Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Reading into the Light

photo taken from @seanhewitt on Twitter
Last Saturday at Ilkley Literature Festival  I had the rare pleasure of reading poems to an empty room. It wasn't completely empty. I had fellow poets/readers Helen Tookey and Seán Hewitt with me; and rows of pages from Tom Phillips' A Humument . But for the first few minutes of our set it was just us in the room.

I was reading a new poem about eight hundred of us walking across the bay, which was to be followed by single poems from Helen and Seán before we read an interleaved extension of them. It was an attempt to honour orally Phillips' idea behind 'A Humument': the making anew of an old text. We'd picked poems that evoked incantatory views of the natural world: a estuarine bay, a valley, a tree; so to begin the reading in the beautiful light, low ceilinged room of the Manor House in Ilkley was to open up a new dimension to the set. I felt was reading to the altered pages: each beautifully rendered artworks with either lyrical or funny statements remade from the novel 'A Human Document', in which words were connected to each other by carefully travelling veins of white space Phillips had drawn between the prose. The pages looked like maps or body scans, the unwanted text still visible under the coloured images.

We have not lost our homes to the sea    families to war     ...

The room received my voice, held it. The glass of the picture frames shone. The floorboards glowed.

    ...  We have chosen to feel this smallness  ...

Should I continue? Would anyone come? Did it matter if they didn't? If they did?

...  We have lost nothing
        but the certainty 
                of our mass diminishing into the expanse around us ...

Would someone walk into this space, drawn by the voice? Would it sound different if another body entered the space? I tried to imagine, as I was reading, the difference between a live voice reciting words to a recorded voice. The difference of intention, of meaning, of urgency. Somebody (in this case, me) was giving their time and body to recite words to the space, a lack of audience. Did it matter? How foolish was this? How committed?

... voices         washing out
in the rinse of silver       ...

Then someone, two people, looked in and walked through the threshold. And another and so the room changed, the resonance of the poems changed, our role as poets in the space changed.

Afterwards Helen talked of walking into a Sikh temple some years ago to a similar experience, a man reading from the scriptures with and without an audience, she talked of the sense of an observance of place, of space, of time, in this act of reading with or without an audience. The collision of time and place is marked by this strange presence, its communication to whomever, or to no-one but the speaker themselves. The incantation of voice, of words lose one meaning because the sequence has been lost, disrupted, turns the words into audible breath, to music rather than signifiers of anything other. Words that on Saturday, for a minute or two, were being spoken only to pages of a novel that had been rewritten, illustrated, transformed.

The meeting of this work and my voice both inflamed and deflated the words I spoke. I felt what I was doing was both as obsessive as the commitment Phillips has showed to this project (he calls it a lifetime's work in the intro) and as fleeting as the original work he had transformed. This ambiguity was probably heightened by the age and lightness of the building held from 1892 to that day.

Speech. Light, Text. Glass. Space. They all span into and out of those few minutes, so by the time we finished the extended poem, to an enlarged audience, the room seemed sharper, deeper and quieter some how, just as the new poem also hung in a fresh light. Perhaps we were also changed by the experience.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Finding quartz in granite

Myself and Maya Chowdhry (who took this pic) have been researching for a new immersive walk - in Aberdeen. As with previous walks I'm interested in how to fuse the past and present of a place with a potential future. Peeling back the layers that are both visible and invisible in the architecture, landscape, waterways. So we've been walking the city, in search of locations from which to anchor our walk and draw characters.

What most impressed me on our first research foray around Aberdeen, in fact when I first arrived in Aberdeen, was the sight of huge container ships right in the centre of the city - the harbour nubbing up to the train station. Of course the port has made the city - from the herring industry to oil - the migration of people in and out through the docks. I like how their presence is still so very visceral, the cargo ships and passenger ferries still using the dredged harbour, bring the water and that traffic right to the flux of the city.

Because we are exploring how to connect our work to some of the themes found in Dickens' work I was thinking about slavery, child slavery in particular, and how that industry is still very much in evidence. Also, there are plenty of stories of stowaways who have arrived in Aberdeen over the years via the the hulls of ships, people escaping one life for another. The secrecy, fear, shame and desperation of this act seems so incongruous in comparison to the bright enormity of the ships in the harbour.

Add to this mix, my reading and loving the speculative fictions of Margaret Atwood, especially the Oryx and Crake trilogy, in which people are modified, or modify their own bodies, for the benefit of others. I wanted to fuse both these forms of slavery - the past and present immigrant who indenture themselves in order to be given horrific transportation across waters  - and those forced into 'service' industries where they are then 'adapted' to fit a certain stereotype of desirability. Atwood took it one stage further with her prostitutes being given reptilian skin.

So, enter the 'swangirl', who appeared from these elements, with her question: what does love feel like for you? She is a runaway, found at the dock and forced into indentured service, and has her appearance radically altered to safeguard her: looking as she does, what else can she do? Where can she go? Who would recognise her? How can she reintegrate herself into society with the modifications made to her face and body?

As a character, she is still 'in development' and it may be she comes from Norway. In the future that is her home, oil doesn't have the value it once did. Norway is a less stable, affluent country. Migrants come from the north as much as they do from the south. It may be this new life, as performer, some how suits her. It may be, she is a portent of a new, nightmarish genre of performance. It may be, she is catalyst for hope... I need to keep walking and staring at the granite light

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Of Angels and Hope

The Imaginarium is soon to be open for business - first session on 5th September - so I've been picking the minds of some of my favourite writers and thinkers for stimulation. So far I've found Jorie Graham on education: "Our educational philosophies at present are so desperately specialized, so goal-oriented, we have forgotten that when we teach children we are not teaching content, or even "methods for learning," but rather that we are helping a child's intuition and emotions learn to operate in tandem with his or her conceptual intellect--stoking curiosity, that miraculous power that brings desire to bear on the mind.

"The aim is to build the glorious thing. And if you look back at any period in the history of poetry in this language there are really so very few poets whose work endures--rarely more than two or three in a generation--and yet all that "poorer" work was always being written, all around them, perhaps in some crucial way actually permitting them to do their work. How often one finds the stated "major influence" on some magnificent poet to be some "minor" poet whose work simply doesn't make any real sense as an influence on the "great" one. Who knows what we all give each other--it's such a mysterious process. And yet, somehow, letting everyone add their share, century after century, it gets done."

And Margaret Atwood on imagination.

The Imaginarium, as I've written about previously, is not so much an writing course as a space to explore and play alongside other writers, to enable ourselves as a community of creative practitioners, and beyond, to touch and inform our wider communities. I want to explore and think and play as much as everyone else, I want to build "the glorious thing". I think it grew out of my reading of Wallace Stevens' The Necessary Angel (you can actually read the full text here, but I recommend getting a hard copy). Just what is this thing I have taken for granted for my entire life? This place where I process and translate my habitat? This energy that connects me internally and externally? Maybe it doesn't matter so much about definitions, more about feeling it, exercising it, knowing what it can do and how to use it differently, engaging with other people's, seeing the varieties of everyone's. Although I think having a sense of what our imaginations are, and how they operate is a useful starting point. It will be a practical six months: writing, reading, discussing and sharing work to stretch ourselves, flex ourselves and hopefully surprise ourselves.

I love that Atwood talks of hope in another video in the same series. That optimistic position seems a default position for us humans - why else would we want to stand as babies if we didn't think we could? For my own work, the realm of hope feels absolutely essential to counter the bleakness of the present. I have to imagine greater understanding of the changes about us, the compulsion to act on that understanding. I am not satisfied with documenting. I would find it simply too hard to face if that was my objective. I think that's why I have to read speculative fiction, poetry, fantastical fiction alongside memoir and environmental prose. Not just for my writing but for my reconciliation of being in this world. How can we exist and continue to exist without that wider understanding that brings compassion?

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

That which is not already shaped

I took an old printer to a pc fixit friend at the weekend and left it with him, saying, "Fingers crossed, we need something good to happen...".
      "Sounds like something bad has happened." He looked blank.
      "Thursday?" I prompted.
      Still blank.
      "Come on, surely, the referendum..."
      "Oh, that," he said and spread his hands out, indicating the street. "What's changed?"
      And sure enough the street was quiet, the sun shining, cars parked, house stones in place. "I always felt European. I am European." I struggled to articulate the loss I felt.
      "Sarah, you know you are more than your identity, don't you?" Beatific smile.
      And, of course, on one level of course I do.

Way back, when I was young and still forming, I realised I needed to write, to sew, to cook, to grow vegetables, to make creatures from shells, stones and beads and all those other things I made to allow what part of me expanded beyond the parameters of my body to become manifest, to be held in another form, for me to shape that which was not shaped by flesh. Creating things has become second nature now, to the extent I am rarely aware of that -- let's call it consciousness -- which seems to be at the root of my need to create.

I heard Greta Stoddart read for the first time this weekend at the inaugral Kendal Poetry Festival. A synchronicity that allowed me to sit and latch onto images and her voice and slip out into the wider swirl of emotions, memories, senses that blew with the poems. It seemed to me that Greta's poems were communicating to me, beyond me, attaching me to that which is beyond us while also connecting us. They allowed me to walk alongside her experience, see what she saw, feel that and then open a side door through which something else was happening, something I may not have experienced, but the glimpse of, or sound of, enabled me to engage with something that was both deeply familiar and totally new. Perhaps her subject - the dead - was partly responsible for this. It came at a time of deep grief; for so much I cannot articulate - that identity, that sense of country and community - that I also understand to be superficial and meaningless.

This morning I sat and focused on this consciousness that is held by and seeps beyond my skin, that can be spoken to and touched by others, that goes off and does its own thing. The trees outside were swaying, a greenfinch settled briefly on a branch, sunbeams broke through cloud to disappear again.

Whatever is beyond also has to co-exist in this material world of trees, weather, climate, cars, their drivers, home owners and their neighbours, their colleagues, loved ones, their dead and those they admire or hate. This balancing of the transcendental and material, the integration of both in experience, memory and understanding is something I am only partly aware of very very occasionally. The distractions around me - radio, news, political fall out - ensure my daily focus is grounded, ground down into seeing distinction and manipulating fear from that. This fear turns to imbalance so I need to hang onto something solid to prevent myself from falling - a solidity that is either material - the softness of my sofa, say - or that is opinion that has been sculpted already, or it might be something else that already exists, because fear washes over so quickly it is difficult to counter it with creativity. Creativity needs space for its expansion.

Politics is not given space, which is why we have art as a parallel communicator. Which is why art gives me the ability to transcend and cross those boundaries politics says is fixed, such as identity. Through reading, listening, making and responding to art - at least that art which hits my target - I am reminded of that which is beyond us all, that which we have the ability to shape and hold as it passes through. Which of course all sounds flaky as I write it, so I'll leave this post to Wallace Stevens, who can generally be relied upon to nail what I can only fleetingly experience, but know as essential:

[the mind] is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality ... [where] reality is not that external scene but the life that is lived in it.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Self-portrait in plastic

I have a reading tonight. I was planning to read a reasonably new sequence of poems about rubbish found on the beach. Now, after the shooting of Jo Cox, in the midst of an aggressive yet petty campaign focused on blame, alongside the violence of young men who proudly call themselves 'hooligans' and seek out conflict in the name of revenge, I am wondering about the context of such poems.

At the end of 'Lune' I write of "half-recognisable fragments of one world / to be washed up by another." I see the plastic detritus as this and more. I see it as a marker of a civilised culture - after all, how amazing a thing is plastic - how durable, how malleable - that has lost sight of its inherent value - that such a wonderful product had to be transformed into something disposal, throw-away to make 'economic sense' for its manufacturers. And I see the fractured pieces of insulation, squashed drinks bottles, plastic lids, torn bags, shredded food cartons and so on as the result of this nonsensical regard for economy, its roughshod influence over other fundamental elements of life, such as our environment, the air we breathe, the sharing of a small planet with other life forms ... I'm sure you would name others.

Of course I'm not saying money isn't important; it is in our culture. But the debilitating emphasis on it has made us lose sight of the value of other forms of exchange: the reciprocity between people that doesn't have monetary worth, that is far more intangible, more subtle and perhaps more fitting for our own complexities. After all, we don't know the half of it: how our brain functions, what's in the sea, where the universe ends, if it ends, hiccups...

Plastic waste, barely recognisable fragments of our everyday lives, represents to me the futility of trying to solidify, fix, the uncertainty and unknowableness of the world in a world that has no regard for such rigidity. It can't, it needs the flexibility to mitigate against change. And change seems to be something that terrifies us, to the point of resistance, xenophobia, murder. The only way most plastics change is either by the pounding of wind and wave action or through extreme temperature for recycling (and even then, not all plastics can 'survive' that transformation to continue to be of use). And so it washes up on beaches, at riverbanks, blown into corners of building sites and edgelands, in dangerous and ugly pieces, our very own Picture of Dorian Grey, peeling and splintered, a long from the bright shiny material of consumer promise.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Imagining an Imaginarium

Back in March I ran a workshop in the Storey Gallery, Lancaster, writing in response to Catriona Stamp’s explorations into migration. It was a whirlwind, stimulating two hours, during which someone asked me (in response to my showing them a piece from Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation) what I thought the difference was between poetry and prose. My heart sank, probably my shoulders too, and I said, That’d have to wait for the twelve week masterclass. A number of people asked, What twelve week masterclass? A joke, I said. Just a joke.

It was at the time, and yet it also got me thinking. What kind of “masterclass” would I like to run if I were to run one? The next day, a fortuitous meeting with one of the participants, meant my thoughts, with questions of how, where, when, what, were focused in a more practical direction.

I’ve been thinking about my own imagination for months, on and off, about how being short-sighted affected my development, how not being able to see clearly-defined edges meant things grew beyond themselves, were not contained. I’ve always felt I could not be contained by skin, or my physical self, which is one of my reasons for writing: I cannot hold myself in. Imagination does not know physical boundaries.

The following week I had some days away in the dark park of Northumberland. What better place to be to consider the imagination and how I might apply that thinking to a longer term series of workshops for writers? Jupiter rising, a full moon, and the possibility of a glimpse of Andromeda, our nearest galaxy…

There’s a great poem by Wallace Stevens I think probably forms the basis of my current thinking about imagination, ‘Somnabulisma’, which I can’t reprint here, nor find it online, but wanted to acknowledge it, as what follows arises from the poem’s central image of imagination being the gull that flies free from a wave. Imagination needs experience to grow from – either primary or secondary experience, the experience of a place, or event; that it involves a stepping out of time as we live it – a stretching of time, a creative futuring or unravelling; it entails incongruity, or at the least a layering of two or more things at once; and, perhaps most importantly for a rich and detailed imaginative experience, the need for emotional care. To care for something, to be invested in it feeds our intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual response to it, enables all the previous states.

I knew I didn’t want the workshops series to be a “masterclass”. I don’t like the inherent exclusivity of the term. Some of the best writing I’ve encountered in workshop settings was written by inmates of Lancashire HMPs who had written little and most likely wouldn’t have called themselves “masters” – their commitment to expression and need to be heard drove some fantastically powerful work.

I wanted to encourage a loosening of thought, a space in which people trust each other, are open to discussion, to where their own imaginations might take them; where they might explore the relationship between imagination and inspiration, imagination and memory, imagination and language. What does language do for the imagination? And what happens in a space where imaginations meet? My imagination thrives when I pick up a book, turn on the telly, look at paintings, film, art. This engagement with other people’s imaginations opens a new sense of possibility, a fission, a galaxy upon galaxy of unexpected life.

So to be part of a physical space where actual people actually meet with the purpose to explore their imaginations for their own work and to see how this develops from its interaction with others feels like a real treat.

I decided, too, as well as inviting people who have a commitment to writing (if only to a single project), if these projects crossed genres there would be a chance for more unexpected fertilisation, how would the narrative of prose be affected by rubbing up along side an imagist poem? How would fiction influence memoir? What are the processes that bring us to these genres, what is the thinking? How do they differ? Where do they overlap? I’m hoping that this aligning of difference will enable us all to see our own work more clearly, and so work out how best to express what it is that we must share with others.

It seemed the best way to pull a cohesive yet diverse group of writers together was to ask people to submit work so I can attempt to bring as much of this thinking to bear on a compatible bunch of writers. I hope, too, filling in a few questions will get people thinking about what they want to work on for six months, what they want to bring to the project, how they want to develop. Most of all I just hope there are eight writers out there who are as excited by this as I am…

If you are curious to find out more about the practical details, have a look here

Sunday, 28 February 2016

I play because...

These are the nine cellos I'm playing with as part of the Hear me Roar Festival in Lancaster. Obviously I'm not playing a cello, I'm playing my voice. Maja Brugge, composer of the piece and initiator of the performance, asked me if I'd be interested in delivering the words of her cello students about why and how they play the cellos in accompaniment to nine cellos. I had met her once before - at a gig where she played alongside Steve Lewis and I'd read. We'd liked each other's style, delivery but knew nothing more about each other. I say nothing, but I enjoy how much we are able to pick up about people by such simple things. Besides who could say no to the chance of performing with nine cellos?

We met once to talk over the text, she sent me clips of the music we would have one rehearsal with all celloists and me - which was today. The text is a seemingly simple arrangement of words from her students about their thoughts towards the cello, why they play, what they find difficult about playing and what they love about playing. While the register is the same for all the voices, they are clearly from different people and I enjoy slipping in and out of all those viewpoints personas, trying to ensure they sound distinct, that they are not me, that they are real voices.

Some of the piece I speak solo, at other times with Maja on solo and at others in dialogue with each player. While Maja wanted a non-actor to deliver the work - to ensure a low key delivery to the words - she also wanted some sympathy and rhythmic accordance between voice and cello. Today we spent what little time we had feeling that space and pulse that exists between each of us, exploring how much space we can give to the cello, to the voice and to the piece as a whole. There is a lot of information in the piece: verbal, musical and rhythmical and how to convey all that in a gentle yet absolute way was both fun and intense.

What I love about the cello is its depth of sound. I don't know if it is because it is larger, and yet contained by. the torso that its music seems to resonant in mine, swell my ribs, heave breath and impress its rhythm upon me. It felt absolutely impossible not to respond to the music in my own intonations, to feel the strings, the bow and wood in my diaphragm and work them accordingly to the music and text.

It is a fragile piece, as Maja beautifully described. One that has been made from the experience of all these players and is still being made and will be made further next week. There are simple refrains, improvisations, ensemble sections, discordance and sublimity. It was a delight to be part of it today and I'm really looking forward to making it again next week. I know it'll be over too quickly and will relish every draw of bow and breath and thrum of strings and fingers for the performance.

The ensemble is Maja Bugge, Anna Brigham, Ella Cornwall, Emily Dale, Veronica Dunne, Caroline Lovett, Rosie Lyon, Bev Paddon, Whitney Rawlins and Angie Whitaker. The performance is in the Music Room, Storey Institute, Meeting House Lane, Lancaster, Wednesday 9th March, 7pm.