Monday, 23 November 2015

A Dock is not a Solid Thing

Is it a toy? A book?
Well, possibly both, possibly more. For me, it is an design of profound and simple engineering.

A Dock is Not a Solid Thing is a Jacob's Ladder format of two tone card (blue / white), ribbon and a steel fastener, comprising seven poems on docks, boat building, maritime trade and lighthouses. The binding, a delicate and ingenious design, conveys the movement of water and precarious nature of maritime industries. If you have played with a ladder before, you'll know just how absorbing flicking them one way and then another is...

At least I find it so. It reminds me of the magic wallet my dad had: a folded leather wallet bound with straps of elastic. He'd place a pound note under the side with two straps, close the book, open it and the note had miraculously moved to the side with one strap. Over and over he'd close and reopen the wallet, over and over the note moved.

What was it that held my wonder? I can't answer for my child self, but as an adult I love not completely understanding how the straps move - even after I've made thirty of these things. Unlike my dad's wallet this has five panels and if you hold them vertically, they make a slow collapse and silent laddering down, each flipping over the next. The panels are hinged and unhinged as they move downwards. Like the moving pound note, it relies on an optical illusion that begs for clarification but never reveals it.

I think I must have played with a wooden once as a child too. When I let the panels fall I can hear the clack of them, even though they are silent. It is like holding a shell to my ear

Thursday, 22 October 2015


Ripple ʃ Siachen Glacier

Ripple ʃ Butterfly Orchid

These are a couple of prototypes for Ripple - a triptych of three dimensional poetry pieces I'm making with Maya Chowdhry for an exhibition next month at the Menier Gallery as part of GFest. It's been a fascinating process so far.

Not least for the scale. I'm (once again) outside my comfort zone. Having become confident with small scale, miniature artist booklets combing poetry I had to say 'Yes' to Maya's invitation to work with her on this project that aims to present the impact of climate change on the Indian subcontinent. Each installation is an interactive poetic sculpture, using both the sculptural extension (the extension of my previous paper work) and augmented reality (bi-lingual audio poems accessed through Zappar). 

This sculpture, we hope, illustrates the imagination made solid, the creation of a space, a small world into which the listener is invited to stay and explore the poem, for the poem to have a physical presence.

Collaboration is a slow, rigorous way of working. Every decision takes twice as long, new ideas bubble up with the discussions. Which, for me, makes a perfect method for presenting poems: there is no one way of reading a poem, there is no one ‘translation’. There are compromises and unexpected outcomes, so the piece that is finally made surpasses what either creator could have achieved solo. And it is this that makes the sometimes frustrating process so thrilling. 

It is like learning a new language. It is an exploration into a new territory for which neither collaborator has a complete map, except for their experience and willingness to learn from the other. 

All the visual elements of this poem sculpture are only clues, tactile renderings of the written and spoken poem. We chose not to render too many of the images literally within the piece. That would be stealing from the poem, and the listener. 

Light and shadow fall onto each element in ways that could join the images in the spoken poem, or they could send the observer elsewhere. This poem may never be heard by some, it is the visual equivalent of simply looking at the poetic text on a page, lingering over that, considering it as a drawing, perhaps. Another way of regarding the sculpture is as the imprint of the poem, what may be left behind after the poem is heard or read. 

Ripple ʃ Heritage Carrot
So far so fascinating. As collaborators Maya and myself go way back and enjoy the bouncing of ideas and parallel thinking that we bring to a piece of work. This does take time, however. I've tallied thirty hours so far and I've only just begun to make the actual pieces. Then of course there is Maya's time - probably similar to mine and we've had translators and Bengali and Urdu readers involved, plus artist Laura Collins drew the stunning image of Siachen Glacier you can just see in the top pic. So when we were asked how much did we want to price them for the catalogue it became a tricky concept...

And once we have (including the gallery percentage) I'm now left with having to make pieces that are more expensive than any art piece I've bought. I've talked about money and value on this blog before and how it does my head in. I can't even bring myself to say how much they're going for. Maybe when they're made and in situ and have become separate from me it might seem more laughable than pressurizing.

To paraphrase Jorie Graham : the economic sense is not a very important stratum of reality, even though it is the most apparently influential one.

In this interview (from 1991) she goes on, "How amazing that the most advanced capitalist society on earth should have so many of its children turning towards an art form that is bound to make them overworked and underpaid. Could it be that they have intuited that poetry can put them in contact with some necessary mystery, or value (or set of values), or sense of reality, that this narcotizing culture has increasingly deprived them of? Maybe they just want to wake up."

For now I need to keep focused and a steady hand. Ripple is available to view (and buy) at the Menier Gallery from 10-14 November.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Cooking up a Banquet

photo by ClaireGriffiths

I've been lucky enough to document, with photographer Claire Griffiths, an amazing project underway in Blackpool this summer/ autumn - Banquet.  There are six creative strands all working towards a largescale community banquet on Saturday 24th October. These include building the table for the feast, embroidering the tablecloth, making and designing the plates, making and flavouring the salt, picking apples from neglected orchards and turning them into chutney, and infusing new teas inspired by the character of Blackpool and the Wyre.

I'm particularly struck by the sustainable and ecological nature of the work. The ethos of all the projects I've visited so far is to draw from the resources of the area - either literally - in terms of making salt from the Wyre or finding orchards for apples - or metaphorically in terms of inspiration that comes from the stories of the participants. While many of the participants were not necessarily aware of the other strands of the project when they first embarked on, say, designing their own slipware plates and bowls, the overlapping of the artistic drive of celebrating what we have where we are is reinforced every time I visit a project. 

This is perhaps most evident in the apple picking project, the salters and the people's pottery project - all three making space and time for the sheer creative joy of making things from the earth. Once time is made to work with and handle the most basic of elements, more value is inevitably placed on the element. The increased sense of wonder that comes from excavating the source of something, making connections between what we take for granted, is boundless. 

And nourishing. It adds the x-factor to any recipe, just as much as eating food you've grown yourself. In an era that mixes a cooking programme virtually every night on tv, spiraling food prices and increasing obesity, it feels imperative to have such community based projects that encourage this knowledge and build it into enjoyable and inclusive events. Beachcombing along the Fleetwood seafront, anyone? 

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Soul Poetry

We have soul music and soul food, but soul poetry is not a genre familiar to me. Soul is a tricky word. What is it? How is it different to spirit? Is it something you have to believe in?

I've decided the poetry that mattes to us, as readers or writers, is, by its impact, soul poetry. This is why I think with all the poems out there in the world I am only really struck by proportionally so few. The hit, the striking of that poem with me, has to be so precise for it to chime with me, with my soul - that intangible element of me that is a swirling mass of emotion, intellect and experience. It is that connection that makes a poem flare inside or fall by my feet.

It is that connection, which a friend recently called our soul connection, that makes me as a writer feel so impassioned, so vulnerable, so aligned, with the poems I write that work. I have a series of prose poems that I see as a pamphlet. They occupy a half-lit, smudgy world somewhere in the North, narrated by an unnamed inhabitant of a coastal village. I want them out in the world, rafted in a small publication. This desire is far greater than the impetus I feel for Colne Rising, my latest commission. Which, while focusing on matters close to my heart: sea levels and marine ecologies, has yet to emerge into a transcription of that intangible part of me.

Of course there's time for this to shape itself and naturally I hope and intend it will. But I wonder if the process of having to pitch for this commission, to have to explain the idea and (the nightmare of print deadlines) write a blurb about the unwritten piece as if it exists, forces it into presence. This makes me think it's like religions presenting the notion of soul to a congregation before they've had chance to discover what it might be for themselves.

Colne Rising is full of new challenges for me, which of course is fantastic as well as intimidating. I think the greatest is, having gathered the external details: location, histories, oceanographics, to step inside, breathe, and find its soul.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Walking a story into itself

And so, after much driving and walking around West Yorkshire, I think I might have found the route for my commissioned walk for the Bear Hunting Festival. Obviously the process of decision making can't be completely smooth: we're still waiting to hear if the final section will actually be open to walkers at the end of October...

I ended up having quite a stringent set of criteria for it: a wish list I couldn't really expect to be fulfilled, that seemed to get longer every time I thought about the walk and the accompanying narrative that was building in my head. And while I vaguely knew West Yorkshire from previous work - Poet in Residence for Calderdale Libraries and my stint at Arc in Todmorden - there's nothing like peering at the contour lines and dotted lines on a map and then walking them to really get to grips with a place, and an idea.

I don't want to give too much away at this point as I'm not quite certain how the narrative will be told. Possibly as a series of poems, or prose poems rather than a continuous story, possibly through found objects, possibly as small spoken word performances...

What I do know if that I'm going to have to walk the route many times to get a feel for it in all weathers and light, to feed the story idea, to embed the story in my footsteps and the landscape, so that for all its rather fanciful potential the piece gains authenticity, roots in the valley, becoming a possibility, a likelihood rather than a bonkers flight of fancy. I'm sure I've said it on here before, but I love the Tibetan view that what can be imagined can also be true...


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.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

StAnza 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Money Makes My Head go Round and Round

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 16 February 2015

No Point but Fun

When I became freelance again my biggest fear was the isolation. So I asked a bunch of local artists if they fancied getting together to muck about in each other's disciplines, chat, share ideas and practices etc etc. I had no aim beyond the broach scope of everyone being involved in a different artform, having some fun, and getting to know these people and how they approached their work.

Between us we are a writer, musician, visual artist, textile artist and a maker. We also have a dancer in the wings but she's been unable, so far to make our days... fingers crossed she'll join us at some point. We try to meet once a month.

The first day we spent out at mine, walking and talking and writing then cutting up what we had written to make concertinas and see what happened to our linear thoughts. We talked a lot about the weight of words, their meaning, how to disrupt our fears and open up new avenues of thought, confidence and approaches to language. People generally found the cutting up process very liberating. It relinquished their ownership of the writing, it presented new ways of expression and it lessened the pressure to ‘make good work’.

A bonus: a week or so after the day a poem popped out of me and then it fell into a long concertina. I love it how it is very different from anything I would normally write.

Last week was our second day together and this one was hosted by the maker. She just happened to have a room that was about to be replastered so had covered it in brown parcel paper for us to use as a boxed canvas. Everyone was asked to bring their usual materials, including instruments from the musician. As she wanted to explore the overlay between sound and visuals...

And so we dived in and scribbled and splattered and smudged and sang and hit cymbals and laughed and had absolutely no idea what we were doing beyond covering the brown parcel paper with ink and paint and more paper. And that is the joy of these days. We don't have a plan. We are reminded of what we love about our practice, the play and experimentation that too easily gets shunted out of our precious creative time.

We talked about fear and shame of mark making and how we counter that, we talked of detail and meaning, of purpose and points, and made everything up as we went along so we ended up with a sheet of paper with bits set on. Even this (below) went through several edits as we discussed our decision making - movement, aesthetic, space, repetition, symbolism, until we arrived with something we could all look at and find pleasing. And this is what we decided we would use as the narrative to generate a new piece of work - for me a poem, for another a book, for another a piece of music, and ... well, I'll find out what else.
Working, and perhaps more pertinently playing, with artists from other disciplines is so rewarding. It's not just about what can be made together, it helps me articulate more clearly my own practice, makes me more aware of how I work. It extends my language.  

Monday, 9 February 2015

Becoming Flesh

Last week I went to Send and Receive, a day exploring how poetry, film and technology related to each other. It was one of those conferences where there were too many speakers saying too much, and the designated discussion times were shunted back to the end of the day. However what I like about that kind of backlog is the space it gives me to think stuff, being semi stimulated by what is being said and kept within my own silent bubble. I engage with the speaker, floating off into a creative space that I couldn't manifest alone.

It was while listening to Deryn Rees-Jones talk through her thoughts and questions around poetry and film that I had the most fertile concurrent thoughts. I loved her suggestion that a poetryfilm, or filmpoem poemfilm as she called them, was a poem becoming flesh. This chimed instantly with how I see my poetry pamphlets

They are not there to provide a literal 'translation' or interpretation of a poem, rather to offer a alternative/ possibly larger space for the reader (in the case of my pamphlets) to enter into and engage with the poems. Rather than a vessel, as I've called them before, to describe them as 'becoming flesh' gives them a stronger form, a more marked definition of a new creator, rather than simply being a receptacle to hold existing life. 

This form that grows around the poem has the poem (or poems) as its soul, its life force, its reason for being. It also echoes the 'becoming' that is the live nature of a poem. It attempts to hold but not restrain the poem's moment, suggesting the poem's intention to keep growing, layers or meanings. Words, slippery, evolutionary, unfixable things, become us and other at the same time.

I spent another talk - on semiotics - sketching out possible ideas for new pamphlet structures. Again what was being said fed into my scribbles and doodles. Possibly not what the organisers had in mind for the delegates, but influential and stimulating in an alternative way, for which I am grateful. Another pamphlet is creeping into view.
The stills are from Eduardo Katz's Reversed Mirror, from the PoetryFilm archive

Monday, 26 January 2015

Prize Winning

The Towpath project was shortlisted for the New Media Writing Prize this month, and two of us decided to head down to Bournemouth for the awards ceremony, to meet the judges and hear a little more about their thinking. (Our directions there: if you turn to the right, you'll see the red carpet)

I went with absolutely no expectation of winning. I have, what the trade calls, a self-limiting belief: I don't win things. Although I do.

When I was twenty five I won a trip to Mexico and a trip to India in the same year. The trip to India was one I so wanted to experience I entered the competition twice - once in my name and once in my mother's. Yep. She won. I still remember the phone call in which she told me she'd won this competition to India. What competition? I asked immediately suspicious. Oh, I don't know, she said. I enter all sorts of competitions. It will have been one of them. Is it an all expenses paid trip for two staying in Maharaja's palaces in the South? I pushed. Oh, err, maybe I'm not sure. Anyway, yes, it was the competition I had entered. Naturally my mother had to go - as the named winner (I'm still not sure why I didn't enter it with my middle name as the second entry...) and I decided since I had also won this trip to Mexico it would be a "good experience" for my dad who had never been out of Europe to go too.

Back in the days when you just submitted work to your regional council offices - around the same time as the India win - I won a South East Arts Bursary, for a short story. Which went on to become the title story of my short story collection.

More recently I won the Arvon Six Word Short Story Competition. I had forgotten I'd entered. So when I received an email telling me I'd won a short story competition I almost deleted it thinking it spam. Just before in time I caught sight of 'We buried...' in the email body and a little bell rang in my head. The story was We buried the whale at night.

Prize winning, I'm told by people who win greater prizes than I, can be a mixed blessing. It becomes the bar by which all your work is measured. Maybe because my wins have - so far - been quite small, I have thoroughly enjoyed them. Having someone you don't know tell you they really like your work is very gratifying. Getting some money for it a bonus.

The six word short story was two years ago. But something odd has happened to it. Last year a prose poem popped out from under the six words. Then another... and... until I have about twenty dark, mysterious and rather mournful prose poems exploring grief and regret. I read some out last year at a reading. They went down surprisingly well and I'm now ready to start sending some of them out. They're so different from what I have written I wonder if they ought to have a new writer (a pseudonym at least) as well as narrator. Either way I love where they've taken me. And suspect if I hadn't won the competition I would have forgotten all about those six words.

We didn't win the New Media Prize. Pry did. We still had a great evening, talking about micro publications and puppetry and the wide embrace of what constitutes 'new media' within literature.

Perhaps more importantly, because of the shortlisting, the Towpath team feels reinvigorated to propose the model elsewhere, buff up our new skills and develop the idea. That's the real win.