypt is full of cliches in the western imagination and the idea of Victorian women aristocrats abroad is also very cliche-ridden territory and I wanted to do all I could do avoid charges of 'orientalism'. I wasn't at all apprehensive but I found it very very hard to find the right way to tell the story and wrote many versions of the novel that simply didn't work very well. It was only at quite a late date in the process - after a decade or so! - when I decided to put the book entirely into Sally's voice, that it really began to finally work as a novel. Earlier drafts had Omar and Lucie's points of view, as well as the third person. When I teach writing I go on and on about the importance of figuring out point of view from early on in the process, and with this book point of view caused me as many problems as it can to an absolute beginner (and it's my seventh novel!).

Sarah: What kept you committed to the novel over such a long period of time?

Kate: From the moment I read the few pages in Katherine Frank's wonderful biography 'Lucie Duff Gordon' that describe what happened to Sally Naldrett, who had been Lucie's Lady's maid for many many years, I was gripped by the idea of finding a way to explore this story more fully. I travelled through Egypt for about a month when I was twenty, and I think it is a most beautiful and fascinating country and so all my research into Egypt in the nineteenth century was very pleasurable for me to do. For me the love story with its tragic outcome kept drawing me back - I never considered abandoning this novel completely, despite all my problems with the writing.

Sarah: Without giving too much away, I hope, I was fascinated by the turning point in the book, the point of betrayal, where the emotional relationship overtook the social relationship between the two women, or so it seemed to me. How do you see the interplay between these two relationships?

Kate: For me this moment is key and Sally's tragic mistake is that she believes that her relationship with Lucie is elastic enough to include the new situation. Lucie Duff Gordon really was a great radical; her views on Egyptian politics were entirely at odds with the consensus in Europe and she really was a champion of the ordinary Egyptian people. She is loved in Egypt to this day because of that. However, I was fascinated to learn from Katherine Frank's wonderful biography 'Lucie Duff Gordon' that when it came to Sally, Lucie's politics reverted to type. In a way, the incident with Sally was a very minor part of Lucie's life; but of course for Sally it means everything.

Sarah: I read Ian McKewan once as saying all his novels have a central image. What would you say is the one in the Mistress of Nothing? And what does it represent?

Kate: For me the central image - how can I describe it without giving too much away - the pivotal moment is the scene on the dahabieh on the Nile on Christmas Eve. The whole novel grew out of that moment. Lucie's shock. Sally's joy.

Sarah: Yes, I can see that. The Nile is paramount in the novel, as it is in geography. It creates this no-man's land, where the party travels along a boundary - social as well as geographical. I feel that their relationship changes in all the variousl locations. How intentional was this? You talk about Lucie's importance to the Eygptians now. How much is Eygpt a part of the relationship triangle?

Kate: I like that - I hadn't really thought about that and I'm very glad to hear that the Nile had a presence for you in the novel. I think that what happened with Lucie and Sally and their manservant Omar could not have happened anywhere else but far far far up the Nile. Living in Luxor put them so far away from Europe, from other Europeans, that it meant that relationships could shift and alter in fundamental ways - they could leave their former lives, their former selves, behind. And the locations do have a power of their own, so this was intentional - the mapping of events on locations. This is, in fact, one of the areas where the novel stays close to the known biographical facts - Sally did faint at Philae; these things did take place in Luxor; the scene on the Nile on Christmas Eve really did happen that way.

Thanks Kate. And if you'd like to hear Kate read a short extract from the novel, then click play ...

There's more to read about Kate and the new book on her website
and another interview on book army

Friday, 3 July 2009

The debate continues

There was an interesting letter to the editor in the latest Poetry Review. A collective of 15 women poets, including Kate Clanchy, Patience Agbabi, Katrina Porteous and Eva Salzman to pick some from the high profile signatories, were questioning the 'gender divide' of the review section of the previous Poetry Review, they also claim that less space is given to women essayists and poets.

The editor, Fiona Sampson, while correcting the stats they present, argues that PR cannot publish work on a quota basis, the poetry world is unbalanced and suggests women are 'disproportionately reluctant to assume literary authority through regular reviewing'. She talks about responsibility. And heralds the news (at least to me) that Poetry Wales and Poetry London both have new women poetry editors - Zoe Skoulding and Colette Bryce, respectively.

Certainly in regard to the submissions we receive at Flax I agree with Fiona's conclusion. And, like her, we do not select on a quota basis or with an eye to gender representation. Our criteria is quality and diversity. As I have said at most of our launches, what excites me is the tensions that arise from disparity, the electic nature of the collective voice and laying open of different interpretations and experiences. This comes from gender and age.

Perhaps we are lucky here in the North West of England that there are so many fine women poets, because our poetry anthologies and collections have published 18 women poets and 9 men. Not that it is a competition. In fact I hadn't even considered counting the contributors until reading the letter and its response.

And so perhaps I should consider that other experience: age. We have published 7 poets under the age of 4o; 20 over the age of 40.

Is there a correlation to these stats? There is the classic cliche of the woman snatching time to write at the kitchen table (Fay Godwin memorialised this in her photos of Fay Weldon), but is the reality that simple? The TS Eliot prize was won this year by a women poet who has only just turned thirty.

Maybe there is no clear-cut answer or interpretation. Except to keep writing, to add voice to the debate, to think deeply and share ideas and arguments. The poet laureate is a women for the first time in its history. There is only one certainty: everything changes.