Tuesday, 28 July 2009

My First Puppet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 July 2009

I Wish You Love

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Burma VJ

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

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

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

It was uplifting, painful, dispiriting and deeply moving.

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

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


Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Waste not want not, as my mother still says

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

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

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

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

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

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

So come on down, Wednesday or Thursday...

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Monday, 6 July 2009

Conversation with Kate Pullinger


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Friday, 3 July 2009

The debate continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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