Sunday, July 23, 2017

Basilicas and friends

The bells are ringing on Lewes Road for Sunday mass and when I opened the curtains at 7.30 the sky was clear. The first thing I did, before feeding the cat even, was to print out an early draft of a new collection, make coffee, fruit salad, go back to bed and read it.

When Jane Fordham and I were in Ravenna recently, two things in particular struck us both - one was the natural paradise captured in stunning Byzantine mosaics we were seeing every day, the other was that whenever we were at a loss, we ended up on bikes at the old port. Cycling along the empty canal road, past abandoned warehouses and allotments tucked away on reclaimed plots felt like a walk on the Downs.

Since coming back from Italy I've been struggling with a way back into drafting the prose book on South Africa and doubting the place of the poems I've been writing over the past four years.

In Bologna and Ravenna, I set myself the challenge of reading Clive James' translation of Dante's Comedia. Actually, Inferno was a romp -no trouble at all reading this. James' translation is accessible, energetic and very easy to get through. I gave Purgatory a miss and went straight to Heaven, which, frankly (and nothing to do with James) is boring.

But what also came up as Jane and I were discussing the glory of mosaics - and she's an expert - was the brilliance of the colour, the birds, flowers and overall, a sense of joy that comes from these centuries-old images.

Unlike Torcello's black mosaics with their vision of hell, Dante's explicit, violent revenge on his enemies, these Byzantine masterpieces celebrate how fabrics fall, celebrate pattern, gesture, greenery to such an extent that you can feel the breeze through the curtains, hear the women's feet on the marble floors and the sheep calling in the rocky hills. Small gold tiles were the solution to taking unwanted people out of the frame - walls of gold, in fact.

And the religious message, while present, never felt intrusive. Perhaps this is what links the basilicas of Ravenna with its old port - room to think and wander.  No-one hurried us as Jane drew, took pictures and looked.  The occasional coach party or group of kids came and listened to a guide explain it all, and went. Then we were virtually alone with these Byzantine mosaic makers again, Jane laughing at where someone had run out of a shade of blue and bodged it, or questioning a disembodied hand at some curtains.

I wrote every day but not with purpose and that was fine, I wanted to allow things to emerge, not sure anything would. And when we got back it was frantic. Giya's graduation in Cardiff, Airbnb guests, house cleaning, the bathroom ceiling to re-paint, the allotment and finding ways of using courgettes. I planted far too many. The raspberries had started, blackcurrants needed picking and I wanted to get hold of some mirabelles before professional scrumpers stripped the trees up at the racecourse.

Then I looked at my notebook and found a couple of poems. I put them into lines, I felt like taking risks, I left lines in I might have cut, even weeks ago. But I returned to doubt, the weight of everything that's being published, that's been published, that is about to be published, to the weight of that question, whether it's worth anything.

I had a workshop to do and stared out of train windows for the two four-hour journeys, there and back. I filled and emptied the washing machine endlessly. I took one of the poems to a group I belong to in Brighton. And an off-hand comment about my prose book to poet Robert Hamberger resulted in him reminding me of those female titans, Austen, Rich and Woolf and how they fought silence. Another Brighton poet, John McCullough posted a quote from Hart Crane on Facebook about the importance of waiting till instinct assured him everything was assembled as it should be. My friend, the fabulous poet Moniza Alvi talked me through doubt on the phone, Rachel Rooney and Allie Rogers at lunch yesterday came up with strategies.

Friendship has broken me through the doubt and if that sounds sentimental, I'm not bothered anymore. The old man behind Jane in this picture is breaking rocks for the road we cycled on. His life was harder than mine will ever be. But I'll guarantee that when he filled his water bottle, it was with friends and when he staggered back to sleep, knackered, he was going over the day with friends.

My new collection is stitched together with letters, some from old friends, with memories of friends, with the fruit and veg I've eaten with friends, with allotment friends, school friends, old boyfriends, with neighbours who became friends and with the absurdities of ageing I swap with friends.

Can I thank them enough?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Twenty five years a mother

Yesterday I marked 25 years as a mother by transplanting seedlings, cutting grass and weeding and by visiting the friend of a friend in hospital - the same hospital where I gave birth, once in June, once in September - months of summer and autumn raspberries. 

Mrisi, my first, born on a blazing hot June 13 in 1992, was off to Leeds to celebrate, do some recording and release a video for Mamela, his new EP. This Is Jazz Standard magazine calls it a work of "resilience and conscience" describing Mrisi as Brighton's truthsayer. 

When he was interviewed by the Huff Post at a Grime4Corbyn event pre-election, he said, "A man they want to vilify that much has to be dangerous - but dangerous in this sense is a good thing, he’s dangerous to the establishment.”

Giya, born in 1994, is in London putting up her degree show, They Came from the Water While the World Watched, a sequence based on religion and colonialism, at Seen Fifteen gallery in Peckham with fellow documentary photography students. It opens on Friday 16 June, Soweto day. She was interviewed about her work recently by the website Nataal

Picture by Giya Makondo-Wills
from the series
They Came from the Water
While the World Watched
She says about photography, "I hope to continue to make work that has something to say and encourages young people from black, mixed, minority and underprivileged backgrounds to tell their own stories through the arts."

Which leads me to the work of poet Gwendolyn Brooks and the launch of an anthology celebrating her, later this month on 29 June in London. Before The Golden Shovel anthology, you could have asked quite a few poets in the UK to name a favourite poems by Brooks and they'd have probably looked blank. She's far better known in the US, where her politics, her advocacy for poetry, her exploration of Black lives, ensured she won a Pulitzer prize. 

I have known her poem The Bean Eaters  for a very long time and it often comes back to me because it's so sparse yet vivid. It has a haunting quality of light, too and a timbre. 

I'm proud to have a small poem in the anthology, written after my last trip to South Africa with Risenga and Giya in 2012 for Giya's 18th. I got the date of our trip wrong in the poem title - Johannesburg 2013. The Brooks poem I chose to base mine on is "The Near-Johannesburg Boy." She explains on the Emily Dickinson archive, "I decided to write this poem when I found myself hearing on T.V. that little black children in South Africa were meeting in the road and saying to each other, "Have you been detained yet?"" The lines of hers I used are, "A Black Boy near Johannesburg, hot/ In the Hot Time." 

It is entirely possible that Brooks' old woman in "The Bean Eaters" may have influenced this poem too, making an appearance as Risenga's grandmother selling corn. That place where she sold corn was established as a landmark in the city in 1994 when we first went....not quite the start, but close to the start of my 25 years as a mother. 

And in the same random vein... - on Friday 16 June at Waterstones in London, the Seren anthology, Writing Motherhood is launched. I'll be at Giya's opening. But the poem I have in that anthology is about her....

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Cracking not quite writer's block

There are many writers who'll scoff at the idea of a block but I know it's real and although I'm resisting calling this particular period of time a block, something is holding me back. But it doesn't take much for something to happen which opens the door a crack, temporarily, to allow me to see the possibilities of jumping in again. 

What sorts of things? 

Finding the poem below by Denise Levertov which I kept from an old calendar. It was the poem chosen for July 4, although I don't remember the year. 

Wind and walking by the sea for the exhilaration of what it does to the waves, hair, clothes and face. 

Brendan Cleary ringing as he walked up the hill with a bottle of wine to share it on his birthday, talking about old bluesmen and women and wanting to go to New Orleans. 

Weeding, cutting back, picking lettuce and lovage, mint and micro-greens. 

Talking with Robert Hamberger, such a generous man, such a gifted writer, who has counselled me with pretty much the same sentiments as Levertov.

So on election day, of all days, I am reassured by what she shares in this poem - confidence that I do have what it takes to write again. It's only a question of attention, of being there, of making that cross...

Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.
Denise Levertov from Evening Train (1992)

Friday, March 31, 2017

The questions I should have asked before giving my writing away for nothing

It seemed innocent - someone I've known for a long time asked if I'd write a poem in response to a artist's print. The project involved many writers, mostly working in the commercial world. At the end, there'd be an exhibition.

'There's no money in it I'm afraid.'. And that was fine because we'd worked together and I trust him.

I spent time with the print and it grew on me. The other night I went to a London gallery for the exhibition opening - prints and texts hung alongside one another.

I know nothing about the commercial side of the art world. I no longer expect to make money from poetry. Once I could, as a by-product, through residencies or running workshops. But I've learned to live frugally and now my income comes from teaching an Open University course and renting a room on Airbnb.

So I was taken aback to see my poem, printed on nice paper on a letterpress machine (in garamond, for those of you interested), framed and on sale for £150. This was the sum the gallery felt made it 'accessible' to buy!

My first feeling was the absurdity of seeing this piece of paper smaller than A4 in a frame. I'd imagined it was going to be a creative exercise, the typesetting and hand-printing. But there it was, really just a piece of paper in a largish frame.

The friend who invited me to take part was as surprised as me that these texts were going to be on sale to the public. I'd been told I could buy it myself for that price (!!!) to cover the cost of printing, framing and exhibiting. Surely this small thing in its very ordinary frame couldn't have eaten up £150? That would support me for a week.

I looked at it and realised everyone along the way - the printer, the framer, the gallery (in one way or another) was getting something out of this exercise. Even some of the other writers were using it for marketing their companies.

What had I been thinking? Well and truly duped, I hadn't been told it would be sold to the public, I hadn't been told more than one copy was printed, I had to fight for a complimentary copy of the catalogue.

The next morning emails pinged to and fro, entering the absurder uses of language, how people seek to justify themselves, muddying the waters.

I went to the allotment, spoke to friends, I went to PigHog at Grand Central and introduced the wonderful poetry of Janet Sutherland and Mandy Pannett - quiet, considered, thought-provoking. Before I went to PigHog, I read the email that had really set me on fire and replied, "You cannot sell my work."

Oh, I was flattered to be asked and how dangerous is that? It meant I didn't ask questions. Yes, I was out of the habit, out of the loop, out of the world. Yes, I've been living in a kind of forest of my own off Lewes Road - foraging for work and not paying attention to the rules of the city. But - foolish old woman - I was dazzled to be asked.

Questions I should have asked

Who is funding this project and how? What commission does the gallery receive from the artists' work? Where is the agreement over how my work will be used? Will more than one copy be printed and if so, why? Will I receive a complimentary copy of the catalogue? What does the gallery get out of it?
Picasso jug in Cardiff Museum
What made me sweat as I walked up Trafalgar Street to Grand Central for the poetry last night was the gallery's remarkable unwillingness to explain the economics of this exercise - exactly what the printing and framing had cost and the costs of the exhibition. And no-one, it seemed, was interested in engaging with writers' rights in the chain of artistic production. It was the gallery throwing the word 'exploitation' into an email when I had asked in very polite and restrained terms for facts that made me see red and see the tactics I'd been bombarded with on Facebook.

Yes, these were Trump tactics - bluster, confuse, refuse to answer.

Saddest of all, I really like the artist whose work I was linked with. She's talented, interesting and aware.

I will not give my work away again. If I am asked, I will reply, "Find me someone to repair my car for nothing."

But it has  helped me understand artists friends' reluctance to engage with the gallery system and why artists are setting up their own.

The Before I Die wall was in Brighton for the Sick festival. There have been more than 2,000 in 70 countries. The original wall was made in New Orleans by artist Candy Chang.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Poets who write prose

Asda's female gnomes
With just 30 minutes in the library before it closed yesterday I focused on the travel section. The style of writing on my mind right now comes from W G Sebald's cross-genre The Rings of Saturn, translated by good friend and one-time publisher Michael Hulse and re-released at the end of last year with a new cover by Peter Mendelsund.

Actually, I went to travel after I'd found Sebald's The Emigrants, so I had a dose of him to carry home, and then I saw Joseph Brodsky had written an essay on Venice, Watermark. Nostalgic for the place, that came off the shelf and then I was looking for something that doesn't exist, I suspect, something that might give me a context for Road to the north, the book I've just finished a significant draft of. Sebald's been in my mind a lot as I've been writing it, which isn't to say I claim to be at that standard, just that it's been good to have a voice in my head that wasn't always mine, moaning.

I do like prose by poets. I realised, when I had three books, that all of them are by poet/prose writers and the third is Jean Sprackland. Her book is Strands, A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, and this appeals for all sorts of reasons - because I live by the sea, because I met her once a long time ago when she was working for the Poetry Society, because I admire her poetry and now her daughter's work. I've just lent Kathleen Jamie's two books of essays to a friend, she's another poet who writes beautiful prose.

Brighton Marina
There are perhaps far too many books on those travel shelves about walking great distances to make a statement or to change a life. I have come to prefer a less ambitious focus that allows more interesting thought and associations. With a massive mountain in front of you, how can you consider the washing up? But sometimes you need to think about the dregs, the left over bits of lettuce and the rim of oil on the bowl.

Jonathan Swain, a Brighton artist, has a fabulously sideways view of most things, particularly the urban. He walked to Switzerland and recently alerted me to the new developments at Brighton Marina. So the other night I ended up at the marina, after going to watch the starlings. I was at my desk all day, needed to move. When I arrived at the pier it was closed. But I caught the last of the murmuration before they swooped underneath it to roost. Last night I stood on the pier, chatting with a couple down from London for the night. It was freezing but a good show. They seem to intensify the shapes they make just before they roost. And then the pier sings from end to end.

So that was after I got my books out and then I walked home pretty quickly, I was so cold. But the other night, when I couldn't get onto the pier, I needed a much longer walk and after the pier, walked along Marine Drive. It's a little lonely, although joggers use it and I was a little jumpy. Behind me the sky was stormy and by the time I arrived at the marina it was dark. I nipped into Asda for the loo, was greeted by the gnomes and went home on the bus which did an entire circuit of Whitehawk
Asda's male gnomes
and a small turn through the outskirts of Pankhurst, down to Queens Park Road, before ending up on Elm Grove. I'm sure there was another I could have taken. The days have been like this. Writing/work, then an afternoon walk, waking up unsure of what day it is and occasionally mad bouts of either clearing, or yesterday, cutting myself a fringe which really doesn't suit me. The fringe fiasco's as if I need an excuse not to go out for a couple of months while it settles down. It won't grow out that quickly, but I'll have to get used to it and not feel sick about it.

What makes Sebald an early blogger, really, are the photos that go with his prose. Rather like Jack Robinson's Days and Nights in W12
although the CB Editions (his publisher's) website claims it's far cooler than Sebald.

I was given Days and Nights in W12 by the wonderful Nigel Jenkins, now dead, another walker and poet-prose writer who explored Gower, Swansea and in Gwalia in Khasia, the Welsh in India

Road to the north is based on four trips to South African between 1994 and 2012 but it's also about growing up in Surrey and finding myself in Brighton. I've been writing it since I began transcribing the diaries in 2012 and finding in them a certain structure and shape, I've been adding to them since.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Kissing in public

You walk down Queens Road from Brighton station, heading for the sea, past Boots, the clocktower, Waterstones and Nationwide, on either side the megapubs that blossom at weekends and you can already see the sea, if you're lucky, winking. Past the Odeon and down the subway which always stinks of piss, but you can hold your nose, and you're there, on the seafront.

If you cross overland, so to speak, you'll see this statue pretty soon. Through its perforations you also see the sea. The kissing statue, or its proper title, Kiss Wall , by artist Bruce Williams says something about Brighton, that many tourists encounter it before they head for the pier and wander down the slope towards the beach cafes.

A friend has up on her wall a loveheart with the message, Never Forget How to Kiss.

For those of us who are single, kissing sometimes feels like ancient history. But the Kiss Wall reminds me, whenever I see it, of Edna St Vincent Millay's poem, What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII), such an important poem to me that I did a tribute to it. Millay isn't afraid of admitting ageing, or being flakey (unremembered lads) or being sentimental (the rain / Is full of ghosts tonight that tap and sigh). Its last three lines make me want to weep, or at least try and track down that old rollerblader who chatted me up once in the eye hospital. Now if ever there's a task for the summer...

In her work, Millay writes about clothes, sex, and is utterly uncompromising. Read this advice To a Young Poet on the Academy of American Poets website.

Staying with the US, the Creative Review did a piece a few years ago on where the Make Love Not War slogan came from. Is it maybe a bit too 21st century to try and attribute authorship to a slogan? Nevertheless, it reminds me of how everything was opening out in that decade. More sentiment, maybe, but look at one of the slogans from Paris in May 1968:

"Beneath the cobblestones is the beach."

And finally, back to the Kiss Wall, another from Paris that says something about where we could go right now:

"The more I make love, the more I want to make the Revolution, the more I make the Revolution, the more I want to make love."

Monday, January 23, 2017

A story of jobs and growth that UK business doesn't want told

Everyone's talking about trade deals. And with trade deals, business. For the UK has stuff to sell. Statistics show weapons, cars, drugs, crude and refined oil. But mostly we're selling services.

And this is where it becomes interesting for those of us working in the arts. The arts aren't on in the trade deal agenda. Cars are mentioned, financial services and other exports. But as The Economist warned recently there's no "golden era of trade" coming. I mean, the US bans haggis imports!

Quite a lot is not being told. And consistently off the agenda is a story the Tories themselves describe as one of the UK's greatest successes. The arts and the artists, the writers and publishers, the music and get the idea.

Creative industries have created more jobs that any other sector and increased UK exports.

So why are we being force fed the language of monstrous men whose names we can't bring ourselves to mention? Why does the news every morning, at the moment, sound like an episode of Taboo?

Is it because this story will generate panic, envy and fury among those whose vocabulary is governed by phrases such as: going forward, track record, brand awareness, digital penetration, like-for-like. This story of how, against all odds, almost mythically, the uncontrollable, free-thinking, rebellious individuals who make up the creative industries have made good, despite refuting the language of powerpoint, team-building and mission statements.

More than made good, in fact. Ed Vaizey, a former minister for culture spelled it out: "The creative industries are one of the UK's greatest success stories...."

That's me, that's my friends Jane Fordham, David Parfitt, Michaela Ridgway, Suzannah Dunn, David Kendall, Moniza Alvi and many, many more. That's my kids, my ex and my mum. It's my dedicated and inspiring publisher, Arc in Todmorden, Fabrica Gallery in Brighton, it's the Poetry Business in Sheffield and Modern Poetry in Translation, it's PigHog poetry, it's Rich Mix in London and The Dark Horse magazine in Edinburgh. It's AudioActive and all the struggling promotors of music, spoken word, the small presses, the editors, the painters, photographers and curators.

The facts overturn the stereotype of the artist with her head in the clouds who's afraid of business. Of the bumbling creative who's incompetent with cash and figures, of the radical who's ideologically opposed to making money. Because despite ourselves we are generating work and we're good at it.

So this raises questions. Firstly, why suppress a success story? Censor it almost?
Giya Makondo-Wills,
documentary photographer

Is it that we have no lobbyists and vested interests? Is it that we are small and speak our minds? That we satirise the establishment's attempts to pull the wool over our eyes with 'alternative facts', an establishment that would rather ignore the facts and pay subsidies to the failing businesses of friends?

The story at its most basic nests in the Creative Industries Economic Estimates (January 2016), Department for Culture, Media and Sport. A press release from the time states: "The UK's creative industries are now worth a record £84.1 billion to the UK economy....British films, music, video games, crafts and publishing are taking a lead role in driving the UK's economic recovery, according to the latest Government statistics.

"The figures show the sector growing at almost twice the rate of the wider UK economy - generating £9.6 million per hour. And this success is set to last, with a strong line-up of British talent and creativity in 2016 promising yet another blockbuster year ahead."

I'll repeat that: at almost twice the rate of the wider UK economy.....

Vaisey's department found:
- The rise in Gross Added Value (GVA) of the creative industries between 2008 and 2014 was 37.5% higher than any other sector.
- The Creative Economy had grown by a quarter (24.9%) since 2011, at a rate faster than the whole of the UK economy, which grew by 12.1 % over the same period."
- Creative jobs are increasing at a higher rate than the rest of the economy. It is responsible for 1 in 12 UK jobs.
-  Exports are increasing.
- The Creative economy has grown by a quarter since 2011 "at a rate faster than the whole of the UK economy, which grew by 12.1 per cent. This rise has primarily been led by the growth of the creative industries."

Mrisi Makondo Wills
A year has passed and Ed Vaizey has been replaced by Matthew Hancock who it seems is best known for setting out on foot to play cricket at the north pole in 2005. He developed frostbite. And perhaps politicians like him and the wild-haired blonds, are why we hear most from the manufacturing lobby promoting their arms, planes, cars, construction, drugs, electronics, plastics, nuclear, furniture, textiles, space inventions, food and drink.

So I'll turn to the late John Berger to explain why the powerful are afraid of the arts: "I can’t tell  you what art does and how it does it, but I know that art has often judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past has suffered, so that it has never been forgotten. I know too that the powerful fear art, whatever its form, when it does this, and that amongst the people such art sometimes runs like a rumor or a legend because it makes sense of what life’s brutalities cannot, a sense that unites us, for it is inseparable from a justice at last. Art, when it functions like this, becomes a meeting-place of the invisible, the irreducible, the enduring, guts and honor."

In these days of unemployment, of the endless unfolding other world of Twitter, those of us who are in the creative industries must prepare our crib sheets to tell the story no-one wants told.