Wednesday, 8 February 2017

On testing what I don't know


This is phase one of an artistbook of a diatom chain. I'm not sure how it'll develop, beyond the folds and spots. I have a poem I could put in it, but have yet to establish how it’ll spread across the folds and if it is the right poem. I have a week to decide. As it represents a colony it seems appropriate to let my thinking grow incrementally, visually. 

I currently believe it’s also the starting point of a workshop I'm hoping to deliver with a group of 7-10 year olds in July on plankton, writing about plankton and making a simple concertina to contain the writing and any images.

It is the first time I've made a booklet before knowing what to put in it. I’m taking the year long artistbook making course at Hot Bed Press (thanks to the AHRC) and last night was the first in a two-parter on concertinas. I was immediately attracted to incorporating pop ups (those little corner folds that contain the green dots). I loved pop up books as a kid, how they extended the reach of the book, often asking for some interactivity; and while the geometric delight of these triangles aren’t in the same realm of tugging paper slips and revealing new words they do break the rectangular shape, add another layer of repetition and throw shadows on the card. The concertina is already three dimensional in its structure, the zig zag folds of the concertina and this will have two separate hard backed covers so the booklet will remain expandable as seen above. So to add the folded pop outs in the top and bottom corners creates addition to this depth, a representation of some of the beautiful patterns found in these microscopic algae.

Punching holes into the card may convey the silica, its lightness, transparency somehow. Someone in class last night had used their awl to pinprick tiny holes in patterns which gave me the idea of writing the entire poem in holes. Gulp. This would require neat writing, precision and the acceptance that you’ll only be able to read it from one side. Test required.

Question: how important is it that the two sides are mirrors of each other?

Another test: cutting thin strips diagonally to the folds. More light, more clashing lines, more shadows.

Another test: using ring binder strengtheners. More geometry, more texture, more layers of white.

Question: How much colour do I want for these creatures?

Since only have the one concertina to experiment on I feel limited in the explorations of adding text. There are two consequences to this: I don’t use text, I become entranced with the blankness; or I become bold, step outside how I’ve treated text previously, cut it from another block of text – interesting if I could find text on sunshine or photosynthesis. Perhaps I’m thinking back to the Humument here …

Question: How important is the threat of plastic to this colony?

Another test: Stamping ink circles from the end of Q-tips found on the beach.

Question: could these be random or in syncopated patterns?

Questions and tests stretch ahead, which need to be punctuated by walking and researching. John Cleese once said no one (or was it just Monty Python?!) was ever inspired by the computer. I don’t agree. It can inspire if tempered with interaction with the physical world. That lies as the foundation for my current thinking and writing: the mix of experience and scientific understanding. How essential it is for me to balance the multiplicities of how to engage with the world, especially a world that is so often remote, invisible or microscopic. 

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

wave motion



I was blown away when I first saw Paul Nash’s painting Totes Meer, some years back. How it transforms the sea into a body of war and death. The butting of waves (wings/graves) against waves suggest a disturbed sea where wind blows against a prevailing tide; nature at odds with itself. This is a contained sea, but only just. There are points of spillage onto the beach, high tide shadows the sand, the sea is in retreat. The moon is in its first quarter. This is a neaps tide, due to rise up the beach further in the next week. A solitary gull, too distant to be definitively identifiable, glides out of, or over, the wreckage, appearing almost a part of it, one of the ribs of the broken carriers. Some crosses can be seen, insignia of German fighter pilots. The pilots presumably lost at sea. Metal turns to motion, in an awful alchemy. The sea cannot be viewed in the same way again.

What looks like driftwood lies strewn on the beach. ‘Wrack’ is still used around Morecambe Bay for waste material brought up by the sea, another meaning given by the OED is “a vessel ruined or crippled by wreck”. Both land and sea are affected by this crippling. Nash suffered PTSD after serving in WW1. Painted in 1940, just after the Battle of Britain, the Tate’s commentary, where it hangs, claims he intended it to instill patriotic, anti German sentiment.  To me it, like the sea itself, spills beyond any particular side, and represents the carnage of war in its entirety. The same commentary also says Nash called aircraft killer whales, making permeable the line between aircraft and animal, metal casing and water. There is no absolute where one starts and another stops. Just as the men are tossed and churned beneath the waves. And yet ‘No!’ this is not how my sea looks.  The painting galvanizes a desire in me a desire to clean the sea of this wrack. This is not what how I want to perceive the sea.

It is this horror (although far less dramatic than war) this provocation to agency I hope to stimulate in the 'Wave Motion' artistbook. Coctored photos of can yokes, those plastic rings discarded everywhere, seemingly indestructible, translucent and spiralling like the waves themselves, represent the crests of an incoming tide. An uncanny beauty, a near familiarity, a noose that is not so large nor dramatic as Nash’s wrecked aircraft, signifying a war more prevalent in the twenty first century, the perpetration of civilisation’s onslaught on the environment.

You can buy 'Wave Motion' here
(crab casts not included)

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.