Tuesday, 29 October 2013


We rent our house. It doesn't feel too precarious given our landlady is a farmer, who on the whole are pretty stable people. But it isn't 'ours'.

Over the past few years I have steadily worked the garden, turning it from a brambled thrash of nettles into a fruit, veg and flower welding space fit for humans, birds, butterflies and bees. Mainly I've been given plants, or found ones growing under their own direction - like the snapdragons and foxgloves above. I'll buy the veg seed, but reap the investment within months with those.

It wasn't until I decided to pay someone to install a rabbit proof fence earlier this year (and boy has it been brilliant) that the temporary nature of the garden really hit me: spend all that money and we could be asked to leave in a couple of years. Renting brings home the notion of us as stewards of the land. And here, on the coast, even more so. I've talked before of the twenty year protection plan the Environment Agency has promised for the seawall. If they keep to their promise (which I'm not confident of), in another thirty there could be no garden here, maybe an undermined house.

So I face working for a present and a short-term future environment. Anything beyond is unknown. As it is in most cases, except we fool ourselves with notions of 'freehold tenancies' and 'in perpetuity'. And it infiltrates my thinking and aspirations. It can stymy would-be projects but knowing I can't commit to a wallpapering, new cooker, sunlounge-future is also liberating. We are restricted on what and how much we spend on 'improving' the place. Whatever or whoever happens to the garden there are plenty of creatures benefiting from my work now, as well as my own mental health.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

A most vocal collaboration

© Hamsik Simonian
So we've reached the bridging period between tours at Arc, three weeks break before Ivana Milankov comes over from Serbia with her translator. In the past two weeks I've zipped around the UK with the Tamil poet Cheran and his translator, Lakshmi Holmstrom, the German Ludwig Steinherr, punctuated with brief appearances by New Zealander CK Stead and UK poet Michael Hulse, followed in the second week by Armenian poets Violet Grigorian and Hasmik Simonian and the Catalans Josep Lluis Aguilo and Manuel Forcano. Inevitably I'm floating on a cloud of exhaustion and satisfaction.

Joys and disappointements, of course:

Our first venue of the tour turns out to be a short cut for police on the beat and their toilet stop, so hosting their walkie-talkies and the dyson-a-like hand driers in the toilets. Both poets and readers rise above the challenges to raise the flag on the tour.

During his very brief stay in Hebden Bridge, Cheran reveals he is the editor of a Tamil language collection of Sylvia Plath's poems which leads to arranging a dawn visit to her grave in Heptonstall before the 0750 train to Birmingham.

A man is taken ill on this train, to be eventually wheeled off by paramedics. Anything can happen at anytime.

We meet Lakshmi Holmstrom in Birmingham for a translation workshop, with the delayed train and Cheran's interview I don't manage to buy her lunch until she is beyond eating it, yet still magnificently holds court for two hours on her process of translation and goes on to read in the evening.

We have commissioned Hafsah Naib to document the tour. She arranges to meet Ludwig Steinherr at the library, but because his phone cannot receive calls I dictate a four part message on directions for him. He arrives hot and flustered to be asked to calmly pace outside the library for the film.

On the train to Cheran's London reading, the following morning, he gets a phone call from a novelist saying she can read that evening, what time should she turn up? We discuss and make several phone calls to double check this is okay and how the event might be rejigged to accomodate.

With Cheran off to the BBC and Lakshmi having lunch with a friend, I get three whole hours by myself - most of them are spent dealing with email enquiries about the event that evening, others later in the week and responding to the wonderful if incredulous news the Armenians have been given their visas to fly at the weekend.

I meet Hafsah just before the evening event at Russell Square. She buys me soup. This small gesture - of someone doing something for me - makes me feel even more weary than I'd realised I was after only three days on the road, looking after everyone else.
We're probably over capacity at the October Gallery for Cheran's event, but given the venue is at the top of two flights of narrow stairs I don't have the heart to turn people away and squeeze just a few more chairs in.

Everyone who passes me on the way out is thrilled by the event, the variety of speakers and performers, passing on thanks and appreciation. This is what makes everything worthwhile, particularly since this event had been a nightmare to fix up, pretty much from the outset.

Then I forget to bring Cheran's case downstairs after the event, meaning we have to wait another half hour before we gain access to the room to release it.

I arrive at my friend's flat where I'm staying for the night to no answer on her bell. I slip into the apartment block but still no answer on her internal bell. I can hear the t.v. so ring, knock, pace, sit on the carpet outside her door. Because of a day spent taking phone calls and sending text messages my phone is dead. After forty minutes I ask some nieghbours if I can borrow their phone to ring home to ask him to phone the friend who might be dead... Still no answer. So the neighbours suggest all three of us hammer on her door. She answers. I keel into bed.

The train journey from London to Edinburgh is spent organising Armenian flights, promoting the last two of Cheran and Ludwig's readings, finalising logisitics on these and taking bookings for the workshops which are part of the tour.

Cheran talks to Scottish PEN members about his experience of exile from Sri Lanka (twice, the first to Holland, the second to Canada during the civil war), and then is joined by Ludwig Steinherr for a reading. The small audience makes for an avid listnership.

The train journey back south to Manchester is spent on phone and email finalising the Armenian travel arrangements that couldn't be made until we knew for sure they were coming. They'll leave Yerevan in two days time so everyone needs to know what is what before they fly out.

A lunchtime reading with CK Stead and Michael Hulse for the Manchester Literature Festival has a warm and good-sized audience. I am relieved only to be introducing the event. No reading English language versions, no Q&A. Day five is manifesting itself in my articulation. Although I love the lunch we share after the reading before heading home (is the latter the reason why?)

My day at home is spent piecing together bits and pieces for the following week, answering queries, printing out itineraries for the writers due to arrive over the next couple of days.

The Armenians land an hour and half late and then into signal failure causing chaos at Kings Cross. The first few hours of my day off are eaten up by liaising with Ilkley Festival who are their hosts for the evening and their chaperone from the airport.

I also discover why it's been so difficult finding them a budget hotel in London for Tuesday evening - it's the World Cup qualifier... After some persistence I get lucky.

I meet the Armenians and Catalans in Hebden Bridge for a joint reading. I am not MCing, just reading this evening. The joy of listening to new languages being read is immense. What can be taken from music and inflexion beyond sense is uplifting.

Back down to London, the next day, to get the Armenians into their hotel and across town for the evening reading. They're exhausted, probably haven't recovered from their 24 hour flight/train-nightmare out. We skirt some Polish supporters but are too early for the majority of the crowds. The bookshop is wonderful. My colleague for the reading is already there, relaxed and enthusiastic. Out of 1000 emails we have an intimate audience that turns the event into a soiree, a discussion on the role of poetry in Armenia and its politics. Violet tells me she perfers this to the large audiences of previous events - the chance to talk about poetry is as important as reading it.

And that is our time together. The next day they head up to Wales, then will leave the UK next week. It feels too short.

I meet the Catalans, Josep and Manuel, and Arc colleague Ben, at the European Bookshop for their reading at 6pm. Another small audience, which they say they don't mind: they expect it as poets. But I feel responsible and disappointed. Again the targeted mailouts and reminders haven't worked. We are working in a niche of a niche whose audiences are elusive.

We head for Manchester the next morning. First for a recording session at Radio 3's The Verb in the afternoon. Both Manuel and Josep have very good English but this doesn't stop them from showing increasing nervousness in the pre-show chat with Ian McMillan and other participants. I feel like their mother, silently fretting for their well-being, willing them to be brilliant. They are. The show is recorded, which takes the pressure off, they read beautifully, and are articulate and thoughtful in what they say in response to Ian's questioning. I spend the hour straining to keep my mouth shut - because even though Ian has said he likes people to interject and join in while others talk, no one does really and I'm not even meant to be there.

An hour off before we walk across town to the Cervantes Centre. I am optimistic for a reasonable audience but what greets us blows me away. Standing room only by the end of the evening. The poetry has been paired with the launch of a photography exhibition and the room is buzzing with illumination, images, voice and music. The poets are given a raptuous response, and I feel I can leave them satisfied, knowing they've had this audience, this most generous reception from the Cervantes. They're off to Wales and then Sheffield Festivals for their final two readings.
It's inevitable audiences are varied, just as the tone of the readings vary from venue to venue, day to day. I come away thinking, again, what matters is the quality of engagement. And while there is no column for that in the ACE activity report, while we have no idea how many people will come back to an international poetry event another time, to be told by one audience member that even though she doesn't speak Catalan she could understand what the poets were reading by the pauses, stresses and intonations of their speech, suggests this cross-cultural interaction is alive and fecund. I also judge success on how well the poets have engaged with people, and what they have taken away with them. I hope to hear from them on that in a few weeks...
The Verb with Josep Lluis Aguilo and Manuel Forcano top right

Saturday, 5 October 2013

A Silent Collaboration

Back in April Andrew Forster of the Wordsworth Trust asked me (and 13 other Cumbrian/Lancastrian poets) if we'd take part in a collaborative project initiated by the Lakes Collective.

They were working on pieces specifically for an exhibition in St Oswald's Church, Grasmere and wanted poems that related, broadly, to an aspect of St Oswald’s or Grasmere. Each of the poems was then be given to a member of the Collective who'd produce a piece of art/craft inspired by it.

It's always nice to be asked for a poem. And I said yes. I couldn't make the arranged talk by the Minister of St Oswald's so went alone to wander around the church, and discovered this poem in it.
 A Silent Poetry
What the relic is to the original,
this church to its God,
a word contains its thought.

To question demands more,
like arch on arch offering more light
than plaster. Faith is speechless.

Only air distinguishes between
the layering of rushes
and feathers on a wing.

The same air turns yews to music
to shade to silence
to the brimming of this breath

so everything before and beyond
is lost, so deeply here,
like the towering river, its bells

water and rope, running
through our fingers, cannot
be held or stopped

to be named or sung
except by the blackbird
pulling worms from the grass

too busy to look up. It takes flight
as brother, sister,
a shadow overhead, underfoot.
John Wordsworth is called 'a silent poet' on his headstone, otherwise I'm not too clear anymore where this poem came from. But I still liked it and was happy to read it at the launch of the exhibition last Friday at the church.
What I wasn't expecting was the effect of the exhibition. The work created in response to all the poems was beautiful. More moving was hearing the artists talk about the poems they'd selected and how they'd responded to it, emotionally then creatively.

'A Silent Poetry' had been chosen by the painter Joy Grindod. She spoke so eloquently on her engagement with the poem's images of the elemental existing in environment, how the poem's play with air had led her to consider the lichen in the graveyard. She photographed the lichen and painted small plates of layered acrylic and paper that created these exquisite abstracts that she then stitched into a beautiful, roughpapered book.
We talked about lichens, clean air and the space of the abstract image, while turning the thick pages. She hadn't realised the title was born of the gravestone's epitaph, which made a pleasing serendipity. It was extraordinary to touch someone's reading of a poem. Usually, obviously, the only response I get is words or facial expressions. So to be able to linger over this thoughtful manifestation was thrilling and incredibly moving that someone had taken the time to read, reread and consider the words I had set down.

While Joy was the artist who solely worked on 'A Silent Poetry', two others used it as a starting point. Bookbinder Helen Golding Miller spoke of her delight to work with such small books, used as she is to working with family bibles and other large restoration projects. She ended up making a book of each poem, detailing how the shape, subject and sounds of the poems all informed the design of each book. And Sue Brophy, a jewellery maker, designed this necklace from the poem, taking the arches and light as the main feature of the poem and thus the necklace. Again, this reconfiguration of lines and images of a poem into a sculptured object was fascinating to hear about. It reinforces my conviction of poetry as sculptural, of the unexpected delights of collboration and of the blossoming that happens when we communicate.

Of course there are all the other poems and their individual responses - of cushions, cupboards, boxes, sculpture, ceramics, hats and paintings that are spread about the church, creating this inaudible dialogue between words and object. A hum that fills the rafters and beautifully displays the union between sacred and practical, idea and thing, one person to another.

The exhibition is on in St Oswald's until 9th October.